Karen Sunday Spencer has transformed her life – in just four years. She received a BS in Math from the University of Michigan and was in the corporate world, eventually working for Intel for 30 years. She ended her career on a high, in the Philanthropy Department, finding non-profits that were in line with Intel’s goals. She was personally responsible for girls and women’s issues globally. Girls’ education was her last project, and it culminated in a multi-year project making a film with known actors, on the big screen. The film highlighted the ways that girls’ education in many countries is not considered a priority, even less than that, it doesn’t happen.
Her arts training has all been in the last four years, and it’s all been focused on using fabric as a medium, “but I tend to go to art classes vs quilting technique classes. It’s amazing what you learn about color, and about using fabric as your medium. There are dull colors, bright colors; how does a bright yellow vs a dull yellow affect something? What’s the purpose of grey fabric in a composition? You can’t change the color of a fabric. You can paint over things; and she has painted on fabric, but only as a first step.
Art is her main business. “I am an abstract artist who uses fabric, thread and sometimes paint or other media to express myself and reflect the world around me. My training has been more on the job, but I definitely sense an improvement in my ability to put depth into a piece and my choice of colors are more sophisticated and more real – original is a bad word, because there’s no such thing as an original color composition, but they are just more intriguing. I feel I’ve grown.”
She loves what she does. There are two processes. “The materials you work with are these beautiful fabrics, wherever you go you can find materials you want to use, or if you’re so inclined you can make your own by dying the fabric yourself. I turned a table into one you can do wet work on and I’ve got my dyes and chemicals back there. I get an idea and start looking at it, maybe screen print and dye over it. Sometimes I Just make fabric and fill up my drawers, and sometimes I feel like putting something together.”
I come here every day. I don’t have to. I come because I want to. I’m never lacking new thoughts.
When she begins a piece, she starts by cutting the pieces she wants, then takes the pieces and places them on a flannel wall, moving them around to create the look she wants. Once she gets it the way she wants it, she takes them down and sews them together on the machine. That can be the hard part, making sure they travel from the wall to the machine in the same composition, so she photographs a lot before she moves the pieces. So, first she comes up with a design, then she ‘puts some thread on it’. She often uses variegated thread which gives the piece an additional design aspect.
The best piece of advice she’s ever been given: “Just keep trying out everything. Start with an idea and continue to try out all the possibilities until you’ve exhausted them. It’s so easy to give up early on, when it doesn’t work, or you have your idea, and the first one is just blah, and you think, I’m going on to my next idea, but no, work it through, make it bigger. I’m always fascinated by how taking your idea and exploding it into its biggest form does make such a huge impact.
She wants people to go home with something when they visit her during the tour so she is thinking of having a project ready for visitors to make their own piece of art. When you visit her studio, though, remember please that it’s not a good idea to touch the art – and you will want to. The art is very tactile, and I know I wanted to touch it; a lot of people want to see what’s on the back. But the oils and other things on our hands can discolor the fabric itself.