THE ARTS: CLOTH CONTEMPLATION
Written by Janina Birtolo for Times of the Islands
Pat Kumicich uses a soft art to explore hard issues. While most people think of quilts as pretty, homey bed-covers, she chooses to use the medium as a means to work out her feelings, much as a writer might employ a journal.
Consider the quilt she calls “Listen to Your Conscience,” one her self-portrait pieces. To one side is the half-face of a woman. But the centerpiece, the focal point that grabs the eye, is a soft, white, organza “ghost” whispering in the woman’s ear. Through the ghostly figure and behind her, are those hard issues – domestic violence, global warming, poverty and hunger.
“Putting a Face on the Homeless” is equally hard-hitting. In the background are pictures Kumicich took during a visit to St. Matthew’s House, a shelter for the homeless. She then silkscreened the photos onto fabric. In the foreground is an appliqué figure of a man sitting, arms around his knees. But where his head should be, Kumicich sewed a round piece of reflective acrylic. The idea, she says, was to remind viewers of the thin line of Fate that often separates the have’s from the have-not’s.
“I realized I can make anything I want,” Kumicich explains. “It’s for me, just my own feelings. But I don’t want to tell people what to think. You can read into (my quilts) whatever you want.”
Kumicich came to her art form in 1994. Her daughter had just finished making a quilt and thought her mother would enjoy the process. She started with patterns developed by others but soon found the need to stretch and come up with her own designs.
“I don’t follow directions very well,” the self-taught artist says with a smile. “And I wanted to do my own.”
That independent spirit is easy to see while looking at the various art forms Kumicich has pursued over the years. A small chest of drawers in her living room exemplifies her playful side, decorated as it is with a happy, mischievous polymer clown face. On a nearby dress form, a one-of-a-kind bustier she made for the 10th anniversary exhibit at the von Liebig Art Center sparkles in the light.
“The pieces had to be photography,” Kumicich says. “So I made the form out of brown paper bags from Publix and then looked for things that said 10 (that I could photograph).”
Those things included pictures of dimes that adorn the edge of the bustier and miniature replicas of $10 bills, with her husband’s face in place of Alexander Hamilton’s. “It was different than anything else in the exhibit,” Kumicich notes with a laugh.
And then there are the dolls – scores of them on the walls, shelves and tables. Call them her odds-and-ends pieces. Feet are made from old shoe forms. Limbs are often old rulers from her father’s carpentry days. Heads are clay or sculpted fabric.
“They all have their own little personalities,” Kumicich notes.
That’s particularly evident in the trio she calls her “Holy Smokes,” whose bodies are made from discarded cigarette packs she found during a trip to Europe. Like all the dolls, these are endearing, even in their strange garb. “I used to be a smoker,” Kumicich explains. "Its hard to quit, I know."
The dolls and other items provide the artist with a break from the quilts. But the quilts are without doubt what most feed Kumicich’s creative urge. “Once I decided I could start telling my own story, things opened up a lot for me,” she says. “A lot of times, I’m surprised with what comes out.”
Kumicich begins with a phrase, a headline or something she’s seen on TV. Language gives her a title for the coming piece, which, in turn, keeps her focused on what she wants to depict. She begins by drawing her design twice (once to use as a guide; once to use as a pattern) and typically works straight through to the end.
A recent piece called “We the People, Up in Arms” evidences Kumicich’s love of exploring current events. To create it she once again took her camera, this time to one of the “tea party” demonstrations in the news. To carry through that theme, she printed the pictures on tea bag papers and used them as her quilt’s background
“I like the idea of coming up with ideas and figuring how I can make it work,” she says. “You could put a stitch through a lot of stuff, so why not? It’s kind of like what if? What’s the worst that can happen? It could be wonderful.”
Other works are more personal experience than exploration, as seen in a quilt Kumicich made after her was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In the background is a young woman flying a kite. In the foreground is an old woman, dressed the same but bearing a somewhat vacant smile. Tying the two together are sentences describing what Mama used to like. It ends with the words, “I remember Mama. I wish Mama could remember me.”
It is that sense of shared experience, shared sentiment and shared questioning that makes Kumicich’s work outstanding. Her technical skills are highly developed and admirable, to be sure. But it’s the impact one gets from viewing her quilt “paintings” that holds the gaze and lingers in the mind.
The art world is starting to notice. Kumicich’s “Quit Smoking” quilt won first prize in a Texas exhibition – the first time in 41 years the top award went to a fiber work. “Mama” won a competition that sent the artist to Provence. In 2009, Kumicich was included in the Phil’s annual Artist Studio Tour.
“Winning awards – I never would have expected that when I started,” Kumicich says. “Now I want to push the idea that this is art. I would love to have my own show now.”
One can only hope such a show will come to be. Getting lost in her soft world is an easy and gratifying journey.
Pat Kumicich’s quilts are frequently featured in art shows locally and nationally. For a well rounded view of the quilts, visit her website at www.patkumicich.com. To arrange a visit to her Naples studio, email her at email@example.com or call (239) 775-9517.