Karen Hampton’s life in fiber and race issues
I think of myself as a modern-day griot, a storyteller looking to cultures around the world for inspiration. Weaving my first piece at 17 years old, I had an epiphany: I could do this for the rest of my life. Soon, weaving replaced sewing, knitting, and crochet. As a strong-willed child, growing up in a middle-class African-American family, I believed that an egalitarian society was possible and wanted to change the world.
As a child, I spent most of my time with Aunty (my mother’s aunt) and Nana (my grandmother) as they sowed the seeds that would become my life. Aunty’s gift was storytelling, she imbued my childhood with images of Victorian Jamaica, Panama and swimming in the sea. She taught me to see through my imagination. Because she was disabled, spending most of her time inside, every story required my imagination. Nana, the quiet one, taught me to use my hands: to sew, knit, crochet and garden. Between the two of them, they conspired to prepare me to be a maker.
I became a student of race just months before my sixth birthday, when the 16th Ave Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed, and four little girls were killed. My parents decided I would be one of the first children in a new voluntary busing program, Transport-a-Child. I began the daily bus ride from South Central to Bel Air, an affluent suburban canyon in West Los Angeles.
My childhood instilled a love of learning, which I channeled into textiles, completing an 18-month apprenticeship with Master Weaver, Ida Grae, receiving my BA from New College of California in Art/ Anthropology, and my MFA in Textiles from UC Davis. I spent the 1970s and 1980s weaving tapestries, rugs and designing a line of women’s jackets. The 1990s were my period of reflection; I began using my artwork to understand issues of race within the textile community, both inside the United States and around the world. This led me to begin a series of weavings that utilized copy transfers on a painted warp, double-woven cloth to bring the figure into my work. I was reflecting on what my “true art” was and how to pull it out of my unconscious. I kept returning to the question of why there were so few African-Americans represented in the textile field in this country. Yes, there were quilt makers, knitters, and crocheters, but why were there so few weavers? Eventually, that question led me to study slavery in graduate school. From there, I focused my artwork on a thread of my family’s lineage and, eventually, on the Abolitionists of Central New York. Stitching is my primary medium now; I can stitch on anything. These days, the canvas for most of my work is old textiles or raffia cloth; I draw with stitches, using poetry and paint. My most recent artwork deals with the ancients. I have become consumed with the energy around petroglyph sites and believe the psychic energy our ancestors left 10,000 or more years ago can help us save the world.
To learn more about Karen Hampton’s textile art visit https://www.kdhampton.com/