Kathryn Shriver is an artist working in drawing, beading, and embroidery. She was born in Buffalo, NY, has studied in Paris, New York, and Aurora, NY, and currently works and studies in Montreal, QC where she is an MFA candidate at Concordia University in the Drawing and Painting department.
In this interview with visual arts editor Catalina Piedrahita, Shriver shared details about the importance of intricacy in her work, how nonsense and frivolity can be transformed into thoughtful actions and how grad school has freed the artist and helped expand her work.
Catalina Piedrahita: I am very impressed by the amount of detail in your work. The pieces look very minimalist at first glance, but the more I look at them the more complex they become. I am also very intrigued by the hidden female figures (or what I see as female figures) in some of your drawings. Do these figures have a specific meaning? Can you tell us more about these delicate crouching bodies?
Kathryn Shriver: Thanks so much! Intricacy, detail, and closework are really important meditative devices for me- the long, focused, and often repetitive processes of creating detail allow me time and a platform for meditative making in order to tease out meaning and questioning. I like to think too that tiny points of convolution can draw a viewer in for a similarly prolonged meditative experience, so that the work doesn’t only function on a one-way trajectory; detail can create hubs where viewers’ considerations, associations, and curiosities can converge with my own reflection and revelations in making. That being said, moments of intensity have to be tempered with open space for reflection, processing, and wondering.
In terms of the figures, the series has a lot to do with fears of and inquiries into the fallibility of our bodies’ physicality: the fact that you can’t censor or block out what your skin feels, how you can’t control the turn of someone else's gaze, and even just the simple fact of mortality. These figures were a starting point for me in investigating the emotional ramifications of bodily vulnerability, the ways our bodies escape our intellectual control, and where we seek refuge from this.
CP: Can you tell us more about the usage of textile in your art? Why did you choose this specific material to create your three dimensional pieces and as an inspiration for the textures, shapes and forms in your drawings?
KS: My mother and grandmother both taught me various forms of sewing, from an early age, and by the time I was ten I had extended that craft interest into beading as well. Beads and fabric have always been in my life, and they connect me not just to my personal history but to histories I can never be part of. Thus, fabric was a good visual reference for a source of refuge in my drawings that both offered comfort as well as opportunity for the darker troublings of the figures to expand out from lighter, fruitful signs and associations.
Durational and reflective processes are very important in my work. The incremental nature of sewing and beading processes lend themselves to this easily. The ornate and often historically poignant aesthetics of busy textile patterns are also visually immersive and connected to a million tangential pathways and ambiguous references, which help facilitate imaginative and generative meditation. The tactility of beads and fabric really helps me to engage with the physicality of art making as well. The connection between head and hand in drawing has always been my starting point, and this connection is emphasized, though different, in textile works.
The sheer beauty of dozens of tiny accumulated beads or the disorienting effect of layered patterns can’t be written off either! I read a book by Marian Bantjes called I Wonder that, through a collection of her own writings and a selection of quotations from other authors on graphic design, ornament, and marvel, relates wonderment to criticality. Thus, ornamentation, indulgence in material, and even nonsense and frivolity (all so closely related to beading) can be thoughtful actions rather than vacant amusement or occupation.
CP: What inspired your creative process? What is the need to depict your concern with chaos, the intangible and the physical?
KS: I spend a lot of time alone, reading things I don’t completely understand, and daydreaming that my situation is more magical than it actually is. Weird thoughts, ambiguity, misinterpretation, and fantasy are all frequent occurrences in my life. The really exciting thing is that these all are grounded in some reality, memory, occurrence, or part of the collective conscious as well as my own bodily experience. Think of all of the things that we (as individuals and collectively) have experienced and know, have imagined, and invented. All of this is planted in our brains (and elsewhere in our bodies), and even things that we don’t remember, or realizations we haven’t had slip out sometimes through daydreams, funny phrases stuck in our heads, or a collection of disparate memories that always seem bundled together. I like to think of all of this as rearrange-able, harvestable, malleable media that I can tease out, recombine, embellish, and re-present in the form of an artwork that can then further expose and expand upon all of these things we didn’t even know we already knew.
CP: I see that you keep journals, which by the way, are beautiful art pieces themselves. How is this important to you at an artistic and a personal level?
KS: On an artistic level, these journals are the homes of all of my weird thoughts, memories, and associations that feed and are the outcome of my meditative making which serve as the building blocks of my work. Learning how to record memories that aren’t language or story-based has been really enriching as well—remembering a feeling or moment by a smell or a piece of ephemera like a flower petal or a rip in the page, or by a seemingly arbitrary detail like the color of a coat a stranger was wearing. I also like toying with recording insignificant moments and seeing how I sentimentalize them over time, inserting a jumping-off point into an apparent void.
On a personal level, these journals help to give me a sense of continuation between all of the different phases that I’ve had in my life over the past few years that sometimes make me feel very isolated and decontextualized. Recently, I’ve lived in a few different places and have been estranged from people who are important to me, and my sense of home hasn’t been stable. Every different phase has its benefits and drawbacks, but each new step I take seems somehow completely separate from the rest, and I have a hard time dragging my histories along with me. It’s like hauling a heavy quilt full of the dirt and grass that you’ve dragged it through, but the right side is facing down. My journals help me to remember to go back and flip up a few corners of the quilt to see all of the different fabrics, stitches, stains, and rips that it’s made of, and to keep adding on to them instead of trying to start another quilt from scratch.
CP: How has art school helped or change your artistic process? What is a specific difference between before your artistic training and after it, if there is any?
KS: Art school has torn all of the confidence I’d garnered as an undergrad right out from under my feet. This has been humbling, intimidating, and freeing. It has made me infinitely receptive to ideas and a voracious reader and statement-writer (and re-writer). I’ve begun looking at my journals more specifically as research for my practice, and have better carved out my stance in certain areas of art making, like my faith in small things and critical ornament. Lastly, being a non-painter in a Painting and Drawing program has made me think a lot about my relation to different narratives in modern and contemporary art history, especially those surrounding painting. My current project is a sculptural spin on But most of all, I will not die, consisting of a large-scale, hand-loomed bead project with a wooden support structure. Surprisingly, this sculpture/beadwork has felt a lot like painting, with its assemblage-like attitude and the support-surface dynamic between the wood and the beads. It’s very exciting to me to reach a place where I feel like I’m gearing up to paint again, (my foundational education is in painting) but to paint with the language and content of beads, textiles, drawing, and semi-sculpture. Seeing my work through different critical lenses and historical contexts has helped me to stretch in different directions.