I wonder if there is anything that artist Chawne Kimber doesn’t do beautifully.
She not only sews the most breathtaking, intricate quilts. She embroiders complicated portraits in tiny stitches. She is moved to create by the beauty of color in the physical world and by profoundly painful social issues.
And as if that wasn’t enough, Chawne writes about her process with passion in her deeply reflective blog Completely Cauchy. She is a generous member of the online textile art community, offering encouragement and support to other makers.
Anyone who follows the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, artist on Instagram, Twitter or Flickr is treated to a near daily explosion of creativity in a variety of palettes (everything from rainbows to muted, monochromatic shades) and mediums (quilts, embroidery, x stitch and even paper.)
In the simplest terms, when I look at Chawne’s artwork I am refreshed by it. By the clean design, the freshness of the colors and the depth behind it. She seems to capture both a brainy, intellectual thoughtfulness and rich, emotional energy in her work.
She embodies both critique and compassion in every stitch.
I could have asked Chawne dozens of questions. There is so much to consider and be inspired by in her work and in her process. it’s nearly overwhelming. But, somehow, I limited my questions to five.
What follows is a conversation via email that I was lucky enough to have with the artist in January and February 2015.
I’m fascinated with the interplay between source material/inspiration and medium. As readers of your blog have witnessed, inspiration for your artwork arises from variety of places. For example, we’ve seen you create quilts and embroideries in response to events in the world (the killing of two unarmed young men), and to the emotional experiences in your personal life (the Li’l Mo cross stitch piece). We’ve also watched as you seemingly respond to the materials themselves — for example, collections of crisp cotton fabric in a rainbow of hues become the impossibly tiny squares in a patchwork quilt. How do you make decisions about which medium to translate an idea into? Is there something about the events or ideas themselves that choose the medium?
This has been interesting to ponder because I think this is a chicken-egg question for me. Really, it depends. Sometimes an event occurs and I choose to respond. That response can be spontaneous (within days) and so I just use the materials at hand in my stash; or the response can come (within a year) after long deliberation about both the factors of the event and the appropriate materials for expressing my reaction.
And in a third configuration, of course, sometimes I’m just in the mood for embroidery or for quilting and I just jump in. In my opinion, “event first” results in my more interesting work because the intent leads the process.
In terms of process, how do you organize your projects/ideas? Do you keep a sketchbook, journal or clip file? How many pieces do you typically have in process at one time?
Often I work improvisationally, with little planning and blind to the ultimate outcome. The thrill of problem solving at every turn keeps me motivated and it’s wonderful when it works out well. For building up to more planned constructions, I prefer loose-leaf explorations on the backs of envelopes, receipts, napkins, etc that then stack up to a rough sketch incorporating the decent ideas. I have a few journals/sketchbooks but I just rip out pages to use; the binding not only makes it difficult to write, but it also seems too permanent to my mind.
These notes are important though because I’m usually working actively on 5 or 6 projects at a time, with another 20 or so at various stages of progress. Time-out breaks can do some good, although I’m never clear on who is being punished: me or the project.
Your quilts and embroideries sometimes feature text. The text is often provocative, but it is never gratuitous. For example, we see the photograph of the “Legit Rape Here” quilt, spread on a bed, just like any other quilt, in the pool of light from a nearby window. The cozy intimacy of the scene is juxtaposed with the darkness of the words. The viewer pauses. You’ve and created powerful tension between the comfort of a quilt with the ugliness of rape. (At least, that is my experience.) It’s breathtaking. For you, what role does text play in your artwork? How do you know that you want to use a particular word in one of your pieces? Can you give us an example of a piece where the text was particularly successful to you?
Oh, you chose one of the more successful ones. What I seek to do is to respond to a current event in a timeless way because you want more viewers to be able to interact with your work beyond the collective memory of a community. That rape quilt is actually titled “Todd’s No-Baby Baby Quilt” and was a spontaneous reaction to Missouri Congressman Todd Akin’s uneducated commentary on the chances of conception depending on the “type” of rape. His category of “legitimate rape” is offensive on so many levels that it exposes a million cracks in our society. The expression in this quilt is grounded in the reality of this man’s words, and yet there is so much more to consider, broader and deeper, beyond this inciting incident.
Other text projects can be more playful. I like to use words with multiple meanings that different viewers will experience in their own ways. Again, they are words that just come up in my life that worm their way into my mind.
The “snatch” quilt, for example, was just a reaction to my neighbor practicing marimba one morning, but it can tickle one’s inner-preteen and lead to some fun double-entendres.
For the most part, I’ve witnessed overwhelmingly positive responses in the blogosphere and social media to your work. But your work with text (both playful and more provocative) remind me of the sometimes strong, derisive online responses you have had to the use of certain text. (For example, the “C*nt” quilt.) What role, if any, does your online community have in your creative life? Have strong reactions, either positive or negative, influenced or inspired you in any direction with any of your pieces? More simply, what is the value to you of sharing your work online and engaging with other makers?
The most vitriolic response came after the “Give a F*ck” quilt exhibited at a quilt show. I was condemned to hell by many many viewers for daring to use this word, while many many others applauded our challenge of censorship. One can feel under siege in these moments and I’ve considered puling back from making questioning works. However, I choose to follow my internal motivations instead. Art is not meant always to be beautiful, or always to be accepted by everyone. This is a hard critical row to hoe in textile media due to the diversity of the audience. Does that make sense?
I am grateful for my online community that supports my work and, actually, desire thoughtful critiques (that aren’t personal attacks). Beyond that, I have benefited greatly from new friendships with other artists I’ve met through my blog and other social media. They’ve turned out to be lovely folks in real life also. Win-win, I’d say.
Finally, I have to address your amazing use of self-portraiture, both in embroidery/cross stitch and quilts. For me, self-portraiture is convenient because, frankly, I’m always here. I don’t have to rely on other models and I’m pretty good at taking direction from myself. Your Self Study #4 quilt shows you with a hoodie pulled over your head, echoing the iconic and tragic imagery of Trayvon Martin in a hoodie. What is your motivation behind using images of yourself in your work?
Of course, I am trying to emulate the classical training of a representational artist. Like you, for me the self is a model who is always at hand. But also I suppose I have felt myself (my demographic(s), my politics, my values) underrepresented in textile art. What better way to remedy the situation than to just project myself directly into the artwork?
There is so much more to learn from Chawne. I can’t overstate it. Her blog is one of the best out there. Her artwork is so clear, profound, alive.
Spend time with her and you will be enriched. I promise.
Olisa Corcoran is a stitch artist and blogger living in Durham, NC. She speaks fluent Nuyorican and always keeps her dial turned to 11.