June 28, 2016

Katrina Majkut - In Control

The fantastically innovative artist Katrina Majkut joins us to discuss her work and specifically her latest embroidery collection entitled 'In Control'. Katrina talks about her inspirations and work processes as well as the powerful message that she expresses and transfers through her work and the incredible impression and response it evokes.

What led you to the medium of thread and embroidery art? Was there a defining moment for you?
I was living in Berkeley, California from 2009 to 2011 and all around me was the birth of many modern activist movements: Black Lives Matter, marriage equality, Obama was pushing for free birth control, Occupy. I was also starting TheFeministBride.com and doing a lot of research into wedding tradition and how many Western social practices define women’s identity and set their status in society, which really helped me understand how embroidery did the same. I was also bound for grad school and very bored by store-bought, mass-produced cross-stitches so I started experimenting.

When did you learn to embroider?
I was around ten years old. Like most young girls, I learned from my mother.

How does embroidery best translate your idea and vision?
Embroidery as a domestic craft has almost always been a way to assert specific feminine values and identities – for example, what it means to be a woman, a mother and a wife, but it never included the physical components many use to fulfill those roles. I began to wonder whether that omission had contributed to so many social and civil politics that refused to give women full reproductive rights or even acknowledge that basic need, so I started stitching all products related to women’s reproduction, bodies and health. In doing so, my artwork is often characterized as subversive, which is insane because the reality is these health products and needs are natural and common for the majority of women. Someone once called me “brave” for doing this work, which was a compliment that caught me off guard because it’s so basic to me - it’s part of everyday life, but for me to connect the idea of bodily autonomy with women’s roles has been considered radical. There’s absolutely no reason why this should be the case.

How does feminism inform your art in particular your embroidery collection entitled 'In Control'?
The collection would not exist without feminism. Feminism is the tool that enabled me to understand how women’s health is treated in respect to social practices and equality. It also empowered me to modernize the sexism embedded in embroidery in a constructive, educational and bipartisan way. It also gave me the confidence to do this project despite the fear that it might be considered controversial; it’s a great support system. Feminism is just the means to achieving social, economic and civil equality between men and women; healthy and comprehensive access to widespread reproductive rights is crucial for that to happen. I don’t think that equality is possible if we don’t address where the inequality lies in all social and civil systems, and that includes embroidery. How can equality be possible if everyday practices, even something seemingly benign ones like stitching, reinforce obsolete gender roles and inequity?

Do you sketch your designs before you commence your embroideries? Could you tell us more about your creative working process and how you develop your idea into the final piece?
As a classically trained painter, I use observational painting techniques to create my cross-stitches. That means I essentially look at the object and translate it visually directly with needle and thread. There’s no computer program to turn the image into a stitching map and I seldom draw the object on the fabric (drawing on the fabric muddies up the final image). I will draw curves sometimes so I get the angle correct the first time, but it’s very minimal. I use a grid book to block text though as it’s more efficient to do so and helps to prevent spacing mistakes and material problems. Using observational painting techniques also lends itself to more accurate still life drawing; a computer program too often reduces the complex colors in an object to the point of color blocking. Being familiar with color theory immensely helps realistically render an object. As a result of my personal methods, I’ve taught myself new techniques in cross-stitch that include color layering through half stitches, texturing and color gradation.

Is there a particular style of embroidery that you prefer?
Definitely cross-stitch, though I’m currently learning drawn thread via traditional Ukrainian techniques, which is awesome because I’m simultaneously learning about my heritage.

Who and what influences and inspires you?
I’m really inspired by the women (and men) who see my artwork and feel confident and comfortable enough to share their own personal stories or thoughts with me. It’s something I had not anticipated happening with my artwork. So many will share what it was like to get an abortion or have a miscarriage or go through menopause or grow up in a household/school that ignored basic health knowledge and will share how that hurt them as adults, etc. These are experiences that get too often silenced in the public despite being common occurrences. For them to feel strong enough to share these stories with me or the art patron next to them (who they also don’t know) is just so powerful and inspiring. And sometimes the stories are not always easy to listen to, but it’s taught me a lot about patience, listening, empathy, kindness and how necessary lessons like these are for everyone.

Which other artists do you appreciate?
My favorite artists tend to be painters since that’s where my formal art training lies and with painters that attempt to modernize historical art tropes by including modern social and civil issues – Mickalene Thomas, Kehinde Willey, Swoon. As far as embroidery artists, Elaine Reicheck was really the first one that got the wheels turning for me, though to me, her work is much more about the Mechanics of Reproduction (Walter Benjamin) and breaking away from the domestic and gendered hand of embroidery, whereas I think the power of my work lies in connecting the handmade with ideas about bodily autonomy. Cayce Zavaglia is really an inspiration too when thinking about how thread can function like paint.

Can you tell us about the impact that your art has on the audience and what responses you receive about your work?
I’ve been very lucky in that most patrons have been extremely supportive. Once in awhile, I get the question of why would I bother to make this work, why does it matter and why should it matter to the viewer; to which I have to backtrack to basic ideas about civility and understanding other people’s needs outside one’s own and how art is a good platform for increasing this understanding. I think taking a strong bipartisan, medical (I consult with doctors, etc. on accurate representation) and educational objective helps a lot in quelling those who might not like or oppose my chosen topic. The series doesn’t just focus on one aspect of reproductive rights, like birth control or abortion as is common in a lot of feminist reproductive art; I think it’s more useful to show how those two things are connected to less controversial things like disease prevention, menstruation, pregnancy, etc.

Since I’m constantly working on creating a more intersectional perspective of needed products, I get a lot of thanks from certain demographics, who want to be represented but often feel like they are excluded – baby boomers are particularly vocal! Though sometimes people often (constructively) highlight demographics or perspectives that I’ve missed, and I’m eternally grateful when they do that because my point of view as a cis, heterosexual woman is limited. Because they were brave enough to speak up, my series becomes better rounded, humbling and inclusive, my perspective is not the only one that matters. That’s why I included essays in my In Control catalogue from women who offer a diverse personal and professional perspective regarding health and reproductive rights – I hope to get more essays over time and build out the catalogue.

Do you have any upcoming exhibitions, workshops or lectures?
Yes, at Hollister Gallery at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts this fall! Opening reception and artist talk is October 27 from 5-7pm and the show closes December 21, 2016. I’ll also be exhibiting at Bloomburg University in Pennsylvania in the spring of 2018. Anyone can also check out my artwork here.

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