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Artist combines painting and embroidery to make beautifully surreal art

Tasmania-based artist Kate McCarthy brings two art forms together – painting and embroidery – to create collages that are both cute and strange.

Inspired by her childhood, the Brisbane-born artist expresses her memories on the canvas using a combination of paint and thread. Her compositions depict surreal pillowy figures splashed with various paints, then lined with hand-stitching to add texture and character.

“McCarthy enjoys incorporating the traditional methods of embroidery into painting to welcome the conversation about the role of technical handicraft within contemporary art,” the Matthew Rachman Gallery wrote.

She’s exhibited her works in places like Germany, England, Australia, and now Chicago. In anticipation of McCarthy’s latest group exhibit, called The Fantastic Nest, we had a short chat with her about her work.

Art by Kate McCarthy

Hand-stitching is such a beautiful, but in some ways, lost art-form. How did you get into it and what excited you about the possibilities it presented?

“It is a bit of a lost art form, thankfully seeing a revival for a few reasons. As an adult and parent, my latest personal attraction toward it was determined by my family’s needs.

“It was a situation where I needed to tend to the kids but couldn’t have bulky paint gear and fumes in the house. Which then leads onto why embroidery has been traditionally a woman’s ‘role’- probably for those exact same practical reasons. Although maybe I should Google that.

“Once I delved into the art form, the possibilities were huge. Colour is so strong in thread, and so immediate. I have plans to make the creatures and furniture into free-standing sculptural form and animation.”

Your use of colours is sublime. What informs your colour selection?

“Thank you! My palette relies on deep, strong colours with complimentary pastels. I choose each colour in response to the last.

“So if I’ve used a pastel mint green, I’ll hover between a strong yellow or strawberry pink, as long as they look delicious next to each other. I always need a black, but steer away from brown and maroon! They remind me of school.”

Art by Kate McCarthy

You were a noted painter, before getting into embroidery. Tell us about your path towards art as a youngster and who you admired in the medium along the way.

“We were encouraged to be creative in any form as kids. 1970s Sesame Street and Jim Henson were huge in our lives. I always identified with the puppets and not the humans! I couldn’t stand it when The Muppet Show had humans on it.

“I have strong memories of being home from school, sewing together cut-up Chux dishcloths into snail shapes and stuffing them with more Chux. Canvas paintings have always begged for thread, which, for me, literally ‘ties’ my mediums together and serves as a metaphor for life.

“I love seeing my characters and their decorated home furnishings growing off the canvas into 3D form. The chairs are heavily threaded, both in real-life form and on the canvas. The stuffed toys that comfort us use thread, as do the clothes us humans and my creatures dress up in. I find thread a thing of comfort, with deep, ancient origins of caring, safety, comfort and self-expression.

“I remember seeing Brett Whiteley’s work as a kid at QAG and being blown away that you use could use anything with canvas. And realising early, too, that someone like Robert Crumb is just as relevant to art as a renaissance master. It told me that your style is your style and to be proud of it.”

Tell us what we can expect to see at The Fantastic Nest and what this exhibition says about your journey as an artist to where you are now?

“I’ve admired the gallery for a while now. I’m honoured to be exhibiting with them, especially as it takes the themes I’ve described above even further. The gallery is also a strong mid-century design space, which ties in with my themes of comfort and humanity (or creature-manity). We’ll have the works on canvas and the embroidered soft sculpture beautifully staged with the mid-century design pieces.”

Find out more about Kate McCarthy and her work here. Also, check out the Matthew Rachman Gallery website to know more about the upcoming exhibit, which runs from Friday, June 2 until Sunday, July 23.