Episode 126: Poetic Political Quilt Making with Mathematician Chawne Kimber
In this week’s episode, LaChaun is speaking with Chawne Kimber an African-American mathematician and quilter, known for expressing her political activism in her quilts. In Chawne’s quilts, she interprets traditional forms in an improvisational style using vibrant modern colors of commercially available American-farmed, processed, and woven cotton. Some of her designs are geometric romps that emphasize the complex forms of negative space that naturally arise, while others utilize unusually small scaling to exaggerate shapes and tonal sequences. She uses the quilt medium to respond to current race-related social justice issues, and make minimal two-tone appliquéd self-portraits in a street art style. Comment below to keep the conversation going!
The One For Eric G, 2015
Cotton Sophisticate, 2015
Still not, 2019
Not showing proper deference to wypipo, 2018
In Wedowee, 2014
In Anniston, 2014
Bobby Does the Twist, 2015
Weave Podcast Transcript Episode 126 with Chawne Kimber
Sarah Resnick: I’m Sarah Resnick.
LaChaun Moore: And I’m LaChaun Moore.
Sarah Resnick: And we are the hosts of the Weave Podcast, a project of the weaving yarn shop, GIST Yarn & Fiber.
LaChaun Moore: Hello. Hi, everyone. I hope all is well. On this week’s episode, I’m speaking with Chawne Kimber, and African-American mathematician and quilter known for expressing her political activism in her quilts. Hey, Chawne. Welcome to the podcast. Thank you for joining us today.
Chawne Kimber: Thank you for having me.
LaChaun Moore: Absolutely. Can you start off by introducing yourself and telling us a bit about your background, where you’re from, and describe your fiber practice?
Chawne Kimber: Sure. I grew up in Tallahassee, Florida, but my family is from the deep South. My fiber practice probably started when my mother made me learn how to crochet when I was little, and my godmother taught me how to cross stitch when I was 10 years old. And I have only just kept adding different skills over the years. I started knitting probably 20 years ago, just as a way to occupy myself when I started a new job. So, I’m a professor as my main hustle and I now am a quilter, and I do embroidery, and it’s super awesome.
LaChaun Moore: That sounds amazing. One of the things that I read that really resonated with me in your artist statement was that cotton is central in the lives of the women in your family, from picking, to ginning, to sewing and quilting, emerging as the mode of self-expression available. There’s so many ways to unpack that and to kind of break down what that means, specifically when you say the main mode of self-expression available.
Chawne Kimber: Sure. Well, I am… My ancestors were slaves. They worked on plantations where they grew cotton and processed cotton, and they made quilts, though, with the scraps, and they made the quilts for the big house, but they also made scrap quilts for themselves, and so it was just this one moment where they were able to express themselves by choosing to do something different with the fabrics for their own quilts than they did for the traditional ones for the home. And so, from the most sort of confined sense for the beginning of that, we then moved to the early twentieth century, when my great grandmother was a quilter making utility quilts from old clothes for the home, and my dad remembers being there for the sewing bees, and helping out by catching needles on the floor and things like that, and hearing the women gossip around the quilt. And it was also a time when women could let their hair down, so to speak. And all the way to today, where quilts are the place where I am able to express myself.
LaChaun Moore: And for people who aren’t familiar with the process of quilt making, can you go into detail about what exactly it is and the types of materials you use?
Chawne Kimber: Sure. So, there are some debates about the definition of quilt, but for me, a quilt is defined by layers, and layers that are stitched together. So, your standard issue quilt, the backing is usually a plain muslin. In the middle, you have a insulating layer of puffy cotton called the batting, and then there’s a top layer that is the patchwork, the decorative layer that you would spend most of your time on sewing together, and then once you have those three layers, you make a sandwich, and then there are stitches going through all three layers to hold them together because the batting isn’t stable, so if you were to not put those stitches through all three layers and wash the quilt, then the batting layer would shift and you’d get clumping. And so, just in the tradition over time, those stitches going through all three layers have become decorative stitches themselves, and in a very competitive way, so that’s sort of the engineering, the construction of a quilt.
LaChaun Moore: Yeah, and your quilts are really beautiful, and I can’t wait to get into conversation about some of the pieces that we’re gonna talk about. But I’m also really curious about your pattern making and sort of how you choose the fabrics.
Chawne Kimber: So, I’m very intentional about every step of my process, from choosing the fabrics, all the way through choices of colors, choices of stitching, choices of patterns. So, I choose to work with denim that I’m upcycling from old jeans, or I work with fabrics that have been collected from vintage clothing that is too threadbare to go forward but can be made into quilts. I’m interested in sustainable fabrics, as well. And as far as aesthetic, I’m not sure I have one, not just one, but the one I’m most known for is improvisational patchwork, which is not the rigid, all corners meet in sharp places, although I am capable of doing that. I work in a style that’s more like jazz, where you start with a known element, like a log cabin pattern, which is just squares inside of squares inside of squares, in a decorative way, and there are ways to improvise on that shape. You can turn it into diamonds. You can turn it into hexagons that are concentric. Or you can make the angles no longer meet at regular square corners but allow for all sorts of wonky angles and changing widths within it. And I use every color, and every color at once, but I’m also known for having monochromatic designs, so I like to play depending on the expression I’m trying to make in a piece.
LaChaun Moore: I love a lot of your monochromatic quilts, and one of the ones that I’m really interested in talking about is The One For Eric G that you made in 2015. Can you talk about what inspired you to make that piece?
Chawne Kimber: Sure. I can first describe it, so it is all black, and they’re all civil war pattern fabrics, because they fit with the theme, and they were all black, and I patchworked them all together and then blasting out as if coming from the shadows are the words, “I can’t breathe.” Nine times, in white lettering, going down the quilt and turning into shades of blue, fading at the end to simulate drowning. And these of course are the dying words of Eric Garner, who on Staten Island, New York, for the alleged crime of going into a bodega, buying a pack of cigarettes, opening them up and selling them one by one as loosies on the street, he was killed in broad daylight on a street corner by a police officer. And as he laid there passing out, these were his words. He just kept saying over and over again, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” And this was, you know, honestly just another day in the life of Black people in the United States, discovering that here’s another of our people being killed in the street by the police, and I knew that these words were the words that I was saying, trying to process and understand what could possibly be going on. And so, I wanted to try to simulate for myself what it felt like to say those words over and over again, and so the slow process, and the meditative process of making patchwork… I turned off all the music, turned down the lights. I was just working by a single lamp and just truly embodied the spirit of making these words and thinking about this man and the indignity of dying in this fashion.
LaChaun Moore: It’s really interesting and I think compelling to think about the content of your pieces and also how the materials that you work with relate to the history of fibers and textiles in this country as you pointed in the beginning. Would you say that the way that the form and the content meets is something that’s intentional?
Chawne Kimber: Yeah. I’m fond of saying that you can’t talk about the history of United States without talking about cotton. You can’t talk about racism without talking about cotton. These things are so firmly intertwined. This is how we met back in the day. And the issues endure today. So, for me, it has to be cotton, although I started working with silk just out of curiosity, and so I must say that as a girlie girl, I am enticed, but my pocketbook does not appreciate it. The feel of cotton, the smell of cotton, even the taste of cotton, anyone who’s sewn has had to lick a few threads here and there. But also, the sound of pulling a cotton thread through a cotton quilt sandwich, there is… It is just an amazing experience and it is a full body experience if you’re working on a king size quilt draped over the top of you as you are concentrating on one corner here and there. So, yes. No, it’s absolutely the case that I believe that cotton is highly meaningful when we are discussing race. Yeah.
LaChaun Moore: It’s bringing up a conversation for me that I was having earlier this week with a podcast listener who is Korean and is working with Korean Indigo, and they have history with being colonized through their Indigo practice. And for her, she was asking me do I feel like my Indigo practice is also a form of restorative justice or if it is restorative, and I’m curious if you feel that your work, or you making in the way that you make has functioned in that way for you, as well?
Chawne Kimber: I guess I would question the term, so restorative sounds somehow peaceful, and for me, I think that my quilts are my ways of screaming into the world. So, yeah, I mean there is a meditative quality, where I am restoring some part of my soul by making these things, but I don’t think about it on the macro level that way, right? So, each quilt opens up a new set of conversations that you have to have with people to explain them. Each quilt is a new set of work. So, I’m not sure how restorative it is, and I… and even when you think of sort of restorative justice, yeah. We’re not there. I mean, we do have to process and understand that there is still slave labor involved in the farming of cotton in Asia, so we’re not… It’s not clean. It’s not a clean industry at all.
LaChaun Moore: I’m also really interested in Cotton Sophisticate, which I think also points to the conversation or is in the realm of what we’re talking about as far as the history and the use of materials. Do you mind also describing that piece for our listeners and talking about what inspired that piece and the quotes?
Chawne Kimber: Absolutely. So, that’s probably my favorite quilt I’ve ever made. So, it has the quote on it that is, “In essence, I am a sophisticated cotton picker.” Which is a summary quote from the end of Eartha Kitt’s autobiography. She is a native of North Carolina and certainly picked her share of cotton when she was young. And yet became this, what? Quadruple threat? She was an actress, a singer, a dancer, and just an overall entertainer. She was the original Catwoman. Definitely terrified men across the United States. And just is a legend, but she’s making this commentary about look who I am, where I am, but I’m never gonna forget where I came from. So, in essence, I’m a sophisticated cotton picker. And so, I enjoyed that phrase because it takes on a lot of different meanings when you talk to a quilter. So, a new company came into being maybe a decade ago, and it’s called American Made Brand, and they were revitalizing the cotton weaving industry in the United States, and so they’re taking cotton that’s farmed in the United States and completing the entire manufacturing process in the United States. And so, like I said before, we are not always sure of the labor stream that goes into the making of our fabrics, but here’s a case where we can feel at least some comfort that this manufacturer is governed by the labor laws in the United States. We at least know that much. We’re not sure that they’re conforming to them, but that’s neither here nor there. But so, they opened up and they had this competition to use their fabrics, make a quilt, and then you would be included in an exhibition. And I of course got every color, so all 72 colors, and decided that I was going to make a quilt using all of the colors at once, using good color theory, so it wasn’t gonna look like clown barf. And I… Yeah. So, I improvised on the log cabin, which is not evident when you first look at it, and it is… Yeah. How to describe it? So, the words are stretched in a long line horizontally across the bottom, and below it for maybe 12 inches we have the same patchwork design that we have for five feet above it. So, it is… It’s a six foot by six foot quilt. It’s pretty big. And it is improvisational squares, just sort of everywhere. But they are all centered around a central black square. So, black is nowhere else except for the sort of center points that you can focus on, and if you look at it for too long, you’ll get a little woozy, but if you make sure your gaze hits those black squares, it really anchors you. I’m not sure that that’s making the description come through, but it’s an epic quilt in a way. I did not finish it in time for the deadline of the competition because as usual, I was overambitious. I did make a second quilt that was smaller and actually much more intricate. Finished that one in time and it was in the exhibition. But this one really starts to ask questions about what it means to be mindful of the fabrics that we choose, so I am a sophisticated cotton picker takes on a new meaning when you think about picking your cottons, meaning picking your fabrics. A lot of people find it humorous because I truly did not choose a color palette except to choose them all, and so the sophistication might not be evident in that, although if you know color theory, then you’ll see the sophistication in how I put it together. So, it is an enormous quilt and I… Every square inch is hand quilted very densely using… You know when you use a spool of thread and there’s that little bit left over once you finish your project? Well, I held on to all of those for many years and they’re all in this work in those stitching, the quilting stitches that pulled the three layers together.
LaChaun Moore: Yeah. It’s amazing and I’m actually looking at the pieces while you’re talking about them and as soon as you said that the black squares anchor the piece, my eyes just jumped and I was like, “Wow, that’s amazing.” I mean, it almost has like a mosaic feel. They’re very, very beautiful, and I can see the stitching, and knowing that all of it is hand sewn is just phenomenal. It’s such a beautiful piece. One of the things that I noticed in this piece and in a lot of your other pieces is that text is a really common theme and it’s not just in the actual quilts, but also in the titles. They have this very poetic feel. Would you say that there’s something that particularly draws you to text and putting text in your work or in the titles?
Chawne Kimber: Yeah. So, the title, of course, is just another place to express meaning, and so in some of my other quilts, I take advantage of that quite a bit, so I do have one quilt that is very simple and it just says “Uppity Negro” in the middle of it, but the title is Not Showing Proper Deference to Wypipo, and because a lot of people don’t know the definition of uppity negro, which I was astounded to learn. As a Southerner, you can’t grow up without… Well, without even being called it, right? If you’re doing it right. And so, that’s the title, so the titles for me are a secondary place, and they can be poetic. The text actually comes from the fact that I started quilting in an online community on Flickr. You might remember that that was a rather vital place when the internet was just revving up in the early aughts, and there were these fiber communities on there, and so I started out in the knitting community, and then we all migrated to learn how to quilt at the same time, and we had these very vibrant chat boards where you could come in there and show the ugliest thing you’d ever made and get a lot of really good, honest, kind feedback on what had gone wrong. And so, that means that I kind of started my time as a quilter in this more mainstream environment, so no one really was making art quilts. I diverted when I discovered… Well, first when I started improvising, and then when I decided to try out an improvisational lettering technique that a woman named Tonya Ricucci, published on the blog Quiltville, which is owned by Bonnie Hunter. Quiltville still exists today. This tutorial was taken down and then turned into a book that’s now available called Word Play Quilts. I highly recommend it. I get no money from it, so we’re good. But it’s an improvisational technique, which means that everybody reading these instructions will end up making their own handwriting, in a way. And so, it didn’t feel like I was just copying something by rote, like you would get if you used templates or something. And my first word was poo, because they’re very easily shaped letters, but it… Even just the concept that I would make the word poo out of patchwork, that actually was the light switch turning on that I could actually express something different using patchwork than what you would normally see associated there. And so, I started making words to express my identity, so I mad princess with pink and tiny little roses, and I made bitch out of denim. That hard exterior. And that was really just the beginning and here we are today, but I really like the way that the improvisational patchwork turns out. You can tell that it’s not a cookie cutter thing, that it is… It’s something that came from somebody’s hands. And sometimes it can look like a ransom note made by a really deranged person, but in the right setting, it can be really good at expressing these sort of distressing situations that we find ourselves in.
LaChaun Moore: Yeah, and I have to say I definitely had a lot of fun on your Flickr looking through all of your not safe for work quilts. And I will… You know, if you’re comfortable, I will make sure that I link images to all of the artwork that we’re talking about, but that make sure that people can really see the scope of your work. I mean, you have so many quilts and they’re all so amazing and require so much skill. I’m wondering how long it takes you to create some of these quilts.
Chawne Kimber: Yeah. That’s one of those hard questions to map out. So, I am always working on multiple quilts at a time. But each year, I bring two to three to completion, and that’s sort of the bigger size ones. I’m always making tiny ones to practice new ideas or to make cute little gifts that are also practicing new ideas, but in terms of the large-scale quilts, yeah. I’m finishing two to three a year and they probably will take one to two years total. Yeah, but there are some that I complete faster. It just depends on how much my heart is in it, or if there’s an exhibition deadline, or if it’s a commission, right? I can speed it up sometimes. But I do have this 80 hour a week job as a professor, so that’s mitigating some of the time that I have.
LaChaun Moore: As you’ve kind of pointed to the community that you found on the internet through Flickr and the blog, which is now a book that you mentioned earlier, can you speak to the quilting community? Most of the people who listen to this podcast are fiber artists, and some are quilters, but majority of us are weavers, and I’m curious if maybe if anyone is inspired by this episode and wants to get started, can you talk about how people could get started?
Chawne Kimber: Yeah. The quilting community is as old as the nation, and so if you are in certain locations, you will be able to find quilt guilds in your town. And quilt guilds come in different flavors, so there’s traditional quilting, which is the very rigid geometric patterns that you might be used to seeing, and then there’s the modern quilt guild, which is newer, probably started in 2010, 2012, something like that. And it is the modern refers to midcentury modern in terms of the aesthetic that is being presented. And then there are art quilt guilds, where art quilt is a very broad term, and I won’t try to define it or else the people will come after me for getting it wrong. So, you kind of… You want to choose a guild, and these are open. It’s not the same as a medieval guild. They are just social spaces where you can meet other quilters, and they’re usually pretty welcoming and will give you lots of tips and tricks and provide classes and ways to enter the practice of making quilts. And so, you mainly choose by aesthetic or by just wherever the people you like are. But then also, any quilt store, any fabric store will also have a community associated with it generally speaking, so not the big box stores like Joanne’s, but small, privately owned fabric stores tend to also have classes and meet and greets where you just sit and sew together, and those are also typically pretty lovely.
LaChaun Moore: Amazing. Thank you for sharing that with us. And do you have any new projects that you’re working on? Chawne Kimber: I think I’m at a transition point in what I’m choosing to express, so I got to a point where making Black Lives Matter quilts was so oppressive to me that I had to stop and start… Originally it was where I meditated to get through the situation, and now it’s turned on me, so I’m turning to actually return and make more personal statements. I recently made a quilt that’s… I am still not free is sort of the ending line. It’s a poem. And it really made me want to reflect more on my experiences as a Black woman living in the United States, and the more close relationships that I had with people who are not my family, and so what does it mean that I am a mathematician working in a white male dominated profession? I spend all my days with a bunch of white guys, and so what does that mean in terms of the types of relationships that we’re able to have as coworkers? And so, without directly speaking to it being about being a mathematician, blah, blah, blah, what are the types of statements one can make about day-to-day life in a math department? What can one say about day-to-day life living in a town that’s not very diverse, as well? And so, I’m not ready to reveal the phrases that I’m working on, but they are… I think in a lot of ways, they’re much harder, but because they’re not directly related to violence, they’re a little easier to process, I think.
LaChaun Moore: Yeah, that sounds amazing and I’m absolutely looking forward to seeing how you progress with those new works that you’re working on. Is there a place on social media or the internet where people can contact you, see your work?
Chawne Kimber: Sure. Yeah. I’m on Instagram mainly and there you can search on my name, Chawne Kimber. My handle is actually the name of my favorite mathematician, so my handle is @CauchyComplete, and Cauchy was my favorite mathematician. I’m a nerd. And all my sites are that name, so Cauchy Complete is the name of my blog. Well, it’s Completely Cauchy, but it’s listed under Cauchy Complete. And my Gmail is CauchyComplete at Gmail.com. So, I’m happy to hear from anyone, and I should say that Instagram is fairly vibrant for all fiber artists, and so if you were interested in quilting there, just search the hashtag quilt and a lot of great things will pop up and you’ll find some really great quilters.
LaChaun Moore: Amazing. So, it’s been wonderful talking to you today and sort of digging into your practice. We have one question that we ask everyone that joins the podcast, and that is do you have any words of advice or wisdom to share with weavers and textile enthusiasts? Chawne Kimber: Don’t be afraid to fail. Practice. Everything is about knowing that things should not be perfect the first time you do them. Sometimes it turns out nicely that way, but if you just accept your first try, often you’re missing out on the surprises that happen when you just try to make something better. When you try to make your skills more robust. And you’re able to reach further when you fail, and you have to figure things out.
LaChaun Moore: Amazing. Thank you so much.
Chawne Kimber: Thank you. LaChaun Moore: That’s a wrap. If you’re interested in seeing more of Chawne Kimber’s work, you can find links in the show notes at www.GISTYarn.com/Episode-126. On next week’s episode, I’m speaking with Anna Meier, an artist and earth witch living and working on unceded Nisenan land in Sacramento, California. Anna’s practice focuses primarily on working with and re-wilding ancestral art practices in order to encourage humanity to learn how to respectfully co create with nature. I’m really excited to bring that episode to you all next week. Thank you for tuning into this week’s episode. Until next time, happy weaving.