On a recent snow-bound afternoon, artscope’s Elizabeth Michelman found Brookline, Mass. fiber artist Janet Kawada in her basement studio piecing together cylindrical “homes” with conical roofs from felt she makes herself. Others, fashioned from silk, paper and mink, hung from the ceiling. She had only a month to prepare for her March exhibition at Pine Manor College. For 15 of her 18 years on the Massachusetts College of Art and Design 3-D faculty, Kawada has been teaching “Flexible Structures.” Before she returned to art study in her 30s and discovered felt, she was a professional quilt-maker.
JANET KAWADA: I see the beauty of a lot of these scraps, so I have a hard time putting them in the trash. I like the stitching that binds the pieces. I think our own lives are stitched together of many different things. “Tying Up the Loose Ends” was a name I gave to a show. The more ends you tie up the more you find behind you, so there’s always more.
IT’S HOW A GOLDSMITH WORKS. THE LEFTOVER PIECES ARE KEPT — THEY HAVE VALUE — HOW DID YOU GET ON TO FIBER?
I’ve always done handwork. My grandmother taught me to cross-stitch, crochet, knit, sew and darn. Thread or yarn has always been around. Felt became my medium and I still love it. Through the processes of carding, laying, forming and dyeing, I can create my own “canvas.” About five years ago, I had a moth infestation at the studio, at the time my mom passed away. It made me wonder, “What do we leave behind?” That’s where this work [The Place Between] came from. These are dwellings, but also thoughts about “What is your home, what is really necessary in your life?” You’re always moving from somewhere. The yurt is to me the perfect home. It has everything; everything has its place. When you need to move, you simply pack it all up. But you can’t move it by yourself. So you have to have community to survive, and that’s really important.
YOU LEFT YOUR GALLERY IN 2012. HOW ARE YOU TAPPING INTO YOUR CREATIVITY NOW?
I joined the Kingston [Cooperative Gallery in Boston] in 1998 for 14 years. I was director for four years. But I moved to a different point in my art-making. When my mom passed away, I was really looking at where I wanted to go with my art. I was always working for the show, but I just wanted to work for the work. You come to the studio and have these materials. But what are you going to make? What’s important to me to make? That’s a hard question. This is what I want to be doing right now, making these little houses.
I’ve had time to look at other things. Leaving the gallery gave me time to curate a show. I worked with the Gardner Museum’s artist-in-residence Charmaine Wheatley when she wanted to use the Mass Art paper studio. I worked as facilitator to get her set up and was her point person. And I did work for the ICA Fiber/Sculpture show with my students, re-creating the rope grid of Robert Rohm.
I think spatially, so I consider my work sculpture. I can use wire or found objects, steel or wood, but somewhere in there is the fiber and that’s what’s important to me. There’s a lot of work you can’t really see unless it’s in three dimensions — not on a video screen. With fiber work it’s very important to see it in person. I want my work to be accessible to people, so that they look at it, they have some connection to it and they’re able to see it. Where they see it in the hierarchy of the art world isn’t important to me. That they see it is important.