BodyQuilting: How Kari Souders expresses the female body through quilt making

23 Feb 2010

I’ve always been intrigued by the link between contemporary and historical quilting, and the ways in which this traditional craft lives on in the work of modern day artists. Therefore, I was thrilled to have the chance to ask artist Kari Souders a few questions about her quilt paintings, which explore the intrinsic ties between quilt making and the experiences of women of the past and present. Through the construction of her pieces and the materials that she selects, Kari draws analogies between her art and the rituals of the female body. Her latest exhibit, “BodyQuilting” is currently on display at George School in Newtown, PA until March 4th. For those who are unable to attend, Kari’s insights offer a glimpse into the nuanced symbolism of her work. 

Your current exhibition features quilt paintings that explore the parallels between quilt making and women’s bodies. How do you make this connection in your work?

The obsessive process of hand sewing, cutting, patching, ripping, and layering textures and patterns to make a quilt is rooted in ritual. Quilt making is a very physical process. Some women have crossed over from the quilting bee to the Botox party; nevertheless, I wonder if our fundamental desires have remained the same. Like my work, these contemporary body rituals are rooted in physicality; the breaking down by cutting, ripping, and tearing in order to stitch, patch, and layer something new and more beautiful. Although sometimes painful, the physical aspect of these processes is an outlet and opportunity for women to embrace their bodies.

You mention the obsessive, repetitive quality of quilt making. How is this symbolically important in your work?

The obsessive process and all-consuming ritual gives women a chance for their minds to escape the confines of life and to be self-possessed and anticipatory for their new creation. In a society where consumerism has become our realm of worship, I want to infuse art with its original spiritual and ritual function. My paintings are intensely worked until the surface has crevices and areas that appear both destructive and regenerative. My work attempts to ignite the ritualistic flame that transcends time by creating works that are structurally iconic, and whose process is based on obsessive detail and endless repetition. The intensity and obsessive process allows me to interweave my collective unconscious and life experiences.       

Many of your pieces incorporate writing. What is the role of text in your art?

Not only text, but also images, surround us and deliver fragments of meanings.  Currently, I have been interweaving both new and old quilts with text related to our modern day obsession with body transformations.  Words such as augmentations, plucking, lasers, peels, dying, rhinoplasty, face lift, transplants, liposuction, durmabrasions, lasik surgeries, botox injections, restyline filler, juvedurm, filler, dermal fillers, prollenium, and ayaluronic acid represent the rewriting on the surface of our bodies that has become our modern-day ritual. The text fragments in the work juxtapose the bits of unwritten language that the quilts embody. 

Quilts are also composed of bits of cloths and fabrics that elicit the body. We see our flesh as compartmentalized fragments that can be resurfaced, patched, and transformed into new canvases piece by piece. In essence, we are quilting our bodies with the evolving text of culture and the visual standards of desire. It is the continuation of the unspoken need for women to exhibit and perfect their aesthetic desires out of something seen as flawed or broken which stems from the traditions of women being regarded as objects.   

You clearly have an interest in the history of women. Do you feel that quilting enables you to tap into this history more effectively than other mediums?

Representing the creative traditions of women and acknowledging their voice is of utmost importance.  I have always had an interest in history, women’s issues, and the culture we live in. Although I am a painter, my work is fundamentally and intrinsically connected to quilting and I can’t think of any other transformative woman’s craft that would be more effective on so many poignant levels. Quilting, a practical and meaningful aesthetic practice, has offered and still provides women with a chance to gather and communicate with each other. Quilts tell unwritten stories that are deeply ingrained in American culture and traditions, as well as express personal aesthetics. They are bits and pieces of women’s lives and ways of living that span over generations and stem from all socioeconomic circumstances.  

How do you construct your quilt paintings?

I use strips of quilted fabric, oil paint, beeswax, lace, and fragments of text layered on canvas and wallpaper. Thick, white curved shapes made with oil paint are applied by my fingers and appear in areas of the paintings, while a coating of beeswax gives the quilted fabrics a rippled, shiny texture. My paintings are intensely worked until the surface has crevices and areas that appear both destructive and regenerative.

My work elaborates on one of the fundamental traditions in quilting: reusing, blending, and interlacing bits of fabric to form a new aesthetic object. I hand-stitch some quilts with new fabrics whose colors and textures derive from the rich beauty passed down through centuries of textile design. Other quilts are directly borrowed from history by deconstructing antique quilts. The recycling of old quilts is meant to create something outside of the original object and show that objects change as society evolves. With empathy, I want to give these old quilts an opportunity to be revaluated in new contexts that reflect and intertwine passed traditions, standards, and relationships with modern issues.

You use a wide variety of non-fabric materials in your work, including oil paint and beeswax. What role do these materials play in terms of both technique and symbolic significance?

I have a master’s degree in painting so paint has always been a part of my visual vocabulary. I paint with my fingers in a weaving and layering manner; this is my own painting language which appears in all of my work. Expanding one’s perception of things and altering context has been the goal of my using paint, beeswax, and other materials in my work. For instance, beeswax symbolizes healing, and is applied in its natural, flesh-like color to give the work layers of protective skin.   

Images of Quilts (from top to bottom)

  • “Body Lore 4” • 24" x 18" oil, quilted fabric, transparency and beeswax on canvas
  • “Fran’s Quilt” 42½" x 59½" oil, quilted fabric, transparency and beeswax on canvas
  • “Lacing” • 22" x 22" • oil, quilted fabric, transparency and beeswax on canvas
  • “Minuet II” • 20" x 24" • oil, quilted fabric, beeswax and wallpaper on canvas

To learn more about Kari and her work, visit her website.



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