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Kathryn Clark: A Craftivist Quilter

by Betsy Greer
craft & maker

Learn more about the work of Kathryn Clark on the CreativeLive blog.

Education. Curiosity. Compassion.

Three elements that embody Kathryn Clark’s work.

At times it’s hard to watch the news given the state of the world, with its constant hum of war, famine, death, and sadness, it’s at once hard to look too closely at and hard to look away from. Each vignette, each multimedia package, each quote has been considered and curated in order to help us learn more about what is going on around us. Some people look away, but others draw closer wanting to learn as much as possible. Kathryn Clark is one of the latter.

Learn more about the work of Kathryn Clark on the CreativeLive blog.

Chicago Foreclosure Quilt, 2013, 31″ x 42″.

Some people say you have to follow your passion. But after talking to numerous artists about their bodies of work, I have come to believe curiosity is much more important than passion. Passion can fade, it can wax, it can wane, but curiosity, it stays with you. It causes you to seek out information, dig down deep, and never rest until you have the answers you’re looking for, and can therefore make us better makers. And Kathryn Clark’s work is a great example of how curiosity can be your creative guide, a shaman of sorts, leading you to that place where your skillset and questions perfectly intersect. “There’s an education that has to happen for me in my work that I have to share” she notes in a recent conversation, hitting home that her work is about more than just aesthetics.

When the foreclosure crisis hit, Kathryn Clark had to know more about it. What was happening, who it was happening to, where people were truly suffering. All too often when these widespread problems hit, the people affected by them don’t have their full story told on the news. Often the visceral reality is left out of it, the part that remains long after the TV is turned off or the browser screen switched to something fluffier. With foreclosures, it was something that was happening elsewhere. Always elsewhere. Someone else’s neighborhood. Someone else’s town. Someone else’s friend. Like with most widespread sadness, it was easy to be removed from it once you removed yourself from technology.

But Clark wanted people to see the reality of it. Away from technology. So she began to research and then quilt some of the neighborhoods affected by the crisis. “Making the quilts made perfect sense because a quilt is home, and tearing it apart… I think that was the key for that series.”

Learn more about the work of Kathryn Clark on the CreativeLive blog.

Washington, DC Foreclosure Quilt, 2015, 57 ½” x 84″, Permanent Collection, Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

It was key because she was making beautiful pieces that one could fall in love with and then realize that there was a message stitched within its borders within the fabric that was no longer there, creating a hole from where it once was whole. A reality that wouldn’t go away by hitting an X to close a page or by pushing a button. Given that the quilts were made at a time when foreclosures were all over the news, they were “something people could grasp, having that story behind the work made a huge impact, it just resonated with people.”

What’s effective about Clark’s work is that it is born out of authenticity, out of a quest to educate herself, out of curiosity. It takes a moment in the zeitgeist and zooms in, literally in the case of her research, and then creates ripples of education radiating outward when its shown to others. This combination of taking news of the moment and pairing it with craft allowed her work to do what she wanted, “to engage people in conversation.” And this series did just that, eventually leading up to a commission of a piece by the Renwick Gallery in Washington DC. And did so because she followed her questions, not what others were doing.

Clark spent years working as an urban planner, so it’s little surprise that, “every now and then some story will grab me just like the foreclosure quilts and it usually has something to do with the physical landscape.” Like with those quilts, her next work is also a story currently in the news, the journeys of migrants across Europe. “I just was curious to know what the terrain looked like that they were walking through, sort of like the foreclosure quilts, [when] I was curious to know what the neighborhoods looked like.”

And she was curious about their physical journey as well, deducing that at maximum, people could walk around 20 miles a day if they had to. So with that distance as a guide, she went on Google Earth and zoomed in to various European borders and found 20-mile lengths of actual borderland between countries. Like with the foreclosure quilts, this is work she is doing partly for herself, to understand what is happening to people, to learn more about the daily reality of millions of people right now this very minute. “I have no idea if people are interested at all in seeing what that looks like, but for me it’s fascinating and so I just feel compelled to make it. And I make my work really for myself, to educate myself, and hopefully somebody will find some interest in it.”

But what do you do when what you’re looking at is so big that it affects literally millions of people? How do you break that crisis down into chunks you can work with each day? “It’s so complex… it’s overwhelming. When I get online and start to research I get lost and I have to tell myself, okay let’s focus on this one particular area, can we find out any information, but there are just so many stories.” This is where the 20-mile lengths of borders come back in, as it’s a manageable reference point to learn the topography, to see what terrain people are literally walking on, to understand the visceral reality that seems hard to comprehend while we’re safe and cozy at home on the couch, watching it all unfold on the television.

Learn more about the work of Kathryn Clark on the CreativeLive blog.

Aerial Landscape: Hungary and Croatia Border detail, 2015, 45″ x 67″ x 8”.

So again using fiber, she’s constructing these borders by hand, using glue on the fabric, so that even though it hardens, she can still manipulate it. She’s creating what the news isn’t telling us, she’s taking her research and making it more tangible and apart from a computer screen.

Again Clark is following her curiosity, creating the part of the tale that we’re not being told for her own education. I asked her if she would do this work even if she wasn’t showing it publically. She said yes. And this, to me, is the hallmark of a true creative, letting her curiosity be her guide and then satiating it with her own two hands. The resulting success? Just a little something that can happen when you lay down your passion and follow the questions your heart is asking, choosing them to steer you to your creative true north.

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Betsy Greer

Betsy Greer is a maker and writer from Durham, North Carolina. Her most recent project, You Are So Very Beautiful, is about stitching and sharing affirmations. Find out more: craftivism.com/youaresoverybeautiful/