The theme of exploring private spaces, both literal and figurative, physical and spiritual, runs through textile and fiber artist Katrina Coombs’ work — much like her chosen medium of yarn and thread. And that has led to public exhibitions of her art from her native St. Andrew, Jamaica, to Kingston, and subsequently to Manila, Berlin, New York, Bogota, Miami, Chicago and Washington, culminating most recently in Sarasota.
Ms. Coombs’ first solo exhibition in the United States, “I M(O)ther: Threads of the Maternal Figure,” opened to the public on May 22 at Sarasota Art Museum (just south of the intersection of U.S. 41 and U.S. 301 near downtown Sarasota).
The exhibit features 12 fiber artworks presented by the museum in collaboration with Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator, a Miami-based philanthropy dedicated to finding and supporting artists from the Caribbean and Latin diasporas through cultural exchange and artist-in-residency programs.
In 2018, when DVCAI founder and exhibit guest curator, Rosie Gordon-Wallace, first met Ms. Coombs, the Sarasota Art Museum had not yet opened to the public. Mrs. Gordon-Wallace met Ms. Coombs while on a cultural exchange trip to Jamaica, birthplace of both women. The two met at Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, where Ms. Coombs earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts with honors in textiles and fiber arts in 2008. She subsequently earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative practice from Transart Institute via The University of Plymouth in 2013.
“[I] Met her, went on a cultural exchange, liked the work and watched her,” Ms. Gordon-Wallace said. “My organization, Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator, invited Katrina to come on an artist-in-residency program we did in 2019. The program brings the artists up from the Caribbean for a month. My philosophy is: I don’t work with the work; I work with the artist. So, I have to have the money, the resource to bring them, put them up, feed them, nurture them so that they can give us the best work that they have available. And when you do that, you really do get the best.”
Such residencies have proven pivotal for Ms. Coombs and her body of work. Her piece “Golden Flow,” which ushers viewers into the exhibition as they exit the elevator or stairs, was inspired and begun in residence in Colombia while studying the culture and traditions of the native Wayuu people. In that matriarchal society, young women are taught the skill and cultural significance of weaving beginning at their first menstrual cycle. They are taught by the woman of the highest skill, and their aptitude for weaving largely determines their status within the society.
At an artist’s talk on May 21 in the Sarasota High School Alumni Auditorium inside Sarasota Art Museum, Ms. Coombs spoke both eloquently and candidly about her personal history, the familial and cultural influences on her artwork, and its depiction of her personal struggle to navigate the qualities ascribed to — and expectations and limitations placed on — women. “Golden Flow,” a semicircular formation of five hanging woven panels joined by draping cords, is a bright vivid red, with gold threads woven through the center of each panel. Each panel features a different hand-woven pattern, and the gold thread passes through each in sometimes ordinary fashion and in others ornate. According to Ms. Coombs, the piece is a “celebration of the object of our menstrual cycle. A lot of the conversations within my work is really looking at things that are perhaps considered taboo to speak of — issues in which we don’t necessarily engage; you just kind of experience it in your own little private space and you move on. And for me the work is about finding that safe zone in which we can actually see this as something that is normal. It’s something that we go through on a regular basis, it’s a part of life, and it’s what makes us all here. So why not celebrate it?”
Ms. Coombs realized her fascination with fiber arts beginning in secondary school.
“I started doing with macrame in high school. And then I went into college and I dived more into the weaving, the different types of techniques,” explained Ms. Coombs, who still lives and works in St. Andrew, Jamaica.
Her home island, which is roughly the size of the western half of Florida’s panhandle, does not have the resources for a textile industry. Instead of spinning and dyeing her own fibers, she relies on store-bought acrylic yarn and nylon thread. But the effort to adapt readily available materials for her purposes has only served to deepen her skill and her love for fiber arts.
“For me,” Ms. Coombs said, “the practice is an exploration, it’s an exploration of the medium, it is a constant dive into what it is that the medium of textiles can do. How far can I push it?
“But also, just how it relates to the individual who practices it, or who engages with this very simple material, this very delicate material, to create structures that are strong, to create structures that represent one’s identity, that represent how we exist within our society.
“But also,” she added, “just the fact that as a medium, it is the first thing you’re clothed with. And how that even associates with the woman and her body as a womb, as a carrier.”
Ms. Coombs’ artwork is decidedly feminine, sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly, both in name and appearance. Even the typographical styling of the name of the exhibit, “I M(O)ther,” is visually suggestive. “The Beauty Between Her Thighs,” a finger-knitted teardrop shape incorporating a small round piece of mirror, leaves little to the imagination. “Cornucopia,” the horn of plenty, on the other hand, suggests abundance by its name. Physically, however, the piece is comprised of a diamond-shaped arrangement of woven pockets. They are meant to represent the womb according to Ms. Coombs, and the pockets look like they could contain something — and yet they are empty. She alluded to the loss of a child, and the color darkens from a brilliant, vibrant solid red at the top, to crimson, to a dark maroon or wine color, with more and more other colored threads woven in toward the bottom, giving the impression of aging from puberty through fertility to menopause. The overall shape begins narrowly at the youthful top, widens to maturity in the middle, and tapers off again at the end.
“Lost Souls Not Forgotten” is perhaps the most poignant piece of the exhibition. Nine small, football-shaped, white woven wool vessels hang in a single chevron pattern, each circled at the waist with belts of golden silk. The piece represents the loss of a child, Ms. Coombs explained, whether through miscarriage, abortion or stillbirth. The energy loss becomes a weight that you carry with you, she said, describing it as both heavy and light at the same time, both a physical and a spiritual weight.
“I attempt to capture the energy of a time, the energy of a moment, the energy of my experience, my truth, but also the truth of others, the truth of other women around me and kind of just guide that into the work,” Ms. Coombs explained.
The maturity and gravity of Ms. Coombs’ work stands in stark contrast to her bright smile and the youthful appearance of her mid-30s. She does a remarkable job of imbuing each stitch, each wrap of fiber with her truth.
Perhaps Ms. Gordon-Wallace put it best: “The big burden is, how do we change the perception that (what) people in these so-called remote places are doing (is) foolishness? They’re not doing foolishness. While we’re here doing our stuff, they’re doing their stuff. And the joy is the recognition and validation of the work.”
Indeed, there are fools in all the world, fools who are no doubt engaged in foolishness. But by and large, people are experiencing the same handful of life events wherever and whoever they may be. And no matter how remote, or how removed from our particular brand of society someone else may be, those life events inspire the same emotions in each of us: joy and sorrow, anxiety and relief, exaltation and frustration.
If you are the curious type, the kind to stand witness to the mind and heart of a fellow human being and feel gratified for it, Ms. Coombs’ fiber and textile creations are not to be missed. The pieces are alive with the energy of her life experiences. They speak volumes of her personal story and those of women everywhere. And you can watch and listen to those stories with a few moments of silent contemplation. ¦