Kay Khan: Vessels of Meaning

Kay Khan

“I approach quilting backwards to most,” confesses American artist Kay Khan who studied painting and ceramic sculpture at James Madison University, Virginia in the late 1970s. Rather than build up a patchwork of smaller pieces of cloth into a larger whole, Khan’s approach begins with the quilting of many layers of fabric and felt together, which she then appliqués and embellishes with machine stitching. Only after the stiff sheets of already quilted fabric are sewn does she cut into the layers to assemble her vessels. Because the many layers of fabric are highly compressed they eventually provide the structural strength that allows her work to stand upright as vessels without the need of an interior armature or scaffold. Her technique, she explains, not only offers a way for pattern and content to appear in her work, but also provides the structural integrity of each vessel.

Fabric, Khan explains, “was always part of my studio” but the vessels she now creates did not make their way into her work until the mid-1990s. Some of this may, in part, be due to the time it has taken her to develop a way of working with fabric that continues the sculptural attention to the three-dimensional form she first explored through ceramics. While each vessel is made of fabric, function is not a concern to Khan. Instead she explains that these vessels need to “work in space” as individual works of art, rather than containers or carriers of any material goods. In a similar nod to her Fine Art background, she likens the machine stitching that she uses to add figures and text to the fabric to drawing rather than sewing by machine.

Somewhat unusually for fibre art, an equal proportion of male and female figures populate this work. On inquiry, Khan explains that she is “interested in the communication of messages for all of humanity” rather than at the exclusion of men or women. The phrases and words that do appear amongst her figures are a similar mixture, drawn from comments found in her sketchbooks as well as phrases that start as the source of inspiration for the piece. A balance between the “little bit absurd and little bit serious” is the tone she aims to strike.

As well as personal inspiration, the broader art historical context of this work also appears as reference. Khan points, for instance, to the narrative qualities of ancient Greek urns, on which some of her work is loosely based. Three dimensional, with narratives that run across the entire surface, the urns offer a similar example of suggested rather than literal narrative recorded on the vessels’ surface. Similarly, Khan strives to have “everything relate to each other” within her own work, be it from panel to panel, image to text or within the text alone.

For example, “Sequence” has words on all four sides with some of the faces that appear on one side repeated across each side. Khan explains that the work is about an “ongoing conversation between the figures, and about the flow and pattern of words in a dialogue as much as about the melodic repetition of sounds.” The main panel includes the following string of phrases: staging ground, unknown, leap, conversation, ongoing, wandering amid, a pause, melodic, line, overlapping, interludes, prose sequence, gesture reverie, random conjecture. At moments these phrases begin to suggest sentences, which then break apart and make connections on to other panels of the work. The result is a nonlinear narrative open to countless possible readings. Contemporary society is also under scrutiny in these vessels. “Hermits and Kingpins” is comprised of vignettes of isolated androgynous figures backed in red squares. “Reclusive” is how Khan explains each figure’s demeanour, although some inhabit offices, while others are placed in a natural landscape. They seem to offer windows into our worlds, some brighter than others, but all cause for reflection.

Embroidery magazine (March/April 2007: 18-21)