KRISTIN SKEES: In undergrad, I started out as a photo major, and then swiftly fell in love with making things and experimenting with materials. I switched to sculpture. At the time, it felt like the most encompassing specialty for me. I felt pretty limitless as far as what materials and forms I could play with. I did a lot of metal-casting, fabrication, and ceramics but the themes I’ve been pulled to have always been about home, identity, and the social constructs of those two things. As I transitioned into graduate school, I began to play with fiber, installation, and performance/video. At first, I experimented with quilting and embroidery, which were two things I learned from my mother and grandmother, and the materials began to feel more in tune with the ideas I was working with. I taught myself to knit and crochet using an old book I found at a thrift store. (This was before youtube, and before the internet was full of crafters – I’m so jealous of how easy it is to learn these things from experts online these days). The process of knitting was intriguing to me, but I was really more interested in the idea of using it as a covering and what meaning I would derive and exploit from that.
22: Are all the photos taken and staged by you? Is photo a much an artistic process in this project as the cozies themselves?
KS: With knitting, the first thing I experimented with was creating permanent cozies for all my welding equipment and tools that I really hadn’t touched much since I started working more with experimental fiber. The cozies rendered the tools useless and they became these objects that played with the idea of the feminine vs masculine, and the humor of the kitschy cozy being used on unexpected things rather than teapots or toasters. It wasn’t a particularly profound or deep concept, but it was fun and gave me an opportunity to play with the material. I had just gotten married a month before grad school and I started exploring how my personal identity was shifting and changing. I was thinking about the process of knitting something like a sweater as a symbol of love, but how that it can be almost misguided or imperfect. Take, for instance, a crazy aunt’s homemade sweater that has uneven arms or hideous colors, but you feel obliged to wear because it came from a place of love. The Husband Cozy came from this idea – and how our closest relationships can sometimes become too close. On the humorous side, I imagine the Husband Cozy as a covering I could put on my husband when I was “done” with him. Just put his cozy on, stash him in the corner. The objectification of the husband, rather than the typical cultural objectification of the wife was fun to play with. And then the physicality of the cozy – it literally covers and renders the wearer pretty immobile. So like a homemade sweater-gone-wrong, it really is about that fine line between the need to protect, and literally and metaphorically smothering someone.
I did a small series of the “Husband Cozies”, which included the wedding portrait of the two of us. This is the only time I’ve put myself in the cozy, and I wanted it to reference more of the straight jacket, with the long arms that wrapped around him. I sort of put the series to rest after about a year of doing them, and went on to do some video installations and more performative pieces to finish out my M.F.A. I knew I wasn’t done with the cozy, but at the time I didn’t really know where it was going to go from there. After grad school and moving back home to Alabama, I began to think about it not just as a Husband Cozy, but how I could interpret the same idea with other relationships in my life. That’s when I began the “Cozy Portrait Series.”
The Portrait series has become so much more than sculpture really. With the “Husband Cozies”, it was really about me making this thing and forcing my husband to wear it (although, since he’s an artist and just as weird as I am, he loved it). And with the “Husband Cozies”, the photography functioned much more as documentation. But with the portraits, it’s this hybrid community art / performance / sculpture / photography project. I envision them as photographs now from the very beginning, and the concept of the cozy and the photograph is created through the dialog I have with the person being cozied. I spend time brainstorming ideas for the cozy itself, and whatever outrageous idea I can come up with for the photograph. I talk about it with them, so there’s a lot of input from their perspective. For me, I really like to take their ideas, loves, or favorite places or colors and meld it with my interpretation of them, and what I imagine a portrait of them being. The imagery is so specific to the person, that every decision I make is really molding my ideas of the cozy to their personality and their world.
The project is much more dimensional now. For me, the process of conceiving the piece and having the dialog with someone else is so important to the overall piece, and to me as an artist. I think unlike the “Husband Cozy” series, I’m more conscious of the final product being a photograph, where I want it to be a very engaging visual composition and showcase the color and light, and all the things I love about photography. The middle part of the project is the cozy, which is the time I get to spend alone in my studio, making. That’s important to me too – the process of spending the time to make this custom object that going to take the place of someone’s physical image. But now making the cozy is really 1/3 of the overall piece, where before with the husband cozy series it was more like 3/4 of the piece.
The photography has become so important to the project, and to me. I sort of rediscovered my love of it. I don’t know that I fully identify as a photographer, but I don’t fully identify as a sculptor or performance/video artist either. So, that’s kind of confusing, and subconsciously, probably why I focus on identity so much in my work. At this point in my career/life, I’m really inspired by photography and I’m excited to bring that back to my work, but I don’t imagine I would ever leave the 3D part behind.
22: Are you originally from the South?
KS: Yes and no, haha. I’ve lived in Alabama since I was five. My father’s family is from Gadsden, I grew up in Birmingham, and went to undergrad there. My husband and his family are from Birmingham, but my mother and that side of my family are from North Dakota and that’s where I was born. The two sides of my family are so different, with different cultures, careers, physical landscape, values, religion… all of that contradiction and identity issues are really underlying a lot of my early work. I definitely consider myself an Alabama artist, even though I live and work in Virginia now. There’s a sort of dark humor and Southern gothic culture that I grew up with, that is really part of how I view the world, and where my weirdness comes from.
22: Tell me a little about the Pat video and how you got to shoot in that space?
KS: Pat!! Pat is a friend of mine that I met when we worked together at Edgewood Frame Shop in Birmingham. She also works at the Alabama Theater. She works the ticket booth for a lot of the events there. She’s super active in the Organ Historical Society. She knows so much about organs and she used to help fix and maintain the Mighty Wurlitzer there at the theater. I just knew that her portrait had to be done somewhere in the theater and somehow with the organ. It’s interesting – (this is a good example of how the pieces are really influenced by the person) – she knows so much about the history of the theater, and when we were talking about the portrait, she told me that the curtains at the theater were originally a turquoise color, so I incorporated that into her cozy (along with pockets, because she always has cargo pockets!), and the cozy really picked up on those turquoise details left in the theater, like in the light fixture. I probably wouldn’t have considered turquoise if we hadn’t had that conversation about it.
For the video, I wanted to show off one of the wonderful things about the Mighty Wurlitzer, which is that it raises and lowers into the stage. When I was a kid, it was always such a treat to go and see a movie there because Cecil Whitmire, who was the general manager of the theater, would play before hand; rising out of the stage to lead everyone in a sing-a-long to some old song. Going to the theater was an event and that was part of what made it special. Cecil passed away a couple of years ago, but he was such a part of the community and the Birmingham consciousness, along with the Mighty Wurlitzer and the Alabama Theater. I was so excited to do a video and recreate that feeling I had as a kid of the magical Wurlitzer emerging from the stage, but of course, in my own weird, bizarre way. That portrait is really about the Alabama theater as much as it is about Pat – although if you know Pat, you can’t really talk about one without talking about the other.