Karen searle

Karen Searle, Body Bag III: Tote, 1999, knit linen, flax fiber, and rope, 28 in. x 16 in. x 16 in.


How would you describe the work that you do?

I am an object maker and I use the techniques of needlework to do what I do. It’s the language I speak. I create sculptures and objects and relief images out of all kinds of materials from thread to wire to found objects to natural materials. . . . I use the language of needlework to assert the value of “women’s work.” Needlework has always been pushed aside and considered part of the domestic realm, but I have always seen it as an art medium.

What first got you into needlework?

I have always had the desire to do it, since I was a child. However, no one in my family could teach me. My mother had done some [needlework] when she was young and I was inspired by seeing that, but she really wasn’t a teacher. My grandmothers (who usually pass on those arts) weren’t alive, so I had to find other ways of learning. I tried teaching myself from books, and I found a 4-H club to join when I was about 10 years old and learned a lot that way.

Searle in the studio

Are there ways in which you intend your work to challenge the viewer?

Basically, I’m just presenting my own female view of things. But a lot of my work has hidden references that I know about, and if the viewers can pick up on them, then that’s good. My female forms are containers and they reference the Jungian idea of the body as a container for aspects of the self. I’m constantly going back and forth between body as container/ container as body in my forms. The process I use is laborious and time consuming and [in this regard] it’s a measure of time, but it also raises questions of the value of that time and how we value handiwork in our society. . . . Some other references are in the materials themselves. I also reference body image issues, the beauty and fragility of nature, and legends of different cultures [depending on the style of the work].

Is there something that you’re currently working on that you’re particularly excited about?

Karen Searle, Body Bag X: Reliquary, 2015, knitted telephone cable wire, 16 in. x 12 in. x 12 in.

I’ve done three-dimensional work all my life and, recently, I’ve started doing some graphic, two-dimensional works. Though they are still reliefI can’t quite do anything totally flat. So, I’m doing images in wire that are either based on drawings I’ve done or on photographs. I’m enjoying that because it’s a totally new process for me to think about space instead of forms.

Is that something that is keeping with the themes you’ve been working with?

As I get older, I add themes. My earlier work was about body imagery and aging, and now as I’m entering my 70s it’s more about looking back on my life. 

What have been the greatest challenges in your art career and how do you navigate them?

Well, I suppose the biggest challenge was that I started late. I avoided art throughout my formal education, even though I’ve always loved to do it. I think that was because my father was an artist. He was not a teacher, he would fix what you did, but he couldn’t help you learn how to do it. . . . I had all kinds of hang-ups about not being able to do what he did, so I found my own path to art through the crafts. . . . I became a weaver and then had a publishing career related to weaving and needlework and I didn’t go to art school until I was in my 50s. I got my MFA at age 56 at MCAD! Another challenge seems to be that having female subject matter makes it harder to find venues to show in.

What advice has influenced you or your art making?

I have mentored a lot of people over the years through WARM, and the advice I give them is to experiment broadly, to find your language, find your voice, then go deep. I suppose that is a condensation of all the advice I’ve received along the way.

How do you know when you have been successful?

At first, it’s exciting to get into juried shows and then it’s really exciting to start getting invited to be in shows. . . . But I think the best thing is if you create an artwork that people identify with and respond to and add their own interpretations to; that makes it all the richer and that is the most satisfying. 

In the studio

Why did you choose to pursue the life of a professional artist?

I was always drawn to art, even though I avoided it academically until later. But I was always taking technique classes and workshops and adult education courses . . . learning and growing as an artist. While I was immersed in my publishing business, I produced a lot of art-related books. . . . They were beautiful books that won awards, and I realized what I was doing was taking raw material from other people and crafting it into a beautiful product. At some point I started wondering what my own work would look like if I just did that, and just focused on that. . . . It became more and more of a burning question until I finally decided to sell my business and go to art school.

Was that a scary step?

It was, because I was entering a graduate program without having had the formal basic art education.

In your opinion, how is being a woman artist in 2015 different from what it might have been like one, two, three or even four decades ago?

Well, over time, it’s gotten a lot easier to show work and to have venues that are available to women. WARM and WCA certainly have both helped in that regard. Now, there are all kinds of alternative venues and more and more ways of showing your work, which is wonderful. . . . One of our protégées in the WARM program has just turned her garage into a gallery!

Karen Searle, Body Bag I: Terms of Endearment, 1999, crocheted handspun flax, abaca lining, cast paper forms, wire, tags, 18 in. x 10 in. x 8 in.

Does personal history work its way into your practice? How might who you are be reflected in your work?

The torso forms started as observations on how my body was changing as I was getting older. Those are probably the most directly personal ones. I have other work where I’m joining materials together, which I call attachments. I might take natural materials and man-made materials and put them together in some way. . . . And that reflects on how I’ve gone about living my life, cobbling things together. . . . It’s sort of a metaphor for a woman’s life, toogathering, mending, piecing, and adorning. I have some folk art-style pieces that are influenced by travelling in Central America and Asia. . . . That influence comes out more in the color palette I use and the fact that they usually contain references to myth and legend.

Are there certain ways in which you identify as a feminist artist?

Karen Searle

I was in the process of becoming an artist as the feminist art movement was progressing. . . . How could I not have been deeply influenced by that? I have always felt that I belonged in that niche. . . . Textile arts have a lot of crossover into the arena of feminist art. In my work they are completely intertwinedI couldn’t separate one thing from another.







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