Judy Kirpich is a well known and appreciated textile artist,her quilts have been seen in museums and quilt exhibitions in Asia, in the United States, South America and Europe. She was awarded the prestigious Quilt National Japan Prize and joined a select group of artists showing their work in Mastery: Sustaining Momentum, and Color Improvisations 2, two Nancy Crow curated shows. Her Conflict Series quilts were shown at a one woman show at the Aughinbaugh Gallery in 2017 and she is preparing for a solo exhibit in 2019. This is the link at her website:
I often ask this question to the artists I have the pleasure of interviewing: why did you choose to use fabric as a medium for your art?
I love the smell of cloth, the feel of cloth, and the texture of cloth. There is nothing I enjoy more than spending hours roaming stores in the New York garment district hunting down unusual fabrics. When I travel abroad I am always intrigued by the different textiles I find and I am as interested in fine silks as I am with vintage hemp. While I work primarily with cottons Ilike to combine fabrics I have found in Japan and China with my domestic sources. For the last ten years I have been working with custom dyed cottons, and I have a wonderful source who will dye fabrics to my color specifications. While I have taken a few courses, I rather spend my time designing and sewing rather than dyeing fabrics.
Anxiety N° 11 copyright Judy Kirpich
Conflict n° 10, copyright Judy Kirpich
Can you tell us something about yourself and your history as an artist? How did you start?
I have always been involved with art both as a student and as the owner of a large graphic design agency. My earliest memories include art lessons from age 4. Growing up I was surrounded by art; my mother was a potter who taught and pioneered primitive ceramic firing techniques, and my father worked as a solar engineer but spent all of his free time doing woodworking. My parents’ house was filled with my mother’s ceramics and my father’s furniture and weekend events included frequent trips to museums in Philadelphia.
From a very young age my Aunt Nomi would take me on shopping trips to one beautiful fabric store in Philadelphia. She made all of her own clothes, and she taught me how to sew. As I got older I started making all of my own clothing. I fell in love with the clothes of Issey Miyake but as a young professional and mother with two young children, I did not have money to buy his clothes. I joined a group of women in Washington DC and we all studied his clothing and swapped patterns. From that point on I made all of my own clothing.
Until about 15 years ago I did not do any quilting or textile design other than the occasional bed covering. At a certain point I had too many clothes and had to find a different way of expressing my love affair with fabric. I happened to be thumbing through an old copy of Threads magazine and found an article about Nancy Crow… from that point on my life changed.
Can you tell us about the start and development of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
I am motivated by emotions- by events that are happening around me, both personal and political. I almost never make a piece that does not represent how I am feeling at a particular point in my life. For example, the Anxiety series came from the stress I had running a large firm of 35 people during the Great Recession trying to make ends meet: my Conflict series started over breakfast discussions about the war in Syria with my husband who is a Middle East scholar. Memory Loss is influenced by my mother’s slow decline due to Alzheimers.
Often I will use a technique that allows me to release some of those emotions. I started my Anxiety series by slashing through fabric over and over again. I was so nervous and anxious andit was a wonderful way to work out my tension.
I do not sketch and I rarely use the computer for composing a piece. Instead I take a lot of photographs, spend time looking at fine art, and use Pinterest as a modern day sketchbook. I work improvizationally cutting fabrics freehand and pinning them into a composition. I will spend days, sometimes weeks getting a composition exactly where I want it. I do not start to sew until I am 100% happy with the composition.
I wish that I could construct pieces with the goal of simply making something beautiful- without any subtext. But the truth is I find most of those pieces insipid. Without emotion I find my pieces to be empty.
Anxiety n° 6, copyright Judy Kirpich
Anxiety n° 9 Mastectomy, copyright Judy Kirpich
How has your compositional style evolved over time?Have you always made abstract artworks? What are the differences between your first and most recent works?
My first non-bed-quilts were representational. I did a series on chairs (who hasn’t?!) and then I did a series on combs. My Cancer Comb series started out as representational – a 7’ high representation of the black comb my father used, and it morphed into more abstract work by the 3rd in that series.
After the comb series I never looked back and only worked with abstract compositions.
Ironically both my first and my most recent pieces have to do with my parents. The Cancer Comb series follows my father’s battle with lung cancer and my most recent pieces in the Memory Loss series deal with my mom’s dementia. The first was representational: the last is abstract.
Cancer Comb n° 1, cpyright Judy Kirpich
Cancer Comb n° 5, copyright Judy Kirpich
Judy, you have attended many classes of Nancy Crow. What role did this experience play in your way of “making textile art”?
I feel very privileged to have Nancy as a mentor. When I first attended her classes I had no idea what I was doing- I just knew that I did not have the patience or interest in conventional quilting. When I saw Nancy’s work- the first piece I saw was her interpretation of a log cabin quilt- I knew I had found the outlet for my lifelong love of fabric constructions.
Nancy starts from ground zero- and teaches the fundamentals of design, figure/ground relationships, color theory, and composition. She is a demanding tough teacher who values hard work and she pushes each of her students to excel. She is not for everyone- and certainly not for a quilter that just wants to dabble in various techniques. She pushes her students to find their own voice and does not countenance Nancy Crow imitations. This style suited my own personality- and I have never worked so hard- starting my days at 7 am and ending at 11pm- 7 days a week. Even now my studio practice is quite rigorous. I am in my studio most days at 8 and work until 5 or 6 with a ½ hour break for lunch. I still work 6 or 7 days a week.
I must admit, that to this day when a piece of mine is juried into a show, I still wonder what Nancy will think of it. Her approval is still my gold standard.
Perhaps the most instructional of Nancy’s classes were her master classes where the students were very advanced designers. Rather than teaching techniques we spent much of our time in discussion. We talked about influence versus derivation. We talked about the place of textiles in the art world. We discussed broader issues rather than construction techniques. We looked and discussed the work of contemporary artists like Agnes Martin and Richard Diebenkorn. Hearing the voices of 20 well regarded textile artists was an amazing experience that formed much of my thinking.
Can you explain us the stylistic and artistic motivations that lead you to work in series?
If one studies the work of Cezanne, you will find in his catalogue raisonne many drawings and paintings of peaches and pears. While most people are only familiar with a few of his fruit still lifes. he used the same subject matter over and over again, trying new techniques, colors, angles, and compositions.
Like Cezanne I work in a series because each piece informs the next. In lectures I often show my first piece and my last piece in a series. The difference is astounding. Had I stopped after Quilt No. 1, I never would have refined my compositions. I do not have to put every one of my thoughts into a single quilt but rather I can experiment across a series. Another advantage is that working in a series also means that I do not have to constantly think of new subject matter.
Conflict n° 6, copyright Judy Kirpich
Conflict n° 9, copyright Judy Kirpich
Do you work on several series at the same time, or do you dedicate yourself to one at a time?
I generally work on two or three series at the same time. I now have a big enough studio that I can work simultaneously on different pieces allowing me to give each one a critical eye. Sometimes I will come back to a series after a few years- changing up the style and color palette. Currently I am working on pieces in The Day After series, Indigo Compositions, and Memory Loss. The only series that is “closed” is the Cancer Comb series. After my dad died I finished one last piece that mirrored the first piece. I decided not to work on that series again.
Memory Loss n° 2, copyright Judy Kirpich
Is there a group of your works that represents you more, that has played an important role in your growth as an artist?
I think that the Anxiety series is the most personal of my work. In the Anxiety series I have worked out tensions from running a business, firing a friend, dealing with a friend’s mastectomy, grappling with a family member’s battle with depression, and balancing conflicting emotions on myretirement. I keep returning to the Anxiety series when I have personal issues to work out.
Currently my work in the Memory Loss series is the only way I can express the sorrow I feel regarding my mother’s cognitive loss. With these pieces I am using fabrics with more surface design, hand quilting and embroidery. I feel this is taking me on a new journey but I am not sure where it will lead.
Your artworks are always large. What are the technical or stylistic reasons that lead you to work on large dimensions?
I think size has a lot to do with the way a piece is viewed. I want my pieces to be viewed as art, not as quilts, and not as craft. When I think about the artists that have influenced me- Pierre Soulanges, Cy Twombly, Franz Kline, Louise Nevelson- they all worked large, and I think that size is part of the power of their art. In addition, Nancy Crow always pushed me to work larger and larger.
Working at this scale does come with its own set of constraints. I find myself climbing up and down ladders all of the time- which was fine when I was 50 and is a bit harder as I get into my late 60s. Lifting heavy constructions that are over 80” high and sometimes as wide as 120” is hard on my shoulders, and turning the material to quilt them has resulted in some rotator cuff tears. I find myself reducing the size of pieces to 60” since it is more manageable. I still prefer to machine quilt pieces myself on a conventional sewing machine- not a long arm, and that is the hardest physically. But, I am still committed to working as large as I can manage.
How important is the choice of materials for you?Do you like to experiment with the use of unusual materials? Can you talk about the fabrics used in the Indigo Compositions series?
I would not say that I am terribly experimental. I do virtually no surface design on my own, but I do have some unusual sources for some of the fabric I am working with.
I have stashes of wonderful vintage indigo from Japan as well as persimmon dyed fabric (kakishibu) that has made its way into some of my pieces. I have lovely fabrics that previously were sake bags.
I have been working/playing with an indigo cotton produced by an ethnic group in China. The villagers spin cloth, dye it with natural indigo dyes, and after the fabric dries they over dye the cloth with a mixture of oxblood and peppers. They finish one side of the fabric by coating it with egg and pounding the cloth with mallets. The result is one side is a very shiny black or brown, and the other side is a matte black or brown. I have been experimenting with this cloth for over 3 years and am just getting to know what I want to do with it. It has a remarkable ability to keep a shape, hold a pleat and it does not fray. I have completed many small studies and am now ready to work much larger.
Indigo Composition n° 7, copyright Judy Kirpich
Kakishibu indigo study, copyright Judy Kirpich
What are you working on at the moment? Would you like to tell us about your current textile projects?
My newest pieces involve collaborations with two artists. Jayne Willoughby, a noted artist in her own right, creates some of the painted surface design backgrounds that I am currently using. Annette Wink is the dyer who I have worked with for 10 years, and she is also providing me with a different kind of surface designed fabric. Both artists have very different styles and I am starting to combine fabrics from both of them into my compositions. This is a big departure for me since I have always worked with solid dyed cottons.
I am finishing a piece that I have worked on for two years that is part of The Day After series. I am also working towards a one woman show in October 2019 where I would like to have at least 6-8 pieces from the Memory Loss series. So far I have completed five, so I have a lot of work to do! I can probably finish anywhere from 5-7 pieces a year depending on their size and complexity and it is very easy for me to get distracted with new ideas.
Memory Loss n° 4, copyright Judy Kirpich
Memory Loss n° 6, copyright Judy kirpich