Dazzling with detail, the neo-surrealist mixed media works of Kim Menapace delight the senses through a combination of pattern, texture, and colour. Often combining multiple techniques in each piece of art, their creative toolbox includes painting, fibers, embroidery, and glass art. Painterly swathes of earthy tones bring the figurative elements of the artist’s work to life yet the compositions retain a sketch-like quality from the sections of linework intentionally left blank. Flashes of gold, tactile stitches, and matte tones denote a penchant for exploring surface and materiality, an interest rekindled by learning to work in glass and rooted in a family history of sewing and embroidery.
Beyond the interplay between two and three dimensions, however, lies a layer of symbolism expressed through botanical imagery. Heavily inspired by the Victorian Language of Flowers, Menapace recontextualizes this secretive mode of communication to convey ideas concerning the dichotomy of humanity’s separation from nature.
My interest in embroidery came from my Grandmothers. Both of them were amazing seamstresses and they got me into sewing and embroidery when I was quite young.
Exclusive Interview with Kim Menapace
In 2019, you were featured by Beautiful Bizarre Magazine in a roundup of the Top 100 Embroidery Artists on Instagram. What have been some of the biggest changes in your creative practice since then?
Physically my studio space has shrunk significantly since 2019. I thought this was going to be so difficult and there are definitely limitations and sacrifices that I had to make – but in a strange way, it’s been better for me. I’ve had to become much more efficient. For example, I now keep better track of my materials and I can’t really ignore things or pieces that need to get done. I’ve also taken on other creative endeavors so I have less time to make my own work, although that is still my main focus.
You studied fibers and glass during your undergraduate education. Was this the time when your interest in embroidery began?
My interest in embroidery came from my Grandmothers. Both of them were amazing seamstresses and they got me into sewing and embroidery when I was quite young. They mostly knew cross stitch and pattern making (for quilts and clothing) so that’s what I learned from them, but that’s definitely where my interest in art, and particularly fiber art, was born. I took an art history class in high school and got completely romanced by the idea of being a painter, so I moved away from fiber and textile art for a while and focussed more on a traditional western art education. Strangely enough, it was glass that really brought me back to embroidery and textile art because it made me interested in the way different materials really affected the way people interact with pieces of art.
Walk us through a typical day for you.
I like to block out full days where I can work on art projects…so when I have other things I need to get done, I do a lot of planning and research (gathering inspiration, reference images, symbolism, different techniques I need a refresh on or want to try) for the next studio day I have planned. It’s hard to walk through a typical day because I base what needs to be done on what phases the pieces I’m working on are at. My mixed media pieces have a pretty set system of sketch layout, paint and/or dye, gold leaf, embroidery, glass, and “finishing”. Usually, I work back and forth when I’m doing layouts or painting, applying gold leaf, doing things that need time to dry. When embroidery needs to be done, I try to knock out as much as possible on one piece but it can get overwhelming and tedious. That’s why I like to have other pieces at different phases ready to go, so if I start getting burnt out from focussing too much on embroidery, I have something else to work on. A lot of planning goes into a glass day because I normally need to prepare cutouts from the composition I’m working on so that I get my sizing right on the glass fusing. Sometimes, on glass days, I’m just experimenting since there’s so much more I want to do with my glasswork that just requires a lot of time, attention, and experimentation to get right.
What are you currently working on?
I just finished a few pieces inspired by Greek goddesses and want to do a few more based on Gorgons and the Three Fates. In these pieces, I wanted to play more with the materiality of embroidery. I learned some new techniques, layered fabrics, and really tried to play with texture. I also tried a new technique for the glass insects I’ve been making that worked out really well and I’m excited to make more of them. I may have to put this project on hold for a while as I’ve been invited to possibly make work for a show inspired by the Garden of Eden, but that’s pretty early in the works so I don’t have any pieces planned out yet.
Can you share more about the techniques you use in your paintings and embroidery work? What is your most used tool?
My most used tool, purely by time spent on it, would have to be my embroidery needles; I started out doing pretty basic satin, box, and stem stitches because I was going for a more painterly style of application – as I mainly studied painting when I was in school. However, the more I learned about the multitude of techniques possible, even pushing into the three-dimensional space, I wanted to push myself to experiment more. I also use a lot of inks and dyes, acrylic paint, and charcoal pencil for sketching layouts. For my glasswork, my most used tool, weirdly enough, is a large straw I cut to have a point. This is used for depositing the coloured glass frit in the patterns and shapes I want to fuse them in. Lately, that has been a lot of bugs but I’ve also done a lot of botanical imagery…and I’ve recently had an idea for glass stingrays. Sadly, part of downsizing my studio meant keeping my kiln for glass fusings away from the rest of my studio space and supplies so I don’t use it nearly as much as I’d like.
What about the glass insects you create – what does that process entail?
Usually, it starts with a paper cut-out that I’ve made to ensure the glass piece is the correct size for the larger piece it will be added to. I trace the cut-out onto a kiln shelf with a charcoal pencil, then section it out to show where I will lay out different colours of glass frit.
Glass frit is essentially crushed glass that comes in different sizes, colours, and levels of opacit). I like to hang onto the cut-outs since a lot of the time with glass you end up making more than one – due to things breaking or because I’m trying multiple techniques to see which turns out the best. I lay these out, using the straw I mentioned, and then transfer the kiln shelf into the kiln and fire the glass so it melts together. Sometimes, I will do multiple firings to get different textures in the same glass piece. For the glass insects, I’ve recently started using what are called “stringers”, which are very thin rods of glass that can be quickly shaped and bent with a map gas torch (so I don’t need a full glass lampworking torch and studio) to make the legs and antennae and I really like the result. These can be added to the frit layout before firing and be fused to the rest of the bug.
I have always been very interested in symbolic imagery and the cultural weight behind it.
I’m interested to hear more about ‘The Victorian Language of Flowers’ you mention in your artist statement. Why is it something that has influenced your work?
I have always been very interested in symbolic imagery and the cultural weight behind it. My interest in the language of flowers, specifically, stems from the medieval and Renaissance times where most people were illiterate but could “read” paintings because of their understanding of symbolic imagery, especially botanical imagery. “The Victorian Language of Flowers” is one of the most comprehensive collections of specifically floral symbolism I came across when researching this. Even if it’s from a different time period, a lot of the symbolism of the flowers in “The Victorian Language of Flowers” came from or was influenced by that time period. My current favourite reference for botanical imagery and symbolism is a breakdown of all the plants and flowers in the unicorn tapestries that could be identified, and the symbolism associated with each one at the time the tapestries were completed.
Besides painting, embroidery, glass, and pieces that combine these media, you’ve also worked in installations and fabricating store displays. Is the process of making both similar for you? In what ways does it differ?
Installations and store displays are a MUCH more collaborative experience than producing my personal work. There are many opinions that need to be considered for aesthetics, execution, limitations based on material and space, timeframe, and durability; it’s very multifaceted. I would say the similarities lie in the actual making of the installation pieces when there’s a clear direction and plan of action that has been established by everyone involved. The materials can be very different but part of what I love about being an artist is learning about manipulating new materials.
Insects – friends or foes? Are all of the ones depicted in your work based on real species or are any imagined?
All of the insects in my pieces are based on real species. There are just so many amazing kinds to choose from! The first insects in my work were actually gold leaf bees. Bees intrigued me because I saw them as such an integral part of our ecosystem that it made sense to add them to my heavily botanical work. The first glass insects I made were fireflies that came out so terribly that I never actually used them. My first successful glass insect was my big bee. It was the full size of my kiln shelf at 15 and a half inches. This was for my piece “Honey Trap”, which I think is still one of my favourite pieces I’ve done.
You’ve recently shared a few upcycled garments that you’ve embellished with patterned embroidery. Does each item of clothing inspire the design or do you usually already have a design in mind and find the right garment to go with it? Is there a favourite piece you’ve made thus far?
The clothing definitely inspires the design, or if I have an idea in mind I will hunt for the perfect garment for it because I usually have a pretty clear image in my head of what I’m looking for at that point. I really love the shirt with the high neck, no sleeves, and little eyes I embroidered around the neckline. I wish I could find more similar shirts so I could do more designs like that.
What is one piece of advice you would give to your future artist self?
SELL. YOUR. SELF. It’s something I’m telling myself right now, every day. It’s the biggest thing I struggle with and I see myself continuing to struggle with. You are your best and greatest advocate! It’s so hard for me, and I’m sure for so many other artists, to see not just the flaws in the work you’re putting out into the world to be scrutinized. Your art will always be so much better received if you are singing its praises.