By Shannon Gallagher
Kathy Weaver’s visually stimulating, imaginative mixed media artwork playfully juxtaposes colorful imagery with references to politics, violence, technology, personal relationships, and memory. She is a multi-media artist who often works on fabric, airbrushing and hand-embroidering the material to create intricate, multi-faceted works on satin, cotton, silk, and velvet.
Her work incorporates layers and multiple mediums, and she works in a variety of sizes. The large quilt pieces are generally a long-term process from conception to completion. “I quilt by hand because I find that I can get more gradation in color with this method. I often work 12-14 very long days on one quilt. It can be very labor intensive,” she said. Weaver, who taught for over 30 years at all grade levels, admits that the brazen approach to her artwork is heavily influenced by children and their lack of defeatist attitudes. “Children just go for it. They never seem to say “I can’t do it.” A major influence, to me, is the ‘can do’ attitude of children; their spirit, zest, and total willingness to become immersed in their creation process. When the kids were ‘in the zone,’ they would literally be dancing as they were painting, just loving it!” However, the approach is not the only thing about children that inspires Weaver. “The use of bright colors lends happiness to the images, regardless of the subject matter. It draws people in. Also, children experiment. They just try whatever materials or media they have available until it works. Whether I use sculpture, clay, print, ink… it’s all the same. It’s all about trying to just make something. The very act of being in a classroom with a bunch of people making things is just an amazing feeling; it must be like what our ancestors felt like in a room making things for utilitarian or spiritual purposes.”
The artist fell into airbrush painting because she was working on a lot of robot imagery and wanted to render the “skin” of her robots without the presence of an artist’s hand. Airbrush offers a smooth, even coating of paint, but requires steady concentration. Of the process, she said, “It’s simply tedious. I don’t really enjoy airbrushing when I’m painting something from a sketch. When I have a pre-conceived idea of the image I want to get across, it’s a lot of mechanical and tedious work to make it happen. First I make the sketch, then I enlarge it, razorblade it out, and number the pieces like a giant jigsaw puzzle. You have to make it look like it is kind of spontaneous, and you have to remember the color as you go. On the other hand, if I start with a blank canvas and just begin painting with various layers of stencils, I’m working intuitively and I enjoy it a lot more. You don’t know where it will take you.” Weaver’s work explores themes of humor, irony, human relationships, and contempt for society, although these themes sometimes manifest themselves subconsciously. “I often try to make deliberate statements in my work, but if I’m working on a blank canvas, I might have an idea in mind, but not know where it’s going to go. It’s similar to an author, who has a cast of characters, but not necessarily a story. There may be plot twists and surprise endings.”
When asked what she has learned about herself as an artist over the years, Weaver indicated that one of the most important lessons she has learned is to keep an open mind. “You have to just go for it, go as far as your imagination will take you. I’m constantly learning not to hold back or censor myself. I just try to keep following through with the ideas I have, to follow the little alleys of my mind and see where they lead.” One such alley led Weaver to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. One day, she just decided that she had nothing to lose, and contacted them. “I wanted to learn more about what they were doing with victims of traumatic injury, and specifically, war victims. I was really upset about it, and wanted to learn more. I had heard that they were using robotics and neural pathways to control prosthetic limbs, so I got in touch with them and asked if they would be interested in having an artist draw some of what they were doing in the lab.” She had first become interested in robotics as mechanisms after attending a world conference at Indiana University that discussed all of the different fields that go into the study of informatics (including physics, robotics, and cellular biology). After the conference, she had a whole new perspective on robotics, which are “doing both bad and good things in the world.”
The RIC was very interested, and has been very supportive of her. After getting to know some of the patients and staff, Weaver got the permission necessary from lawyers and patients to sketch them. “I’ve only had one person who requested not to be drawn. I have a form that they must sign, to make it clear that [my presence] in no way influences their treatment. I’m more of a witness. It has been pretty humbling, because some of what these patients are doing is physically difficult, and excruciating for me to watch. It has been a privilege to draw these people, and I always show the patients the drawings afterwards, as well as sending them copies of the sketches.” When asked about the future, Weaver hinted at a future collaborative project about drones, an upcoming three-person show at Prairie State, and a new body of work concerning neural pathways. She plans to continue working on a series of large-scale drawings that she started during a recent artist’s residency at the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, Illinois. She also has no plans to stop working with the RIC. “I can really produce,” she said. “I’m a hard worker, but it is because making art is a joy to me. It is the one thing I absolutely just forget everything else and do.”