The Open category of the Hand & Lock Prize often features entries from artists with no formal embroidery training. Their ‘outsider’ approach to garment construction can be dazzling, breathtaking and original. None more so than the Winner of the 2013 Open category, Beata Kania. Born in 1969 in Warsaw Poland, Kania moved to Chicago as a teenager in the 1980’s. The influences of her Polish upbringing and the artistry and perfection are evident in her designs. Here we discover a little more about the influences and inspirations of a talented true textile artist.
What childhood memories do you have of fashion and embroidery?
My mother was a city planner in the main bureau of planning and development of Warsaw. Reflecting on the work of her collegues/architects she believed in involving my sister and I in as many artistic activities as possible. My father, a musician did not discriminate against girls in the wood shop. We helped him with building and decorating instruments. My grandmother was very active in the local school. There was always a poetry recitals that required costuming or puppet theater that required puppets to be hand made.
The moment I remember most is that of asserting my artistic vision. In fifth grade, I was to recite a poem, in which I was a personification of a polish river Vistula. I chose to wear a pale blue tailored dress and was going to wear a wreath of wild flowers, representative of a tradition of floating handmade wreaths down the river as a part of a pagan summer solstice custom. My Grandmother wove a very thick, heavy crown that I thought was too overwhelming. Two artistic visions clashed, one wreath flew out of the window, replaced by a more delicate version. On that day I became aware of my own way of seeing.
How did you start out in embroidery/fashion design?
I entered the fine arts program at the school of the art institute of Chicago with the thought of studying painting and drawing and took a detour. In the fashion studies department I was able to apply my love of manipulating fabric and creating unusual surfaces as well as addressing it in context of the human body as well as complexities of the human nature. Oddly, I have not taken any embroidery classes at the school. I began experimenting with some of the basic techniques that my Grandmother taught me, while collaborating on an animated film. Working on a smaller scale allowed me to engage in more elaborate, couture techniques without the need for extensive budget. I do consider myself an interdisciplinary artist, trying to forge new synthesis, new ways of doing things, in a new context, safeguarded by traditions. Taking the time to craft something well is profoundly stabilizing. Process of making gives me a sense of place in the world. Story telling and folklore define my signature work.
What is your proudest professional achievement?
I am an educator and feel very connected to my students. Winning educator of the year award had a big impact on me. Winning a prestigious award such as the Hand & Lock prize for embroidery, as a self taught embroiderer, has been unforgettable, and gave me confidence to continue developing this incredible art form.
You have entered the Hand & Lock prize before – how did you first hear about us?
I was introduced to hand and lock embroidery competition by one of my colleagues, Pamela Powell, and former instructor at London College of Fashion.
For the 2013 Hand & Lock prize what were your inspirations for the final piece?
Parallels between historical images of Black Death, and David’s Bowie ultra-theatrical, striking, visual presentations, inspired the colouring, silhouette and embroidery of my dark creation. I chose to address Black Death in terms of superstition and religious persecution. Military or armour like embroidery with scale maille is representative of “soldiers of god”, executing divine punishment on infected communities. Red discolouration on the bodice mimics the late stage of the disease, when the sufferer’s skin blackens due to haemorrhaging. Spiked shoulders and hand made beads incorporated into wringing motifs, illustrate sharpness of pain, isolation, and loss. They are also manifestations of black death and hell, as depicted in medieval and renaissance illuminations, portraying crowds of heretics, devoured by sharp-teethed demons. Side panels of the dress are shaped like wings, and are symbolic of birds, praying on fields of dead bodies. They are also alluding to images of avenging angels. Crows, avenging angels and the title of his film, “the man who fell to earth” led me to explore David Bowie’s career. As Newton, an alien from a distant planet, he comes to earth to avoid annihilation. He is on a mission to bring water to his home planet, which is experiencing catastrophic drought. I couldn’t help but to draw parallels between the two threats to humanity. I also focused on Bowie’s costumes from the special exhibit at Victoria and Albert museum as well as his “glass spider” world tour. Among the exhibited pieces, there was a costume of “dark angel”, black, feathered, wing like breastplate paired with red trousers, and a crow neck piece, as demonstrated in my collages. For the flying segment of his “glass spider” tour, Bowie would emerge from the top of spider’s head wearing an oversized, skeletal structure, reminiscent of wings, as well as images of avenging angels portrayed in medieval and renaissance illuminations. Extensive explorations of two distinct happenings in our past, inspired me to create work reflective of the two worlds: that of a misplaced fear and superstition long time ago, and that of a contemporary, visionary musician, who has earned the title of the “greatest artist of all time” and his place in history.
Since part of my inspiration was based on black plague, i wanted my piece to reflect pain/sharpness. I could not find spiked beads anywhere and decided to sculpt them out of clay. When they came out of the oven, I was beyond relieved. They dictated the rest of my piece. In order to construct the shoulders I learned needle felting. I love exploring new venues, and testing myself.
Conquering the weight of the piece has been the biggest challenge.
My latest work is a compilation of small sculpture, textiles and painting. Half bird half human forms are either painted life scale, in lavish costumes or remain doll sized sculptures, wearing heavily embroidered garments. Bird imagery entered my life after one of my trips to Poland. I was deeply moved by the music of a Bosnian born artist Goran Bregovic and his album Ederlezzi, a collection of folk, and gypsy songs from the Balkans. One song specifically, came back home with me. “she is not a bird” was based on a popular folk tale about a female shape shifter, who sacrificed her human form to satisfy her lover’s blind curiosity. For my embroidery, I am exploring “sailors’ valentines”. A term originally given to 19th century, octagonal shell pictures, which homesick sailors would buy for their mothers and wives. At present it is a term loosely applied to all shell art and souvenirs.
Please describe why you think a contest like the Hand & Lock Prize for embroidery is a good thing for the industry?
There is nothing like the Hand & Lock Prize in the industry. Most competitions focus on marketability not artistry. There is minimal investment in experiment, which moves humanity forward. Application of new technology and materials as well as preserving disappearing traditions is made possible by such opportunities. Financing art making on an international level is the most noble of causes.