Paula Kovarik uses cloth and stitch to create art that reflects on life, politics, and the world around us.
Current events inform her work. “It’s hard to find good news,” she said.“I react to what I read.”Kovarik references maps, photographs and sketches when beginning new work. An eclectic mix of subject matter finds its way into her art. The environment looms large, as does social interaction and technology. She is currently working on a piece about nuclear testing. The seriousness of the subject matter is tinted by satirical expression and the playfulness of a child.
The juxtaposition of playfulness and seriousness in Kovarik’s work is intentional; it draws the viewer into the work. “Often people will come to [a piece] attracted to the playfulness, and then they look closer and see the message,” said Kovarik. “Some pieces are just an emotion or a mindset that I want to communicate through stitching. You must be close to view the details of the work. People are drawn to the piece and surprised by the content.”
Kovarik finds great fun in creating environments. “I like drawing fantastical spaces, letting the pen move and seeing what happens after it’s done.
I work the same way when I’m stitching. I watch the stitched line move through space, creating arrows, spirals, and snake-like shapes. It’s a personal challenge that I have worked with for quite awhile, allowing the stitch to have it’s own life, letting it flow. Then I react to that line with the next stitch; it’s a bit of a game.”
The incredible detail and intricacy of Kovarik’s work would be painstaking if done completely by hand.
“I stitch with a free-motion foot on my sewing machine to draw with thread. That’s my primary focus. Hand stitching is more for adding texture.” She has some pieces that are completely hand stitched, which were done with an introspective mindset. “The practice of stitching through cloth in a private space is meditative, calming. It creates a stress free zone.”
Inspiration, too, can come from the fabric. “Sometimes it is stained, or ragged on the edges, or has a texture that appeals to me,” she said. “Raw canvas is neutral and shows the stitch in a very clean way. I also collect antique linen and cotton fabrics. I’ve used commercial fabrics and even some pieces of clothing. Fabric has such an amazing quality, it gives and stretches and crimps, takes dye, takes stitches. I enjoy seeing how the fabric reacts to the thread. I experiment with different battings to achieve dimension.”
Kovarik, who spent over 25 years running a successful graphic design business, has always had an interest in making art, but didn’t always have the time. She did some painting and collage work, squeezing projects in when she could. “Towards the end [of my graphic design career], the fiber work started, and it became all-consuming. During the last few years, I was spending my evenings and weekends exploring this new medium.”
Kovarik’s training as a graphic designer influences her work. “There is a departure when I’m working,” she said. “Design helps me with composition, color and value, but it doesn’t contribute to the emotional or line quality of a piece. I have to let go of the structure that comes along with graphic design projects. It’s a different thought pattern.”
The artist admits that this manner of working requires a certain level of obsession. Because of her design career, this mindset was already a part of her creation process. “In design, every word has to be properly formatted, every detail measured. I’ve always had to be detail oriented,” she said. “I haven’t let go of that focus – it has served me well.”
Kovarik uses a variety of techniques to deal with the natural ebb and flow of creative energy. During slumps of inspiration, she becomes more contemplative. “I spend a lot of time reading. I have several projects in progress at any given time. So if I put one aside, I will return to it with fresh eyes, launching me back into the project.” She also spends time away from the studio. “Those times clear my mind and set me up for new bursts of creativity.”
The artist did not always have a strong interest in showing her work, until, in 2008, a friend urged her to enter a piece into Quilt National, one of the most prestigious juried competitions for fiber artists. “That changed a lot of things for me,” she explained. “I attended the show and watched people looking at and commenting on my work. I realized that art must move on, it’s not always just mine. Art needs to go in front of audiences to complete the passage.”
The Memphis-based artist got involved with ZIA after her work was shown at the Grand Rapids Art Museum at Art Prize 2015, one of the largest and most-attended public art events today. Accompanied now by an impressive list of exhibitions and awards, Kovarik’s artworks are out in the world garnering much respect and admiration, while being snapped up by collectors.