Let’s Talk SHOP: Isabel Kern

Abby Leon, Paradigm Gallery Director

Isabel Kern. Photo courtesy of Isabel Kern.

One painfully slow spring, the kind where it snows in April, when we were impatiently awaiting the better weather ahead, our beloved Paradigm Gallery co-worker and talented artist Isabel Kern warmed our hearts with gifted hand-embroidered hoops. She created and curated each to fit the individual interests of our Paradigm employees.

They were amazing! At first, we were all touched by her very thoughtful gesture. We quickly and collectively, however, switched into gallery mode, insisting that she make more to share with our wonderful customers. Thankfully, she humbly agreed, and the rest is history! Her work is now a treasured addition to the Paradigm Gallery. Read on to learn more from Isabel about her journey as a budding artist, and how she expresses herself through her art.

My interest in fiber arts really took off in late 2019 when I discovered the historical sewing community of YouTube; however, my interest in various crafts, like sewing, embroidery, and crochet, goes back well over fifteen years to when my mom’s best friend taught me how to crochet at age 6. I’ve been hooked ever since! I’ve made things for as long as I can remember: whether it’s filling sketchbooks with stories or making a weird hat, my hands are always busy. I used to carve pictures into the underside of my parents’ kitchen table when I was little! These days, my experimentation leaves the furniture unscathed, but my love for trying new ways to make art has only increased through the years!

I can’t pin down exactly when I decided I wanted to be an artist, but making art has always been my natural response to the world around me. I pursued my interest in the wide world of art in college, and I graduated from Ivy Tech Community College in December of 2020 with a degree in Visual Communications. Since then, I have dabbled in drawing, painting, photography, and fiber arts. I’ve also participated in several group shows at the ArtLink Gallery (it’s right across the street from FWMoA, in the Auer Center for Arts & Culture).

My art, at this period of my life, is very experimental. I don’t even know if I would say I have a primary medium because, right now, I like to try a little of everything. One thing I am very committed to, however, is enjoying the journey I am on! I look for inspiration in nature, in the music I listen to, and in the ordinary moments of everyday life. I don’t think art needs to be grandiose to be meaningful; even if all my art does is bring a smile, then I believe it has served its purpose.

When I graduated from Ivy Tech, I was experiencing some creative burnout. I studied and practiced fine arts and graphic design pretty intensely for two years, and the last semester and a half were upset by the pandemic; needless to say, I felt in need of a break. I waded back into fiber arts slowly, and I ended up with a greatly renewed interest in old hobbies of mine like crochet, embroidery, and sewing! Since those burnout days I’ve gotten back into fine arts and graphic design, but the love I have for fiber arts is still alive and well, and is the subject of this blog post today!

In the realm of arts and crafts, I am something of a jack of all trades. I’ve always engaged in some form of creative outlet, whether filling sketchbooks with drawings, shooting photography in my neighborhood, or working on crochet. I grew up in a loosely structured homeschool environment that gave me a lot of freedom to follow my own interests and explore the artistic mediums that captivated me the most. As a result, I have a number of mediums that I alternate between when I make art, and I was self-taught in most of these until I went to college. Lately I’ve been focusing on embroidery, a craft that is time-consuming but also fun and rewarding when it’s complete.

My embroidery process has a few constants, but I have found from my own experience that consistent workflow is something that has a questionable relationship with existence on the same plane of reality as me. Therefore, it is necessary for me to revitalize, rediscover, and redefine my creative process almost every time I undertake a new project. Once I find a good rhythm though, I can work for hours at a time on an embroidered piece. The start to finish logistical process goes pretty much the same each time, so there’s enough structure that the inherent unpredictability of my process can be planned to an extent.

Subject matter for embroidery varies. My recent projects have included astronomy themes, sugar skulls, botanicals, and mixed media involving paint. For this project, I decided to embroider a beaded sunburst on an orange background!

All of my embroidery projects begin the same way: in the darkened depths of my supply drawer as raw materials. I usually choose my hoop first, and this is a completely arbitrary process that depends on absolutely nothing but what size hoop looks the most promising at the time. There is really no science or planning behind this part at all, it is decided on vibes only. The next thing is fabric. Most of my fabric stash is linen or cotton broadcloth in vibrant solid colors, but I also have some calicos and other patterns. For this specific project, I settled on a 5” hoop and some gorgeous burnt orange linen that I originally purchased at JoAnn’s to make throw pillows for my bed.

With my hoop and fabric decided on, I gather up the rest of my supplies: my sewing box, which includes my embroidery needles and thread scissors, and a box of embroidery thread that my grandma gave to me ages ago when I was nine or ten years old. A few of the spools in there are the ones she originally gifted to me.

To prepare the project, I separate the two halves of the hoop. I then make an embroidery hoop sandwich with the two halves of the hoop and the fabric; the plain half of the hoop is placed directly on my work surface, and the fabric is placed over it, followed by the other half of the embroidery hoop, which is then tightened around the plain hoop and fabric using the little screw at the top of the hoop. I adjust the fabric/hoop sandwich a bit before moving on to the next step, gently tugging the fabric in all directions to make sure the surface of the fabric is taut so that the design holds properly.

At this point, you may be wondering what chicken gravy has to do with embroidery. The answer is nothing, except for the fact that jars of chicken gravy are round, and this one from my pantry happened to be the ideal size to trace a perfect circle onto the fabric in pencil. Prior to this, when embroidering circle-based designs, I have been known to trace lip balm containers and bottle caps to get reliable guidelines.

With the circle drawn, I select my colors. For sunbursts I do a two-tone ombre, usually pale yellow and a more medium shade.

From there, I decide which color to start with first. This is one of those things where it changes with every project. I don’t have a process where I go from light to dark or dark to light. I generally start with whichever color excites me most.

I almost exclusively use a satin stitch, which is a very common embroidery stitch often used for filling large areas. The sunburst design I make starts on one side of the circle I drew, and beginning with shorter stitches on the outer edge, I work inwards towards the center of the circle, gradually lengthening the stitches from top to bottom. I usually split a 6-ply embroidery thread into two pieces so that I can get finer detail.

With almost every project, I make a mistake where I have to undo a few stitches to fix it. I am a bit of a perfectionist, but I’ve found that perfectionism is something you have to let go of in embroidery. Things like inconsistent fabric tension or pencil guidelines smudged beyond the boundaries that I have stitched are common imperfections in my work. All of these are part of the journey, and it’s just as important to embrace the process itself as it is to embrace the finished artwork. Art at its core is about communication. Evidence of the journey is a conversation between the artist and the viewer that says “here’s how I got here, and now you’re here, too. We’re here together across time, space, and anonymity. We aren’t alone.” This is something even the simplest art is capable of, and not just the works of great artists of canonical historic significance.

With the first color, I embroider to a little past the halfway point of the circle, widening the gaps between stitches gradually. I finish off the first color when the first half of the circle is a little more than halfway filled. With the second color, I start close to the middle of the circle and fill in the gaps I left with the first color, working outwards toward the edge and gradually shortening the length of the stitches as I get closer to the edge. The result is a two-tone ombre circle!

With the body of the sun filled in, I use my pencil to block in rays. This one is a little different from previous sunbursts I’ve made, as instead of the rays being singular lines of thread I am making it a little more Art Deco inspired. For the rays, I use metallic gold thread and Czech glass beads to add a bit of sparkle to the design. To keep the beads from sliding along the thread when the embroidery is complete, I poke the needle and thread back through the hole of the bead a second time when I thread a bead over the needle. This creates a small loop of thread around the bead that, when tightened, keeps the bead stationary but movable on the thread. I repeat this process anywhere from two to five times on the same stitch, depending on the length of the ray I am stitching.

For this project, I alternated between silver thread with gold beads and gold thread with silver beads on the sunburst’s inner rays. It honestly doesn’t make much of a perceptible difference, but I just think it’s nice.

I wasn’t really a fan when I finished at the point where I was originally planning on finishing, so I decided to add some additional Art Deco rays in gold and silver thread without beads for variety.

I usually begin the finishing process before I even start the project. Placing the plain inner hoop over a piece of felt, I trace around the inside edge and cut out a felt circle that I finish with my initials and the current year. For this project though I forgot to do that at the beginning, but I luckily had an empty 5” hoop on hand that I was able to trace a felt circle with.

After trimming the edges of the fabric in the hoop to about an inch all the way around, I thread a needle with a long length of thread. The color doesn’t matter because it will be covered up anyway. I then weave the needle a few times through the fabric about a quarter inch from the hoop, then carefully pull it through. This puckers the fabric. I repeat this all the way around, pulling the thread snugly as I go so that the fabric is gathered up in a circle. This preps it for the final step of finishing.

To complete the hoop, I take the felt circle I cut out earlier and pin it in place over the gathered back of the hoop. Using a simple whip stitch in a color that coordinates with the design at the front of the hoop, I attach the circle to the back, removing the pins as I go and covering up the back of the embroidery for a finished polish. The stitches are usually a little uneven but I’m not too fussy about it because the back of the hoop won’t be seen.

At this point, the embroidery is finished on the front and back! One final touch is a length of twine that I measure out to one foot using a ruler that has Vincent van Gogh on the back of it, folding it in half and tying the ends, then looping it through the screw at the top of the embroidery hoop for easy hanging.

With this step complete, the embroidery is ready to be hung on a wall or set out where the glass beads will catch the light!

Art Deco Sunburst, $25.00

Stop in to soak up some vitamin D and check out Isabel Kern’s latest creation along with an assortment of other new embroideries in the Paradigm Gallery: Tuesday-Saturday 10am-6pm; Thursday 10am-8pm; Sunday 12pm-5pm!

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