Spotlight: Thomas Knauer, Quilts with Cultural Expression

Tea and skittles detail

Spotlight: Thomas Knauer, Quilts with Cultural Expression

If you want to know what Thomas Knauer thinks, look at his quilts. He holds nothing back as he expresses his thoughts on big issues that overshadow our lives. With work that takes on chronic illness, gun violence and more, his art invites viewers to examine their own views.

Thomas Knauer Headshot

Tell us about your conversion from math geek to artist. How did you settle on quilting as your medium?

I guess I began the switch from math geek to art geek in high school. As I hit the upper level of math there wasn’t much room for playing with numbers and figuring out cool stuff. It was just a matter of sitting there and doing the Calculus. If someone had told be about number theory and other fun stuff that happens in college and grad school I would likely have stayed a math geek. But to be blunt I just got bored so it was time for a new challenge.

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Let me preface my entry into art with this: I can’t draw and my painting is even worse. I mean it is really, really bad; my stick figures need reconstructive surgery. But my high school had a college level sculpture studio and I kinda fell for making stuff out of other stuff. From there I went on to college and made a whole lot of stuff and decided I wanted to make art for a living, so I went down the academic path and went to grad school, at which point I pretty much stopped making things and went entirely conceptual.

One thing led to another and I became an art prof (read: art geek). Then I moved to another college to be closer to my wife and promptly got catastrophically ill which ended my academic career. A couple of years later, as I started to get better, I started making dresses for my little daughter, which led to designing fabric, which led to quilts. Once I started on quilts I went into full on geek mode and made a shit-ton of quilts while researching the medium. After about a year I started cranking out conceptually oriented quilts and a couple of years after that I hit what I think of as my mature form with the protest quilts. 

Now I lay me
Now I Lay Me
Now I lay me detail
Now I Lay Me – Detail

Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people – or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?

Some people have a natural aptitude for certain skills (like drawing), but that is not the same as creativity. Creativity is the hard work of art; it is the element that makes the pretty (or ugly) things worth not just looking at but thinking about. And for me that is what matters. I’ve seen more pretty art than I could throw a proverbial (or literal) stick at and it does very little for me. The art I remember are the pieces that make me actually think. I think that therein lies the true creative act, and that comes from work, from thinking about something for a long time, from putting in the hours to find the right (or right-enough) answer to the problem you are working with. 

Tea and skittles
Tea and Skittles
Tea and skittles detail
Tea and Skittles – Detail

While so many quilt artists make smaller pieces to hang on a wall like a painting, why do you express your art through bed-size quilts?

I want people to think about the shared space of the bed when they are looking at my work. Or whatever size bed the quilt is made for (I make twin quilts very intentionally). I use the history of quilts as something that resides just below the surface. Even as I subvert viewers’ expectations by confronting them with quilts about gun violence, sexual assault, or poverty. Something on the painterly scale just would not resonate the same way. It would be something distant rather than something you could imagine on your own bed. 

Emanuel detail
Emanuel Detail

You are quite open about your illnesses. How do they inform your work?

I have made a series of quilts that deals with my chronic illnesses, but I am not sure the illnesses inform my work in general. They get in the way certainly. But I think my work is primarily informed by a profound rage that I feel about the issues I deal with. 

Self portrait chronic
Self Portrait Chronic
Self Portrait Chronic detail
Self Portrait Chronic – Detail

What sparks a new quilt or a new series for you?

In a word: anger. I am angry that we keep experiencing mass shootings. And I am angry that unarmed black men keep getting shot down. I am angry that domestic violence is so obscenely prevalent. I am angry about so many things, and that anger doesn’t go away. The quilts aren’t cathartic; they are just me screaming into the headwind. 

33000 detail
33000 detail

What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?

I make angry quilts. More and more that anger is coming out directly. For a while I was hiding the anger behind layers of metaphor, making symbolic pieces, but my newest work is incredibly literal. I think what sets my work apart is the fact that it is terribly depressing if you take the time to actually engage with the quilt.

Excess detail
Excess – Detail

Do you work on several quilts simultaneously, or do you finish one piece before beginning another?

I usually have several quilts going at the same time, though at the moment I’ve been pretty focused on the new book – Why We Quilt – that I haven’t been into the studio for a while. I also did two artist-in-residence gigs last year and came out of those pretty well burnt out. So, I’ve been recharging. I expect to be back at it when the new year rolls around.

How do you stay organized when working with multiple design ideas and processes?

I don’t. My studio is almost always a mess. My computer’s desktop is a mess too. It’s not on purpose; I’m just a horrible person when it comes to keeping my shit straight.

Self portrait mutation
Self Portrait Mutation
Self Portrait mutation detail
Self Portrait Mutation Detail

What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your books, especially your upcoming title, Why We Quilt?

I want them to come away believing that quilts truly matter. That the result of their labor is a resonant object, not just a beautiful one. I want people to appreciate the complex place quilts hold in our psyche. And I want people to invest their own meaning into their quilts. To think about who they are making a quilt for and why and then try to translate that somehow. Quilting, at its core, is really easy – sew some squares together and boom! We have made it complex. We have quilting wrapped up in our egos and self-doubt and all kinds of stuff that makes us think we need to be perfect. What matters is the quilt, not the perfection. 

When you begin to create, do you visualize the finished piece? Or does the work evolve?

The work definitely evolves. I usually let ideas sit around for months so I can keep mulling them over. I don’t want to jump at a stupid (ill-conceived) idea because it feels right for a second. My work is usually so loaded; I can’t afford to have unintended meaning slide in and completely change a piece conceptually. But the evolution all happens before I start the actual making; once I start making I am usually just following the plan; I rarely improvise.

Smart detail
Smart Detail

If you could have just 5 items in your studio, what would they be and why?

  • My Handiquilter longarm. It is a giant quilting robot that lets me do things no human hand could ever do. 
  • My one and only ruler (6” x 24”) because it is the only one I’ve ever needed.
  • I would go crazy without my record player with vinyl collection. So much old punk…
  • My sewing machine (obviously) because I do need to actually make tops sometimes.
  • And my rotary cutter, because big pieces of cloth need to become small pieces of cloth so they can once more become large pieces of cloth.

What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? What kind?

Punk from 1975-1985, lots of funk, a fair deal of Zappa, some American hardcore, and of course the Velvet Underground. A lot of the time I have that on with NPR blasting at the same time. It is quite the sonic environment.

Thomas Knauer exhibit view
Thomas Knauer Exhibit

When you travel, do you stitch on planes and in waiting areas? What is in your creative travel kit?

I used to bind on planes. But these days I tend to just sleep on planes – I try to grab a little extra sleep whenever and wherever I can. I am not a born crafter or maker; it is something I took up relatively late. I do it because I think it is the best way to get my ideas across. So, I don’t tend to need to be creative, or be making, all of the time. 

Unequal detail
Unequal Detail

How do you make time for creating? Do you try to create daily?

When I am working at it I try to put in some work every day, whether it be digital or physical work. Right now, I am taking a sabbatical from making, which I have found I need periodically. When I work, I work really intensely and am prone to burnout. 

Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?

I do both lectures and workshops and the best way to get ahold of me is via email ( I had to cancel pretty much all of last year due to a medical relapse. But I am up and running again.

What do you hope the next year will bring?

What I would like the most is to no longer have a reason to make the quilts I make. I’d love to be put out of business. But since that isn’t happening, I hope I can come back from my sabbatical making smarter quilts. Ones that cut to the quick of an issue. And, of course, I hope the book does well; it was a crazy amount of work for everyone involved and I hope that is rewarded. There’s a lot of other stuff, but that mostly has to do with my family and would probably just be me over-sharing it I wrote about it here….

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