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AIR Artist Highlight: Marta Nowak

The daughter of Polish immigrants, TAC AIR 11 resident Marta Nowak grew up in New Jersey. She painted as a teenager, but quickly found herself “exhausted as a painter” while studying at the Rhode Island School of Design. “The work was so direct and I liked making things by hand,” she told me in a July 2020 Zoom interview from her Brooklyn apartment. Apart from painting, she had always adored sewing. Thus, Marta ended up earning her BFA in Textiles. By then, crocheting and weaving had been added to her practice. When it came time to graduate in Spring 2019, she wanted to join a community of “like-minded” and “engaged” artists, so she chose TAC’s Artists in Residence program.

Marta at her workspace at TAC

“I didn’t want to be among people who just saw this as an arts and crafts session,” said Marta and fellow RISD alumni had told her TAC AIR would give her the “serious” environment she craved. More specifically, she sought the opportunity to move to New York and dedicate herself toward her aim of becoming a knitwear designer.

In college, Marta interned for designer Eva Di Franco in Florence, Italy one summer and collaborated with her on a knitwear collection. The experience gave her the chance to “illustrate [Eva’s] vision in the best way possible.” That vision was deeply inspired by the underwater life that Eva grew up encountering in her native Italian maritime town. Marta used the knitting machine and secondhand yarn that Eva provided and carefully studied her mood boards. While she learned a lot from the opportunity, it left her itching to realize her own vision. It also clued her in to her love for knitting, where previously there had been none.

A hand touching the corner of a piece of Marta's knitwear, patterned with colorful prisms over black and white stripes.

Marta returned to RISD for her senior year of college and delved into her thesis work. She decided to explore her relationship to her mother through knitting. She was curious about what her mother was like before she was born—“before she was a mom”—and studied family photos taken from around the time her mother was 30 years old. Some of the photos were taken shortly after Marta was born or when she was otherwise “really small” and couldn’t really process who her mother was as a person. Researching this family archive became “therapeutic” for Marta. At times growing up, she has felt “disconnected” from her mother’s Cold War Poland upbringing because of her own American upbringing. Marta found herself better understanding her mother’s approaches to communication and emotional processing as she reviewed the old photographs. Ultimately, she chose five or six articles of clothing from the photos and knitted her own versions. Most notably, she knitted a bathing suit. For her department’s opening reception, Marta had friends model the clothing. She specifically chose friends who were “raised in a similar way.”

Two of Marta's turtleneck sweater designs, one blue and one yellow, with a large cross across the body

In making the clothes, Marta thought about how she wants to make clothes that the wearer feels are special enough to “pass down to a significant person, like a daughter or niece.” Many of her favorite articles of clothing are ones that convey “comfort” and that the wearer finds “soothing,” in terms of wearability but also colors.

“I choose happy colors because I seek the good from the bad.” In a way, she has found herself, as she puts it, knitting her feelings.

As a painter, she often chose “bleak, dull colors” because of this idea that “in realism, colors have to be sad.” As a textile designer, she more often opts for “bright colors,” which she describes as “bittersweet” since it’s really a “coping mechanism”: “I choose happy colors because I seek the good from the bad.” In a way, she has found herself, as she puts it, knitting her feelings.

When Marta came to TAC in October 2019, she took advantage of the residency’s three month “play period.” She dove into brainstorming and “knitting pretty shapes without being expected to explain” them. Heading into December, she turned her attention to color and illustrative methods, but again, “subconsciously” made pieces that “feel good” on the body. She challenged herself to choose colors she “didn’t conventionally like or wear” and discover new “harmonies” in her evolving palette.

Another of Marta's sweater pieces, paired with square pillow of matching design

In quarantine, Marta has converted her bedroom into a studio. Lately, she has been attracted to pink, orange, and lavender in her knits. She launched an online store , which she credits the TAC residency for giving her the courage to do. Prior to the residency, she lacked “the confidence to be an entrepreneur.” Now she is thinking in terms of a business model with different items priced at different tiers. For the TAC AIR group exhibition, Subtle Speaks, she plans to show her vibrant sweater series.

“TAC helped me make connections and practice introducing myself,” she said, adding that she is excited to see where new creative relationships take her post-TAC.

Marta's work was featured in the Subtle Speaks, TAC AIR 11 Final Exhibition (September 19-28, 2020). Check the online exhibition to see more from this artist.


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