Katherine Knauer: Tampering with Tradition

An interview conducted by the Textile Study Group of New York

Read the original version | Download a PDF copy

TSGNY How do you describe your art process?

KK I've been a craftsperson my entire life and a quiltmaker since 1976. In 1984 I discovered that I could print my own fabric designs with stencils and achieve a much more specific, personal result than with commercial fabrics. I could design and print a group of fabrics depicting various aspects of one theme and piece those together for a quilt with a specific viewpoint. I've been handprinting fabric since then. In 2009 I taught myself to use Photoshop in order to use an online fabric printing service called Spoonflower. Each quilt I make reflects a specific topic, usually taken from news headlines. I'm currently working on a series of pieces about environmental concerns.

Second Wind quilt; created by Katherine Knauer in 2010

"Second Wind," from the Elements / Environment Series, 2010, 88" x 88"

KK In "Second Wind," all the surface fabrics that I digitally designed were printed using Spoonflower. The theme of wind energy is illustrated in each print by images of wind turbines or dandelion seeds blowing in the wind or electrical devices such as lightbulbs, electric fans or power cords. Wind is further represented by the color blue, and electricity by the color yellow. And then extensive surface embroidery enlivens the rather flat surface.

Before the Elements / Environment series, I made quite a few quilts on the subject of war. I believe the unexpected juxtaposition of a traditional craft associated with comfort and warmth and disquieting imagery brings an extra layer of energy to my work.

Conventional Forces quilt; created by Katherine Knauer in 1986

"Conventional Forces," 1986, 84" x 84"

KK In Conventional Forces, a "conventional" (traditional) quilt pattern – a Log Cabin variation – has been adapted to accommodate textiles I designed and printed with images of "conventional" (non-nuclear) war. I handprinted all the fabrics with stencils. I selected the piecing pattern to accommodate relatively large sections of printed fabrics.

Detailed view of the Conventional Forces quilt

"Conventional Forces" (detail), 1986, 84" x 84"

KK The centerpiece of this quilt is a large image of a tank type used in Vietnam. Other printed images used as repeat-pattern textile design include paratroopers, a concentration camp, soldiers in formation, falling bombs, rows of M-16 guns arranged in a herringbone pattern, jungle fighters, hand grenades, tanks, aircraft and wounded soldiers. In two of the patterns, commercially printed fabrics are overprinted – a pattern of barbed wire over camouflage fabric, and burning buildings on another print. The reverse side of this quilt is a stenciled hand-grenade design that took three days to print.

Detailed view of the reverse side of the Conventional Forces quilt

"Conventional Forces" (detail of reverse), 1986, 84" x 84"

TSGNY With Photoshop in your design toolkit, and subjects like war and the environment, do traditional quilt patterns still have a role to play in your work?

KK I love textiles and find traditional geometric quilt patterns irresistible. The history of the patterns is fascinating – the titles reflect not only their appearance but what was on the maker's mind or events of that era: Whig's Defeat, Drunkard's Path, LeMoyne Star, Jacob's Ladder, New York Beauty, etc. When I use a traditional pattern in my work I am referring both to the historic pattern title and the possible meanings behind it. For example, "Streak O' Lightning," a zig-zag pattern, to me means something that happens in an instant and changes your life forever. I've used it to represent sudden death, the destruction of war, and recently to represent electricity in a quilt about wind energy for the environmental series.

TSGNY In spite of your serious subject matter, your patterns and images could be characterized as cartoony. Is that intentional?

KK It's the way my style emerged from the get-go. I may have been influenced by the coloring books of my childhood. I like areas of color to have distinct, crisp edges; I like heavy outlines. I also love the look of woodblock prints and the silkscreened travel and propaganda posters from the 1920s and 1930s. And stencil printing is particularly good for limited detail and large areas of a single color.

Stencil printing

Stencil Printing

TSGNY Do you get a different result from the hand-stencil process and from Spoonflower?

KK Yes. With hand stenciling I'm able to overprint commercial fabric and print over seams. The color is deeper and more permanent. I can have the resulting fabric the same day. And by using an airbrush or spray gun I can get an ombre effect or translucent effect and cover large areas. (My first air compressor sounded like a jet plane taking off and was very distracting. I sold it and bought a "Super Silent" compressor when I was awarded a cash grant from the Empire State Crafts Alliance in 1988.) In "Trouble in the Tropics," for example, I achieved the translucent paint effects by lightly overspraying stencil prints in sections of a quilt that was made following our vacation to South America. Each "postcard" monoprint depicts an unfortunate event that might befall a vacationer in the tropics.

Trouble in the Tropics quilt; created by Katherine Knauer in 1990

"Trouble in the Tropics" (detail), 1990

KK The benefits of using Spoonflower are unlimited yardage and the ease with which I can change size, proportion, color and other design elements. I can preview my fabric in various repeat formats. It's easy to correct mistakes and to reorder. I can have lots of little details and an unlimited color palette. It's also just fun to play around on the computer using Photoshop.

TSGNY If you've tried other media, and are clearly not averse to modern technology, why do you stick with quilts?

KK Quiltmaking allows me to create large, colorful pieces while working in a limited space. (I have a great studio now, but for years, the exigencies of family life in an apartment squeezed my quiltmaking into whatever compact space was available.) I love being part of a craft tradition, and feel a great kinship with the lacemakers, seamstresses, weavers, knitters and quiltmakers of previous generations. I also have a terrific support group among my quilting pals.

TSGNY After the design excitement of the processes that go into the surface layer, how do you think about the part of the work that ties you most closely to that craft tradition: the quilting itself, the stitching that joins the three layers of the quilt together?

KK Semper Tedium! (An invented pseudo-Latin phrase meaning: Long live the labor-intensive artistic process!) The quilting is the payoff after making the top of the quilt. The process is hypnotic, meditative and trance-inducing, especially when combined with a good audiobook.

TSGNY A motto to live by! Finally, are there artists who influence you whose work you'd like us to know about?

KK I love Mark Bradford's huge exuberant collages with permanent wave endpapers and paint. Philip Taaffe's multi-layered, over-printed paintings are mysterious, hallucinatory and beautiful. Nick Cave's "soundsuits" are simultaneously playful and imbued with deep personal meaning. Ditto for the stitched constructions of Charles LeDray, whose ethic of "work, work, work, work, work" strikes a chord with me. I visit museums several times a week and find living in NYC an endless banquet of visual inspiration.

TSGNY Thank you, Katherine.

Email Katherine Knauer about purchasing, exhibits and custom work.
© Katherine Knauer