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Aspara 6, fibre, textiles


Aspara 9, fibre, textiles


Aspara 7, fibre, textiles


Artist: Karen Maru, Fairfeld, Connecticut, USA

Interview 27: Karen Maru exhibited "Khadi 3" in the 2007 Common Thread International Juried Exhibition.

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Interviews published by Gareth Bate & Dawne Rudman.



Karen Maru is a contemporary artist interested in exploring themes of national identity, globalization and the creation of meaning through exploration. Her current body of work addresses these and related themes with a close examination of one country (Cambodia) and one person (herself as a child in Asia and an adult caught up in globalization). Her purpose is to donate her work to organizations committed to development in Cambodia for use in fundraising activities and she has partnered with the United Cambodian Cultural Center, Long Beach CA and Friends Without A Border (Angkor Children's Hospital), New York, NY.

She has exhibited in many solo and invitational shows in the art world and quilt/craft world, including A Matter of Pattern, 2010. The Kohler Gallery, 2009 and The Gallery Upstairs, 2008. Recent selected juried shows include Chernow Gallery, Why Not Show, 2008; Wittingham Gallery, Norwalk CT, 2008. Karen Maru's work has been documented and discussed in such publications as Chernow Gallery, Why not? Show Catalog, 2008; Rhonda Schaller Gallery, Great Awakenings Show Catalog, 2007.

She was awarded a 2008 Visual Artists grant from the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism and is often called upon to teach, lecture and lead workshops. Karen Maru was educated at Cornell University, Boston University, and Temple University (Ph.D.). Her art education has continued at MoMa, Yale Center for British Art, the Silvermine Art Guild, and at many technique oriented fiber art classes. Website



Artist Karen Maru with Apsara 11 which she donated to the Angkor Children's Hospital (Friends Without Borders) silent auction.



Tell us about your work?

I work in fibre, digital printing and PowerPoint, and this combination of techniques and materials brings together all the parts of me – the artist, the sociologist, the business consultant and the academic. I really love being grounded in the tradition of women's arts – textiles and quilting – and love being stretched by the new thinking in contemporary art.

I had several phases in my development as an artist. The first was to take as many technique classes as I could. I loved the camaraderie and kindness of the fibre and quilting cultures. I adored the whole idea of guilds and camps and conferences. One of my great thrills was to get off the airplane on my way to a conference in some terrific wearable art clothes and be able to immediately spot other women, also spectacularly dressed, who were heading to the same hotel. I was part of the tribe. I had come home to my artistic self.

My second phase was tough. By then I recognized that my body of work was made up of bad classroom and workshop samples and that my subject matter was all over the place. That I didn't know what art was, or fibre for that matter! Now, when I went to say, a five day workshop, I would be in a little heap on the floor, in despair that nothing was working, while all around me people were having a blast.


Khadi 3, fibre, textiles I collected in the region and cloth I created. Fibre techniques are drawing, painting, machine and hand sewing. Exhibited in the 2007 World of Threads Festival in the Common Thread Juried Exhibition at The Gallery at Sheridan Institute.


In phase three, I staggered on, believing artist biographies that talk about long years of searching to find a "voice," work that was completely theirs. I started to look further a field for training. I got great advice along the way. Cynthia Corbin said she found she had to leave the fibre and art world and work on her own, intensively and alone. Read no magazines, even go to no shows. Nancy Crow urged us all to work in a series, knowing that where there is a persistent working through of problem after problem, personal solutions emerge. Suzy Miles kept pushing me to think about my own process. I went into my studio, closed the door and didn't come out for a couple of years.

By then, I had discovered my parameters. Link my work to Angkor Wat, the ancient civilization of Cambodia. Forget that I would only be talking to myself, I had to do it. The Asia urge kept showing up in my work, it was not a decision over which I had any control. I had joy when doing Cambodia and the work was hard when I didn't. I found that by going deeper into the one idea, a fantastic stream of other ideas come out. For example, Cambodia led me to temple dancers, who led me to August Rodin, who led me to the western dancer Isadora Duncan. Who knew? It's like always returning to the cave of Ali Baba and entering the small, dark entrance only to discover the untold riches inside.

I took as my touchstone the Apsara. Apsaras are sort of the angels in the culture of Angkor Wat. There are thousands of them carved (each individually) on the walls of all of the temples. I chose them because they were women, and I am very interested in the power, culture, religion, society etc. of women cross-culturally. Focusing on women allowed me to develop further my thoughts about the post-modern issues raised in feminist cultural studies.

Aspara 7, 33W x 56H, fibre, textiles I collected in the region and cloth I created. Fibre techniques are drawing, painting, machine and hand sewing


Here is an example of one such issue. It's called the politics of the gaze. Simply put, it's about who gets to draw, display and look at nude pictures. The people who are clothed while they draw naked people have power (politics). Thus the politics of the gaze is about why it is that it is ok for men to look at naked women. The Guerrilla Girls once figured out that the easiest way for a women artist to get into the Metropolitan Museum of Art was to pose naked for a male artist. It's why there are so few male genitals in art.

Apsaras were carved with bare breasts by the long ago artists of Angkor Wat. If I were to do apsaras, I had to solve the breast problem. I eliminated it by eliminating their torsos. I wanted to see what emerged once the art made by women in this ancient culture became the focus, rather than naked parts of their bodies. There are several aspects of women's art I focused on – the textiles themselves, invariably woven by women, the drape of the textile (always a single length of fabric) on the body, also a woman's decision, how that draping changed over time (creating fashion trends) a process shaped by the decisions of many women, and the embellishments they used, their functional and decorative elements.

Apsara 9, 34W x 60H, fibre, textiles I collected in the region and cloth I created. Fibre techniques are drawing, painting, machine and hand sewing


Here is another issue drawn from the post-modern culture wars. It is Orientalism. Orientalism came from the observation that 19th century European artists were traveling the Middle East and painting local people and scenes. A hundred years later people noted that these artists did not paint the Middle East as it was, but selected out (and even posed) their subjects to create exotic images that were appealing to a European audience. So what is real and true and authentic when an artist takes on another culture? As someone in the Western culture, do I have a right to take on Cambodian culture? What issues does this raise in the sense of Orientalism? I finally figured out that for me, the answer would be that I am not taking on Cambodian culture. Instead, I am taking on my reactions to Cambodian culture. My art is about me as a Westerner, exploring the cultural roots of the increasingly globalized world, by looking deeply into one example of one country. It is also about my personal roots as an expatriate child growing up in South East Asia. So this looks Cambodian but it really is Karen Maruian!


Apsara 8, 35W x 62H, fibre, textiles I collected in the region and cloth I created. Fibre techniques are drawing, painting, machine and hand sewing


From where do you get your inspiration?

Cambodia is my muse. I grew up in South East Asia and first saw the temples of Angkor Wat in 1957. As a child, lost civilizations, utopian Shangri Las and jungle shrouded mysteries were quite appealing. As an artist I am interested in cultural studies, Orientalism (and Occidentalism), international gender politics and global hegemonies. I have found that constraining these inquiries to just me and Cambodia gives my work a focus and depth I like. Always returning to Cambodia brings me to a jumping off place to explore new layers of meanings and connections that are personal and universal.

Right now I am finishing up work on a piece that is about "1000 Years of Khmer Fashion", which explores the persistence of ideas about clothing in the face of new patterns of global media. This is a continuation of earlier work on the connections between the representation of the self by Chinese and Cambodian women. Both China and India had profound cultural influences on Cambodia over the ages. This piece contrasts paintings of Chinese women from the Summer Palace in Beijing with carvings of Cambodian women dressed as apsara.


Apsara 22, 30W x 48H, fibre, textiles I collected in the region and cloth I created. Fibre techniques are drawing, painting, machine and hand sewing


Another piece I did recently is about August Rodin, the French sculptor. I found out he had done water colours of Cambodian dancers when they visited France in 1906 for a Colonial Exposition. It amuses me greatly to contrast how Cambodian dancers are traditionally portrayed with how Rodin painted them. No wonder his show was unpopular in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, when it opened there a few years later.


Apsara 15, 33W x 40H, fibre, textiles I collected in the region and cloth I created. Fibre techniques are drawing, painting, machine and hand sewing


As you can see, I get my inspiration from poking around and doing research. One of my earliest works in this series was about the Cambodian idea that it is best to wear certain colours on certain days, for example orange on Mondays and "light green like a banana leaf on Thursdays. This piece has images of sampot (skirts) that I over painted in the seven colours.


Aspara 3, fibre, textiles I collected in the region and cloth I created. Fibre techniques are drawing, painting, machine and hand sewing


Why did you choose to go into fibre art?

Some of my earliest memories are of sewing – in the Philippines with local women and later with my grandmother. I sewed my own clothes in high school. But when I began casting around for an art form to express myself, fibre did not come up right away. I tried painting, and then took classes in pastel. I learned stained glass making. And finally l lucked into a quilting class.

I love that fibre is the oldest art form of humans, and I love that it is almost universally a women's art form. That makes getting shown and recognized in the art world an uphill battle, but one definitely worth taking on.

Quite a few of my pieces refer to traditional quilting formats as the nine-patch. The work shown here is an example. At the time I made this, I was interested in the colour-ways Cambodian textile artists would use in their work and discovered the importance of indigo (blue) dyes in this culture. The piece is an exploration of how the nine different fashions would appear if made in fabrics of the same colour.


Apsara 2, 25W x 36H, fibre, textiles I collected in the region and cloth I created. Fibre techniques are drawing, painting, machine and hand sewing


Which is your favourite fibre medium?

Right now, I do a lot of printing on fabric. I do digital processing of vintage images (no copyright problems) and photos I have taken of Cambodia and Cambodian themes. These I print on fabric because I want to tell the story of textiles with textiles. Then I do whatever needs doing to tell the story – paint, ink, piecing, embellishments, laminated PowerPoint slides – whatever. I want the finished piece to have some weight when it hangs on the wall, so I do use batting and a backing so it is technically a quilt. This quilt shows several different ways I manipulated photographs, attached them to hand woven fabric from Cambodia, and added hand sewing and button embellishment.

Apsara 13, 38W x 47H, fibre, textiles I collected in the region and cloth I created. Fibre techniques are drawing, painting, machine and hand sewing


What other mediums do you work in, and how does this inform your fibre work?

I do not have another artistic medium I regularly work in. Right now I have all that I need to tell my story. Just recently, I have started to make a cloth book (a new format for me) but I am using the same mediums and techniques I have been using for years. I like to have constraints as I my work -- such as only these materials, only these media, only these techniques.


Aspara 6, 33W x 56H, fibre, textiles I collected in the region and cloth I created. Fibre techniques are drawing, painting, machine and hand sewing



What specific historic artists have influenced your work? 

While my work looks nothing like that of Picasso, and while my questions are very different, he is a very important influence on me. Repeatedly during his career, he took the time to go back to the drawing board, to study the basics all over again.

In his sixties, at the peak of his career, he took eight months to do almost a hundred studies of Velasquez's Las Meninas; most of these canvases can be seen at the Picasso Museum in Barcelona. Just recently I saw the Guitar show at MoMA, which exhibited dozens of Picasso's studies of guitars, all created during the 1912 to 1914 period. I admire the humility in this practice, the acknowledgement that there is always more to learn and the belief that hard work pays off.

Matisse is another inspiration for me because of his work process. He became immobilized late in life and could no longer paint. Rather than give up, he developed an art form he could do as an invalid – paper cutouts. These works are now considered by some critics to be his best work. I admire how he adapted to the inevitable limitations of the aging process and stayed creative. I have a blood cancer that makes it hard to work sometimes, and because of Matisse I have learned to adapt to the limitations of my body. I work smaller scale than I used to. I do a lot more hand sewing because sometimes machine sewing is too hard. I am more and more relaxed about my work. If I make a mistake, it stays in my work. I can't be bothered to do the tidy things – I tie knots on the top of the piece. It is very freeing to recognize constraints imposed by my body and to accept the need to work within them.


Aspara 14, 35W x 62H, fibre, textiles I collected in the region and cloth I created. Fibre techniques are drawing, painting, machine and hand sewing



What specific contemporary artists have influenced your work? 

I am fortunate enough to live close to amazing contemporary art resources; my favourites are MoMA in New York and the Yale art museums. I have taken workshops and courses at each, and attend many lectures and gallery tours.

I also have an artists group with five other women. Once a month we study a modern or contemporary woman artist, and experiment with one of her techniques. We have explored Cindy Sherman, Georgia O'Keeffe, Tracey Emin, Sophie Calle, Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler and Miriam Shapiro. This has been an incredible way to become much more familiar with modern and contemporary artists.

It was in studying Cindy Sherman that I figured out the power that can come when an artist's work is elevated to the iconic, archetypical or mythic. Sherman did that by taking on the identities of larger-than-life women; initially these were movie actresses in classic roles. This made me see that I could do art work with Cambodian textiles, cultural themes and images as long as I was explicit, that the meaning of the work was subjective, and really all about me.


Karen Maru channeling Cindy Sherman (portrait of the artist draped in her textiles during a contemporary art study session)



Georgia O'Keeffe's process and her dedication to working in a series is an inspiration to me. For most of her career she painted a relatively few subjects – flowers in close-up, landscapes of New Mexico, skulls. Because they are so dramatic, the flowers carry a lot of graphic oomph. I decided to experiment with that approach of doing one subject as intensely as possible by focusing on a subject very important to me, the apsara. Many of the pieces I have done have only incorporated a very tight focus on only one part of the apsara image. In the image below, for example, I only used the feet of an apsara which, when combined with the feet of a young woman I photographed, create a narrative about the essentiality of women across cultures and eras.

Apsara 17, 41W x 75H, Textiles collected on site and commercial fabric Digital printing, machine and hand sewing, embellishment


What other fibre artists are you interested in?

I must start with homage to Nancy Crow. I have studied with her intensively over a period of years. She is demanding, thorough, brilliant and an inspiring example of a successful contemporary artist, and a woman artist at that. Nancy has been a mentor to many emerging fibre artists. Nancy was a founder of the whole quilt revival and art quilting movements in the U.S. and her influence is global.

Dorothy Caldwell really helped me during my struggling phase. I had a severe art block during a workshop with her. She helped me see what the issues were and how to work through them. I resonate with her use of hand stitching in her work, and her openness to fibre work of different cultures, which she does not appropriate but is inspired by.

Cynthia Corbin explained to me that I had to leave my close comfortable fibre and quilt world to find out my own voice, style, subject matter etc. and go through the lonely process of transition from art student to artist. She also pushed me in the direction of working with non-fibre artists locally, a direction that has led to many adventures.


Aspara 16, 33W x 40H, fibre, textiles I collected in the region and cloth I created. Fibre techniques are drawing, painting, machine and hand sewing


Tell us about your studio and how you work:

I work in a spare bedroom. I don't like accumulating stuff, and limitations of space restrict my creating any sort of sizable stash. It's just enough room.

My process is roughly similar on most pieces. I begin by going over recent ideas – either in my notebooks or in my photo files. I'll bring a few alternatives to the design board and then settle on one, usually a single digital photograph, and put the others away.



Apsara 4 inspiration.


I continue to do historical research and thinking about the project, and simultaneously begin to experiment with the main photograph using Photoshop Elements. Some photos I leave looking like photographs, and some I Photoshop-to-death so much that little of the original image is left. Photos are then printed using an ink jet printer and put back on the design board with hand woven textiles that I collected in the region and some hand dyed fabrics done by contemporary artists.


Apsara 4 (work in process photo)


Pieces are sewn together and occasionally restructured. As a final stage they are embellished with embroidery, other hand sewing or beads and buttons. This piece has rings made from bracelets I bought from a young boy at Angkor Wat. I liked them because they reassembled the rings we found on bronze-age burials on my archeological digs. Similar bracelets are worn by the carved apsara that I refer to for inspiration.


Apsara 4 (work in process photo) Size is 40"H by 58"W



What role do you think fibre art plays in contemporary art?

I'd flip that question to something like "what are the boundaries of art these days". One place to look for the answer is in the curatorial practices of the major art museums. Rather than relegate ceramics, silver fibre (and the rest of the so-called "decorative arts" in hard-to-find side galleries, these objects are now integrated with paintings in the major galleries.

Of course, there still is the perennial conflict of whether craft is art. Historically, women tend to be the ones who do fibre art and other crafts. For that reason, and many others, it is harder for women to show and to be included in museum exhibitions. I was just at the Dia:Beacon Foundation Contemporary art facility. Of the 25 contemporary artists now being exhibited, only three were women.

But the new head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a textile guy – so there may be some hope.


Aspara 21, 38W x 52H, fibre, textiles I collected in the region and cloth I created. Fibre techniques are drawing, painting, machine and hand sewing


Aspara 23, 29W x 55H, fibre, textiles I collected in the region and cloth I created. Fibre techniques are drawing, painting, machine and hand sewing



Which World of Threads Festival/s have you exhibited in?

I attended the Textile Society of America meetings that were held in Toronto. The TSA brings together scholars and artists from all over the world to talk about textiles. I worked with one of the speakers on a presentation about the khadi cloth of India, and entered some pieces made with khadi cloth into the World of Threads 2007 Common Thread show. It was really thrilling to see such an international show on the fibre arts.


Aspara 25, 28W x 60H, fibre, textiles I collected in the region and cloth I created. Fibre techniques are drawing, painting, machine and hand sewing

Aspara 20, 30W x 68H, fibre, textiles I collected in the region and cloth I created. Fibre techniques are drawing, painting, machine and hand sewing



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Interviews published by Gareth Bate & Dawne Rudman.


Aspara 28, 36W x 75H, fibre, textiles I collected in the region and cloth I created. Fibre techniques are drawing, painting, machine and hand sewing