Using thread as her drawn line, Paula Kovarik connects the elements of her work with pathways that meander, while leading the viewer on a journey that begs for a closer look – not just a cursory glance.
Many art quilters began with traditional quilt making. Was that your path?
My mother started quilting in her 70s and told me I would probably enjoy it. I really didn’t think so, but tried it nonetheless. She was right (of course). I’ve never been one to follow rules, and so I have always pushed against the quilt police aspect of this art form. That allows me to look at the process as an artist rather than a quilter.
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What is the most significant thing you learned from running your own graphic design business?
My firm specialized in communications for large corporate groups. We spent a lot of time educating employees of those clients through our work. The most important aspect of my work as a graphic designer was the ability to synthesize what the client needed with a graphic way to present it. Listening and reading were key. I still use that process in my artwork.
Tell us about your transition from graphic design to creating with thread and fabric. What inspired you to go in that direction, and why does it hold your interest?
After selling my design business, I was intent on starting a new career as an artist. I have always loved creating tactile objects. Give me a plastic straw and I will fiddle with it until it becomes a sculpture. Fabric and thread are so versatile, from the patterns and colors they bring to the work to the many ways of stitching with them, I could spend many lifetimes experimenting with those qualities.
What kinds of things catch your imagination and inspire you to create? Where do your ideas come from?
I read a lot—novels, news, billboards, whatever has words on it. I also take notice of details around me. The ant trails in sidewalks, the mold growth on outdoor planters, the root systems of weeds, children’s drawings – the inspirations are endless.
I recently read a quote that said “look for the uncanny in life” – those instances when unlikely coincidences happen or things that seem to be there but not there. Dreams will do that, and so will nature and conversations. Like when you read a word not normally in your vocabulary and someone says it on the same day. Or when you think of a person you haven’t spoken to for a long time and they call you 20 minutes later. Those are some of the qualities I am pursuing in my art.
In addition, my work is influenced heavily by current events and history. I recently had a solo show called Stitched Dissent in Memphis that focused on the politics of today represented in the media and within our personal relationships. Here is a journal post about that show.
When you begin to create, do you visualize the finished piece? Or does the work evolve?
Sometimes I have a specific idea or colorway in mind. But usually it is a very abstract notion of what I want to communicate in a piece. It might be as simple as a word that intrigues me or an emotion I am feeling.
Then I start experimenting with raw materials. I may start with a box of scraps, or a piece of fabric that has a stain on it. Lately, I have been cutting up finished quilts to create new ones. That took a leap of faith.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I’d have to say I am probably best known for my free-motion stitching because I use the thread line to tell stories, create texture and connect diverse elements. I am mesmerized by what the thread wants me to do. It is very near a stream-of-consciousness experience.
The first show you entered was Quilt National, the Holy Grail of art quilting. Did you understand the significance of this show when your work was accepted?
No, I did not. A friend of mine asked me one day what I was going to do with all of the work that was piling up on my studio tables. I did not think I could sell it. There weren’t many that could be used as bed quilts or lap quilts. So she recommended that I enter a show – Quilt National – and I decided to take a chance. I had no idea of its import in my career until the piece showed up on the cover of the catalog. I was thrilled.
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
I am a true believer in studios filled to the rim with visual stimuli. I have tables of collections, walls covered in clippings, pictures that inspire me and a design wall that holds finished and unfinished work. Too organized? Then I immediately mess it up.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I don’t keep an active journal, but I have 10 or 15 of them hanging around. Most of my drawings are about thread line experiments. I find that if I draw without expectations of a final result, then there will be many surprises that I can apply to my textile work.
One of my favorite things to do is to draw a continuous line that winds in and out of itself creating a pathway for the eye to follow. I use a pen, not a pencil. Erasers are not allowed. I created the Pathways quilt that way.
I also experiment with different ways to create filler patterns.
Here are some of the posts from my online journal that would give insight into my practice. There are 12 years of posts in that Journal.
- Working (or not working) during Covid-19 pandemic
- Cutting up finished quilts
- Inspirations and year-end insights
What is the greatest takeaway you want readers to gain from your new book, At Play In the Garden of Stitch: Thoughts that come while eyeing the needle?
It’s all about the process, not the product. As an artist I think it is important to just keep doing the work without the constraint of thinking that something is a success or failure.
What do you mean by, “Clutter is the precursor to clarity.”?
I intentionally clutter my studio with images and objects that I collect. The clutter is stimulating and enriching. It’s similar to reading–words energize ideas. As I sift through the visual and mental clutter, my work emerges with more depth. Edges are defined and structure becomes clear.
Do you critique your own work? What is your process?
I am in a constant dialog with myself about the pieces I am working on. I analyze them with the elements of art in mind: line, shape, color, value, texture and space. I consider the balance of the piece, contrast within the piece and movement or rhythm among the assembled pieces. After all is considered I then trust my gut. Does the piece please me? Does it do what I wanted it to do? Does it seem authentic to my voice?
What advice would you give to emerging artists?
Work hard, work every day. Then work some more.
If we were to visit your studio today, what would we find you working on?
I am attaching some works in progress here. In my current work I am exploring 3D forms and cutting older pieces up to reconfigure them.
Kovarik uses her online journal to document her process, share her ideas and tell the stories behind her quilts. You can subscribe to her journal posts to gain further insight into her work.
Browse through more inspiring art quilts and stories on Create Whimsy.