When you think about art, what do you picture?
For many of us, the word "art" conjures an image of a painting on a wall, but Katie Vota is one of a movement of contemporary artists who are thinking about genre differently. A graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago ( SAIC ) and an emerging artist, Vota's work specifically challenges the divide between arts and crafts through the use of textiles. What draws Vota to textiles is that it's "art that you live in," the artist said.
"Textiles are omnipresent in our lives," Vota added. "You wear them, you see them. Think about how you have a favorite chair to read in. Someone designed that. Someone designed the fabric in your car. It's art you interact with every day."
As a child, Vota recalled that she grew up constantly immersed in textiles. Vota comes from a long generation of quilters. Fabric is a part of her history. "It was all over [my Nana's] house," Vota said. "There were always quilt squares to be embroidered, fabric pieces. The garage was full. It was her sewing room. She lived with it. It wasn't something that she did and put away."
Until recently, Vota didn't recognize that what her grandmother was doing would influence her career as an artist, the creative lens through which she saw the world. "I didn't even acknowledge it as an art form," Vota explained. "It's a social art because of the community it builds around the labor of the work." Vota said that when we don't focus on the hand as part of the process, we lose something.
Thinking about labor as a material has been important to Vota's own process, which is just as much tied to the narrative of textiles and labor as her own personal story. Her art speaks of a social conscience. "There's so much history that backs up where we find ourselves now, a history of colonization and imperialism," Vota said. "I feel like people think we're past all that, and we're not. If we knew anything about what we're wearing, maybe we'd choose to support different ways of making what we wear in our lives." Much of her own work has been a reaction to what she sees as wastefulness within the art industry, particularly textiles. "Seventy percent of landfill waste is textile-based," Vota said. "I don't want to be a part of that."
In her art, Vota commonly repurposes materials such as tires or rubber to look like leather, which often gives her work a dark, almost S&M feel. By giving discarded materials a second life, a medieval sex dungeon vibe isn't necessarily what she's going for, although she's open to that interpretation. For Vota, it's about letting the materials express themselves. "Other people wanted to talk about my work as an anthropological study, as tools or shamanistic objects," Vota said, "but I'm letting the work guide me in a more visual way."
However, Vota did confess that she has a weakness for making art that pushes the boundaries of bad taste. "I'm finding tastefulness to be a hilarious idea. I want to make the opposite of what is tasteful, like curtains with leather fringe on them," Vota said. "Every time someone gives me a 'What the hell are you doing?' look, it's an encouragement. I push it further."
Although Vota has long resisted the "queer" label in her art, she admitted that there's a "queering" element in what she's doing, repurposing materials for her own ends. "The work that I'm making right now is the first time anyone has ever talked about queerness in relation to my work," Vota said. "That makes me uncomfortable, because I don't want to just be a queer artist. I don't want to be pigeonholed." But in her own life, Vota feels an increasing need to be outspoken about sexuality and queerness, as an out bisexual woman. "There's a discomfort within the queer community around bisexuals," Vota said. "It's a really hard place to be in. There's so much erasure that goes into other peoples assumptions of you." Facing that stigma, Vota believes it's "important to count yourself amongst the queer community in an overt way."
As an artist, this need for visibility in the community also shines through in her politics. By challenging the divide between arts and crafts, Vota hopes to find a place for textile artists and craft makers in the larger art world, where they are often marginalized or left out. "Why can't a craft object be an art object?" Vota asked, saying that she believes that crafts are threatening to the art scene because they "break down high art divide between the wall and the viewer."
"I love it when something begs viewer interaction, that they just want to play with it and touch it," she added. "It's one of the reasons that I gravitate toward installation work. The viewer gets to be immersed in the work instead of it just being a thing on the wall."
Vota said that these restrictions can be particularly limiting for craft artists, who are "disrespected," but those divides drive her to keep pushing. "Having outside limitations is really helpful to me as a way generating more interesting ideas," Vota remarked. "I want to poke at these arbitrary conceptions that we have in order break down these hierarchies that exist within art. We shouldn't have all these preconceived notions."
Her new show, "Off the Mark," will be doing exactly that. Although her work is already on display, the official reception will be held Feb. 6 at Intelligentsia Coffee, 53 E. Randolph St. Vota's work is also at SAIC's Sharp Building on the eighth floor, or at Katie Vota.com .