Karen Casper interview: A designer and an artist
Karen Casper is an internationally acclaimed artist and designer that uses embroidery, lace, and embellishment techniques in her work.
She has been exhibited at the Lace and Fashion Museum and the Surprising Laces Exhibition.
Thanks to regular workshops and demonstrations, Karen’s schedule stays full all throughout the year.
The fine line between art and design, learning to sew at 32, and her creative process are all topics of conversation in this candid interview with Karen Casper.
TextileArtist.org: What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
Karen Casper: I had never touched a sewing machine, or hand stitched properly until I was 32. My sister taught me basic hand stitching techniques and I was introduced to the sewing machine when I commenced a BTEC in Textiles; however, I have always enjoyed and appreciated the aesthetics of textiles whether in a museum, gallery, textile fair, or catwalk runway. For example, the beauty of historical textiles in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the contrast of avant garde creations by Alexander McQueen, in my eyes, they are all works of art.
I decided to have a career change from my role as a PA at the BBC and sample the world of textiles. I have never looked back from dipping my toe in the water to undertake the BTEC to recently completing a master’s degree in textiles.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
With starting out late in the textile world I did used to wonder ‘what if’… What if I have pursued a textile career when I was in my twenties?
Even though I am sure I would be able to undertake wider opportunities without now having a young family, I do believe I would not have been able to create the successful pieces of work to date without having had those life experiences. So, I guess what I have seen, heard, and learned subconsciously over the years has influenced my work without a doubt.
Combining the abundance of textiles
What was your route to becoming an artist?
As mentioned earlier, I pursued an alternative career and at the grand age of 32 studied a BTEC in textiles with 16-17 year old students. I knew from the first mark-making class that this was where I belonged. It was a natural progression onto a foundation degree, the degree where I secured first class honours, and was finally awarded a master’s degree.
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
Throughout my studies and professional career within textiles, it has always been asked if I am a designer or an artist. I personally see myself as a designer; however, I leave it up to the viewer to decide whether the work is art or not, as this is such a difficult subject.
My recent work has predominantly created with embroidery; however, I enjoy combining the abundance of textile techniques I have mastered. These include screen print, digital print, devore print, latex moulding, resin, quilting, hand stitch, and other fabric manipulations to create unusual and tactile textiles.
My practice is about creating innovative textiles that fuse tradition with contemporary. Wherever possible, I aim to upcycle redundant textiles that form part of a larger piece of work which gives them a new identity. These have included vintage wedding veils, lace pieces, 1930s bodice, and nineteenth century French fan.
Ultimately, I create hand crafted textiles that produce an art and fashion crossover. The work has been created for various genres that include fashion editorials, museum exhibitions, and gallery exhibitions. In addition, as part of my brand Tulle and Candyfloss, I create embroidered headpieces that are seen to be individual pieces of art accessible to everyone.
I also coordinate an editorial shoot for my work to communicate the context of the piece and also create a visual piece of photographic art.
A real connection
Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in.
I have an in-depth design process that commences with a chosen theme. It is then researched through various methods. The internet, books and journals are important; however, in addition, I try where possible to gain primary research and visit certain exhibitions, sites, galleries etc to gain imagery that is first hand and will hopefully assist in creating a unique piece of work. These visits also enable a real connection between the theme and I.
Once I have collated the research, I then start sampling and experimenting with ideas. Finally, I cherry-pick certain successful ones to push forward to produce the final work.
During my studies, I utilised the university facilities, where I enjoyed using their specialist embroidery machines – in particular the Cornley; however, I now work predominantly from a studio at home where I am surrounded by inks, paints, threads, dyes, print pastes, wire, fabrics, historical garments, sketchbooks, books, journals, and of course, my sewing machine.
Do you use a sketchbook?
I love to work my ideas, development and of course narrative to the work in a sketchbook. My sketchbooks do gain a lot of attention, especially from current students during workshops I teach. From the feedback I like to think they inspire future designers and artists. I think the weight of them speaks volumes and I see them as being just as precious as the final textile piece.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
My work is constantly evolving; however, it continues to have the Karen Casper (Tulle and Candyfloss) signature. I have learned over the years to select a couple of successful techniques and develop those instead of throwing every technique at one piece and refining those. This will continue with future designs.
Numerous talks and presentations
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
Be passionate, committed, take risks, and enjoy every opportunity.
Can you recommend 3 or 4 books for textile artists?
I have been included in a new publication by Kim Irwin in the USA entitled “Surface Design for Fabric.”
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
My Bernina sewing machine, even though I have only used straight and zigzag stitch on it! My BTEC tutor told me to invest in one and it would see me through my studies and she wasn’t wrong.
Do you give talks or run workshops or classes? If so, where can readers find information about these?
I have undertaken numerous talks and presentations to various embroiders guild branches and workshops within colleges. You can see all the details on my website.
Where can readers see your work this year?
My work has recently been exhibited in Riga, Latvia, the Capital of Culture for 2014, as part of their Surprising Laces exhibition. Two of my veils that were created as part of a series of three for my master’s project were chosen.
Other exhibitions include Miss Coral, the 3D embroidered glow-in-the-dark cape and headpiece, which has also been exhibited internationally at the Lace and Fashion Museum in Calais, France.
Ventalina, the embroidered fan, was a commission for the Manchester Museum’s Coral: Something Rich and Strange exhibition.
A headpiece is on permanent display at Gawthorpe Hall’s Contemporary Textile Collection.
Finally, I was commissioned to create a piece of work for the Tactile Too Project at Whitworth Art Gallery.
Learn more about Karen Casper by visiting: www.tulleandcandyfloss.co.uk
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