Integrating found materials into her work, fiber artist Miki Rodriguez draws on the rich history and traditions of growing up in a south Texas border town where the cultural influences flowed freely across the line on the map. Miki was trained and immersed her creative practice in painting for 35 years. When she was restless for a change, she discovered fiber as a medium. Then found objects beckoned and now drive much of Miki’s work, reflecting the human condition.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path?
Many artists might bring up childhood memories. I’m no different. This question makes me search for that. I can only say that I’ve been making art from a very young age. My mother allowed her small child to play with her oil paints and I was hooked. So my mother opened this door for me.
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For this, I have to backup to my painting years. I was a painter for over 35 years, and I explored and worked incessantly in any wet media that I could get my hands on. My whole life was about painting. My education was no different. I have a BFA and an MFA in painting and drawing. Then about 12 years ago I became restless and I wanted to explore something different. I recognized that it was time to make some kind of change. That’s when I began to evolve into fiber.
I began to explore other media by taking workshops in San Antonio, Texas. I found that fiber was the most interesting and challenging of all the workshops I took. It felt like I was driving a car for the first time. It was exciting and scary all at the same time.
Around the that time, I discovered that my great grandmother (aka Pitita) had sewn an American flag. Her mother was Mexican and her father was American, and she was the youngest of 12 siblings. They lived in Mexico all their lives but were considered Mexican American. When the Mexican Revolution began, Pitita made the flag in order to hang on their porch to identify their home as neutral ground. That flag saved many lives. This was a lightbulb moment. I realized that I could say anything I wanted in this medium. And that what I said mattered. Most importantly, I could do it in any way I wanted. There were so many challenging options available. So I committed to fabric. Then found objects eventually found me.
How does this medium best express what you want to communicate through your art?
I use recycled fabrics as well as a variety of found objects. There are fabric scraps, wires and yarns. There are lift tabs from soft drink cans, Mexican milagritos, broken jewelry, parts of mystery items, lots of washers and old buttons, just to name a few. So many discarded things surround me, and I am passionate about recycling. But yet, I wonder where they really go.
So I attach what I can to my work by stitching or tying it. I crowd these objects on the surface of my work as if people everywhere were standing in crowds. People are in close proximity but not together, not connecting. The objects have come to represent humans. These material things were once owned by people and, I believe, are left with a residue of memories, like a broken key that once opened a door in a family home, or a shiny fragment of an earring that was once worn by someone in a shiny dress. I want my work to describe us…humans in our lives right now. I want to express a visual disconnect from these objects, from each other and from ourselves. And I want a viewer to see a microcosm of our lives.
Which artists do you admire? What draws you to their work?
I admire quite a few artists for different reasons and I have to start with painters that have left a mark on my work. There are a few women from Abstract Expressionism, but the ones that attract me the most are Grace Hartigan and Helen Frankenthaler. They were all shakers and movers during the 1940s-60s. They were strong, opinionated and forcefully defended who they were as people and artists. The term “woman” had nothing to do with what they produced as artists during the early years. Their art reflected the “action painting” of their time. It also reflected intense emotional content in the way they moved the paint onto a surface.
Although not always treated equally, they were equal to their male counterparts in their mastery of the medium and the content. In my fiber work, the visual power and impact of their work still influences me. And I admire them as strong, disciplined women – their marks resonate with me.
In the fiber art world I look to Nick Cave and El Anatsui. The link between them, like the Abstract Expressionists, is the fearlessness in their approach to their media and their work. They are organic in their process. Their art is limitless, something never seen before. That I respect. That I admire. And that I want to be a part of. Who knew fabric could be this?
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I’m mostly an improviser. I plan by doing loosely drawn thumbnail sketches in my sketch book, and then I use that as a reference for my fabric work. Most times the final piece looks nothing like the original idea because the original sketch idea is constantly evolving. If I stay loose, my improviser always drives this car. It’s a more thrilling ride.
Is your work more content–driven or process-driven?
My work is more process-driven. I think about materials first. And I think about how I can use them in my next piece. I draw the basic design quickly. Then I make exploratory samples attaching found objects and other unusual things to a surface. As I process through the work, the mixed materials guide the direction of the content. The content always reflects my personal thoughts, beliefs and opinions as each material sits in my hands.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works?
I’m inspired by my own culture and the environment of South Texas. I grew up in Laredo, Texas, a border town between the US and Mexico. And although the Rio Grande flows between the two countries, there are really no borders socially, emotionally or mentally. This is my playground. I’m inspired by the people, music, bright colors, taste of foods, textures of fabrics and the hot sun, as well as the fragrance of the ranch land after it rains. These are the foundation of my work and they are the first things that I see as my work develops. Then I infuse my own personal experiences today as the work evolves.
I start by selecting and interviewing found objects and scraps of fabrics. They are my palette as I look through colors and textures. The more variety in textures and variations of one color, the better. Then I start working with ideas by attaching objects. Do I hand stitch, tie or machine stitch? Sometimes I use plastics that I’ve deconstructed. Examples are water jugs that become flat beads or bubble wrap that holds a small found object in its bubble.
When my explorations feel right to me, I start fusing and stitching the parts together one layer at a time. There are sometimes 4 to 6 layers of fabrics and then I include the objects and the hand stitching. All the layers and edges are exposed and become raw surfaces on the final product. The support layers are batting or cotton. I also use black felt as a substrate and it is always exposed somewhere. Black is an elegant, powerful and stabilizing color for my intense, bright colors.
I work on one exposed layer at a time and I detail the surface by crowding found materials or unexpected materials to the top layer. The more surprises the viewers encounter, the more engaged I hope to keep the viewer. And as I process in this way, I handle all of the materials in a “slow” way. I pay attention to what is in my hand and what I am doing with it. That’s when the memories of my mother, home, women, politics, social interactions and the environment bubble up.
Lastly, I push forward one day at a time as I chip away at it enjoying every part of the process. Nothing is rushed. The work is sometimes like a meditation…peaceful and quiet.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
Because I grew up on the border, I was always surrounded by cultural symbols and designs. And most of my ancestors, including my grandparents, were from Mexico. So my own sense of design evolved within my culture. Essentially I began searching for ancient Mesoamerican designs that might influence my work. I found them in the Mayan stamps. That basic black design is still in my work today, even as a fiber artist.
These designs then began to morph into my own playful marks and I realized that my culture was my foundation for whatever else I wanted to add to that surface. Objects became an important symbol for the things I care about. And I care about people.
I think what’s different about my work is that I respond visually to my experiences like no one else. I am me. And my signature, whether I am painting or sewing, is that mark that I am making when I react to those experiences.
Are you constantly on the lookout for discarded materials that you use in your art? How do you organize it all to keep track of what is where?
I’m always looking for discarded materials. I have three large storage boxes with lids that are dedicated to a variety of objects. I promised myself that I would not overfill my studio with more than I could handle. If I find stuff that I cannot do without and I have little or no space to store it, then I purge some old things that have not been of use to me. I donate them to thrift stores. But to tell you the truth, I found a loophole. I have other boxes that are dedicated to beads, wood, unique fibers/fabrics, and metals. It’s easy to break my own rules.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
I listen to all of the above except for movies while I work. I can’t concentrate with a movie going on but I listen to all kinds of music.
Silence is an escape from too much noise, especially in the morning when it’s too soon for me to make or listen to sounds. I listen to audiobooks and podcasts when in the mood. I have a lot of jazz in my music collection like Cassandra Wilson, Etta James and Mary Lou Williams. And I like blues, folk and soul. Nature sounds including rain storms and other meditative music are especially relaxing while I work. I also listen to world music from other cultures. Indian, Latino and African music are rhythmic and I can keep rhythm in my movement when I work. And I like reaching into my past favorites including Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and yes…Led Zeppelin who I think were geniuses in how they created music in the 70s. My tastes are eclectic and I listen to whatever I want when I’m in the mood for it.
I take pleasure in relaxing, tapping my toes, moving my body and sometimes I dance when I’m really moved. My mood determines the music and the music determines the energy I release.
Do you critique your own work? What is your process?
Yes, I critique my work all the time. My process for critiquing my own work is not structured. I walk away from the work for a while and before I step into it again, I decide where it might be weak and how to fix it or I find what does work and make sure to work with that.
But I also belong to a critique group that gets together on zoom about twice a month for the purpose of giving feed back for questions that we have about our own work. We stick to a format. I ask the group a question about one of my pieces that I might be uncomfortable with and the group of 11 women each get an opportunity to ask questions and respond to only that particular issue the artist is having. Sometimes no one is ready to critique their work. So general topics are discussed like other artist’s work, techniques, content, pricing and future directions in our work. We share links for products, YouTube videos, artist’s names and technology.
I highly recommend that fiber artists connect with groups of like-minded people and share like this. I have gained so much respect for other artists and their wide range of styles as well as a fuller knowledge of fiber.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I was an art teacher for over 35 years. Because of my teaching, I believe both are true.
I believe that we are born with certain dispositions for specific subjects. Music, art, science, math, writing and languages are just a few. Our brains are just wired that way. Some call it talent. People with a disposition for making art are very visual and have an acute eye-hand coordination. But this is not the same as creativity.
A skill is an ability that can be taught and/or can be practiced independently to the point of mastering. This is also not creativity.
If a person is born with the ability to draw well, they can still continue to learn new skills to further advance the basic abilities they were born with. In fact, I highly recommend it. I like to say, you never stop learning. Why would anyone want to stop? Be a lifetime learner.
Creativity comes from imagination and original ideas. People who are creative come from all kinds of occupations.
I believe that two possible doorways to creativity are receiving encouragement without judgment for ideas, and thinking without limitations. Also I believe that we all need to fall down and figure out how to get up on our own. That’s an original idea in that moment. No matter what age, if a person can work on the skills they are born with or taught, and work on the freedom to express one’s imagination, then it’s possible to learn how to be creative.
Interview posted August 2021
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