Multi-talented Kathryn Harmer Fox has found her way to fibre art. Or maybe fibre art has found its way to her. Either way, we are grateful.
Some days, Kathryn Harmer Fox’s paint box is scattered all over the floor of her studio. Today, it has all been packed, sort of neatly, into a huge box. It is overflowing with her special paint – scraps of fabrics in all colours and textures. She sweeps her arm towards a mound of netting: “More paint box.”
Then she gets back to her sewing machine and her current work, “Release”. More than a metre wide and deep, the piece is of two sets of hands, one inside the other, releasing birds. No, it’s more than releasing birds: these hands are propelling the birds upwards, to fly free. Perhaps the open hands are also receiving.
Kathryn Harmer Fox (Kathy to her many friends) is a multi-talented artist who has evolved into one of the country’s top fibre artists. I’d venture that she is one of the world’s top fibre artist and probably helped put the word “fibre” into fibre art. She certainly moved into this medium of fine art long before most of us knew it existed. It is still sometimes confused with the craft of quilting, although that’s become less common.
She describes her current work as “a direct response to lockdown” (South Africa has entered its eighth week of what has become one of the harshest lockdowns anywhere). Let it be said, though, that the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown does not define Kathy – nothing does. But her artworks are often a response to her world: taking a stand against rhino poaching, for example, exploring the skin we choose for ourselves, or just celebrating being alive.
Underlining her “Release” work is “the sense of being locked into this place, of being overwhelmed, like being trapped in mental illness”.
Healing and the art of teaching
And art, she knows, heals: “It clears your soul. It heals you from the inside.”
Kathy has been teaching art in classes and workshops at her home at Kwelera Mouth in the Eastern Cape of South Africa for at least the past decade and a half. She travels to other parts of the country to teach and spends three to four months a year teaching in Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania.
Always, she starts a new student with an exercise in “the universal language of line”, a concept she picked up in Betty Edwards’ book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.
“Words are limited to what they represent,” Kathy says. “A line is open. How do you draw fear? Anger? Happiness? You see people gain incredible insight into themselves when they do this.”
Some then remark on her power of intuition. “But it’s got nothing to do with my intuition. It’s their intuition, their self-knowledge – they are telling me.” And that is how she approaches teaching: “I don’t want to teach you how I draw. I want to teach you how you draw.” I’m not surprised that people clamour for her drawing classes, from Kwelera, South Africa, to Rockwell, Australia.
A teacher through and through, Kathy generously shares the process of her work, including “Release”, on her art page on Facebook. Check it out here.
Kathy is skilled at almost any medium. I love her papier-mâché creations – fat ladies adorning a stand for cutlery, for example. I love her mosaics where birds fly across a shower wall, her creatures made of clay, her chalk drawings of strelitzia flowers on a scrap of wood. She still immerses herself in painting – her latest completed work is a large painting of birds scattering. There is such joy in this work.
Her love of sewing was rooted and nurtured as a child, learning from her mother, a somewhat flamboyant seamstress in East London. And she loved being able to turn her sewing machine into a tool to make art, shifting from moving her hand over a static work to moving the work under her static needle.
Fibre art, she says, brought a new dimension of tactility and depth to her work. “But everything comes back to drawing.” So she draws with her sewing machine. “Drawing to me is what language is to speaking.”
You’re pretty good at this word business, I remark. She laughs in that way that you can’t resist joining in. “But I think in pictures,” she says.
The threads of familiarity
Actually, I know that is true because I’ve known Kathy for a long time. I tell her that I would recognise her work anywhere. There’s a particular energy and movement and, often, pure joy that runs like a thread through so much of it.
There’s a familiar colour – a beautiful blue – that features often, including in “Release”. It’s a cerulean blue, she says, “and yet my favourite colour is indigo blue. Maybe it’s because there is a lot of sky in my work? I do love light … it affects me a lot. I love the way it falls on things and shapes them. It’s not subtle at all. But then neither am I. Subtle.”
There are familiar things, like birds, hands and eyes, in her work. The birds are easy to explain, she says. There’s the obvious freedom to fly. Also: “Birds sell better and I am not sentimental about that. Birds sell, and so do shells, fish and insects.” And: “I love nature, even the things that bite me.”
But she admits that she “loves doing birds, even though I’m not specifically attracted to them”. I do know that birds are attracted to Kathy. She once shared her home with not just her husband, Phillip, but also a red-collared barbet called Rollercoaster. One day, the bedraggled bird appeared on her doorstep; she nursed him back to health; he moved in. They would have long chirpy chats. And Kathy would organise a Rollercoaster-sitter when she was away. One day, just like that, he left, although we think that he came back to visit a few times. “I was very fond of that bird,” Kathy says.
She certainly has a thing for hands; she does them superbly. “Hands,” she says, “are the makers. They do things for us. They are very expressive. They are so useful to have.” Another peal of laughter.
Eyes have a special appeal – Kathy has a growing gallery of eyes of family and friends painted onto pieces of driftwood gathered on the beach. Eyes are expressive of course, but there’s more: “It’s very easy to recognise a person and who they are from their eyes.”
And people. She loves people. Mostly. “Rampant consumerism and the non-creative people who buy into it are just boring. You don’t need to be an artist to be creative.”
We are chatting on the stoep nestled in her garden. This garden was once an inhabitable slope and a tangle of weeds. With the help of a landscaper friend, Kathy turned it into a delight. There are levels, a mosaic of colours and textures and smells, with occasional creations tucked in here and there: an artist’s garden.
She will plant for the colour and shape, but have no idea what she is planting. “I’m more interested in the nature of things than their names. It’s like a pair of sunglasses. Who cares if they have a label that says Gucci? Are they a nice colour? Do they have a nice shape?”
I chuckle because she does the same to people. Sarah becomes Tertia. Div becomes Deon. We roll on the floor when we recall the day that Rajen became Ganja. No-one seems to mind when Kathy renames them. And when she goes for a lockdown walk in two left flip-flops … well, why not?
She’s notched up a list of accolades and awards, and it is long. It starts with winning a sewing machine in a national competition in 2008 – to her great surprise, she says. Not one year since then has passed without the list growing. Some examples:
- In 2015, her work, “A Life Lived in Ink”, was one of 43 chosen from across the world to be a part of the “Reflections” exhibition hosted by the European Patchwork Meeting in France. It won the Best of Show and the Clover prizes and became part of its permanent collection.
- In 2017, “The Egyptian Goose Family” took first place for innovative quilt and “The Three Watchers” won first place in the art/innovative quilt section of the World Quilt Exhibition. “The Egyptian Goose Family” also won Best in Show and Viewers’ Choice at the Siyadala Quilt Show in Port Elizabeth.
- In 2019, “The Tattoo Artist” was exhibited as one of the top 40 portraits in the Sanlam Portrait Awards. The tattoo artist, by the way, is her son, Daniel Lotz. Her daughter, Ilse Lotz, is a singer. Talent and creativity run through this family.
Yet she is quite oblivious to the fact that her work has made her famous. “I know that my work is known” – that’s all she says about this. So she jumped out of her skin when a fan approached her in an Australian airport to ask if she was really Kathryn Harmer Fox. “I thought I’d done something wrong!”
No, nothing wrong at all. She is simply adding texture to our lives. Why would we want to change that?