Kat Howard: The Power of Claiming the Narrative

Domesticity + The Body of Women

I make work that addresses how the female body has been viewed over time, with a raw, direct approach to narrative and an emphasis on texture. The language of my visual art and my poetry is simple, yet explicit and fully charged. I’m interested in women’s relationships to their bodies, and the roles that their bodies have played throughout history. I am particularly intrigued by the public and private functions of the body as they are represented in the intimate, domestic settings of book art and fiber art. 

‘Uncaged’ 14 x 21 inches, 2015. This piece was inspired by the medical consequences of corsetry and patriarchal domination over the female body. It is a play on the aftermath of the corset being removed, based on Victorian X-rays.
History as a Lens

I was initially attracted to fiber as a medium when I was in graduate school. I have an MFA in Poetry and an MFA in Studio Art concentrating in Book + Paper Art. Before I develop an idea in to an artwork, I always begin with historical research and a poetic response that I write to process and break open that history. It was while conceptualizing my thesis, ‘Cornered,’ that I began to explore textiles as a medium. I wanted to play with fiber in a more visceral way than simply through paper + text.

The project interrogated woman’s relationship to the domestic space, themes of the gothic, and the haunting dependence that some women have with the home, historically and even in the present. To articulate this idea, I made paper quilts out of handmade paper, and embroidered my own writing on to the quilts combined with language from the diaries of the Brontë sisters, as a lens through which to explore the woman whose home and most intimate surroundings are the very instruments of the imprisonment of her mind, body and personhood. The Brontës frequently turned towards their intimate surroundings as a metaphor for emotions and feelings that they were forbidden to express outright in the home. The paper quilts were then installed as a human sized tunnel book, which appeared to breathe and close in on the viewer as they walked between the walls, so they too would feel cornered. I’m drawn to capturing charged landscapes, and the relationship between our bodies and the physical settings that either restrain or liberate us.

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Speaking the Language of Textiles

After graduate school, I branched out in to weaving; I wanted to keep pushing myself creatively, and I was transfixed by how the material and texture of the object of woven work could draw the viewer in.

There’s something innate about textiles, some primal connection we all have to cloth; there’s a hidden lexicon in weaving, and I wanted to use it to articulate these raw ideas I have about its connection to the body.

I’m fascinated how historically women worked within the constraints of the domestic space to express themselves, and how their mark making was an attempt to make the true self known; to force the female body to be seen outside of its bound, traditional context. The labor behind weaving is so important to my work. It is a medium of art where you can’t help but be floored by the hours, the precision, and the repetition that is necessary to execute an idea: all of these things are a powerful metaphor for women’s work.

There’s strength in this quiet, fevered language.

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‘Moon in Net’ 22 inches x 22 inches, 2018.

“I am just the messenger, my hands have not marked this history,” is repeated over and over again in the historical documents I encounter during my research while conceptualizing my art. In my work, I try to capture this moment that occurs where society turns away from what is happening, in an attempt to hold the eye open. Historical themes I’ve examined in my work include, how corsets altered women’s bodies, the Trail of Tears, Victorian mourning practices, and witches.

Through weaving I feel like I am really able to convey the collective voice of women who have been pushed down, but rose back up again, in thousands of tiny stitches, textures, and tones. 

‘The Bones of our Ancestors are Rooted in the Mountains’, 48 inches x 42 inches, 2016 inspired by the Trail of Tears
‘Behemoth’ 44 x 36 inches, 2015 inspired by the anonymous voice of women storytellers
‘The Topography of Bound Grief’ 44 x 30 inches, 2016 inspired by Victorian mourning practices
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‘Witch’s Marks’ 7 x 7 inches, 2017 inspired by the systematic persecution of women as witches throughout the ages, for tiny flaws and imperfections

A particular period that has consumed me is the history of women persecuted as witches. In the era of witch hunting, any imperfection on a woman could be used as evidence as a devil’s mark, and condemn her to the fire. In ‘Witch’s Marks’ I made a collection of intimate tapestries depicting portraits of flaws on my body. It is part of a series of six displayed in a specimen box and held in place with dissection pins. In ‘Smoke Portrait: Janet Horne,’ the first in a series, I wove a six foot tall plume of smoke depicting the pyre of the last woman who was burned alive.

By using history as a lens to examine the female body, I am able to explore the charged awareness of my own body and identity as a survivor of physical and sexual violence. 

‘Smoke Portrait: Janet Horne’ 3 feet x 6 feet, 2018
Inspiration + Advice

Artists whose work bears witness to acts of violence against women have always inspired my practice, including Kiki Smith, Doris Salcedo, Louise Bourgeois and Jenny Holzer.

Advice I would give to an aspiring textile artist is: have fun with the brainstorming phase, but leave room to let yourself play in the making of the piece. With each artistic choice you make, ask yourself, what is that choice doing to further your overall theme or concept, whether it’s the color or texture of the yarn, the scale of the piece, or an aspect of the design. If it’s tricky to answer that question, you might want to challenge yourself to think in a new direction. Don’t be afraid to take risks with your work, conceptually, or structurally. Sometimes we have an idea that we want to explore, but are too nervous to really put it out there.

Just know that it’s when we allow for vulnerability in our art, that we connect the most with others.

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Kat Howard was born in Rochester, New York in 1984. She earned a BA in Creative Writing from Brandeis University in 2006, and worked at the Whitney Museum of American Art until 2010, when she left the museum world to pursue MFAs in Poetry & Studio Art, which she received from Mills College in 2013. Since graduating, she has been working as an independent artist exhibiting her work across the country, and abroad. She also teaches book art and weaving workshops. Kat lives and works in Kingston, New York at the foothills of the Catskill Mountains set deep in the Hudson Valley.

She has a solo show of work opening Friday, September 28, 2018 at Rebecca Peacock in Kingston, NY. 

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