Following the threads is a metaphor that communicates and helps me remember, and connect with, the process nature of learning and creating… It is another way to describe “being in the flow.”
The path that led me to textile design has involved a rather circuitous route. My educational background includes art college studio courses in ceramics, photography, weaving and design; academic studies culminating in a PhD; and training in Buddhist and contemplative psychology. But I have come to appreciate that the approach I use in my creative work was learned prior to all that; perhaps first of all, from time spent with my grandmother.
My grandmother never threw anything out. When my grandfather had finished wearing a suit, she would rip it apart at the seams and reuse the material to make clothes for various grandchildren. I remember the thick woollen pants she made for me one winter, and the feel of the soft flannelette she’d lined them with. A skein of wool left over from knitting a large sweater would later be knit into mittens, strips on a sock, or crocheted into a patch for an afghan. In one instance, left over wool became black kittens knit into front panels of a burgundy sweater she made for me when I was six or seven years old.
Buttons from worn out clothes were cut off and placed in large jars she kept in a cupboard behind her treadle sewing machine. I remember when she would let me pour the contents of the jars on to the kitchen table, and her teaching me how to sort through them looking for a set of just the right size, shape and colour to fit the garment she was making. Small pieces of fabric which remained from yardage after patterns had been cut out would be folded together, bound with a scrap of material or a rubber band, and placed in bags in the closet of the unheated sun porch over the kitchen--built years earlier when my aunt had tuberculosis. Bundles would accumulate there until the next time my grandmother started a quilt. I would sit with her as she sorted through cloth, choosing colours and patterns to create her fabric palette. I have one of the last quilts she ever made. On each block a fan of autumn coloured fabrics; stitched by her hands. Touching it reminds me of the texture of her life.
My grandmother always had a number of projects going at the same time. The traces of these activities were present as sounds, smells, flavours, textures, colours--pots of fragrant soup, pickles, jellies or jams simmering on the stove, the bubbles accompanying the rhythm of her foot on the treadle of her sewing machine, and eventually the whir of its electric motor; brightly patterned quilts stretched on frames in the living room or sun porch, waiting to be touched; fragile seedlings growing in the kitchen windows in early spring; scraps of rough wool fabric saved for hooking rugs; tins of cheese biscuits, peanut butter cookies, and donuts seasoned with nutmeg stored in the pantry; dress patterns pinned on cotton or velvet, ready to be cut; pencilled grocery lists, ingredients for meals she was planning; a bag of knitting in the sitting room, waiting to be picked up after supper. The activities going on in the different rooms of her home always contained evidence of the materiality of relationship through which our lives were sewn, woven, hooked, and knitted together.
My grandmother was a wonderful cook. She taught me that you didn't have to follow a recipe exactly--that often the results were better if you didn't. I would watch her cook and notice how she improvised with ingredients and amounts. I could see, and smell, and taste the results. I loved to watch her hands as she worked, and the movements of her body: cutting shortening into flour for pie dough, rolling it out into soft cream coloured circles, lifting these into pie plates, slicing fruit into the hollows, dotting each with butter, a squeeze of lemon, a dusting of spices, placing another circle of pastry on top, pinching the two together to form a scalloped rim, the knife in her hand moving in circles around the edge of the plates cutting away the excess.
She taught me that you could ignore the instructions that came with sewing patterns and their yardage recommendations, showing me alternative ways to layout the filmy brown patterns, so they would take less material. She showed me how to adjust patterns so they would be a better fit for different body shapes. I remember her describing yellow fabric with a small floral print she had bought for the first dress she ever made, how she purchased it on a trip into town by horse and wagon from the farm she grew up on; and the way my world shifted when she told me that she had made it without a pattern. At times she would say to me in a rather mock-disparaging way that she wasn't a "real" seamstress because of her unorthodox methods, but I could hear that we both knew that the results were every bit as good and sometimes maybe better.
The teachings passed on in the ways she lived and worked, from her being in the world, instructed me in deep ways. These lessons were not "taught" as such; they were given in the feel and rhythm, in the fragrance and taste of her life. Not argued for but an argument, my grandmother's teachings were different from the pedagogy of home or school, where ideas and morals where asserted or argued about but not always carried over into action.
It was in the relationship with my grandmother that I learned the pleasures of design and the nuances of choosing colours and putting patterns together. These were always chosen with consideration of the person for whom they were being made, or the particularities of their use. It was from her that I absorbed the importance of quality materials and tailoring--the things she created were made to last. Most of the clothing she made for one grandchild was passed along to their younger brothers and sisters, or to cousins; and later to their children. One Nova Scotia tartan jacket continues to be a cherished garment, most recently worn by one of her great-great grandchildren.
Watching her, I learned to treat every scrap of material as potentially useful, to recycle what was no longer serviceable into new forms, and, perhaps most importantly, she showed me that it is possible to create hope and beauty in the world through the ways one attends to the details of daily life. Through my connections with her I learned to value pragmatism, to become a generalist, to create my own recipes, and to know that when a pattern doesn't fit it can often be altered or cut differently to satisfy the need.
Over the years, I have worked as a fine art and production ceramicist, as an actress and wardrobe mistress, as a fine art archival printer and photographer, as a part-time university lecturer, and for many years as a psychotherapist in private practice. My photographs have been exhibited in numerous solo shows and are featured in private collections in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
These various threads are now being woven together, informing and inspiring kateMCKENNA. I work with my photographs as “scraps of material;” recycling them into new forms. I choose to print the designs on silk, mindful of the materiality of sensual pleasure. By attending to the details, I strive to celebrate and contribute to beauty in the world.