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Unartisanal || Back to exhibition

Katherine Earle

What draws you to the materials you work with?
I started experimenting with embroidery on bags after reading about a pilot whale that was beached in Thailand and they could not save. It turned out the whale had 80 plastic bags in its stomach. Many sea mammals eat the bags thinking they are jellyfish because of how they look and move in the water. My jellyfish series is still in progress, as I aim to make 80 individual pieces to honor this mammal we lost to plastic. Unfortunately this whale is one of many victims.

Our single use plastic culture is literally going to suffocate us. We are currently ingesting surprising amounts of plastic ourselves from the plastic packaging of our food, beverages and skin products. My use of this material started as a way to deal with having too many plastic bags at home, but has become a bit of an obsession. Now I really struggle to throw plastic away, because I know "away" just means it ends up in land or sea. Most plastics cannot be recycled. Only some can be downcycled into other lower grade plastic. A plastic bag is used an average of 12 minutes and takes thousands of years to decompose, and yet plastic production is only increasing. With oil and gas revenues down in the pandemic, there is even more of a focus on plastics as a source of revenue for these industries. There are dead zones in the seas because the amount of microplastics in our oceans outnumber the stars in our galaxy. Shout out to Slow Factory and their Open Education series which has some great (free!) classes on plastics, fashion and waste.

Why "craft" and not "art"?
Arguably this distinction is rooted in colonialist tropes. Ariella Aisha Azoulay in her book Potential History, Unlearning Imperialism makes a strong argument in the chapter entitled "Plunder, Objects, Art, Rights" that the creation of "Art" as distinct and separate from craft allowed the hierarchical dichotomization of art, placing more value on some types of art over others.

"Art became a way to avoid engaging with the world shared with others; it is now a field of expertise ruled by imperial principles that have little if anything to do with care for the shared world. Even the expansion of the term art was destructive, because it led to a devaluation of many practices, practitioners, and objects now subjected to hierarchical dichotomies of high and low, primitive and modern, art and ethnography, art and artisanal, canonical and vernacular, masterpiece and craft, original and copy, authentic and toursiting, and art and non-art." p61

When I first started college I went into architectural studies and I remember being most compelled by "vernacular" architecture. Much of it was sensitive and responsive to its environment, and had the best cooling and heating systems. It was the most forward thinking, yet it was considered in the field to be "from the past" and not advanced. Some books on it still called it "primitive." These distinctions are harmful in every way. It is good to see recognition that is long overdue for Gee's Bend artists, as we experience a slow disintegration of the harsh divide between "art" and "craft", but it still persists. When I was 18, I traveled to Chiapas, Mexico, where indigenous Mayan weavers wove incredibly conceptual patterns that referenced their philosophies on the cosmos, land and culture. Is that art or is that craft? Why? Textile arts were long considered a craft by Western art institutions and many textile artists still struggle to be recognized for the conceptual aspect of their work because people cannot see beyond the material, process or traditional component of the creative act. So many times when I exhibit weavings people reference the handmade. Do you not hold and make marks with your hand holding the paintbrush? Why do you not think of a painting to be a handmade object?

In what ways are you expanding upon the realm of craft?
I believe that there are endless ways to create and express ourselves, and craft is a very accessible way for people to be creative. I hope that by taking my own work seriously, and being in community, I can join efforts to disassemble the dichotomies between art and craft and encourage many talented craftspeople to be seen for the visionaries that they are.

Is your work rooted in any specific traditions or techniques?
I am trained as a weaver and textile dyer. With access to facilities and time, I would return to making more print work again. I am also a sculptor, working in metal, wood and clay.

How do you navigate "craft" while avoiding popular trends?
I avoid trends by generally not being too aware of them. As a weaver and textile artist, my work will always be situated within conversations on craft, so I just continue making with the hope that what interests me will also interest and engage an audience.

Do you consider craft utilitarian, or decorative, or both/neither? Why?
I consider craft to be both utilitarian and decorative. Craft is the art that we make to accompany our everyday, as opposed to the art made to sit in storage while providing ROI to its collectors. As Azoulay argues in her book quoted above, the way in which art became disassociated with the people and culture from whence it came (with that art then designated as craft, no longer considered valuable or conceptual) was an act of violence. As people we are inherently connected to our culture, ritual, sense of identity and meaning and so much else through art objects. We seek to decorate our lives and protect ourselves with our creative endeavors, which is also linked to our energy and spirituality. We imbue objects with meaning and with decoration to give our lives a sense of deeper meaning, connect with the world around us, and protect and nurture ourselves and our families. This could be a wood carving, a meal, a portrait, a baby blanket, a quilt, an afghan, or a sculpture for the yard or the foyer. Art is utilitarian too. It is not a luxury item.

Why do you think so many people are returning to fiber arts these days?
It is hard for me to answer, because I feel that we never left it to return to. Fiber artists have always been actively making their work, even without much attention or recognition. Textiles give us comfort, they are made of natural materials (unless synthetic and made of plastic of course, which is another whole issue), and they are linked to origin stories. The warp and the weft are fundamental building blocks of our lives, the loom was the original computer.

How has the pandemic affected your practice?
At first the pandemic really stopped me in my tracks and it took some time to be able to create. However, ultimately, it focused me and my work. I did a collaborative project installed outdoors and an exhibition in an abandoned factory where people could socially distance easily. These two events re-sparked my practice, as I realized there were ways to navigate the changed and challenging environment. I was privileged not to lose my day job, so I had relative stability which has helped me to continue developing my practice unabated. I have loved the online access to artist talks and events. While not being able to go see art was a loss throughout the pandemic, so many of us suffered truly earth shattering and monumental losses that nobody could really call that a hardship. When I needed some of that input I would just look back at shows I had gone to in previous years. Luckily I had a good archive to pull from and revisit, and institutions have their own comprehensive archives online.

Do you have any questions that you would like to pose to us or the other artists?
How do you stand in dignity as a craftsperson when others try to diminish your work or your method of making? Do you think craft can be distilled to being about a singular thing or is it defined by the unique environment, culture and person that produces it?



Unartisanal is funded in part by the New York State Council on the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs


Unartisanal || Back to exhibition




Click the image to see another.


Jellyfish, machine embroidery on plastic bag, dimensions variable.


Katherine Earle engages what falls outside of our periphery, both conceptually and materially. Whether it be by working within the space held by trees or branches in a forest, or re-imagining refuse, her work considers the details embedded in our lives. Materials serve concepts, and range across disciplines. When exploring decay and transformation she turns to rust. When she needs to draw, she employs embroidery. When in distress for our future, she uses modernity's most ubiquitous material, plastic. While it might be with wool, detritus, plastics, cotton, cardboard or clay, her work is always interested in highlighting what is hidden from our attention and what we choose to ignore. In doing so she demands that we confront certain truths about the fragility of our existence on this planet and in our bodies.

A textile artist and multimedia sculptor, Katherine is currently based in New York. Her work has been shown in two-person and group exhibitions in the United States and Canada including at the Sculptor's Alliance, Art Aqua Miami, Site:Brooklyn, The Kube studios and Diagonale. She has participated in residencies in Canada and the United States, including the ChaShaMa North Residency, Concordia Fine Arts Reading Room Residency and the inaugural Sugarbouse (now Streamhouse) Residency. Katherine has a BFA in Fibres from Concordia University in Montreal.

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