“My work grew by leaps and bounds, when I started sewing
as a form of drawing then sewing into my paintings….”
Interview by Jennifer Nelson, WTP Feature Writer
Katherine Daniels’s beaded sculptures, weaving, and site-specific installations have been exhibited nationally and internationally, including throughout the New York City metropolitan area, as well as the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton, New Jersey, and at Le Beffroi Art Center in Montrouge, France. Her awards include a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in painting, the Clare Weiss Emerging Artist Award for Public Art, two Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Manhattan Creative Communities Grants, and selection as a participant in the Bronx Museum’s Artist in the Marketplace. She has also received studio grants from the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation, PS 122, the Henry Street Settlement, and ChaShaMa. Daniels graduated from Rhode Island School of Design and later earned an MFA from Johnson State College in Vermont. Born in Germany, she was raised in West Virginia and currently lives and works in New York City.
Nelson: You are an artist who works in a wide range of mediums, from painting, drawing, and weaving to public art installations. Please comment on how you approach each medium, and when you use one versus the other.
Daniels: My self-directed projects in the studio are instinctual and inspired by materials, ideas, or spaces. I’ll get an idea and work on it until it grows. I’ll have an awesome ceiling so I want to create a hanging sculpture, or I want to weave a large-scale piece so I’ll find deer netting to make it. It’s very physical, which is why I think I moved into sculpture in the first place. I love working small with beads and sewing and then growing them into forms that take a lot of movement to make. It is satisfying to build a piece out of a seed of an idea then nurture it into a whole body of work.
For my public art and installation projects, there is usually a site that presents a physical problem to be solved that directs my approach conceptually and influences the materials I choose. It is fun to imagine what I can do to fill a space in an engaging way. Then I have to figure out what to use to achieve that vision. That’s where supplies like rope and fencing come into my toolbox. I get my materials at hardware stores and bead shops more often than art supply stores.
Nelson: In your weavings, you ornamentally blend colored beads, thread, and ribbons into netting or fencing, what can seem contradictory choices for “weft” versus “warp”—the forgiving of, for instance, ribbon, in contrast to the less forgiving of metal. Can you elaborate on these choices?
Daniels: My weavings usually use fencing as the warp, so they are actually grids. The chain link fence is on a diagonal, deer fencing is square, and the garden fencing is rectangular. The ribbons, plastic or cloth go in and out of them. When I was first asked to propose the “Fence Embroidery with Embellishment” piece in 2010, I had to figure out how to scale up my work to fill six hundred feet of fencing. I figured out how to use commercial privacy fencing for weaving and industrial spool flanges zip-tied to the fencing like beads. Then I developed a method I could use at other sites and with the leftover supplies, I started making more intricate works in my studio. That was the start of my weaving into grids.
Nelson: Can you also comment on how you came to weaving, as well as quilting, as in the “Three Spoke Pink” and “Lace Spiral”? Both traditionally fiber arts?
Daniels: I grew up in West Virginia with my mother sewing and knitting, and seeing rugs, lace, and needlepoint that my grandmother, great-grandmother, and aunt made. So I knew that craft language first hand. In high school, I wove baskets and made quilts. I continued to quilt into college. Now every once in a while, a piece calls to me that needs to be sewn.
Nelson: This year, you exhibited Morph at Station Independent Projects. The exhibition featured beaded sculptures of various colors suspended from ceiling to floor, as well as table-top sculptures with intertwined and interlocked beads of various weights and structures. Where did you draw your inspiration from this collection?
Daniels: For this show, I made beaded sculptures that had a sense of movement and change. Half of the show was suspended sculptures that fill up the space from above your head or somewhere between your waist and your toes. Physically it’s satisfying to make and view them. Their compositions move from small to big, ascending or descending, and thin to thick. You really have to move around them to see them. The other half of the show was sculptures that were small enough to hold in your hands sitting on a table. They all had core shapes with organic growths of beads overwhelming the forms. The gallery is a small, long, and narrow space so that shape became part of the installation with nothing on the walls, pendulous hanging sculptures and a long table full of compact pieces. I titled the show Morph because it means form in Greek, and contemporarily, “morphed” means to undergo a transformation.
Nelson: Your public arts works include beautifying park fences, college stairwells, and elevator cages using ropes, plastic ribbons, and beads. In Joyce Kilmer Park in the Bronx, your large-scale weavings Ornamental Paths reflect brick and mosaic Art Deco patterns found in the neighborhood’s architectural landmarks. Can you comment on how you approach a public arts work project, and what you consider as you plan your proposal?
Daniels: For my public art pieces, I take pictures of the site and draw by hand on top of the print out to imagine what I can do with the space. I research the neighborhood to find something that connects me to the place and helps me develop a design that can connect to the audience. Then I need to consider practical things like the budget and safety and durability of materials. I adore finding a narrative for a piece, a compelling design and then transforming a space.
Nelson: You’ve described your artwork as “eccentric abstraction.” Can you elaborate on how your art is reflected in this concept?
Daniels: I saw the term “eccentric abstraction” on an exhibition label for Mind and Matter: Alternative Abstractions at the MOMA in 2010 and thought “Oh, that’s kind of what I do.” It is a term coined by Lucy Lippard for the title of an exhibition she organized in 1966. I never cared if I fit into any category, but sometimes it helps to find artistic families you relate to as a resource to study and as a way to find the words for what you do. There is a book in the New York Public Library called Ornament and Abstraction: Dialogue Between Non-Western, Modern and Contemporary Art that I’ve been checking out for years whenever I need to get inspired or write a statement. It helps me find the language of my artistic lineage.
Nelson: How has your MFA in Painting impacted your artwork?
Daniels: I did a non-traditional, low-residency MFA program at Johnson State College, which is affiliated with the Vermont Studio Center. That path gave me structure and feedback while I also worked full-time. It was a supportive and challenging program and I graduated with no debt. My work grew by leaps and bounds, when I started sewing as a form of drawing then sewing into my paintings, which was the beginning of what I do now. After I graduated, I quickly got an NYFA fellowship and a Sharpe Foundation Studio, which gave me more time, space, encouragement, and financial support to keep going.
Nelson: You worked for many years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Can you elaborate on how this experience may have influenced you in developing your themes?
Daniels: Working at the MET has been like being in a never-ending art history course. I see something I haven’t seen before and learn something new every day. I handle art there, which is like being an art librarian and a stagehand. It gives me a caretaking and physical relationship with the art, which influences my work conceptually and materially. I can see the connections between eras, mediums, and geography in a way that feeds what I make and the way I name my work, title a show, and develop an exhibition or installation.
Nelson: Which artists have influenced you the most, and how?
Daniels: Kiki Smith was the first contemporary artist I saw use beads. I remember being thrilled seeing her work in my teens. Judy Pfaff’s big flowing installations are like walking into a Tiepolo painting. Her compositions are so intense and intricate, she is a virtuoso in my opinion. Lee Bontecou’s exploration of how to make forms in different materials and scales informs my way of making sculpture.
Nelson: Can you describe a typical studio day, and what are you working on now?
Daniels: Typically, I like to have a few pieces going at the same time. That way I can look at one out of the corner of my eye while I’m working on another. My mediums are so time consuming that I end up working outside of the studio, too. I walk around with a bag of beads and wire to string when I have a chance or I’ll sew pinned pieces or string beads at home late at night then take them into the studio to incorporate into a bigger piece. I end up working anywhere and everywhere.
My solo show just closed and I moved my studio, so I’m at the beginning of starting my next body of work. I like to organize my art supplies after a show or studio move, because it helps me see what I have, think about what I can do with them, and what I need to get. It’s a little like cooking: you see what you can do with the ingredients you have. I have some beaded forms I started a while ago that I pulled out and have strewn across the table to start playing with. I have finished pieces up so that I can think about what I’ve done and what I want to do next.
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