Kathy Nida – Quilt Artist
©Kathy Nida 2017 and ©Through Our Hands 2017. Please do not copy images or text without permission.
I’m Kathy Nida. I make quilts…not bed quilts, not pieced quilts, not even Baltimore album quilts, but art quilts. I basically draw and then turn that into a quilted piece that hangs on the wall…as art…like a painting. My quilts don’t look anything like the quilts your great-grandmother handed down to you to keep you warm on a cold night. And because of that, sometimes I get into trouble in quilt shows.
I learned to sew when I was about 8 years old, making a blouse out of the old kitchen curtains. I kept sewing my own clothes all through middle and high school, and a bit into college. At some point, it was easier and cheaper to buy them, although wanting something different kept me coming back to the machine. In college, I studied art, but mostly worked in photography, printmaking, and ceramics…the tried and true accepted arts. Neither college I attended, University of California, Irvine, or University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, had any textile or fiber programs. In fact, when I went to a local arts center in Aber to take a fiber class, my dean at the college was horrified. That’s not real art! Obviously, I didn’t listen to him.
I continued to make art after college, mostly in screenprints, where I would draw and then screen each color in a range from light to dark. As my kids were born, though, it was harder to find those concentrated bits of time to block a screen, print, and clean up, plus the materials were all toxic. I had been taking quilting classes at a local shop aimed more at making pictures than piecing bits and pieces into squarish shapes, and I thought, hey…what if I could take the drawings I do for my screenprints and use them for fabric instead? I bet that would work. And it’s less toxic, so no chemical issues with pregnancy and babies, but I can also carry it with me and do it at home on the couch and this just might work. So my fabric stash began to grow.
I started out by taking classes from a variety of quilt artists: Joan Colvin and Laura Wasilowski were the two who influenced me most, although Ellen Anne Eddy showed me how to dye my own fabrics…which I can do, but mostly let others do for me now. By the time my kids were a few years old, I was headed down the art quilt path, refining my technique as I went.
Work in Progress – Kathy Nida
I’ve been drawing since I was a little kid too. I took art classes early on and continued to draw regularly. In college, I started doing mostly woman-based art…focusing on the things that affect women and their bodies and lives. Doing what I knew. At no point did I consider that nudity would be an issue. I’d done a ton of life-drawing classes in school, I travelled to museums and saw all the beautiful art when I lived abroad and here in the US.
As I started teaching science when I was older, those drawings were influenced by my teaching body systems and life science. I am fascinated with how our biology affects everything, especially for women with their uteri, ruling us on a regular basis from the teen years until cronedom. And even after, for some women. Even back in my 20s, I thought of my reproductive system as this thing that always concerns us…either we’re worrying about not getting pregnant or getting pregnant, or about controlling bleeding or not bleeding. I’ve spent almost 40 years dealing with a system that acts out like a spoiled child. So the uterus shows up in my quilts. Many organs show up. I don’t think twice about drawing whatever is in my head, whatever logically should be there. At some point, Earth mothers started to show up as well…a nature-based mother who is all around us, who reacts to what we do, how we treat her. Over the years, there have been lots of quilts about being a mom, about being overwhelmed, about being a single mom. One of those is The Goddess of Never-Ending Chaos, a commentary on motherhood. Sometimes I get invited to participate in exhibits. I was part of an exhibit organized by Sheila Frampton Cooper called Expressions in Equality. I focused on gender equality with my piece Work in Progress.
The Goddess of Never Ending Chaos – Kathy Nida
So how do I make these quilts? I draw. And I draw. And then I draw some more. And eventually I find one I really like and I enlarge it, mostly because I like lots of little details, and when I try to make the quilts the same size as the drawing, it gets a little crazy. So I enlarge the drawings and number all those pieces…some quilts have over 2000 pieces. Then I trace them all onto a fusible web called Wonder Under. It has a paper backing, so I can number all those pieces as well. I cut them out and iron them to fabrics. I do have the pattern pinned up while I’m picking the fabrics, but it’s all colored in my head. I don’t have time to color for real. I’m still a full-time teacher, so my art time is after school, late at night, stuffed into weekends and school breaks. Once all the fabrics are chosen, I trim all the pieces. I use the paper pattern and a Teflon sheet to iron them all together, kind of like a big puzzle. That gets ironed to a background and stitched down. Then I put batting and a backing on it and quilt it just like my great grandmother did. I put a binding on it and a sleeve, and then it hangs on the wall.
The difference is the images, I guess, because many people make beautiful art quilts, quilts of nature, abstract quilts full of color or simply black and grey. They use texture and photographic techniques. They paint with thread or actual paint. It’s a huge business here in the United States (and abroad), but sometimes my quilts get me in trouble.
Back in 2011, a quilt I had done for an exhibit about homelessness, called No Place to Call Home, offended a women. The quilt was called One Paycheck, since post-divorce, I felt I was always only one paycheck from disaster. I had portrayed a homeless woman with children. She was naked, ultimately very vulnerable, in a cardboard box on the street. Her vulva was showing, and that caused the controversy. The exhibit was travelling with the Mancuso quilt shows throughout the US, but this was in Virginia. Eventually the women complained loudly enough that a news station came in to report about the woman’s horror. The organizers of the quilt show sat back and collected a lot of extra revenue that weekend. It wasn’t the first quilt I’d done with reproductive parts in it, and it certainly wasn’t the last. In general, I got a lot of support from total strangers, so I worried a little bit about my job…as a teacher, we can get in trouble for certain “moral” issues, and where I live, it’s never really clear what that means. Being called a pornographer by people online for my quilt might be enough to be a threat.
One Paycheck – Kathy Nida
To my credit, I really don’t enter quilt shows any more. I guess I’ve been told enough times that my work is “too artsy” for your average quilt show. I was confused by the woman’s response, since it didn’t seem like she understood the point about the woman’s vulnerability, but I moved on…as did the quilt, travelling to multiple other venues afterwards with no known complaints.
Later, I had another quilt, Disrupted, which was part of an exhibit called Sightlines, pulled from a museum in Missouri because of nudity. Unfortunately, neither the museum nor the group who was managing the exhibit ever told me it hadn’t been exhibited there. Another artist contacted me to let me know. So censorship this time without even letting me know. Their argument was that schoolchildren would be attending the show, so mine and another artist’s work was never unpacked. Again, it was a traveling show, so that piece had many eyeballs, mostly in museums, proving that it isn’t just the quilt shows that don’t like nudity.
Disrupted by Kathy Nida
There are a few fiber art magazines in the United States. There are at least two of them who have never shown my work. I’ve been told they have rules against nudity. I’m lucky in that a few other magazines have no qualms about that, so my work has shown up in magazines, with all the complaint and support letters following for months in one publication. I’ve been called a pornographer, inappropriate, etc. It’s so removed from where my brain is when I draw that I don’t really understand it. I’m not selling sex. My quilts are about a woman’s existence, about childbirth, about menopause, about creation. They’re about our bodies, and if our bodies are inappropriate, I find that sad. Because we are born in them and we live in them all our lives, and some of the parts make us feel bad or sick or uncomfortable, but those same parts can bring us the joy of a child or pleasure, and I hate that so much of this country thinks that is a horrible thing.
Fully Medicated by Kathy Nida
This last year, I had two quilts traveling as part of a Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA) exhibit called People and Portraits, going along with a book published by Martha Sielman. The two quilts were Fully Medicated and I Was Not Wearing a Life Jacket. They had been to quilt shows and museums, traveling for quite a long time, even coming to the UK for the Festival of Quilts in Birmingham, in 2014. The American Quilters’ Society (AQS) had contracted for the exhibit to travel with their QuiltWeek shows, which go from Phoenix, Arizona, through Florida and Kentucky. I had heard nothing negative about the exhibit, until I got a call in August, when the show was in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Apparently a viewer had complained that Life Jacket had a penis in it and she was going to never go to another AQS show again unless show organizers removed the quilt. I was confused. Why? There’s no penis in the quilt. There’s only one male figure in the whole huge thing, and he’s about 2” tall and behind a tree. No willy to be seen. The SAQA coordinator was trying to negotiate with AQS staff, but eventually my piece was pulled from the traveling exhibit and the show in Grand Rapids. Then AQS pulled the second quilt as well, using the reasoning that all the other artists had two quilts in the exhibit, and now I only had one, so I had to go.
I Was Not Wearing A Life Jacket – Kathy Nida
I was upset. I was being censored for something that wasn’t even there. It’s no fun to be censored for things there that might be an issue to some people, but this wasn’t even a thing. Meanwhile, the internet went kind of bonkers over it. I’d received a lot of comments and hits on my blog with One Paycheck back in 2011, but this time, it was just crazy. It took 10 days for AQS to comment, and they never ever contacted me. They claimed that there were numerous complaints at that point. SAQA…well, I think they tried to do their best by me, but really, what it comes down to is that I live in a country where nudity is often considered bad, evil, something to hide, and as a fine artist, because I am one, even though I work in fabric, I don’t think that way at all. I think of Bernini and Degas, Cassatt and Picasso, and nudity doesn’t seem abnormal. My figures are often nude because the piece is more about what’s going on inside them than what they’re wearing. So SAQA has essentially warned me that my work might keep it out of a venue. Because of the nudity. And that sucks. Really. Because I’d like them to stand up for the ART in their group title. I recognize that where I live, this is an issue…I guess I’d like it not to be.
Of course, it’s harder to write all this in the America I live in today, in the America that is currently losing its mind, because of a tiny-minded man named Trump. So many of the artists in the US today are grappling with how to deal with our horror at what our government is doing and to turn that into art…realizing that it might come with consequences over the next four years. My most recent quilt spouts feminism left and right, and the next one in my head goes political in a way I haven’t gone for a long time. It’s impossible not to react to what we see and hear around us, how other Americans are treating people, how the Executive Orders are creating tension, how simple phone calls to world leaders are putting our country in danger. So I think my drawings will still have nudity, but it will be politically charged. Women’s rights are at risk; human rights are in my mind daily. Using art to speak to the world, no matter the medium, even if it will never be seen in a quilt show (I’m really OK with that) or censored from a museum exhibit because of content. I can put them online. I can send them abroad. I can find places that will show the work, open our eyes, make a few people yell a little louder about our freedom here and how it is threatened. Maybe help someone realize how what they say or think can negatively affect other lives. I can only hope that the internet will help to keep censorship to a minimum, but it feels a little scarier to be an artist these days. Not that it will stop me from making the work that’s in my head.