How did you get started doing what you do?
I started my college education in graphic design, but I became disillusioned with it around the third year of the program. That was when design theory suddenly became commercial marketing, and pens and pencils became Adobe Illustrator. I got my degree but struggled to find a job, and it was during this time that I admitted to myself that although I technically could do design the rest of my life, it wouldn’t make me happy. After all, my first true love was art, not design. And while I enjoy design, part of why I pursued an education in it was to avoid the pitfalls of joblessness. But I fell into it anyway. I figured that if I was destined to struggle, I might as well struggle doing something I loved. So I turned back to art, except this time I was equipped with tools and techniques I had learned from design. Interestingly enough, cross stitch and design share many parallels. My mother cross stitched, and I grew up watching her do it. It was something I was so familiar with that I didn’t see it as intimidating, and I think this was the key to me getting into it. That being said, if I hadn’t grown up with cross stitch charts and embroidered towels around the house, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into needlework.
How would you describe your creative style?
Direct. Frontal. Bold. Challenging. Complex. I have an affinity for text as a conceptual and a visual element (which I owe to the Typography courses I had to complete as a design major). I also intuitively use bright, lurid colors. Every piece has a meaning, and some pieces have multiple layers of meaning. I don’t create art you hang over your couch or want to see in your dentist’s office. It can catch you off guard, and it asks you to think. It encourages you to engage with it. I don’t go for a passive experience and I don’t choose a timid, quiet approach. My works don’t whisper. They yell.
What’s your inspiration?
I make art about things that keep me up at night. There are images and words that stick to me that I need to surrender. I point out iniquities and make observations that I think other people should be aware of. And I have an erotic sensitivity that just won’t quit, so a lot of my work is a manifestation of that. Sometimes when I’m creating I form shapes or reference images that don’t make sense to me at the time, but when I step back and look at it I’m able to figure out where certain things came from. Inspiration is subconscious, and it’s everywhere. You never know where you will pick something up and how it will appear in your work.
How long does it typically take for you to finish a piece?
Months… and months… and months. I don’t do my art every single day, though (but I’m working on that). Hand embroidery demands patience and time. Lots of time. I’ve gotten so used to it that if I do a non-embroidered work that takes only a few days, it almost feels wrong. Like, “that was too easy.” But I like the fact that most of my work takes a long time to complete. It really gives me a chance to meditate over the work, to see it grow very gradually, like a plant. I live with it, I coexist with it, it becomes a part of my life for a significant amount of time. When I’m finished with it and send it out into the world, I feel like I know it inside and out. I’ve developed an unflinching intimacy with it, and I’m prepared to answer any questions about it.
How do you keep motivated?
Once the initial excitement about starting a new piece wears out, I focus on the next piece. I have to be working on a few projects at the same time – since hand embroidery is such a tedious process and completing a piece takes so incredibly long, I can’t work on just one project day in and day out for months and months. I get exhausted. So I always have “the next big thing” boiling seductively on the back burner in my mind.
How would you say your surroundings have influenced your work?
Being American has its advantages but, as a Westerner, I feel almost blind to other cultures, and that distresses me. I love reading about other countries and often feel compelled to bring this information into my work, but I’m chained to a Western perspective and interpret things through a Western filter. But that’s the way it is. When I was working on “The Heydrich Series” someone asked “Why can’t you do this piece about Mitt Romney, or someone from this country?” Well, why not? Just because I’m American, does the subject matter have to be too? We should be learning about the different cultures of the world, the many mindsets, the many experiences that people have had and are having — and we should be exploring our interpretations of them.
What do you hope to accomplish with your work?
Ultimately, I want to present an issue and make people think about it in a different way. Help people to examine the way they understand things and reaffirm or maybe even revise those understandings. Artists present different observations through their work, but I think the best art doesn’t necessarily change people’s minds – that’s not the goal. The best art helps the viewer solidify and resolve their own opinions about things.
How have others reacted to your work?
Generally I receive strong reactions – they can be positive or negative, but they’re always strong. And I’m okay with that. I don’t aim for a lukewarm response because I don’t bother with lukewarm subjects. I think the strongest reaction I received was from a textile mill that just absolutely refused to weave my work. It was a controversial series addressing feminist issues. Eventually they agreed to do it on the condition that they would weave them during the secondary shift, not the primary shift (because the workers who were objecting to it most strongly happened to work on the primary shift). Nevertheless, I am always interested in how people are interpreting my work. I’m frequently surprised and fascinated by some responses. That’s one of the most exciting and yet terrifying things about making art: once you put it out there, it’s out of your hands, and you can only figure out how well you communicated your message by gauging the responses of your viewers. You learn a lot by listening to how people are responding to your work.
What do you want others to take away from your work?
The understanding that the world is rife with contradictions, and each one of us is facing a deep inner struggle between each pair: good and evil, right and wrong, lust and loyalty, lies and truth. But we need to embrace that struggle, because that is what makes us human. I embrace that struggle by documenting it through my work. The conflict and the contradictions are always there, tugging at all sides.
What, if anything, would you tell your younger self?
Don’t expect the path to be easy or straightforward. Don’t expect success to be instantaneous. Those movies where some artist shows her work in a local cafe and gets spotted by a big-time gallery owner who picks her up right away and whisks her into the arms of the New York City art world? That’s Hollywood. You have to be your own agent. You have to get yourself where you want to go. Even if no one is listening, believe in what you do and do this: keep knocking on doors and keep rocking boats. Lots of door-knocking and boat-rocking are involved in this sort of career, and you have to accept that whether you like it or not. Keep your flame alive. Stand up for your work. NEVER apologize for your work. And if you believe in your work and believe that art is your purpose, you will have peace that will get you through the difficult times – and there will be difficult times.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
“Imperfection is what makes us human.” It’s not really advice, but it’s something I return to frequently. I’m a perfectionist, and if I’m not careful I can start treating minor mistakes like colossal tragedies and agonizing about them incessantly, which is a total waste of time and energy. What separates hand embroidery from machine embroidery is the human presence in the stitches. If I embroider by hand, I will make mistakes, but that’s part of what makes it so intriguing.
Any words of wisdom to aspiring artists who want to pursue a similar career?
Stefan Simchowitz once said “You either want it or you don’t.” I remind myself of that phrase often. If you want it, you will know it. Your actions will demonstrate it. It will be obvious. If you don’t, you will also know it, and your actions will demonstrate it, and it will be obvious. Simple as that.
What are your thoughts on art school?
If you can do it, do it. Yes, it’s incredibly expensive and you will probably spend the better part of the rest of your life paying it off. Deal with it. You’re paying for a brilliant window of time where you have a studio, professors to guide you, critiques to toughen you, studio mates to befriend you, unlimited access to tons of materials and resources, and an excuse to take risks with your work. It’s extremely difficult, but it’s worth it. You’ll realize that once it’s over and you’re on your own.
Have any future aspirations that you’d like to share?
My goal is to bring fiber arts to the fore of contemporary art. Many “craft” media are underestimated and sometimes even excluded from the sphere of contemporary practice. It’s certainly much, much better than it used to be, but we’re not quite there yet. Fiber art is a particularly strong medium because it spans so many different realms; it can be functional, it can be craft, it can be contemporary and conceptual art, or it can be a hybrid of all three. Its associations with femininity and domesticity make it a charged medium that’s loaded with emotion and power. And it can examine contemporary subjects with the same vigor and competency of any other more traditional art medium, like painting and printmaking and sculpture. In fact, it very easily intertwines with many artistic mediums — it’s an ideal conduit for interdisciplinary work.
What’s your process like?
My starting point is rarely material-based. I don’t play with colors and materials and gradually form something out of it. For me, it starts with an idea. The idea seizes me and captivates me and preoccupies me. I can feel it when it hits me — it’s a lot like falling in love! I call it the “honeymoon period” of making art — when all the composing is done in your head and the possibilities are endless. I usually give it two or three weeks. If the idea fizzles out before then, that means it wasn’t meant to be. If it’s still burning inside me, I start drawing schematics and writing words in my sketchbook. Some pages of my sketchbook are maybe 20% sketches and 80% words (which is something that others have described to me as unusual for a visual artist…). A lot of projects require me to research or harvest images. I especially enjoy that part. And then I draw, making sure before I start embroidering that the image is exactly how I want it, because embroidery is very difficult (and sometimes impossible) to change once it’s done. I actually take comfort in that finality. After that is the crossing-the-desert phase: I have a pretty good idea of what the finished work will look like, but the challenge is to keep from getting discouraged by how slow progress can be and how long it takes me to finish it. The process from there is very repetitive and almost entirely physical — all the thinking and composing has been done before I even threaded my needle. But I love all parts of the journey. Especially the finishing part.
Check out Kathryn Shinko’s website.