Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Karen McTavish: Pushing the Boundaries of Quilting

In August and September I followed, and participated some, in the Duluth Quantum Computing Project at 3 West on Superior Street. The project was the brainchild of Kathy McTavish, whose work I have written about on numerous occasions, who continually surprises me with the new territories her art and expressions explore. For two months the site became a collaborative workspace that attracted others in our local arts community, with a number of them leaving something there on display. One of these was a large multi-colored quilt by what turned out to be Kathy McTavish's sister Karen.

While visiting one afternoon I listened to a conversation between Kathy and another woman regarding this quilt. They were discussing how influential and original Karen's work had become, so much so that a quilting technique has been named after her called McTavishing.

Naturally I felt obligated to learn more and last week visited her studio on 8th Street, in part because of this discussion and in pat because of an upcoming art opening I'd been invited to, an unusual group show involving her and a number of other quilters called st1tch... red.

EN: How did you get into quilting and what were you doing previous to that?

Karen McTavish: By the time I was 32 years old I realized working in accounting was something that would never make me very happy. I was not very good with math and the office cubicle seemed to be a death sentence for me. To make a long story short, I got into quilting because I could be self-employed and not have a boss. I liked the idea of being creative, but had no idea how to quilt, so the road block was mountainous.

EN: What brought you to Duluth?

KM: I came to Duluth to live at the Washington Art Studios in 1997 from a 2 year stay in Los Angeles where I met my end in accounting. The goal was to make a living for my daughter and I while living in the studio, doing something I had never tried: quilting. I didn't know any quilters. I had never sewn anything and was faking every second. I literally came to Duluth to quilt. My first quilting machine arrived 4 days after I arrived with my U-Haul. I met my first quilter, named Cheryl Dennison, who lived in the studio doing modern abstract quilting. Ironically, we are still working together in my retail space after almost 20 years.

EN: What is it that makes quilting so fascinating?

KM: There is something about quilting that taps into the part of your mind that feels productive, therapeutic and creative. Like writing music or performing on stage. When I first moved to Duluth, I went to the local library to learn everything I could about quilting. This was well before you could "google" anything so I had to learn the old way -- by reading books. I became a junkie of traditional designs. I found comfort in the traditional methods of quilting -- mostly hand-quilting. I was not a hand-quilter, I was quilting by machine. In 1997 in Duluth, machine quilting was a four-letter word. I was told when I arrived that no one likes machine quilting. I was basically told that if I didn't create work that looked like the Amish, it was garbage. I started to develop my style of quilting based on extremely traditional design elements that found my comfort zone. There is so much useless information in my head about music and quilting. I am fascinated by music and it moves me more than anything else I have ever encountered. When I started machine quilting as a business, music became a companion to the art. I can't quilt with silence, I always have music playing in the studio. I play music so loud sometimes that people will walk into the studio and I have no idea they are there watching me quilt.

EN: There is a technique named after you. What makes the McTavishing style or method unique?

KM: Being isolated from the rest of the quilting world helped me develop a style that is my own. I kept fresh by not comparing my work with others. I felt I had to push the genre into the world of hand-quilters and, most of the time, created from a part of my gut that said my work didn't suck. It's a style of quilting which looks very free flowing, similar to moving water. I didn't name it, the internet did. I originally called it "Cartoon Wonder Woman Hair" but the internet changed it to "McTavishing." As a Duluthian, it about killed me to accept that my last name was now a quilting style. I never thought my legacy would be a quilting stitch or quilting in general.

EN: What prompted you to write your book, Mastering the Art of McTavishing?

KM: This was my second book. My first book was called Whitework Quilting. My publisher, OnWord Bound Books, Duluth MN, wanted to do a soft cover DVD style book with lots of high resolution photos of stitches. The book was one of the top most purchased craft books on the market for some time. My love for books goes back to when I wanted to know "how" to quilt and needed visual examples of quilting. I wanted a book completely dedicated to "stitches." My publisher was open to publish any ideas that I came up with and we have 7 books that went to print.

EN: Tell us about your upcoming show at the Red Herring.

KM: My first love is music. I am a vocalist for projects here and there in Duluth. I have a signature deep voice which is rare in female vocalists. I have a powerful scream, which I find lovely. There is quite a juxtaposition from my quilting career to my musical tastes.

The show at the Red Herring is called "st1tch : : : red" and the website for the show is www.st1tch.io The show will hang for one month. It's a collaborative effort from the misfits of quilting, including myself, Cheryl Dennison, Frank Palmer, Alexander Kain, Scott Lunt and Kathy McTavish.

The reception is set for 11/12/16 from 5 to 8pm with all the artists at the Red Herring. Starting at 9 pm the multi media begins with Kathy McTavish, Reflectivore, Ire Wolves, and a one time event for the opening night, a sewing related performance piece with myself, Frank Palmer and Scott Lunt lead by Kathy McTavish. We will only perform this piece on stage once. I like to think the evening will revolve around tension, stitches and machine. The entire evening is about music, our machines we use to create and why the need is so profound. The music of the evening is a huge part of fiber art. The creation of music and stitches seem so natural. This is why we took months to create the work just for this exhibit. The individual pieces would never be accepted in a normal quilt show. Our tribe is the music scene of Duluth. As a whole, the pieces can be seen without judgement as they are far from traditional boundaries of fiber art. We trust our music community and they want the show to be fearless examples of our passion.


EN: To learn more about your work, do you have a website?

KM: Yes!!! www.mctavishquilting.com My gallery on my website is a detail of what I do and the public is welcome to walk into my retail space and see what we do at any time.

EdNote: The McTavish studio/retail space is located at 1831 East 8th Street adjacent to Benchmark Tattoo, kitty-corner from At Sara's Table. 


IF THIS TOPIC INTERESTS YOU, Karen McTavish's Mastering the Art of McTavishing is available here on Amazon.

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