Kathryn Clark // Foreclosure Quilts

07/28/15

Washington DC Foreclosure Quilt Overall

{Kathryn’s incredible Washington D.C. Foreclosure Quilt, now part of the Smithsonian Collection}

A few years ago, I became acquainted with artist Kathryn Clark. We have many friends in common, and it was inevitable that we would meet. Since I’ve known Kathryn, I’ve always admired her work. Earlier this year we were both at a gathering at our mutual friend Sonya’s house. There were about eight of us, and we were all sitting around chatting. Kathryn pulled out part of a quilt she was working on. She explained that it was a quilt she was madly trying to finish because it had been acquired by the Smithsonian. We all gasped in delight (the SMITHSONIAN!!!), and naturally we all had many questions. She proceeded to tell us about the series of “foreclosure” quilts she’d been making and how that led to the Smithsonian acquisition. Her story is so fascinating and her foreclosure quilts are such stunning (and interesting) works of art that I decided I had to interview Kathryn here about the quilts and the story behind the acquisition.

Without further ado, I present to you the amazing Kathryn Clark in my Interviews with People I Admire series!

Clark_portrait Leslie Sofia Lindell

{Portrait of Kathryn by Leslie Sophia Lindell}

Lisa: Kathryn, congratulations! You just had a quilt acquired by the Smithsonian! We’ll get to that in a moment, but I’d love first for you to tell us about your background & trajectory as an artist. How did you get where you are? What kind of work do you make?

Kathryn: Thanks, Lisa! I’m still in a state of shock about the acquisition. When the Smithsonian’s Renwick first contacted me via email, I thought it was a hoax! I’ve been pretty lucky with my background that led me to where I am now. I’ve been an artist ever since I can remember (both my mom and dad were artists so it was natural to follow a similar path). I’m a fourth generation artist on my mom’s side. I also had a love of maps and architecture from my dad’s side of the family. But, I wanted to have a degree in something where I could find a job but didn’t have the financial resources to pursue architecture, so I chose to study interior architecture at San Jose State. My first job out of college was working for my college professor who had a three person architecture firm in San Francisco. We had the chance to do some urban design and our bible was Peter Calthorpe’s book, “The Next American Metropolis.”  I realized when working on the urban design project that Peter’s firm, Calthorpe Associates was in Berkeley, just over the bridge. I loved the big picture, sketchy nature of urban design over architecture so I called up the firm and asked if I could stop by. With no prior design experience, Peter loved my rendering skills and called me that night to offer me a job. I was blown away! I worked my way up to project manager in three years and loved every second of it. I left after three years to work in San Francisco in the hopes that I would be closer to home to start a family. But a few less than exciting jobs in other firms sent my stress level over the edge so I escaped to work full time as an artist.

Washington DC Foreclosure Detail 02

{Detail of D.C. foreclosure quilt}

I slowly evolved as a fiber artist, actually resisting the urge to work with fabric for several years because of the stigma of it being a craft and not an art. I used to be an abstract painter but started to dabble with sewing and knitting when I had my daughter in 2004. I didn’t understand what drew me to love the medium, it just felt so comfortable when I was sewing. One day, when I was doing a little weaving project on Mother’s Day and doubting that what I was doing was ‘art,’ I was listening to a Storycore Mother’s Day special. It suddenly dawned on me that my mom had been a fiber artist and that’s why I was so drawn to it. My mom battled leukemia for a large part of my childhood, and she died when I was seventeen so I vaguely remembered the early years of her sewing and weaving on her giant loom. No wonder working with fabric felt so comfortable for me. I’ve never doubted my choice of medium after that day.

Chicago Foreclosure Quilt full sm

{Chicago Foreclosure Quilt}

Lisa: That is so interesting! My mom was a weaver when I was a kid and is also a fiber artist! Okay, now tell us about your series of “foreclosure” quilts. How did that series begin? What sparked it for you? How did it develop over time?

Kathryn: It was a slow process as I knew I wanted to merge my love of urban planning with my art. The first foreclosures began around the time I was still an urban designer. There was a lot of rapid urban development and a lot of encouragement to buy into these new neighborhoods with crazy incentives. Las Vegas is a great example. No one seemed to care how much making people live beyond their means with predatory lending was hurting the people and the economy. It certainly wasn’t obvious in the news (except for Gretchen Morgensen’s articles in the NY Times). You would hear the stories about the foreclosures and you would hear a statistic but you couldn’t actually see the effect it was having at the neighborhood level. That is, unless you paid to access the foreclosure data and only then could you see it on a map. Of course I paid because I was obsessed with it. That was when it hit me. I had to show the crisis in map form to reveal what an affected neighborhood really looked like. It took me a few months to figure out how to show the maps as an art form. I had been dabbling in fabric for some time and my paintings had started looking like quilts (lots of gridded blocks). I had one of those ‘ah ha!’ moments when I could translate a neighborhood ‘block’ into quilt ‘block’. I had another big moment after I had made my first quilt (Las Vegas) and thought it looked too perfect and too clean. This was a messy situation and it needed to look that way.

So I started to sew my quilt blocks together in reverse with the seams showing. As the quilt is made, the edges fray and become tangled and ugly. And this is literally what has happened to our neighborhoods: decaying and abandoned houses, vacant lots covered over with weeds. Another thing I learned that I wasn’t able to show in my work was that the foreclosure data is collected differently in every city. It was being addressed as a local crisis. There really wasn’t an investigation at the federal level or any kind of intervention early on. I think they just hoped the cities would cope somehow on their own. And some cities did better than others.

Washington DC Foreclosure Quilt Detail 01

{D.C. Foreclosure Quilt detail}

Lisa: The quilt you made for the Smithsonian. Tell us about that Washington, D.C. foreclosure quilt specifically. Was it commissioned? What is it made out of? What was the process like for you? Is it your largest foreclosure quilt to date?

Kathryn: The D.C. Foreclosure quilt wasn’t officially commissioned as the Renwick gallery doesn’t do commissions. The gallery curators contacted me last year to purchase one of the existing quilts. I mentioned I would be happy to make a quilt of any area of their choice and they asked about making a quilt of a neighborhood in D.C. Finding the foreclosure data varies from city to city but the foreclosure data compilations on D.C. are practically nonexistent which completely shocked me. The data just wasn’t there! I did manage to find some compiled data on a few neighborhoods but they didn’t scream D.C. when you looked at them on a map. So the curators kept encouraging me to dig deep and do something monumental like, for example, the Capitol Hill neighborhood.

So I agreed and started researching and researching and researching. I was really freaked out that I’d come up empty handed but found if I went lot by lot (!) and compared the data through zillow.com, dcblockshopper.com, and DC Atlas Plus, I could go back ten years and see all of the sales history on every lot. It took weeks to coordinate the data and mark up a map! And those lots are narrow so you can fit quite a few on a block. My friends thought I was crazy to be so detailed. But you never know when someone who lives on a block will walk up and recognize their lot. Once I found the data and I knew I could make an impressive quilt of the Capitol Hill neighborhood (that was half the work!), we discussed fabrics and agreed on just the right shade of linen (of course I started to run low at the end and was panicking, lesson learned, always buy way more than you think you need). It is the biggest quilt I’ve made to date at 57 1/2 “ x 84”  and the hardest to piece because the ‘street’ angles needed to line up perfectly with the overall ‘street’ grid. Let’s just say fractions and geometry were never strong subjects for me in school, but I had to be exact with my measurements and plan for all of the seam allowances. I pulled my hair out more than a few times. By halfway through though, I had a system for piecing and it all just flowed from there. It’s all hand sewn as well I might add, just to add to my friends telling me that I was crazy.

Modesto Foreclosure Quilt

{Modesto Foreclosure Quilt}

Lisa: That is an amazing story!! You were very determined. What impact do you hope these foreclosure quilts have on the people who see them?

Kathryn: I made these quilts for people today and tomorrow. For the people who were directly affected, there is a feeling of shame and I feel that’s wrong. Most of the people who lived through the crisis were targeted with predatory lending. They had real hopes of living the ‘American Dream’. A little diversion here about that: I’m sure there were people who took advantage of the system but I really believe that the majority just didn’t know what they were getting into. You bought a house recently (congratulations!) and did you read your Truth and Lending statement they handed you before signing the papers? My husband did when we bought our house in 1998 and I can tell you he was fuming when we went in for the signing. We almost walked away. The paper they had handed to us didn’t match the Statement we had agreed to. They had changed the paperwork to their advantage. I’m guessing millions of other homeowners didn’t delicately read their documents when signing their papers or just didn’t understand the lending jargon. I also made the quilts for the people who are naysayers, the NIMBY’s who told everyone that there was no crisis in their neighborhood. Oftentimes, a foreclosure isn’t obvious from the street. It hit everywhere and spared no group of people.

Detroit Foreclosure Quilt KClark

{Detroit Foreclosure Quilt}

I also made these quilts for future generations. After all of my research (Alyssa Katz’s “Our Lot” is a fantastic place to start), I learned this was not the first foreclosure crisis we’ve had; we have forgotten the past. There was a huge foreclosure crisis in the 1930’s that coincided with the stock market crash but that history is dying along with the people who lived through it. The stories become buried in newspapers that are thrown aside or hidden away on microfiche. I wanted something that would be laid on a bed or hanging up on a wall in the future to tell a story about the past. Honestly, who could ask for a more appropriate place for these quilts to hang than in the Smithsonian?!

Cleveland Foreclosure Quilt KClark

{Cleveland Foreclosure Quilt}

Lisa: The Renwick at the Smithsonian is currently closed for renovations, yes? Tell us about when and where people can see your quilt once the gallery reopens.

Kathryn: The Renwick has a grand reopening planned for this November called “Wonder”. Afterwards, the new permanent collection will be on view starting in the summer 2016, exact date TBD. My quilt should be a part of that exhibition. I certainly will be at the opening!

Cleveland detail 02

{Detail of Cleveland Foreclosure Quilt}

Lisa: What are you working on now? Will the foreclosure project continue? Any goals for that project or new projects?

Kathryn: Well, it seems that the foreclosure crisis has mostly subsided somewhat (never say never though as I’m seeing a bubble happen all over again right now), so I’m focusing my attention on other projects. I’ve created a new website called www.blocklabstudio.com where I design quilt block patterns that reflect what’s relevant in the world today. The block patterns will tell stories, just as traditional quilt patterns did years ago, but these are our contemporary stories: drought, racism, equality, revolution etc. I’m in the idea generating stage at the moment. One of these ideas will likely turn into another investigative project like the foreclosure quilts. It will depend on how the media handles the issue. If I feel like they’re not addressing the story well or misinterpreting the facts, I will feel the need to create a body of work around it.

Lisa: Thank you so much for tell your story, Kathryn! I am so inspired by everything you make and do.

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