Creative Genius: Karen Barbé Textile Artist
Get to know more about this multidimensional author and textile artist.
Many of you might remember your grandmother doing embroidery or cross stitch. They were probably simple flower motifs or pastoral scenes stitched on hankies and wall hangings. You probably never considered learning this type of “old lady” craft. Why bother to hand stitch designs on anything when there are machines that can do it for you? Well put aside the old misconceptions of this "old fashioned" needlecraft and enter the world of Chilean textile artist Karen Barbé.
Karen makes embroidery and cross-stitching look easy and incredibly cool. Once you've seen her Instagram feed, you're going to want to run out and stock up on embroidery thread. Her ability to combine colors and patterns into modern designs is not only lovely, but completely doable. We sat down with Karen to get to know her creative process and learn how her surroundings influence her designs.
People have described my style as simple, geometric, sophisticated and even with a Scandinavian feel to it, but they always talk about color as a salient feature throughout my entire body of work. I like to say my work is simple, sweet and unpretentious and that it always has a color story to tell.
What or who were your early influences and how has your upbringing influenced your work?
My mother got me into embroidery when I was a girl. She was always doing things with her hands—sewing, knitting, embroidering, quilting, painting—so it was natural to me to get into this world. My first stitches were half cross stitch on painted penelope canvas. The love for needlepoint has remained since then and I’d say it’s the technique I enjoy the most and it’s a constant inspiration behind my designs. Then there’s also the influence of being Chilean and living in Chile. On one hand, South America is full of colors and tons of sunlight which make all colors appear brighter and with great contrast...Then, on the other hand, the uncertainty of living in Chile, surrounded by volcanoes on one side and a vast ocean on the other and being continuously shaken by tremors and earthquakes, have shaped us into a culture of loss and humbleness. All this has permeated my work and has placed the importance of simplicity and bringing a sense of coziness to the home—no matter where or how—as my central theme.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
I’m a trained designer with a background in textiles and graphic design. During the early stages of my career I worked in the corporate world until, in 2007, I decided I would pursue my passion for textiles when I realized they were a natural extension from a family tradition ever since I can remember. Becoming a trained designer enlightened this long cultivated family practice with new tools, both conceptual and technical. Of course I didn't see it as clearly as I do now, it was more about following my natural creative approach to everything. I’m thankful for how this newly learned discipline put a rationale and methodological container that has shaped and improved my work, regardless if it is about textiles, stitching, photography or lately, writing.
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of textile art?
I’ve found myself working in a space that is part art, design and craft. My whole textile project is fundamentally a design project but I think it also touches aspects of an “artistic” process when I analyze my portfolio: an eloquent narrative around the home as a strong symbol loaded with meaning. It is also artistic very much in the way contemporary art references its history. It is a deliberate decision to denote the embroidery tradition as a subject on its own, and a personal obsession to cite my inspirations through stitching on a regular basis.
Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in?
My creative process begins by gathering inspiration from many different sources: personal memories, graphic ephemera, images of a utopian family life, vintage home accessories and old photographs, you name it. I translate these into rough sketches and then into stitches or into something else like prints or an idea for weaving. I feel that, because of its rigour and precision, embroidery gives you a good understanding of the possibilities for a pattern, distinct from the final result or outcome. Over time I’ve learned to fine tune my observation and ideation process so right from the start I kind of “listen” to each sketch in a way so the outcome emerges naturally. It is the very same pattern or stitch that gives me the cues to shape them as specific products: towels, pot holders, scarves, patches. But at the same time, a lot of my work is exploratory around pushing the boundaries of stitches, color, grids, surfaces and processes.
Tell us how you came about your idea for your book?
When I started teaching embroidery I realized that one of the most common complaints I got from my students had to do with the colors they had used in their samplers. Though they were able to achieve the stitches, they still felt frustrated about the color choice they had made. Many mentioned that choosing colors was a challenge they encountered not only in embroidery but in other yarn crafts as well. It was then that I decided to teach a workshop about creating beautiful color palettes because this is not something you can choose hastily in the craft or yarn shop: choosing the right colors is a project in itself and it deserves its time. Colour Confident Stitching is the expanded version of that workshop.
What are some of your favorite color combinations?
All my work is inspired by life at home. I love using lots of warm neutrals like off-white, beige and shades of brown to bring in that feeling of coziness at home. And then, to avoid a flat or boring outcome, I play with adding pops of bright color such as blue, pink and orange which immediately infuse a joyful tone to the mix.
What would you like for your readers to take away from of your book?
If you struggle with choosing colors or if you want to get into designing your own embroidery projects, Colour Confident Stitching can really help you! It doesn’t matter how many times you feel you have failed when choosing colors—the good news is that color is a skill that can be learned and anyone can train to capture and build their own color palettes. We all have the potential to shine just by learning the process and putting it into practice. Although the book is focused on embroidery, the theory and process of creating color palettes has many potential applications beyond stitching.