Images Courtesy of The Bascom
Fabric is a core component of our daily lives. We wear it, carry it, create it, and create with it. Not often, though, do we delve into the underlying metaphors of the fabrics in our lives and their inherent commentary on our world and society. However, this year at The Bascom: A Center for the Visual Arts, we have the opportunity to contemplate these deeper meanings through the thought-provoking work of textile artist and educator Kimberly English.
The Bascom welcomed Kimberly through the 2022-2023 Winter Resident Artist Program (also known as W.R.A.P.) to live and work on campus while designing and building a unique site-specific installation in the Thompson Gallery. “The Ravel & The Rest” is an exhibition of ironic abstraction, juxtaposing gestures towards creation myths and contemporary existential concerns surrounding climate change, globalization, and technological advances. The Ravel & The Rest will be displayed at The Bascom until April 8th, 2023.
Originally from middle Georgia, Kimberly knew that she wanted to pursue art from a young age. When the opportunity arose to attend Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), it was the perfect chance to dive into her passion. “When I started my undergraduate studies, I had no idea what I wanted to major in,” Kimberly remarked. “I dabbled in advertising and explored drawing, but my professors pointed me toward fibers because they could see that I had this sensibility for texture and pattern. I took a class with the fibers department and instantly felt like everything clicked into place, but it wasn’t until I studied abroad in France that I developed my love for weaving,” she said. “I kept seeing looms everywhere, but there was no class available at the time, and despite never having woven, I felt this magnetic pull to it.”
Kimberly convinced one of her classmates to teach her how to weave on the looms late at night, and from the start, she felt like she was learning a language that she already knew how to speak. “Weaving just made sense with the way my brain worked,” she remarked, and thus her exploration of the skill continued when she returned to SCAD to complete her Bachelor of Fine Arts, and even beyond to the University of North Carolina (UNC), where she completed her Master of Fine Arts in Studio Arts.
As Kimberly recalls, her time at UNC was when her practice began to transform. “I was in a very contemporary interdisciplinary program where I was encouraged not to weave as much, but I still had a strong desire to speak with cloth in my practice.” So, she began incorporating found and purchased textiles into her work, and it was then she believes the seeds were planted for The Ravel & The Rest.
While weaving was her first creative love, she’s breaking out of that now and speaking with other materials. “This exhibition has a lot of woven fabric that I have physically made, but there are also many manufactured materials that convey a juxtaposition of machine versus hand.” So, she says, “I’m not making everything and laboring over every thread in the cloth like I normally would. I’m bringing in more contemporary uses of the cloth in a short-hand way to discuss these ideas I’m interested in exploring.”
Throughout her practice, Kimberly has found immense fulfillment in working with textiles, in part due to their physical nature but also because they have a powerful ability to convey concepts that people might not expect. “Cloth is soft and warm but also primal and necessary,” she remarks. “It sags with time and gravity and has this skin-like quality that touches you back when you interact with it.” In her interpretation of themes such as globalization, climate change, labor, production, and the evolution of humanity, she believes that fabrics are the ultimate Trojan horse for discussion surrounding abstract ideas that relate to the human condition. “Cloth can symbolize security, the human body, time, labor, and our society at large,” she says. “I’ve really enjoyed exploring these broad concepts of progress and industrialization through cloth material because of its distinct ability to convey intimacy and storytelling, which is something many do not anticipate.”
Cognizant of the impact of the themes she explores, Kimberly thoughtfully sources the textiles for her work. She seeks out second-hand materials and often trades with others for the fabric and cloth used in her projects. “I try to be as mindful as possible, and for me, that means not buying when I can,” she said. “A big part of my practice is seeking out these second-hand materials, whether at the thrift store or online marketplaces. I like using second-hand denim in my practice, and while there is not a lot of denim in The Ravel & The Rest exhibition, it’s always something I’m on the lookout for.”
In graduate school, much of Kimberly’s work was focused on the contemporary garment industry and sweatshop labor, which she says is still central to her practice and personal life. “I was interested in exploring the history of women’s work and the evolution of human production,” she recalled. “I began diving into this idea of invisible labor, and labor that is done in the private sphere and how that translates into cloth production.” From there, Kimberly began researching textile factories in the early 1900s and particularly the ‘80s because, at the time, there was a mass exodus of production to countries where there were fewer labor laws, and the labor itself was cheaper, ultimately leading to the sweatshop crisis that exists to this day. She brought into her practice more domestic fabrics like tablecloths, napkins, placemats, women’s sweaters, and aprons and deconstructed them into pieces that spoke to that labor that went unrecognized and overlooked. “A lot of that work referenced the female body, but a lot of it also referenced the absence of something - so there was a simultaneous absence and presence in unraveling those textiles and creating pieces from what was left,” she voiced. “I was making work that was talking about the issues politically, but in a way, I was also speaking to familial relationships and how work done in the home is also related.”
As a close advisor once told her, “Nobody is going to give you permission to make the work; if you want to make it, make it, it’s your practice.” She carried this piece of advice into her first exhibition after moving to North Carolina, “Tall Truths,” which she displayed at the Slouch Gallery in Weaverville in May 2022. Tall Truths antagonized the role of progress and other beliefs or myths, such as capital, creation, and dominion, in human survival with abstract woven imagery that reflected upon these notions while also connecting them to rising oceans, global supply chains, and consumer waste. “Tall Truths was radically different from what I had been exhibiting in the past; though it still dealt with the same concepts, the formal quality was so drastically different,” she stated. “In hand-dyeing all of the indigo and weaving these huge pieces, I really had to ask myself whether I was going to trust myself as an artist to dive in and make this work that I feel is important.” It was a challenge she believes many artists face when emerging from the tight circles of support and feedback found in graduate school, but for her, it felt like the first body of work that she really trusted herself to bring to life.
Seeking an opportunity to give herself the time and space to grow and develop her practice even more, Kimberly applied for The Bascom’s Winter Resident Artist Program, pitching her most ambitious body of work yet. “The Ravel & The Rest is probably the most true and autobiographical to the work that I want to make,” she expressed, “while these pieces are very conceptually related to the work that I’ve been doing over the past few years, The Bascom’s annual theme of Origins allowed me to juxtapose these new ideas that I was interested in but didn’t quite know how to connect yet. Through this theme, I drew in something very personal to me, being raised in a religious household, and brought that autobiographical voice into this more research-based and abstract idea of the term origin.”
As Kimberly explains, The Ravel & The Rest is about the ravel or the fraying of a textile. She sees the ravel or the fray as a loose thread parsed out in a cloth - a result of either becoming or the process of unmaking. “I like the juxtaposition of this unfinished, very vulnerable thread as symbolizing something being made or unmade in this contemporary zeitgeist way of discussing creation stories,” she says.
Kimberly hopes for people to form their own connections to the work when viewing The Ravel & The Rest. “In some ways, it’s autobiographical,” she states, “but it’s also very broad in speaking to these creation stories and contemporary concerns. There is so much in this work as a whole that there is an opportunity for anyone to go in and find something that resonates with them – whether it reminds them of a textile they are familiar with or if it’s the imagery that sparks a connection for them and makes them contemplate.” With their large scale, these pieces are meant to be confronting – or confronted, and she emphasizes that there is no correct interpretation of the work, “I want it to be subjective in how people relate to it, even if that’s different from how I view it personally. It’s important that people formulate their own ideas of what the work is about, investigate that, and know that there is no right or wrong way in which they connect to it.”
In reflecting on her residency at The Bascom, Kimberly feels the supported time and space she received to work on The Ravel & The Rest was a gifted opportunity to grow and develop the next stage of her practice. “Looking forward, I’m trying to carve out more residency opportunities that will lead to exhibitions, and my residency on The Bascom campus just illuminated how important self-truth is for my practice,” she said. “The idea of trusting yourself when you’re the only one in the studio, and having to rely on your own feedback and intuition has been a really enlightening exercise for me.” As for her advice for those just beginning their exploration into the arts, she believes developing a routine and establishing a discipline in making is paramount. “A lot of creative practice really has nothing to do with creativity, but it has a lot to do with showing up and holding yourself accountable to the goals that you set - you’re not always going to want to go to the studio, but each time you do it will be rewarding.”
“Weaving today is recognized as a craft rather than an art most frequently, and I’m excited to be tiptoeing the line as an artist working in a craft medium because textiles can speak both languages - form and function,” she remarks. As Kimberly works towards the goals she has set for herself and her career, she continues to teach and share her knowledge and passion for art. When she’s not in the studio, she and her husband are renovating their new home, spending time out on the water, hiking, and exploring all that beautiful Western North Carolina has to offer. To learn more about Kimberly English and to explore her past works, visit her website at Kimberly-English.com, and make sure to stop by The Bascom’s Thompson Gallery before April 8th to experience her exhibition, The Ravel & The Rest.
A B O U T T H E B A S C O M ’ S W . R . A . P . P R O G R A M
The Bascom Winter Resident Artist Program, better known as the W.R.A.P., calls on artists across the Southeast to submit site-specific installation proposals for The Bascom’s beautiful and intimate Thompson Gallery. The selected artist is given the opportunity to live and work on The Bascom campus and to design, build, and install their project during a four-week period. This is the 9th iteration of the WRAP series which was inaugurated in 2014.
To learn more about The Bascom: A Center for the Visual Arts and their current and upcoming exhibitions, visit their website at TheBascom.org.