Interview With: Kelly Boehmer
I am originally from Florida where I both grew up there for 23 years and eventually earned my Bachelors of Art at a state university. Finding the right place to gain experience, knowledge, inspiration is a big deal…and I know it can be the same all around, but for some reason Florida hasn’t quite caught up with the rest of the world (I guess that’s why many folks retire there!), so it was pretty difficult to tap into something really significant.
I was lucky, though, because eventually I did have two professors who really flipped my whole perspective 180 degrees on art… and what could be art. One of those professors was Kelly Boehmer – I was even lucky enough to intern as her studio assistant for my final semester of college.
Kelly works mainly with conceptual soft sculpture (she is also apart of a performance art band called Glitter Chariot…but more on that in a bit!) and it is some of the most amazing work I have ever been lucky enough to see in person. Her work manifests in massive handsewn soft sculpture installations – which are both so incredibly beautiful, but also have a certain grotesque quality about them.
Textile Arts Center Let’s start off by introducing you to our readers:
Kelly Boehmer I am an artist and professor living in Tallahassee, Florida. I work in soft sculpture, installation, and performance art.
TAC How did you end up working in soft sculpture? How did your work grow into these massive installations involving, sometimes, television screens and taxidermy etc?
KB I started in grad school as a painter and was encouraged to experiment with other media. I transitioned from painting to using embroidery on canvas. At that time, I discovered by surprise a photo album with pictures of me being born at home. The photographs were very shocking and symbolic (mortality, connection/disconnection with my home). I began embroidering umbilical cords on canvas, as if I was trying to “paint” with the thread. Then I became more interested in the thread on its own, making umbilical cords that were completely 3D. Since then I have always tried to find ways to work outside of my comfort zone by working with unfamiliar materials. I have fears associated with technology (intimidation) and taxidermy (fears of death).
TAC How would you describe your creative process? Where does your inspiration usually stem from? …are there any artists who are especially inspiring right now?
KB I start with a rough, loose sketch. I will work on many small parts at home for months. It is interesting to see the transition of having an 8 foot chupacabra sculpture in my house and then see how it changes when it installed in its environment in the gallery. I do not get to see what the work will truly look like together until I start to install.
My inspirations come from paintings from artists like William Blake and Delacroix of Greek myths and Biblical stories. The paintings show people and creatures at their breaking point and in a state of pure chaos. I love the epic and tragic look of the paintings and I try to translate that into fabric art. I am not interested in the stories themselves so much, but rather the feeling created in that specific moment or scene in the story.
I love Louise Bourgeois, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, David Altmejd, Chuck Plypchuck, Annette Messager, Yayoi Kusama, Claes Oldenburg, and De Kooning. I am also very inspired by local artists here in Florida: Linda Hall, John Byrd, and Andrew Nigon. My students’ work is also motivating for me.
TAC I know that you recycle your pieces into new ones…what’s the reason behind this?
KB At first I started cutting up my old works to create new sculptures out of necessity, because I could not afford new materials. Then I realized that it was an interesting challenge to try to find ways to reuse parts of the sculpture. So not only does it become more eco-friendly and cost efficient, but I believe that the results are more unexpected because the fabric becomes transformed through this process.
TAC Is there a conceptual reason behind your unrefined sewing?
KB I think of the stitching as an expressive line — very similar to the artist’s hand seen in drawings. I love the look of anything handmade where the human error is evident; it is warmer and more inviting. I think it is similar to the difference between a sweater that your grandma knits for you versus one that is produced in a factory. I am terrible at sewing in the traditional sense, but I like how this adds to the wretched quality of the creatures. The aggressive stitching creates tension and makes the creatures appear to be falling apart. The creatures are often massive, but I don’t want them to simply be terrifying. So, I add kitsch elements like glitter, but in a visceral and sincere way. Making creatures that embody my fears of heartbreak and death appear slightly silly and magical is comforting to me. But, my goal is not to simply make something merely therapeutic for me. I want to create a visual experience of excess using bright colors and seductive textures. The enticing elements are contrasted with disgusting and gory imagery, like sparkly puke or guts. I am interested in the aesthetics of gore and why people are so drawn to visual representations of pain.
TAC How did your band, Glitter Chariot, begin? Does the performance aspect reflect your soft sculpture (or vice versa) – or are they completely separate entities?
KB I have learned so much by being in Glitter Chariot. I joined Glitter Chariot after they had been a band for several years. Ryan Berg started the band and he comes up with the concepts for the shows. I love contributing ideas for the costumes. While I consider myself a shy and awkward person, wearing a costume makes me more comfortable on stage. I was drawn to Glitter Chariot because of the risk involved, the spectacle and drama of the performances.
TAC I know you met your partner in grad school and you two have been working together ever since…how is the dynamic there? I know he helps a lot during installing your work and he is apart of Glitter Chariot…you must really inspire each other!
KB My partner, Chuck Carbia, is the musical director of Glitter Chariot. We work together on performances, but also help each other with all of our artwork. We collaborated on one sculpture – “Crying Time”. Chuck recorded us singing together and created all of the audio/visual elements in this piece. But, even on works where we are not officially collaborating, he always helps me install and light the work. We constantly give each other feedback. It is so helpful to get a critique from someone you completely trust. And while it is sometimes difficult to hear constructive criticism from someone you are in a relationship with, Chuck encourages me when I get frustrated and overly critical of my work.
TAC Sometimes I don’t want to create anything for months, but I find so much enjoyment in mending and patching up my clothes and things…do you ever find yourself in a similar place?
KB I feel completely off balance if I go more than a week or two without making art. Because I typically teach about 16 courses a year, I have to work constantly to get even about 2-3 installations finished in a year. For example, I will sew in the car (when I’m not driving of course!) and when I am watching t.v. Having a couple of little parts to sew with me in my purse wherever I go, helps me fit in more time to work. Luckily, I have never felt the need to work in a traditional artist’s studio environment.
TAC What advice would you have for those seeking to find a more conceptual aspect of fiber art?
KB Using fibers or any traditional craft materials in a visceral, risky, and personal way can give can be a pleasant shock for the viewer, because they are often associated with being decorative in a cute, safe, and expected way. It seems like a natural human impulse to want to touch anything that is fabric, which can give you the ability to connect with your viewer in a deeper, more emotional way. For me, spending time in museums, watching films, and reading books helps develop concepts for my work. Fibers seems to be an ideal media where the concept can be generated through the process.
TAC What are you currently working on? Anything we can look forward to in 2013 from you? …a tour with GC in New York, maybe!?
KB Glitter Chariot just played a show in New Orleans on February 9th. We are currently planning for shows in LA and NY.
TAC I just wanted to wrap up by letting you know that you were one of those very few professors in college that really touched me creatively. I never would have viewed fiber art and soft sculpture in the way that I do – even performance art! You are such an inspiration to me and I am very excited to share you with the readers of our blog!
KB Thanks so much! It is always so great to get feedback on being a teacher. I still show your images as project examples for my classes. The students always love it and have a lot of questions and comments about it. I would love to see your current work.
TAC Thank you so so much again, Kelly for the amazing opportunities and the chance to interview you!!
(all photographs courtesy of the artist and artist’s website)