Artist Profile Story by Sarah Gonzales
Karin Franzen is a true Alaskan original. Drawn here many years ago to work as a structural engineer, she then opened her own mushing equipment business, and now she's a working artist continuing to redefine herself and her work.
Franzen creates innovative "fabric paintings" that resemble a quilt only insomuch as they are pieced together using many different techniques – silk dying, collage, screen printing, painting and, yes, sewing.
Growing up in South Dakota, Franzen lived in a rural farming area where her grandmothers taught her how to crochet, sew and knit. There were no art galleries or museums for miles, but her mother was an art lover who taught her that "art is a desirable thing; it's something worth doing," says Franzen.
Although they didn't have much money to collect art, her mother did have a large collection of books filled with paintings to browse. "It was one of my favorite things to do," she says, recalling how those times provided her with an early education in art history. "I was always noticing things and sorting them in my memory," she recalls of her childhood. "How colors interact, interesting shapes and patterns, loving a particular quality of light… I've been studying those things my whole life and I've got this memory bank of images and thoughts," a well-stocked collection that she now draws upon when creating her art.
While Franzen made her own clothes and later ran her own manufacturing business making collars and harnesses for sled dogs, it wasn't until around 2003 when she realized that her sewing skills, combined with a lifelong desire to make art, could happily collide. "I was in a bead shop with a friend and somebody came in and was carrying a book by an art quilter named Ruth McDowell," remembers Franzen. "I picked up the book and casually started looking through it and I had this epiphany: I want to do that. I can do that! I can paint with fabric."
Inside her studio, just outside of Fairbanks, stacks of neatly folded squares of patterned fabrics fill a wall of shelves where they are arranged by color, from all the grayscale hues, plus reds, oranges, yellows, blues, greens, purples. "I go to Value Village and buy up various fabrics that appeal to me," she says. "I like using lot of different textures – silks, linens, nubby wools and funky metallics. Fabrics are so interesting and varied."
In another area of her studio, large pieces of hand-dyed silk organza hang by their corners from the ceiling like a graceful display of colorful, one-of-a-kind fashion scarves. These are the pieces that she uses for the backgrounds of her quilts. "I print and dye and then layer them," she says, explaining that the inner layers are more atmospheric in tone while outer layers of the silk may be printed with a leaf or fern pattern. The built up layers combine to create a realistic looking environment for, say, a pair of cranes stretching their wings or a contemplative raven.
Franzen's first show was a group show at the Well Street Art Company with three other art quilters. She remembers the gallery owner, David, remarking that people were lingering in front of their pieces and "really, really looking." She says: "I think just working with fiber invites interaction," explaining that this is one of the reasons using old clothing appeals so much to her – it's tactile and has a human history.
When creating a piece, Franzen has a rule: "10 yards, 10 feet, 10 inches," she explains. "When you see it from 10 yards it must be so compelling that you want to go closer. You get closer and there's still more to see! Each piece should have so much complexity; it's got to have it at every single level of engagement."
Franzen continues to explore new ways of presenting these fabrics that move her. Some of her newest pieces are layers of silk meant to be viewed from both the front and the back – hung as a room divider, for instance. She says she created these pieces with consideration for how light would pass through the semi-sheers, casting shadows on the wall and floors and how the air current would move the fabric, stirring the audience to look closer.