Look closely at the fiber art created by Kathie Kerler. You’ll find small touches like hand stitching, beads and hand-twisted cords adding intricate interest to her work. As a NACQJ certified judge, she evaluates design first, because when viewers look at a piece of art, the initial impact is so important.
Why fiber art? How did you get started?
I can’t recall never working with some kind of fiber.
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When I was quite young, my family lived on a farm. The neighbor lady taught my mother to crochet. I still have a visual memory watching them and pestering my mother to teach me. At only four years old, I could not read a pattern, but I would crochet long chains, pull them out and start over.
Then we moved into the city of Portland where I grew up. Another neighbor offered hand embroidery lessons on Saturdays for a nickel, believe it or not, and I became fascinated with this type of needlework, as well. In my early teens, I began sewing clothing which I did well into adulthood, making everything from pajamas to jackets to Halloween costumes for my son and adding embroidery to jeans and shirts.
While a career in banking followed, I never lost sight of my love for needlework, even though I couldn’t devote much time to it. I did design a hand embroidered scene featuring one of my cats in a field of flowers and entered it into a Women’s Day magazine contest. I was shocked when I won a third place, because I didn’t think I was a real designer. Another dozen years passed before I did any more original work. I was under the impression you had to go to some type of art school, but I couldn’t imagine where or what kind.
What different creative techniques do you use in your work? How do each play their own role in your finished art?
Many of the different creative techniques that I use come from my City and Guilds of London Institute studies in design and embroidery, which I did over a 3 ½-year period. Half of the coursework consisted of design work on paper, while the other half involved stitch samples.
Every six months we had a different design theme, such as sea and sky, and a different focus on stitch. The latter included such areas as free hand embroidery; machine embroidery; cord, button, and ribbon making; and pulled and drawn thread work. The stitch studies encompassed both traditional and experimental work.
I draw on this knowledge for my art work. Many of my quilts feature hand-twisted cords as stems, hand embroidery and beading, and silk-ribbon embroidery. We were also expected to create our own fabrics rather than use commercial, so I frequently paint backgrounds and elements, such as flowers, to obtain the desired appearance and mood.
What inspires you to create?
My best answer is that I just do, because that’s who I am. I believe it’s an innate urge among many of us to make.
In my last two positions in banking, I did technical writing. That may not sound creative to some people, but it was to me. I also wrote as a contributing editor for American Quilter magazine for seven years.
As a writer, no matter what the message or style, I’m inspired to choose the right words and language to create the best experience for the reader and, when someone’s work is my subject, for that person. I should add, when I started writing for the magazine, I thought I would exhaust my ideas and the people I knew within a year or two. But in fact, I could have written for years longer than I did. I stopped, because I wanted to focus on my own fiber art. I had discovered I had only so much creative energy, and it came down to one or the other.
Where do you get ideas for your fiber art?
It is a different process than for writing where, for example, I would meet a quilter whose work would make a good article. But writing and fiber art are the same in that I never run out of ideas. I only hope to finish them all one day.
For representational art, inspiration often comes from personal experience. In “P is For Poppy and Periwinkle”, the idea to create the quilt came during a walk past a neighbor’s garden. I noticed how the orange and red poppies, contrasted with the tall stalks of blue-purple flowers called false indigo. I took some photos, then researched on-line for other types of poppies, looked at other gardens, and made drawings.
Another quilt, “Sheer Joy on Two Wheels”, is my interpretation of a photo I took from atop a bridge during a city-wide bike ride called the Providence Bridge Pedal.
I also do abstract work, which I create intuitively. When I completed “Terra I”, I first machine quilted two pieces of fabric with backing and batting, cut the “quilts” apart, and collaged the pieces. I laid black tulle over the top and quilted again.
Tell us a bit about your journey to become an NACQJ certified judge.
In 2002 I attended a four-day seminar on judging. I had just had a quilt accepted into a juried show, and I wanted to know what judges look for and how they evaluate quilts. Also attending the seminar was a woman who was in the midst of launching a new quilt show not far from my home. She asked me to judge. And I did—130 quilts in one day. I’ve been judging ever since.
In 2008 I became certified through the National Quilting Association’s judging candidate program which has two parts. The first is paperwork which consists of judging credentials, problems, and definitions. I spent one year off and on writing 86 pages, in between writing magazine articles. The paperwork was read and passed by three certified judges. Then I went before a panel, which I would describe as a job interview, with three different certified judges and discussed my experience, answered questions, and completed a mock judging. I passed that, as well.
Candidate judges have two opportunities to pass both the paperwork and panel. I’ve now judged well over 150 shows and now instruct a seminar for the National Association of Certified Quilt Judges (the name has changed) both in person and on-line as a Qualified Instructor.
How have your judging experiences influenced your fiber art?
The experiences haven’t influenced me as much as the knowledge I’ve gained to be a judge. I pay attention to the principles and elements of design in my work, such as balance, value, color, repetition, line, shape, and negative space.
When evaluating quilts, design is the first area to evaluate, because when viewers look at a piece of art, the initial impact is so important.
What do you do differently? What is it that makes your work stand out as yours?
My work is original to me. Many quilters seek out photographs in the public domain or request permission from photographers and artists in other genres to replicate their work in fiber. While that is perfectly valid, I prefer to execute from my own experiences.
As previously described, I incorporate techniques gained in my City and Guilds of London Institute studies. I find elements, such as hand-twisted cords for plants, make more interesting stems visually and texturally than flat stems made from fabric. I use these cords as part of an edge finish and within a composition.
I almost always incorporate hand embroidery in my work. It adds detail and provides a polished finish to raw edge machine appliqué. As one who creates art quilts, while I believe they have more leeway in execution than traditional quilts, I still feel that excellent execution in art is important.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
When it comes to representational work, I am definitely a planner.
One thing I learned in City and Guilds is sample, sample, sample. The coursework involved creating several large, finished pieces. We were expected to try a variety of stitches, fibers, and techniques before deciding upon the final method and materials.
I have two dozen binders filled with both written information and stitch samples. I balked in the beginning. I thought it was a waste of time when I knew before I started exactly what I was going to do. But what I discovered through sampling was that the second or third idea was better than the original.
However, when I create abstractly, the process is completely opposite. I belong to an international textile exhibition group called 20 Perspectives.
Our last theme was architectural edges. Since the nineties, I’ve had some painted paper and fabrics in my stash that I created and textured using Pro-Chem Textile Paints and masking tape. As I began working them into a layout, the composition seemed to effortlessly fall into place. Once satisfied, I appliquéd, embroidered, and quilted the piece. The title: “Under the Moon’s Spell”.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal?
Even though I created many and still have them from City and Guilds, I don’t formally use them for my representational art. Instead, I keep the various drawings, photos, etc. and the full-size working design, as it’s called in City and Guilds, in a file. I also take and maintain progress photos of my work on my computer, which is quite similar to the step photos we used at American Quilter magazine to demonstrate how to make a featured project
How do you manage your creative time? Do you schedule start and stop times? Or work only when inspired? Are you a finisher? How many UFOs do you have?
I maintain a desk calendar and one on my computer. The computer calendar is for appointments and meetings. The paper calendar contains the same appointments and meetings, but this is where I schedule my art work.
Once I begin an art work I keep my focus on it. I’m not someone who juggles two or three projects at a time. As such, I don’t have UFOs, and I’m glad to say I don’t, because it makes me feel as if I have something hanging over my head.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? What does it look like?
I absolutely have a dedicated space to create. It’s in my basement and divided between two rooms. The first room has my office and computer at one end and cutting tables at the other, and with my commercial fabric stash.
The other room contains my longarm, domestic sewing machine, and embellisher, which was given to me by a friend when she had to give up her art due to health concerns.
I also have a lot of thread, both for machine and hand stitching. When I did City and Guilds, the question most often asked concerned the amount of fabric I had to buy. I always replied it’s not the fabric, it’s the thread.
What is your favorite lesser-known tool for your trade?
I don’t know that it’s lesser-known, but I have to say how much I love my LED Tracing LIght Pad by Agptek. I learned about it from another student in a workshop. She let me use it and I was sold. It’s so much better than using a window or the old-style light box I had.
Have you taken something designed for another use and repurposed it for your studio?
I use kitchen spice racks to hold thread cones, a tip I learned quite a few years ago from a Libby Lehman magazine article. It’s inspired!
I have to add how much I like seeing all of the thread colors below the 12” x 12” SAQA auction quilts I’ve won over the years hanging on the wall above along with a couple of my own creations.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
“Sheer Joy on Two Wheels” is a quilt I completed last year.
My late husband and I loved cycling and did many distance cycling trips. During a trip in New Mexico, he unexpectedly passed away from a heart attack. As painful as the memory is, I still enjoy cycling and each year look forward to a bike ride in Portland called the Providence Bridge Pedal, a fundraiser for heart research. It’s even more meaningful to me as my father was also a heart patient.
One year I took a photo from the top of the Fremont Bridge where cyclists stop, feel the camaraderie, and take in both sides of the Willamette River.
I had many challenges to overcome in recreating this photo, for which I take full responsibility. I did not sample certain aspects of the quilt before starting.
For example, I planned to machine appliqué the figures and the bridge. What I didn’t consider was how I was going to execute the very small figures ranging from ¾” to 3” in height. Appliqué was out of the question, so I had to find another method which proved to be coloring them in with Inktense brand pencils. That was great, but it created another problem. Now I could no longer use the brown fabric I had painted for the bridge road surface. The issues went on and on. The bridge cables were another issue. After sampling many unsatisfactory hand and machine stitching methods, I finally realized the solution was simple. I just couldn’t see it. It was such a relief when the quilt was finished.
The quilt is featured in the book Emergence: Fiber Art from Concept to Stitch, published by the Oregon region of SAQA (Studio Art Quilt Associates). It’s available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback.
How has your work changed over time?
Even after some thought, I don’t know that it has.
When was the first time you remember realizing you are a creative person?
I don’t recall ever realizing it. I’ve just always made things, whether you want to call them art or craft.
What traits, if any, do you think creative people have as compared to people who are not creative?
I think many people are creative, and as I said previously, they make, because they feel the urge. To not make, leaves something out of their lives. Upon reflection, I have two people in my life who were avid crafters and artists, but who have given it up completely. They no longer have any interest in making, which I find interesting. I cannot imagine it.
Tell us about your blog and/or website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
My website at www.kathiekerler.com contains information and links to the variety of activities I’m engaged in. A gallery of my work ranging from most recent to special exhibits, is available. I hope viewers find art that strikes them, because they find it beautiful or meaningful in some way. There is also a list of exhibits where they can view my work when venues are near them.
Under “Workshop and Judging” there is a list of lectures and classes I teach, along with one-hour and three-hour judging presentations and the NACQJ Judging Seminar. The one and three-hour presentations are for groups. The seminar targets quilters interested in learning how to judge, how to improve their work, or those who coordinate quilt shows. For show chairs looking for judges, my resumé and philosophy of judging are available. My site offers a judging, presentation, and workshop schedule. It’s especially useful for quilters interested in the seminar. They can see when it’s available and whether in-person or on-line.
Interview posted March 2023
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