Kate Kretz is a textile artist from Washington, D.C. whose embroidered work provides a cathartic outlet for understanding personal and social dissonance.
“One of the functions of art is to strip us bare, reminding us of the fragility common to every human being across continents and centuries. Often, I will meet someone, and the visible weight of his or her life becomes almost unbearable to me, it rips me open. The objects that I make are an attempt to articulate this feeling.
“These are serious times for many people, and this body of work, made during a difficult period in my own narrative, has literally saved my life. The repetitive act of embroidery seems to be made for calming worry… trying to tie things down, sew them in, make them stay. Embroidering with hair possesses its own unique intensity: each barely perceptible stitch is like a rosary bead, marking a tiny but ardent prayer whispered over and over.
“I consider the inordinate amount of time invested in each piece as a gift given to the viewer. It often feels as though the cathartic things I make are an act of profound resistance: I give birth to the tactile as I am swallowed by the virtual. I obsess over craft as our world becomes disposable. I wield emotion in its messiness because it’s uncool. I work until my hands shake, because the world does not care.
“I am banging my head against the wall, but the stain is beautiful.
Kate Kretz has used her embroidery as a tool for catharsis and by choosing materials that are physically connected to her, she is re-evaluating her experience and making sense of it.
There is a real darkness to Kate’s work, but it’s an understated darkness. We may never fully understand the underlying inspiration for the works, but there are echoes of torment, whispers of past grievance.
Technically I think they are remarkable – using human hair as a material must require delicate patience and the mass of French knots in the Final Word is further testament to Kate’s conscientious approach to her work. There is a slowness and consideration to her work that provokes the emotion; it almost seethes, bubbling under the surface.
The first time I wrote about Kate Kretz was in 2012, and so I reconnected with her to find out how her work has evolved.
When I wrote about you back in 2012 (!) your work was very personal and the intricacy of stitching with hair and creating small pieces was akin to a therapeutic process. These days your work is bigger, bolder and brasher. Can you speak to how your practice and your storytelling has evolved over the years?
My work has always been about calling out difficult truths that no one wants to hear, it’s just that the earlier work was more inwardly focused. But, as they say, the personal is political, and my current work is both.
About nine years ago, I began a series called “#bullyculture”. It originated with deep, difficult research on the psychology behind all the news stories that were keeping me up at night. I knew there was a common denominator to them.
It led me to the realization that we define injustices by the victim (racism, sexism, gun violence, animal abuse, etc.), but, in many cases, the perpetrators were the same: entitled, violent people (mostly white, mostly men) who took out their aggression on anyone who is not like them.
I made a body of work to call out these perpetrators of intimidation and violence, and to keep our gaze trained on them, because they are the aberrations in our culture, not the people they attack, who are just living their lives.
I started to realize that not only is bullying steeped deeply into our culture, our country cultivates it in a myriad of ways. Like rape culture, it is a spectrum where some behaviour is acceptable, but ultimately leads to more egregious actions.
While many civilized cultures are based on cooperation and the common good, ours is based on competition, and it has infiltrated everything. Think of one activity that has not been turned into a (televised) contest. Think of how Trump divides everyone up into “winners” and “losers”, without compassion.
The #bullyculture series simply needed to exist in the world, and it all just came through me in a way that had never happened before. It was so aggressively confrontational, it was shocking to my friends, and even to myself.
Reviews called the work prescient, as it foreshadowed the 2016 election, the #metoo movement, and the extant racism emboldened by Trump. I was making work about the culture that brought us to the Trump era.
Have there been specific personal incidents that have caused your work to change direction?
Well, to be honest, the hair embroideries were ultimately unsustainable: every piece took a few years off the functionality of my hands, and the final pieces I made really needed to exist. However, the content of my work was profoundly affected by becoming a mother: it made me ferocious and unrelenting about trying to make this world a better place for my daughter.
How has your work helped you navigate the Trump era?
It truly helped to keep me sane. Trump is the embodiment of my earlier #bullyculture work. I expect that I am not the only woman who suffered through PTSD as a result of the 2016 election and ensuing Trumpism.
The type of man I have spent my whole life avoiding was suddenly thrust in our faces 24/7 and there was no escaping… we are still not free of him, and the torrent of hatred, pathological lying and aggressions he has modelled for other politicians, and for his base. He has truly lowered the bar of behaviour for the entire world, and I don’t think we can ever get back to where we were.
The Trump era is like a collective nightmare, with a villain that half the country can’t see, so the rest of us are screaming and waving our arms, trying to warn everyone, but they are already brainwashed into the cult.
During his tenure as president, I did a series of “Lie Hole” drawings, small colored pencil drawings on black paper, featuring Trump’s hyperarticulated mouth floating in the void, caught mid-lie. I also began a series called “The MAGA Hat Collection,” which (unfortunately) continues through this day.
In it, I cathartically rip apart MAGA hats (mostly counterfeit), and reconfigure them into corrective manifestations of the truth to counteract the incessant gaslighting perpetrated against us.
These days, everyone understands the connection between MAGA and Nazism, between MAGA and racism, but when I began making these pieces back in 2018, I was taken to task for my comparisons, even by some artist friends. I clearly saw what was coming down the pike.
Unlike some other Americans, I did background research on Trump, and knew what he stood for. The first MAGA Hat work got me banned from social media, and I received many threats against me and against my work.
Concurrently, from 2019 – 2022, I was working on “Reparation: Where Our Greatness Lies,” a 550-hour piece. Conservatives seem to have appropriated our national flag, and seeing that symbol waved in Charlottesville and on Jan. 6th has changed the meaning of it.
I ripped out all the commercially-sewn white stars on a large flag, and replaced them with hand-embroidered stars representing all the melanin scale skin tones of U.S. citizens. Pulling out every tiny last white thread embedded in the double-sided machine-embroidered flag seemed to replicate the difficulty of eradicating white supremacy from our country.
In the MAGA series, I felt a responsibility to call out racism in a way that did not attempt to depict the experience of POC, but pointed accusingly to keep our eyes trained on the oppressor, employing what bell hooks called “the oppositional gaze.”
I am just now beginning what I hope will be the capstone MAGA piece, addressing January 6th and the extremist nature of the MAGA movement. Unfortunately, there were several exhibitions of this work that got cancelled during the pandemic, so I am now working on trying to organize an exhibition that will include this whole body of work before this year’s election.
Does your overarching creative path incorporate all your media types, or does the painting take you in one journey and needlework on another, so to speak?
I am a slave to the work: I do what it (or the Universe) wants me to do. I always choose the most potent medium for the concept. I have a vision of how it needs to be manifested, then do what is necessary to actualize it…. sometimes, this means learning a new medium.
I was never trained in fiber art, and I feel that was incredibly liberating for me. I had no concept of the medium’s limitations, and approached it in a completely different way.
Do you have any artistic pearls of wisdom for new artists who are using needlework as their weapon of choice?
Do I ever! I just finished writing a book, 20 years in the making, a step by-step, holistic guide to finding visual voice, walking readers through how to discover the art that they alone were born to make, so the advice is fresh in my mind.
If you think of artists you admire, you’ll see that making art is not about simply “getting a good idea”, it is about carrying out a sustained investigation that comes from your very core, but grows with you through your life.
I would say spend some time trying to figure out who you are, to discover the unique qualities and point of view you alone can bring to your subject, then turn up the volume on those aspects. Remain curious and do wide research to deepen the strata in your investigations.
Learn how to be quiet, so you can listen to the Universe, letting your intuition guide you. Cultivate bravery. Reject social media approval culture, it is a recipe for mediocrity. To deepen your work, deepen your life. This may mean sacrificing the superfluous things that distract you from what is truly important. Allow yourself the freedom to imagine things that stretch the medium and don’t already exist.
At this stage in my life, I have little to lose, so the book drops a lot of truth bombs and discussions of elephants in the room. It is the tome I wish someone had handed me when I was a young artist.
There are hundreds of books about how to succeed in the art world, but this one is about how to build and feed your miraculous art life, to create work that is solid and true, and feels like home.
Her book, Art from Your Core: A Holistic Guide to Visual Voice is published by Intellect Press (through University of Chicago Press in the U.S.