Conversations with the Makers

An array of questions to fibre/textile artists and their answers.

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Conversation with Kathryn Harmer Fox, South Africa

Kathryn Harmer Fox
I am a multi-media artist with fibre as my overriding passion. I use my sewing machine like you would an oversized pencil, as a creative tool. I have covered thousands of kilometres with it, travelling down many a lesser known road; using less traditional fibres like used tea/coffee bags and grits, the inner, foil lining of beverage containers; burning, tearing, slashing - anything to get me to the place I see just ahead. As an artist, I am moved by everything that I see and experience around me. My works have been inspired by littler bones of driftwood collected from the beach, the unwashed wool from a shorn sheep, china plates hanging on a wall, animal hides spread across the floor, my own hands folded in my lap. It is representational rather than abstract – mine is a direct exploration of the outer surfaces rather than a delving meander into the inner recesses. I love the process of creation, it takes me to a place of almost mythical proportion. There is nothing more enlivening than making a piece of art work.

Conversation with the Makers(CWTM) Did you always envision a life as an artist?

Kathryn Harmer Fox (KHF) In between wanting to be a vet or an explorer. As a little girl, I remember always being able to draw and by the time I reached high school that ability had grown into a very definite life vision.


CWTM What was your first experience with making art?

KHF I have a shocking memory and usually rely on family and friends to fill in the gaps. I do recall myself at about 8 or 9, taking great pride in a school project in which I had drawn the outlines of objects in which to write. My next memory is as a 15 year old and illustrating a friend’s book of poems. 

CWTM Do you have a dedicated studio?

KHF Yes – a large one with white, flaking walls, paint splattered floor, high fabric-varnished wooden tables and windows that look out over the ocean. It has its own staircase leading up the side of the house to a cadmium red door which always stands wide open letting in the rain, wind, sun and a visiting friend or two.


CWTM Can you describe a typical day?

KHF I get up, feed the cat and make myself a cup of coffee. I deal with my mail and then get on with sewing/painting/drawing. (Sometimes I make the bed but often we have to unravel it as best we can that night). If I have something that I am busy on I will jump right in and continue where I left off. Those days are the best ones – I know exactly what I am doing and the house must see to itself. The other days, the ones empty of pieces being worked on, are the pointless ones; I call this the dead or down time and cannot wait to fill it up with making once again.


CWTM Would you consider your art making to be more about the process than the outcome?

KHF Most definitely! It is the making that shifts me. The act of creating drives me. At first it is hard work covering the blank spaces. I am doing all the talking – I am dictating to the art work. Then the art work begins to emerge and the hard work becomes a joyful dance – the art piece tells me where it is going. All I have to do is listen. This is the magical moment when time ceases to exist and I am lost but with a definite direction. The pleasure taken from the product is something different – there is a sense of achievement and a definite enjoyment in the thing itself if it works as an art piece.  This pleasure is magnified by others both communicating their appreciation and/or their willingness to trade their money in order to own it. The best part still remains - the glorious action of the making.


CWTM Do you agree that a small element of uncertainty about the finished look is what makes the process of creating so enticing?

KHF I haven’t really thought about this before.  Once I have reached the place where the work is telling me what to do, there is very little uncertainty. All I have to do is remember to step back more and more often and just look. If I am listening, then I will know exactly what to do next. Perhaps the enticement of which you speak is in the beginning, that time where planning and hard work is still needed; where the options are still wide open….yes that can be very enticing. 

CWTM Any indispensable tools and equipment?

KHF My sewing machines and mark-making tools. 

CWTM Do your pieces start with a planned course of action or are they more spontaneous?

KHF Some of my pieces can take days/weeks in the mulling, starting as a concept and developing into a separate and careful drawing whilst others spring from a hastily scribbled sketch made directly onto a scrap of canvas. Totally unplanned, spontaneous action or fully developed and considered concept, both methods eventually reach that same timeless, magical space which is so fulfilling.


CWTM How do you know when to “stop” – when do you consider a piece actually finished?

KHF A piece is finished when I sign my name to it. (Something I sometimes forget to do). This part is difficult because it comes along during the dancing, fun time and even though my shoulders may be aching (especially with the large pieces) I know that I am just fiddling about and I need to consider how I am going to ‘frame’ or display the art work. Textile art still has a whole, other process lying ahead of completion of the art part: border, backing, hanging mechanism, mounting etc. The ‘framing’ of fibre art is fraught with many, many more choices than say a water colour or an oil painting or a drawing.


CWTM Your greatest source of inspiration is….

KHF Absolutely everything! I am a great believer in the concept that it is not the subject matter which makes the art but the rendition of said subject matter. It could be a mound of litter with scavenging gulls wheeling about in the air; it could be the reptilian gleam of a goat’s eye; it could be the cat stretched out in a spilt milk blotch of sunlight; it could be my two painted children; perhaps it is the smell of seaweed on a drifted wood scattered beach; the etched illustrations in a grand old dictionary; my own hand lying idle or pointed into a pose. 

CWTM Favourite quote?

KHF Have I mentioned my shocking memory? I love Desiderata - it is quote after quote taken from a recipe for a successfully lived life. For the purposes of this interview, I will use something that I firmly believe to be true: “The ability to draw frees you as an artist and is a learned skill rather than a talent”.


CWTM When do you do your best creative thinking?

KHF Ah this cannot be controlled. It may attack at the most inopportune moment and I have to listen. A work that won me a fabulous sewing machine was sketched out in the sand with a piece of stick while watching my husband fish. I sketch onto all sorts of surfaces and have recently learnt the craft of book-making so now I make my own sketch books into which I paste all the loose bits and pieces.


CWTM What do you enjoy the most about your work?

KHF Besides the magical time of which I have already spoken at length, I am interested in almost all crafts and love making things. Working with my hands is completely satisfying. It is thrilling to be able to make something that you can either use or sell. I love the fact that I am completely self-reliant in my work. I do not need staff to execute my desires – I can do it all myself. That independence is wonderful. I shall never retire.


CWTM Best advice you’ve ever received?

KHF As a student, I used to sit in shopping centers and draw portraits for extra money. I was inordinately proud of myself so took one to show off to my painting lecturer – a very, quiet, considerate man whose drawings were exceptional. He, very quietly and calmly said: “their only purpose is in their payment and that is not necessarily a bad thing”; He taught me that arrogance never makes good art and that art has different purposes for different people.


CWTM Worst advice you’ve ever received?

KHF Naturally I cannot remember. 

CWTM Best part of your day

KHF I am repeating myself but I cannot imagine what life would be like without that timeless, magical space in which pure creation is happening. 

CWTM Who would be 6 people that you would invite to dinner?

KHF My daughter, my son, my husband, a musician to make us dance and a very funny person to make our bellies ache.


CWTM What inspires your creativity?

KHF Well executed and thoughtful creations of other artists and crafts people. Sumptuous and glorious fabrics. Ideas that take hold and don’t let go. Beautiful design, whether it is a sewing machine or a pair of scissors.  Work spaces filled with tools and equipment and stuff. Where do I stop?

CWTM What are you excited about right now in the world of textile art?

KHF The fact that it is appearing more and more into the mainstream galleries and therefore into the publics’ awareness is incredibly exciting. I love the fact that this genre is so massive, that it is comprehensive enough to incorporate sculpture, painting, ceramics, graphics into its domain and that it can be applied to clothing, furniture, fine art, decorative art. It is available to housemen, craftsmen and artists alike. Textile art is in itself incredibly exciting.


CWTM You’d be lost without….

KHF Drawing surfaces. 

CWTM What would you do with a few extra hours each day?

KHF More of what I am doing at the moment. 

CWTM Your favorite luxury in life?

KHF Piles of gorgeous fabric, reams of beautiful paper, boxes of enticing drawing and painting tools, drawers full of cutting, punching, sewing equipment and a designated space in which to use them all.


CWTM Has the advancement of computers and technology impacted your work?

KHF Yes it certainly has. I have a digital camera and am therefore able to take hundreds of pictures which I use as reference for most of my work. I create other pieces from a combination of images (sometimes dozens for one work) which I am able to access from the internet – so much more convenient than keeping a pack of wild dogs in my back garden or harnessing a rhino to the porch post. I use my Face Book Artist’s page as an online gallery. I am able to connect with other artists at the touch of a fingertip and during ‘down or dead time’ I can trawl the net for inspiration. Even though I am rather challenged in this field, I love being a part of the computer age. 

CWTM What do enjoy most about your work?

KHF The making of it and in some cases, the work itself.


CWTM Is it important for us to be recognized by the art world and if so, how can we help affect that change?

KHF Whether it be recognition or a viewing audience that is necessary to an artist is a moot point but I do think that the viewer has to be considered in the creation of art.  I as a fibre artist want my audience to be enthralled, surprised by this incredible medium.  I want them to be intrigued and fascinated by my techniques and ultimately, pleased or moved by their combined affect. Although textile/fibre art, like street art, is making it into many mainstream galleries, I would like to see much, much more of it out there. In hotels, department stores, office blocks. We, the fibre/textile artists can only continue making it and through our increasing sales, passionate teachings and updated public platforms, share this incredible, tactile, powerful, contemporary/ ancient  and very, very addictive art form.


CWTM What is next for you?

KHF I love teaching and have traveled all over South Africa sharing various workshops. Teaching in Australia in 2015 will be my first trip over the seas and I am hoping that there will be many more and especially into my beloved Africa.  So, expanding my teaching base is very high on my agenda, as is my next art work, whatever that may be. I would like to write a ‘how to make things’ book covering all of the different crafts that have taken me by the hand and shown me a thing or two; How to make a pair of whimsical shoes on your sewing machine; a sketch book stuffed full of sayings/drawings; a painted handbag; a fibre art piece to drape over a bed, cover a chair or suspend from the wall;  a fabulous pair of traveling trousers displaying a collection of scraps; a driftwood frame or door or wall hanging; how to re-energize a drab piece of furniture with paint and fabric. How to use all the creative energy that spills over and enriches our lives.