Friday, March 27, 2009

Kids Allowed

My step-son has artist written all over him. He's much more likely to be found skateboard and IPod in hand than paint brush...but the inherent inclination is there and I'm jazzed. When I met him, nearly six years ago, he was eight and already as individual as one can be when one can't spell individual. Right from the start he was completely curious about everything in my studio and didn't even seem to be phased one bit that the art I made involved a sewing machine. All he saw was the old bits and pieces that were everywhere and went into these cool things I called collages. He never hesitated to try his hand at the ideas he had. And yes, at eight he had ideas...lots of ideas. So much so that when 3 p.m. rolled around and he and his brother strolled through the door with a chorus of "Hey KC!" I knew all my work was about to come to a screeching halt. After all he had had all day to think of what cool things he could make.

Now I never had children. Never had to share a remote control much less my sacred studio with a child. And I had come from a family of all girls and my mother had come from a family of all girls. When my nephew was born and they came out to tell the family it was boy we all kind of looked at each other like...what the heck are we supposed to do with one of those! And I'm not going to lie to you...those days of stopping my work and relinquishing my art supplies to a little boy who never stopped making noises (I learned early on that if male children didn't have anything to say they made sound effects) while he made his creations was hard on me. Made me down right grumpy at times. But he was so into it. I would tuck away the really rare fabrics and trims, but other than that I let him have at it. It was just another form of babysitting to me.

But then I started noticing little things and not so little things. The way he observed the world around him, soaking it in, his ability to mimic (quite hysterically) the voices he heard. How his face lit up when I told him he could have a small piece of canvas and handed him some acrylics and a brush. He didn't just go into my studio and scribble some cute little kid rainbow. He put headphones on and found the right music so he could feel what he was painting. Don't look at me! When he was given an assignment to write poems in 4th grade, he tackled it with great enjoyment and seriousness and wrote a small booklet of poems that could take your breath away. His teacher told us that this young man was the kind of student he got up for in the mornings. Us too.

But when he came home from school with a paper that ended with "And when I grow up I want to be an artist because KC taught me how to be creative,"...well I don't have to tell you that right then and there art stopped being Super Nanny. I realized that this boy had already packed his bags and was heading down a road he paved everyday with his own ideas. What an incredible thing to be even a small part of.

Now, as a teenager he gets all that angst and energy out by learning every trick he can on the skateboard and speaking "skater-ese" which I assure you is a language unto itself...but he also spends hours in his room teaching himself the guitar and writing notebooks full of songs. He tapes and edits short films, is funnier than any kid I know, and isn't embarrassed to show you the beautiful sunsets pictures he has taken on his phone. He digs looking at art and I dig looking at him looking at art.

It's not that difficult of a thing to encourage creativity in a child or to gently open up the world of art to them. Sure, it helps to have a youngster with a natural inclination to explore his creative side, but any child...ANY CHILD can have their world changed by us sharing with them the thing that changed ours.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Don't Quote Me

Before I was an artist I was a writer. Before I was a writer I was a singer. Before I was a singer I was a skinny little girl with glasses from a trailer park in Wisconsin...but I digress. I have always loved the story. I loved to read anything I could get my hands on, loved the southern stories in the southern accents of my father and his brother (the southern preacher). I loved sitting on a stool reading to my mother while she did the dishes. I loved words.

Singing and writing were always just different ways to accomplish the same thing..TELL THE STORY! When I began doing fiber art it was only natural that words would become a part of that. Actually they became a big part of that. Almost from the get-go I started putting quotes under my cowgirls and almost from the get-go people started responding to them. But you know, I'm not so clever. I can't even really take credit for the words. I've just learned how to listen. A good writer needs to know how to do that. I've had collectors say in not just a little confusion..."But I thought Calamity Jane really said that!" And I always respond "She did. She said it to me." More than once they've looked at me as if to say they hope I keep taking whatever medication I'm on. Oh well.

But I take the words these women (and sometimes even men) say very seriously. Some of them are well known and the history books have recorded other words they have spoken, but many are nameless, unknown keepers of our history. They have never been given a name, but for the first time I have given them a voice. I don't think they would mind. I also think in a way they speak for me. Selfish I know, but hey it's my work. They say things that maybe I don't have the guts to say in the real least not right out in the open. I like people to like me and they may be less inclined to do so if I said "Ain't afraid to love a man...ain't afraid to shoot one." Even though at times that might be how I felt!

In the early days of making my work I was in a marriage that was situated well on the other side of dysfunctional...about the time I was "listening" and writing my first quotes. At a gallery show a woman took her time walked all around the room and read every single quote there on display. One of the girls at the gallery then introduced her to me and explained I had made the fiber pieces and I even wrote all the quotes. The woman frowned slightly-looked totally bumfuzzled and said quite seriously..."But you look so nice!"

So I figured I needed to incorporate a few less hostile females into the overall fabric (no pun intended) of my storytelling. So I brought in mothers and teachers and wise women of native heritage and the story became more well rounded. I heard them speak serious words, empowering words that made me proud to know them. But I have to admit, I still like the words the sassy girls say the best. "I took to makin' trouble like most women take to makin' biscuits."

Can I get an Amen?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Journey With Georgia

I called Los Angeles home for about a dozen years, from 1981 to 1993, and lived to tell about it. I experienced earthquakes, floods in the canyon, fast-moving fires from Mother Nature and the kind that come from anger and frustration in neighborhoods filled with the same. I made sandwiches for homeless residents of my alley and ate a sandwich next to Elizabeth Taylor. We were not in an alley. I went to jazz clubs, fitness clubs, country clubs and Sam's Club. Living there was a lesson in extremes and I saw way too much. Too much wealth, too much poverty, too much traffic, and too much plastic surgery on people who had too much time on their hands. But even for all of the insanity of such a place, my world was opened up there in a way I wouldn't trade for anything.

On a Sunday afternoon in 1989 I visited the Los Angeles Museum of Art. They were having a Retrospective of the work of Georgia O'Keeffe. Now the only thing I knew about O'Keeffe at that time was that she was an old lady Charles Kuralt had visited at her home in a desert somewhere and the only thing I knew about art was that I didn't know anything about art. But as I entered the first room filled with the art of this remarkable woman, I had a strange sense of recognition. Something about this work seemed familiar; as if was resonating with a part of me I didn't even know existed. In simpler terms...I dug the heck of it.

I left the museum that day with a biography of O'Keeffe in my hot little hands and couldn't wait to get home to read it. The book was called Portrait of An Artist by Laurie Lisle (available at Amazon), and to this day I will occasionally open it up and if I don't have time to read any of it I will at least take a whiff. It smells different from any other book I've ever read. It smells of freedom, of painting to music, of a tiny studio in New York and an old adobe in New Mexico. It smells of possibilities.

I was blown away by this woman's paring down of life to it's barest essentials in order to find more time for art. "I often wished I lived in a tent, so I could pull back the flaps and let the wind blow everything away." At one point in her life her artist statement for a show read..."My name is Georgia O'Keeffe. I like to live in a room as spare as possible."

The dedication that made her sit on the floor of her boarding house room and draw until her back hurt and her hands ached, sending these same drawings to a friend in New York City, who would take them to the famed gallery owner and photographer, Alfred Stieglitz. "At last...a woman on paper!"

She dressed in all black in order to keep it simple and to save the choosing of colors for the studio and the painting she carried in her head. "It's as if my mind creates shapes that I know nothing about."

She dared to paint abstracts at a time when women didn't even have the right to vote. "Oh I was always afraid. but I never let it stop me. Never."

I love that she lived to be nearly 100 years old and continued to make art into her 90's. She took up pottery well past her 90th birthday and upon looking at a picture of her and her dogs standing on a bluff outside her home at Ghost Ranch..."Oh this picture is a prize. It's me and my dogs looking out to the future." She was 88.
I believe any one who lives their life in the studio or who dreams of living that kind of life, should read about the life of Georgia O'Keeffe. In this complicated day and age, it would be hard to emulate the life she led, but it would be worth trying to capture even a little of her attitude. As for me, I certainly lead a life very different from her...but I carry the knowledge of this artistic spirit with me. I make sure every day that my hands touch something in a creative way.

And I love the words that the late Dan Fogelberg wrote in a song dedicated to the artist and her beloved New Mexico desert called "Bones in the Sky."

"And I sing to your spirit where all my dreams dwell.
The vision. The Freedom. A life lived so well."

What an awesome thing to be able to say at the end of your artistic journey...a life lived so well.
Journey through the desert with Georgia. There's nothing barren about it.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

I have a secret weapon...

As a fabric artist who strives to make her work look old, worn and deliciously weathered, I have gotten pretty creative through the years with ways to accomplish said weathering. From burning, to coffee-staining to simply leaving it out in the elements. But I have one trick that I can't really take credit for, but I take advantage of it just the same. I have a dog who loves fabric as much as I do. She's a funny little part Corgi, part terrier (and even a little Lab) named Fiona, "Fi" as we call her. She has spent her life (all 5 years of it) lovingly by my side, which means she's a studio hound.

We got Fiona from my sister when she was 4 months old. The first time we left her alone to go out to dinner she experienced rather extreme separation anxiety and basically ate the slipcovers off the sofa in my studio. If you've watched my HGTV segment in the video section of my website, you have seen this lovely sofa with fabric covers designed by yours truly. The scene below is what we came home to that evening. We called it a Fi-asco. My poor Chocolate Lab, Josie, was traumatized.

Thus began Fiona's love affair with fabric. Whenever she wanted to play tug she would snatch a piece of fabric from by piles. If she needed a nap, her place of preference was usually the cubes in my studio where I stored my fabrics.

Then she got particular and I got my secret weapon. She began selecting, and yes I mean actually looking through the fabrics and choosing the one that caught her eye. The beloved fabric of the hour became the fabric of the month. She took it everywhere with her. Up the stairs, down the stairs, out into the yard. She played with it, slept with it and generally adored it.

At the end of the love affair of threads, she would suddenly abandon it and select another. What she left behind was a tattered, hole-filled, frayed and funky piece of cloth. Now what do you suppose I could do with THAT? Perhaps wash it, coffee-stain it and turn it into art? You betcha! My studio assistant came across one of Fiona's Fabulous Fabrics in my stash one day and said admiringly, "I like this piece. It's so old." I swear Fiona looked at me and winked.

Monday, March 16, 2009

You See I Had This Idea...

It's an amazing thing when a gift falls into your lap and as soon as you unwrap it in your mind you know exactly what you're going to do with it. That's kinda what happened in April of 2000. A few months before that I had read a book on the journals of pioneer women and was really impacted by their strength and the haunting ring of their words. Something started to tug at me. Somewhere in one of those books I saw where a woman who had gone West in a wagon train had later made a momento of the journey by taking an old weathered piece of the tent they had slept under and stitched a blurry photograph someone had taken of them to the piece of fabric. She had then written in thread simply "Piece of the old tent." Something continued to tug at me. Not long after that I watched for the first time in quite a few years parts of the Ken Burns PBS Series, The Civil War. Here Burns touched you visually with the power of the old photographs and grabbed you emotionally with words read from the letters of that time. Something started to bug the heck out of me.

Then the gift appeared. On a Sunday morning in April the solidified thought of what I would do with the inspiration I had received didn't exist...but by that evening I had put together what would be the first of thousands of pieces of work that I would sign my name to over the next eight years. Now mind you it was a distant cousin of the pieces I do today, but the idea was there. I knew that what I wanted to do would require putting layers together and that it even might mean sewing. Problem was I didn't know how to do that. I didn't like sewing...or so I thought. (Years earlier, when I was a professional singer, I almost quit a band I was in because they wanted me to sew my own costumes.) I didn't own any fabrics really...why would I? But the more I thought about it the more I wanted to stitch that photo down just like my "tent-lady." I gathered up some unprimed artist canvas that I had in my little paint studio, a couple of pieces of cardboard and a couple of cotton blouses whose fabrics I didn't mind sacrificing. Strangely enough my husband at the time, had a little $100 Sears sewing machine in his workshop where he would make little pouches for all the electrical cords he took out on the road with him when his band toured. I had to read the manual on how to wind a bobbin. As it turned out, the imperfection of my sewing was perfect for the rustic, old look I was going for. He also had some photo-transfer paper on hand from trying out photos on t-shirts before the band made them to sell. Basically, I had no idea what I was doing.

The first piece you see above was rough to say the least...and not exactly what I had in mind. Tried it again with the Sadie Austin piece you see next and felt like I was getting a little closer. A big mostly cardboard piece followed (still lacking in the fabric department). Not happy. Then I did my first Annie Oakley piece and something clicked. I knew from the beginning I would recognize what I was after when I saw it. That piece was closer to the story I was trying to tell. Gave myself a good talking to. I decided that if I wanted to ever be good at this I had to give myself permission to be bad at it for awhile. Being bad at it wasn't a problem. But then I did something that made all the difference. I stopped trying to tell "my girls" and my materials what I wanted them to say and started listening to what they were already saying. The first of well over a hundred quotes, that I would write via this "listening thing" followed, and the gift was completely unwrapped. God signed the card in big, bold letters and I have been taking his winding roads and winding bobbins ever since...thanking him every step of the way.

So Many Cowgirls...So Little Time

For the past eight years I have been fortunate enough to spend nearly everyday of my life in my studio making the work I love so much. I have created and sold thousands of "my girls", putting a love of texture and an admiration for these incredible women in every piece. I love to think of them hanging in different places all over the world, inspiring everyone who spends a minute or two with them. I know they are happily situated in museums, fiber collections, ranches all over the West, lofts in Soho, dorm rooms in Seattle, and cabins in Texas. I am pleased to have them giving strength to abused women in safehouses and teaching life lessons to troubled teens in group homes in Colorado, not to mention the smiles they have brought to women (and men) who just think they are simply down-right funny. I love that Reba McEntire collects my Annie Oakley pieces and I am just as thrilled that a woman named Reba in Arizona hangs them in her mobile home.

I work out of a studio in my home a few miles outside Boulder, Colorado with my new husband, two stepsons and my best friend (my dog), Fiona. Pictures of my yellow and chocolate Labs who are waiting for me at The Rainbow Bridge hang in my studio among the artwork of artists I am lucky enough to call my "buds." You will meet many of them here.

I am really excited about talking to you every few days and I'll be sure to pass on what The Women of The West whisper in my ear. Promise.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

'Bout Time Ranch

KC Willis is about to begin blogging at The Ranch! In just a few days I'll start talking and anyone who knows me knows it'll be hard to get me to stop. I am excited to share with you my work, my studio, my creative process, my life...not necessarily in that order. Go ahead and list yourself as a Follower, so when we are up and running you'll be one of the first to check in on the goings-on at Lipstick Ranch. As Calamity Jane whispered in my ear the other day...."I reckon a girl can do anything she sets her mind to." And I've got my mind set on blogging. See ya soon.