Mapping our Foreclosures, One Quilt at a Time: Kathryn Clark

Kathryn Clark’s (NAP#97) sewn pieces draw on an established quilting aesthetic and tradition.  Visually, they evoke memories of my grandma’s quilts, patch working, and hand-sewn labors of love.  Thematically, they record and capture a history.

Kathryn Clark | Modesto Foreclosure Quilt, 2011. 16" x 42" Tea stained voile, linen, cotton and embroidery thread.

Clark builds upon and tweaks this quilting tradition though.  Quilts have always captured a history, personal narrative, or story in more ways than one, whether memorializing a person with scraps of clothing, or depicting monumental events in one’s life, or by capturing a family’s history in cloth.  Clark’s cloths tell a similar story, but they do so by freezing a moment forever in time.  Mapping foreclosed neighborhoods and cities, Clark’s “Foreclosure Map Quilts” quite literally preserve a changing landscape and document the current economy using remnants, found cloth, and fibers as the conservatorial glue.  Her quilts are rich, contextually, historically, and visually. - Ellen C. Caldwell, LA Contributor

Kathryn Clark | Modesto Foreclosure Quilt, 2011. 16" x 42" Tea stained voile, linen, cotton and embroidery thread, DETAIL.

Kathryn Clark | Atlanta Foreclosure Quilt, 2011. 19 1/2" x 19 1/2" Recycled denim, bleached linen, cheesecloth, yarn and embroidery thread.

Ellen Caldwell:  In NAP #97, you describe your “Foreclosure Map Quilts.” Had you quilted before, or how did you make those jumps from urban planning to the fallen economy to quilting?

Kathryn Clark: I had been following the foreclosure crisis for several years and was struggling to find a way to build a body of work around it. My father sent me a link to a Denver Post article featuring depression era color photographs. What struck me immediately was what an important role that fabric played in these photos. Clothing was utilitarian but often quite colorful. I wondered what the quilts must have looked like during the depression and before the war and immediately I knew I could highlight our current hard times by making quilts. I also grew up in the Deep South, where quilting has always been a part of life.

Kathryn Clark | Works in progress at artist’s studio.

EC: So this is what first led you to work with cloth -- recycled and other?

CK: I was really afraid for several years to use fiber as a medium. Coming from the fine art world, there’s a stigma attached to it. Thankfully, that’s changing now. I struggled through several series of paintings trying to make my work look like fiber, because I thought it was so beautiful and I had a strange affinity with it. The only way I could confidently use fiber as a medium was to be able to justify the need for its use in my work. Years later, it seems obvious to me why I love the medium so much, my mother was a fiber artist. She died when I was a teenager, so the material has a very emotional significance for me. It took me years to understand this.

Kathryn Clark | Cleveland Foreclosure Quilt, cotton, linen, recycled denim, and thread, 60 x 25 inches.

EC:  Your work is intricate and detailed at times (such as the “Cleveland Foreclosure Quilt”) and more vast and spread out at others (“Cape Coral Foreclosure Quilt”)… but they are aesthetically pleasing and enticing all around.  And there is something very familiar to them, and yet you'd think that the depiction of these foreclosure sites would counteract the beauty and details -- but they don't. Can you speak to this, telling me a bit about your process and how you achieve this balance?

KC: A quilt is inherently a beautiful object, perhaps even more so when torn and mended. The material I chose for each quilt reflects something about that particular city. In the “Cape Coral quilt,” the dark, musty blues reference the water that surrounds the area. In the “Cleveland Quilt,” I found a fabric named “Forest Hill” that refers to the neighborhood shown on the quilt. I’ve always worked with muted tones in my work; I suppose I’m more of a minimalist than most. The muted tones work in my favor by allowing the contrast of the foreclosed lots, oftentimes red, to stand out.

Kathryn Clark | Cape Coral Foreclosure Quilt, recycled string and bleached linen, 44 x 30 inches.

EC: As you mentioned in NAP, "Quilts act as a functional memory, an historical record of difficult times."  This is a great and challenging sentiment. Can you discuss this a bit further?

KC: The quilt is a functional piece of cloth by providing warmth. Traditionally quilts were made using leftover bits of fabric from making clothing, used clothing and empty grain sacks. You can tell a lot about what people ate, what they wore and what they did for a living, just by looking at the remnants used to make one.

Kathryn Clark | Detroit Foreclosure Quilt, cheesecloth, cotton, linen, and thread, 44 x 22 inches.

EC: There have been lots of projects built around the concept of "mapping" recently (LA Times "Mapping LA" and artist Sara Wookey's walking projects or artist Wei Weng's Anti-Mapping project all come to mind)-- but you approach this so differently.  Part of this difference is obviously in the medium, but could you discuss the use of maps and mapping in your work? 

KC: My entire life has been spent looking at the world through maps. As a little kid, I would steal my brother’s matchbox cars and layout complicated city plans on large sheets of cardboard and then zoom the cars through the streets. There are pictures of me as a ten year old pouring through a world atlas. My favorite pastime as a kid was filling notebooks with hundreds of floor plans I designed. So, not surprisingly, I became an urban planner and architect when I grew up. I always wanted to find a way to use maps in my art and the foreclosure series was that opportunity.

EC: Yes, I saw this site about the maps we read as children recently and it seems relevant….

KC: I loved looking through that link! I have to say there's a dearth of good children's books these days that include maps which is really sad. Peter Sis has made some great ones like Madlenka (I have a seven year old so I know these things!). I still love reading books that include maps. Simon Winchester has written some of my favorites.

EC: And how do the recycled materials play into your work (or do they)?

KC: Regarding materials, historical quilts were often pieced together using remnants. When times were tough, nothing was left to waste. I try to do this when I can on each piece. I save all the leftover fabrics after making each quilt and try to use them again on future pieces. My current piece, “Riverside,” has a layer entirely comprised of blue grey remnants leftover from “Cleveland,” “Las Vegas,” and “Atlanta.”

Artist Kathryn Clark at work in studio.

EC: Do you foresee yourself continuing with the “Foreclosure quilts” or along a similar theme for your next show?

KC: I am continuing to make “Foreclosure Quilts” for as long as needed. My work ties into our land use policies, how we’re abusing them and don’t seemed concerned about the repercussions or poor planning. I am working on a new body of work based on farmlands.  I’m drawn to the large-scale farming crisis that is happening worldwide. The series will likely be fiber and mapping might have an important role to play here, too.

Kathryn Clark’s Idiom Series is on an ongoing rotation at Kala Art Gallery in Berkeley, starting in late February.  She will also be part of a group show called “Disintegration and Repair” at Warm Springs Gallery in Charlottesville, VA in August. You can see more of her quilts on her Flickr page.


Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.

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