Every few years a developing artist comes along and re-envisions their medium, and is appreciated long after for the new aesthetic they have given the world. Tracey Emin's confessional tent, Kara Walker's haunting silhouettes and Cindy Sherman's photographic characters, all come to mind for sculpture, printmaking and photography. And for this moment in quilting, the same might be said of Chawne Kimber.
Chawne (pronounced, "Shawn") is a growing force in modern quilting, known for her award-winning work, her popular blog Completely Cauchy, and as an expert on such challenging techniques as small piecing (people, we're talking 1/4" scale). But perhaps the most significant reason her audience is growing is because of Chawne's belief that quilts can express complicated ideas. And she creates them to do just that.
I reached out to Chawne to better understand how she so successfully translates her thoughts and feelings, inspired by current events, into her quilts. It was just three days after the presidential election, and she had just returned home from work (by day, Chawne is a professor of mathematics). So, the present political moment felt incredibly convoluted. But using language to deconstruct racial and cultural issues is a theme that runs deep in Chawne's work.
I asked Chawne to describe why her work has the kind of reach it does beyond the realm of quilts and quilt-making. "I try to make sure that my quilts all have a context beyond the incident itself, [a given subject]," she said. "So that if you don't know the details (which most viewers don't), it still has to be an expression that has multiple meanings — and therefore, a broader context. It's actually more like what I do as a mathematician. You start with a logical argument that you're trying to understand, but then you want to come up with a universal explanation that describes it, extremely broadly and abstractly."
Solving for what translates broadly and abstractly today is no doubt informed by her early exposure to bold designs in childhood. Raised in Tallahassee, Chawne grew up "mesmerized" by her great-grandmother's quilts from Alabama, ones similar in design to the quilts of Gee's Bend. They were on every bed of her home. So it was hardly the first time Chawne had appreciated the aesthetic by the time Gee's Bend blew the walls off major museums. "I thought, Of course this is what quilts are..." she says. "I was actually more taken by the label applied to them — that these were African American quilts. After all, the precision quilts that were made on plantations were made by African Americans too. People are still reluctant to do that kind of soul searching."
Her point, that labels often limit understanding, applies to the cross-over between science and art too. I asked whether her numeric literacy of symbols and expressions consciously informs her visual literacy as an artist, and vice versa. "I'm intrigued by your question," she says. "There's a real language of design. There's a language of patchwork quilting. So, working in a particular genre — let's say traditional, modern, or art quilts, which I feel like my work exists at the intersection of, means I'm making choices based on who I want to reach. I immediately think of my Cotton Sophisticate quilt [about the textile manufacturing industry, fair wages, and slavery]. I'm talking to all kinds of people through its design — every part of this quilt was thought out in terms of symbolism. Plus, it's hand quilted to death. So, I can reach a pretty broad audience with it."
In the beginning however, reaching anyone through quilting was simply a response to her own life. "It [quilting] really is my voice, in sort of the way I have to live. I initially started making my identity politics quilts in response to things I was seeing on campus, at work," she explained. One of the first quilts Chawne ever made contains the n-word, in response to kids vandalizing walls throughout campus over and over again, without any response by the administration. "At least eleven incidents were reported," she said. "And nothing was being done about it. There were repeated incidents of vandalism involving the n-word, until the twelfth incident involved a swastika. And it was suddenly like, Don't you know this is vandalism? You guys aren't allowed to do this. So could there be any more clear acknowledgment that it's valid? You can call people the n-word and we aren't going to do anything about it, but please, please, do not insult anyone else. I just lost it. At the time I felt like I didn't have a voice, but at night I could quilt it out."
Nine years later, "quilting it out" has allowed Chawne to respond to current events in evermore thoughtful and timely ways. For example her quilt, Todd's No-baby Baby Quilt, 2012, is a reference to statements made by then Republican state representative, Todd Akin, suggesting women have a way of shutting down their reproductive systems during rape. "That quilt had to be made in the moment," she said. And it took her a week to create. "You hear a term like 'legitimate rape' and, honestly, as a scientist, I'm still horrified that this man thinks that the body has a way to shut down [the reproductive system]. To use the word 'legitimate' is to say that there are some rapes that he thinks are not legitimate. Or that women lie. This is just an assault on all women, in my mind. I wanted to make a sign."
By contrast, her quilt, Self Study #4 (The One for T), 2013, is a direct reference to the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African American who was followed by an armed neighborhood watch coordinator for looking suspicious. He had been wearing a hoodie. "The hoodie became the focus," Chawne explained. The idea in the press being that if Trayvon, "hadn't been wearing a hoodie, he wouldn't have been labeled a hoodlum and targeted." Chawne says she waited for a period of time, to see how the event would be framed in the days and months that followed. "I watched as selfies started going up in solidarity, and I felt like that was going to be meaningful, but I needed to make sure. So I started reading articles, and then I embarked upon a series of self portraits that were practice for making my final piece. A hoodie can look like a nun's habit. But if the light is shining the right way, it can look pretty terrifying — even on me. It took a year to do it right and not be reactionary."
In both cases, what these quilts say is leveraged by the sheer fact that they're quilts. Chawne knows this and makes specific demands of the medium on account of it. "Take the Trayvon Martin quilt," she explained. "It's actually about identity politics; the politics of fashion if you want to go that far. And the outcome of the Todd Akin quilt is not about him making a statement of legitimate rape, and your ability to get pregnant. It's actually a statement about what rape is, who commits rape, where it can happen. And when you put it on a bed, and you put it in the domestic context — wow, does it not convey wholly different ideas that make you possibly have to reassess your initial assumptions."
What Chawne will say next through her quilts is the big question now. As she explained, she's taking a break from the negativity of the political moment. Instead, she's recently begun crowdsourcing affirmations based on her prompt, Seeking sweet nothings for big project. "This whole election season, there's almost been too much inspiration," she lamented. "So this [project] has been such a great experience, to have people choose to interact with my prompt. People were sharing what they say to their kids, what their parents said to them... I learned so much about people, and the way they express their love in brief shining moments. And isn't that what we really need right now?"
I replied to Chawne, "Yes, it is," but in my heart I worried about the divisiveness throughout the country, the tearing apart of the nation's psychological fabric leading up to this latest election. Chawne pivoted for a moment, quelling what was obviously a shared concern. "While we're completely divided, we still need to keep acknowledging that everyone's important to someone else," she said. "I just embroidered, I'm glad you were born. And today, to send that out to my followers, seems so incredibly important as a unifying element. At the end of the day, your [other people's] politics do matter to me. But you're still a human being, and what these are saying is, I'm glad you're here."
All photos featured are courtesy of Chawne Kimber, used with permission.
About the Author
Aimée Littlewood Allen is the author and creative behind BLOCK, an art blog about quilts and quilt culture at www.quiltblock.studio. She holds a B.F.A in Textiles from Virginia Commonwealth University, a M.A. in Art and Visual Culture Studies from the University of Arizona, and is former Curator of Education of The National Quilt Museum, in Paducah, Kentucky. She resides in Las Vegas, Nevada, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.