Get To Know: Karen Hampton

The last of the winter exhibitions are now upon us. Christmas is around the corner, and soon all of our favourite artist’s haunts will close as London’s contemporary art scene goes into hibernation. Karen Hampton at the Jack Bell Gallery is an intimate ending to 2017. 

 Shape Shifter, 2016

Shape Shifter, 2016

'Shape Shifter' is Hampton’s second exhibition in this space, (the first was in April last year) and we're certain it won't be her last. To describe Hampton’s works as intricate is about as useful as describing a hedge as leafy. Her craftsmanship and mastering of thread is something to behold, such is the precision with which she combines and contrasts colour, symmetry, shape and character. By working with cloth Hampton creates depth; the shadows created by yarn give the works an animated quality.

We were keen to find out more, so who better to ask the why, what and how than the artist herself. We spoke to Karen about her process, her studio practices and the textile medium.

Hi Karen! First things first, can you talk us through a working day in the studio?

My studio is in Downtown Los Angeles on Skid Row, where the bulk of the city's homeless live. Every day this sharpens my sensitivity to the human condition.

When I finally arrive in my studio, my ritual is to put my things down, straighten up, sit at my altar and ring my Tibetan bell and ground myself in my own protected space. I have lots of bins in my studio where I keep different fabric, paints, dyes, and tools. I have old linens, old African textiles and an assortment of new materials that I can use as my canvas. I work similarly to a painter against the wall, and stand 10 to 15 feet away and look at my work.  My ceilings are 12’ so I can work large. I usually work 4-6 hours a day, and I frequently go into the studio 4-6 days a week. I listen to podcasts, news, and music while I work.  

My pace is not constant, I usually begin a new work slowly and may go back and forth between different pieces at the same time. I can have up to six pieces going at once.  My inspiration comes from current events. Over the last year, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to save the world. Having trained as an Anthropologist, I think about history differently than most artists; my timeline scrolls through decades, centuries and thousands of years. I think about the universe and other galaxies. I try to be humble and remember that we are just ants in the big picture. I believe in the power of human mind and collective consciousness. 

That very much comes through in your work. What are the key themes of Shape Shifter? 

How to save the world. In 2014, I participated in an artist residency in the Nevada desert and visited a large petroglyph site. It changed my life; I was face to face with the marks of ancestors 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. I began to think about who their gods were and what wisdom they might have to share with us in these troubled times. I was in Nevada for eight weeks without any pre-planning - the only materials I took with me to this residency were earth pigments and dyes. I started the work then without any conscious thought. It did not go anywhere at the time, but two years later I returned to the piece over-dyed it with plant dyes and my original marks came through. In that moment I knew what I was doing.

 Quest For Angels, 2017

Quest For Angels, 2017

In 2016, I had an artist residency in Bahia, Brazil on the island of Itaparica. Bahia is very special because it is the heart of Afro-Brazilian culture which dates back to the Portuguese colonisation of Brazil, where some 5 million Africans were captured and held as slaves. What I found myself studying there was the continuity of culture, resistance, and Brazilian abolitionism. I wanted to understand their resistance struggle and how they were able to end slavery without a war. I began looking at their culture for clues. I looked at the dance martial art form of capoeira and lace making and the African based religions in Bahia. 

How have these different experiences affected your process and practices over the course of your career?

I describe my connection to my ancestors as a direct link where I am a vehicle for their messages to transcend time. When I was 17 and was creating my first weaving project I had an epiphany that I could weave for the rest of my life. For many years I wove beautiful textiles for the home and body, and at 32 years old I had a need to find my unique art form and began to reflect on my own culture and began telling stories related to my family.  Another marker happened to me at 40, when I was about to enter graduate school, I had another epiphany and began to ask questions about the exclusion of African American women in textile history. Now I seem to be on the newest adventure; that of the human right to free and clean water and the absolute need for every caring person to focus on saving our planet.

As you say, your connection to your ancestors has an enormous bearing on your work – what made you choose cloth as the vehicle through which to tell their stories?

Cloth has always been my first love. It was passed down to me from my maternal lineage. From my maternal grandmother, a Jamaican immigrant who could only find work in this country as a seamstress to my mother and later to me. Sewing was always my first art form sitting at my Nana’s side I began to make doll clothes at six years old, and at my eight she and my mother had to let me into the sewing room and teach me to use the machine.  For me, the sewing room was a metaphoric place where I could escape into the magical environment where fabric, pins, scissors and a sewing machine could dance, later that room became my studio.

 Troubled Times, 2016

Troubled Times, 2016

I imagine working with cloth and textiles can be both liberating and limiting. What are the greatest challenges and joys of being a fibre artist?

At this point in my development, I have no limits. Everything is possible. I see myself as a mixed-media artist whose work is primarily fibre based. I find fabric to be so sensual it can take on so many different personalities. I use cloth as my canvas or skin to make my marks on. If I want to make sculpture there are many different alternative ways to manipulate it; I can paint or weave, working in the studio is play for me.

As your work is so imbued with your own history, do you think British audiences will react differently to your work than their American counterparts?

I challenge that assumption. I think my topics are universal, and my artwork uniquely my own and not limited to any culture. I believe that if we don’t begin to see ourselves as global citizens, we will all become extinct. My work is place-based which means that I create research-based artwork informed by historical narratives held within the landscape.  An expression I commonly use is that I like field-trips and discovery. I find the act of learning new things about the human condition sexy. Kind of like a child who turns a rock over and sees all the magical life living under it. Sadly, the subjects for my narratives are universal; slavery, family, continuity of culture and natural resources, until we address these issues, we (meaning world cultures) are at a real loss. Currently, I am approaching the mid-way point in a year-long residency in Michigan where my artwork is exploring the way that WATER, From Flint to Puerto Rico, is a human right.

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For more information about the exhibition click here.

Banner and front page image: Section of Troubled Times, 2017