TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Monday, March 9, 2009

Karoda's Quilted Poetry: The Design Element of Words

Words on Fabric, Postcard by Karoda

by Karoda (aka Karen R. Davis)

I never thought of myself as a visual artist until a few years ago. My first calling was that of a poet which I embraced at a young age, but after years of dealing with pulmonary disease as an adult, I found myself in a space of not being able to hear the poems inside of me. Hearing is essential to a poet. Instead I started dreaming in images and seeing inspiration in quilt designs in architecture, from reading literature, etc. What I was dreaming and seeing intuitively I knew to be quilts. Much of where I started in 2003, when I jump-started this journey for the 2nd time, felt like learning to walk when I really wanted to just dance (similar to those teen-age years when I wanted to grow up too fast). I often was side tracked by responding to the work of other quilters and what I liked…I wanted to try every technique and not miss any of the fun. I worked small, not wanting to commit in size to a technique that I hadn’t mastered or enjoyed. I still have much of those small studies around wondering what I’m going to do with them.

Words, dye and circular quilting as design elements.

Juanita Yeager, my quilt guru, had planted the idea of doing “series” work and keeping a journal and working a bit larger. I begin to pay attention more closely to my body, thoughts, and emotions and what I responded to with passion. Quilts with text, particularly hand writing, excited me. After seeing the quilts of Angela Moll, it still didn’t strike me to do it in my own work. The turning points started at the end of 2007 when poet Estella Majozo invited me to be a part of the Artist-In-Revolution Poet’s series, a community arts project conducted from her downtown studio. I had the month of December and although it had been many, many years since I did a public reading, I didn’t have any new work to share and was somewhat reluctant, but that experience showed itself to be the fire I needed to begin my second series work, aptly named Poetry Series. I immediately started writing my poems onto my hand dyed cloth in hues of red, green, yellow. The colours where chosen to align with the African American cultural flag except for the yellow which is the colour for spirit based on the flag Rastafarians made world famous. These colours communicate vibrancy and life to me. Drawing upon my culture and heritage, making the collective meaningful in a well integrated way personally, has been a preoccupation since my early teen years and something I committed to developing as I matured and this is being interjected to what I do visually.

Superimposing layers of dye and letters, with an applique focal point.

I wanted this series to come from the deepest part of my interior and in order to make sure I stay in that space, I answer questions I pose to myself around why and what for each step in the process for The Poetry Series. Allowing some words to show through and others not, I ask myself why and what does it mean to me…when stamping on the circles, I repeat the questions, and so on for the following layers. I know that it will never be possible for the viewer to know all of my answers or most of them, but that is not why I do it. I have to answer the questions as a way of getting and staying in the interior space I want these quilts to emerge out of.

"Answer the questions..." Words exploring design.

The second fire for The Poetry Series came while attending a workshop with Leslie Morgan and Claire Benn in Ohio where I learned how to print and write using dye paints and how to evaluate my work to achieve more complexity in the layers I put on my fabrics. The third fire came when I took a very basic intro class in casual lettering with Laurie Doctor. In the workshop with Morgan/Benn I was working with freedom and a wide range of motion in writing and with Doctor it was more about focus and control...opposite skills that provide me a wider range in selecting how to place my poems on the cloth.

Words in the background, giving form to pattern.

My daughter asked me what was the point of writing for it not to be legible. I’m not interested in the poem being completely legible or read in its entirety. For me, that would be a book. I’m interesting in my handwriting being used as an original design element and the viewer seeing the writing as a clue for the quilt’s foundation and as part of the mystery in it. Handwriting is so personal. People can identify you by it. Handwriting is a very intimate and experts in the field can infer personality traits by examining an individual’s handwritten marks.

"Handwriting is very intimate."

Also, the making of these quilts is the embodiment of Sankofa, a concept that translates into knowing where you’ve been in order to progress forward. As I read and re-write my poem onto fabric, it becomes an act of breaking open the seal on my present and future in merging the literary and the visual.

Word and quilting swirl.

So far, I have 3 studies and one completed quilt and two laying on the cutting table that need a binding, and fabrics on the design wall being auditioned for the next one. While working on this series, I’ve concluded that constructing poems and constructing quilts is very similar…weighing the pauses, periods, and words in a poem, its rhythm and texture, and evaluating the effectiveness and intent of a poem is no different from weighing the hues and values of colour, the spaces, shapes and lines, the rhythm and texture, and the effectiveness and intent of a quilt. I don’t know or want to know where this will lead, but I know I’m committed to writing on my cloth and using my poems as a foundation for a long time to come because it feels like the me I love the most.

Bringing the elements together in color and quilting.

***the quilts in the Poetry Series can be viewed at my website and I have documented my journey in my blog.

Find more photos like this on Fiber Focus

Karoda has been an active member in our Fiber Focus Group. Clicking on her slide show will take you to her page there.



  1. My friend , the 2 quotes you used here by Mark twain , is simply outstanding. I have to print them down. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for the feature! I hope we can at least meet in person, share a cup of coffee or something next month when I'm in Paducah! I'll be there with my sister, Deb and another poet-quilter-blogger, Cherryl Floyd-Miller.

    and the letters as focal point were actually painted on...painted applique, you might be on to something :)

  3. Lovely post, K! I always enjoy seeing your work and your hearing about your process.

  4. Karoda it is wonderful to see you featured and to (re)absorb the story of your process and its influences


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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