Kathy Tidswell was interviewed by Mark Kilfoil on CHSR's (97.9FM) program "The Lunchbox," on July 6th, 2018.
MK: Hi Kathy, it’s nice to meet you today.
KT: Nice to meet you.
MK: We’re down in the (Soldiers’) Barracks once more, and I’m having a chance to chat with another one of the wonderful artists down here. First of all, your title “fibre artist,” I love this title because it covers a lot of different potentialities. How do you express that?
KT: I paint on fabric and use free-motion stitching to add texture. So, because it is fibre, I consider myself a fibre artist.
MK: So did you start out as a painter and then decide you wanted that extra dimension?
KT: No, I was at an executive quilt guild meeting and saw a little what <indistinct> thread paintings, and it had beautiful little cottages, British cottages with flowers and everything in the background, and it was painted with free-motion embroidery and it just kind of spoke to me. So I worked from there, trying to develop my own methods. There was a book in the library, just a small edition, and it just said use acrylic paint, so I started full painting paints which didn’t really work. Anyway, I got my sewing skills to where I thought they were good enough, but not my art skills, so I took oil painting lessons from Daniel Price for about five years, that fit into the family schedule since it was in the day time, and I took some watercolour lessons and drawing lessons.
MK: So you kind of brought this almost full circle a couple of times then? Starting with basic sketching and then doing the embroidery over it, and then the better painting and the embroidery over it. So you described it as “free stitching”?
KT: Free-motion, so any regular zigzag sewing machine, and you lower the teeth that normally pull it through. So when you do that, your needle will go up and down and if you put it in zigzags, it will go sideways, but it won’t move anywhere. So you put your work in a hoop, and you move the hoop to create a stitch; so a basic sewing machine.
MK: Were you doing a lot of sewing? Was that part pretty natural to you already?
KT: I didn’t do any sewing until after I graduated from university; my mom used to make all my clothes, but I wasn’t interested. I used to do same hand-embroidery things like some hand-quilting, but I took sewing class after I graduated from university, and then when I had my first child I stayed home from work, after having worked for eleven years, and we got a little craft group in the community Burtts Corner, so we all started off doing things like tacky Christmas ornaments, and then we all started sewing and making appliques and quilting, got better machines.
MK: So this has been something that, while you initially weren’t thinking about doing, you got more and more engaged with it over time. And then that book, you said, kind of changed everything.
KT: Right. My daughter lives in the UK, and most of the work is done in the UK and Australia, I mean it’s done in Canada, but the hotbed of it is there, so it was kind of like a dream of mine that I would do something in the UK. So in 2007, I did take a four-day course with Alison Holton Wales. It was good, and it was kind of like life’s ambition to go there.
MK: That must’ve been pretty amazing. What was the course on?
KT: So, she does the sort of work I do, except she paints on silk, and then uses free-motion embroidery on the silk, so it was just up my alley. I like realistic things, and her work is very, very detail-oriented and realistic.
MK: Now, working on silk; you have to be pretty confident to be working on silk I suspect.
KT: Yes, and I stuck with my cotton when I got back home. Silk spreads much more; her work doesn’t leave very much background. The silk is painted, a lot of it acts as a guide to where you’re going to stitch. So with a lot more stitching in some spots, and she uses cotton threads, so it’s a dull thread against the silk background, where I use cotton, which is a dull fibre, with a rayon thread, which has a seam. So it’s sort of reversed.
MK: With painting, most of the time, you can paint over a mistake that might be made. How do you do it with the sewing? Or is it something where every mistake is just an opportunity?
KT: You can. It’s not easily done, but you can.
MK: So how much time does it take to make a piece? Is there any kind of notion?
KT: That dog took me forty hours.
MK: So that dog is about, I’d say, six by eight or something like that?
MK: So is that over a painting or is that all thread?
KT: Well, the background, the green, is painted, and the stitching is done on a quilt, and then I cut it out and attached it.
MK: That’s quite a commitment to a piece. How do you keep yourself motivated? Is it that you see every thread make that massive difference or is it more of “don’t think about until the day has passed?”
KT: Sometimes when you’re starting off it looks pretty ugly; things don’t blend until you get to the end. So it’s just experience that keeps you going. That was the neighbour’s dog, it had been in a swimming pool, so its hair was kind of shaggy compared to what it normally would be. But I wanted to do a few dogs. And I’ve done quite a few birds. People generally like those because I make them dimensional, so I stitch the birds, it’s all done free-motion, and then attach it and make it three-dimensional.
MK: So when you say the extra three dimensions, you’re putting some cotton matting behind this or just thicker material?
KT: When the stitching is all done, it’s basically like a crest. And I cut it out as close to the edge as I can, about an eighth of an inch, and I stitch that edge on, and I found that if I just ease the other edge in a bit, it’ll get puffed out. That was the first one I’d done, it was on quilts and cedar-wax wings and I took it, and for some reason, because it was a dimensional object, all the ladies wanted to push on it. They did spring out, but now I call it my “security blanket,” and I put a little bit of something in the back. I guess because it’s three-dimensional it draws fingers.
MK: This is something different, perhaps, with the kind of art you’re doing than perhaps a typical painting. With most people, you’re not supposed to touch the painting. In fact, if you did, you’d probably discover that, with the layers of the paint that are on there, it does not have the texture you expect from the image. But your work probably does have more of the texture you might expect, because you’re working in textured lines.
KT: Generally, pieces that are more expensive and I’ve put more time in I frame under glass, just to protect them. There’s sort of two minds of thought; years ago, there were some people that, if you wanted to join the craft council and you had glass over your piece, you would not be accepted if it was fibre.
MK: So they were insisting it be touched?
KT: They didn’t want people to touch it, but they thought that you might get humidity with glass or that it was fibre and it should be seen. But that doesn’t keep fly dirt and that sort of stuff off of it.
MK: Do you find a lot of your ones that are covered in glass, you tilt them at the end of the day if they’ve been on exhibition to see if they’ve got all the fingerprints?
KT: No, I wouldn’t notice that as a problem. But some of the birds that I’ve had, I’ve had to put a little sign that says “please do not touch” because it would just get them to shop more.
MK: So the work that you’re doing, it’s another one of those interesting crossovers. We already talked about how you do the painting and then the stitching on top of the painting, but you’re working kind of in individual lines, and then filling in areas with individual lines. It reminds me in some way almost like a tattoo artist than a painter, do you understand the combination of what I’m thinking there? Ever think of it that way? Fabric tattoos?
KT: No, but maybe it would make my name more popular, you never know.
MK: Most people, when they’re using a sewing machine, their effort is to try and keep the line straight intentionally. Is it easier in a way not to make the line intentionally straight, or how much steadiness do you need in your hand to make that happen?
KT: You need quite a bit of steadiness, but it’s much harder free-motion than it if you’re using a feed dog because they would be helping guide you on the line.
MK: Did you have to buy a special sew machine to do it?
KT: Just needed to have an darning foot. Machine quilters do free-motion quilting; it’s the same concept. I teach some quilting classes too, I kind of cross over.
MK: Have you always done it with a machine or did you ever start by hand?
KT: I hand-quilted three quilts back in the 90’s for my daughters’ bunk beds and the whole time I was hand-quilting I was wishing I was up in my sewing room, and my husband used to say I don’t know how you can call it your own quilt if you don’t quilt it.
MK: I’m pretty sure that you still need needles and you still need technology of some kind, even if you’re doing it by hand. So I don’t know if you can call a sewing machine just a fancy needle in a case and say it’s still by hand.
KT: A lot of people will piece their top and then send it out to somebody to quilt on a machine quilt.
MK: I remember the living room at home when I was growing up filled with quilt from time to time. Even a few of the quilts that ended up with my stitches on it still didn’t quite go straight. So if only I had known I could just call it art, although it didn’t look much like art either.
KT: Well you’re looking at this one, which I’m wanting straight lines because it’s a river, but if you look at something like my trees there, well I suppose I’ve still got straight lines going up the trees. I really hadn’t thought of it so much as straight lines, but I guess there are a lot of straight lines.
MK: But I mean, the other thing that comes to mind is illustration. Did you ever do illustration?
MK: So what’s amazing about that is you seem to have the right knack and the right eye, you’re just using something other than a pen or a pencil to do illustrations.
KT: Well it is like drawing with a needle.
MK: Now this one we’re sitting beside, you say this is the one you’re working on right now? You actually started with a photograph.
KT: Yes, this photograph right here.
MK: So are we now adding onto this process? Not only are you a painter and a needleworker, you’re a photographer in that too.
KT: Yes, I’ve always been interested in photography so most of the things I do are from my own photographs.
MK: So starting with that photograph, I can see here already there are differences between the two that are created so is it as much an inspiration as a recreation?
KT: My daughter, I sent a picture of something I was working on. She said “I could see you have progressed mom, you used to just try and duplicate the picture, and now I see more interpreting it.”
MK: That’s kind of fascinating, so the process, is it done in layers? Are you purposely having to do like a background layer and then sewing over that layer or is it very distinct lines?
KT: Well the whole painting is all done for the background in one or two sittings, I might do it over a couple of days, but that’s totally finished before I start any stitching. And then you have to heat-set that with an iron to make sure it won’t fade, and then I start the stitching.
MK: Do you stitch on top of layers of stitching or is it always one layer?
KT: There might be the odd spot where there was a little bit over another, because if you’re looking for perspective, you may have something here, and then at the front, something will come up over it. So not a whole bunch of layers for sure.
MK: So this one is probably about the same size as the dog and the end? I think the frame might be a little bit larger, almost an 8 1/2 by 11 actually.
KT: Yeah, this was the drawing I did, which was 8 1/2 by 11. I had wondered if I may shorten it down and try to make it longer and narrower, if it would make it more impressive.
MK: Is this the largest size you typically work on?
KT: No, I did a commission piece that was 36 by 2.
MK: That’s a pretty unwieldy piece of cloth to work with. Is that in sections and reattached or is that all done at once?
KT: The painting is done at once, but then when you’re working with the hoop, you have to be moving the hoop.
MK: Oh, so the hoop goes onto this as well.
KT: That gives you a flat surface.
MK: So you can attach the hoop below and above, much like needlework then.
KT: Yep, it’s the opposite if you were doing it by hand; bottom piece would be on the top so that it would come over here. So this just makes a flat surface and it helps prevent wrinkles. I detest wrinkles in things, so there’s a stabilizer underneath here and the hoop, and that allows it to be smoother, like it’s held taught when you’re stitching.
MK: With this too, you can get some incredible level of detail. What’s the smallest piece you’ve worked on? I see a few behind us here, you’ve got some oval framing around, but they probably were 2 by 3? And then some more over here, maybe a little smaller than that? It seems like the majority of the ones you’ve done here are about that size.
KT: Well, those are the ones I brought in here because pieces are unwieldy to hang, and I figured these might attract tourists; they could pack them easily.
MK: So what’s it like being down here in the casemates where you’re working kind of out in public. Is this something you have experience with a lot? Like where people get to see the process and talk to you directly about it?
KT: I shared space here in the casemates for about seven or eight years, back a few years ago, and there were three or four of us, and we always worked out a schedule and I always had my sewing machine here to work so I’m used to people coming in and asking me.
MK: Does it feel kind of like a kitchen atmosphere? People just kind of wandering in and saying hi? I don’t know if people wander into your home necessarily (laughs), but it seems like the Maritime kitchen is the centre-point of a lot of people’s social encounters at home.
KT: It’d be nice to think that, sometimes I find people just stand out there and they have a neck like a giraffe and they seem scared to walk over the surface. I don’t know whether we’re scary or what.
MK: The idea too is to ask questions to find out more about it. Do you work ever in clothing or is it strictly more sort of portraits?
KT: I have done quite a few wearable art pieces for myself. I have won a couple of awards for those.
MK: What kind of awards?
KT: Canadian Quilters’ Association, and at the National Jewellery Show I made a trapunto jacket way back in 1999, I was the winner for all of Canada. And in 2005 I got honourable mentions in the Canadian Quilters’ Association.
MK: What’s it like seeing stuff that people are doing across the country? Must be kind of rewarding to see the reflection of the same kind of art.
KT: That’s my other side. There isn’t really a venue for what I call thread paintings. I don’t fit into a niche.
MK: Is that your term for it? Thread painting?
KT: It is a term. If you Google it, it has different meanings. So some will be hand-stitching, but majority of people think of it as stitching on a painted surface or even on taught fabric and free-motion stitching.
MK: You mentioned earlier that you teach as well. Is this specifically the stuff you’re teaching? These threading techniques?
KT: Yes, I do a class in painting backgrounds that you could use if you were doing embroidery or quilts. One coming up September 12th or 15th and my home gallery in Burtts Corner. I can take five students, and then the next week I have one on free-motion stitching. I teach a lot of applique in other classes but I’m going to the UK this September so I just scheduled those two and haven’t sorted out my schedule for after that.
MK: Are you going to back for another course?
KT: I’m actually doing three presentations for some groups in England, and visiting my daughter who’s in Preston.
MK: Sounds like fun. Where can people find out more about the work you do and maybe find out about the courses or see stuff that they might want to pick up from you.
KT: www.kathytidswell.com and I do have an exhibition coming up at the Charlotte Street Arts Centre. The opening will be August 3rd and it will run through to October.
MK: Is there a theme to that exhibition?
KT: I’m just calling it Nature’s Thread 2018, and there will be both wall quilts and thread paintings.
MK: Well thank you very much.
KT: Thank you.
Listen to the full interview here.
Charlotte Simmons, FAA Summer Events Coordinator 2018