The artist at work.
Birch explored different color themes in
An untitled work by the artist.

Forces of Nature

Karin Birch's mixed-media fiber works explore themes of hope, loss and mystery

Forces of Nature JULY/AUGUST 2011

In early spring, the hillside in front of Karin Birch’s home is a tapestry of emerging plants. Low chartreuse sedum tumbles down the slope like running stitches. Pink blossoms pop up here and there in perky tulips and bowed bleeding hearts. Fresh succulents are mounded like clustered beads. The garden is a work in progress and an inspiration.
"I’m definitely drawn to the landscape in my art. And my fiber work influences how I design gardens,” says Birch. "Both involve thinking about space, color and texture. It’s a back-and-forth conversation.” For more than 25 years, she has cultivated the garden while creating fiber work in the studio of her Victorian-era townhouse in Brunswick, Maryland, near Frederick. During the growing season, she also helps others with gardens nearby.

References to the earth surface in her refined fiber works: gentle terrains contoured with natural and personal symbols. A big-picture landscape appears, for example, in the abstract patterns of “Empty Eye.” On one side aqua painted lines curve like a flowing river, while raised beaded areas suggest splashing rivulets. Star-shaped flowers refer, in the artist’s world, to hope for the future.

Nature became a force in Birch’s artwork in the 1990s, when she backpacked in the wilderness and along the Potomac River near her home. She learned to read topographical maps and visualize levels of land from above, a perspective enhanced in her art. “Creating an illusion of distance, obscuring the actual surface is very intriguing to me,” she says, describing her recent compositions in which “layers wind in and out of each other and overlap, so that it’s hard to say which is surface.”

Devising those layers takes considerable time, as Birch constructs each piece entirely by hand. The smallest, measuring eight by 15 inches, requires one week of intense work; the most complex and densely embroidered can take up to two months.

In the studio, Birch starts by stretching raw linen over a wood frame. She quickly brushes thinned paint onto the wet linen, dabbing with a sponge and rags to soak up excess color in a stain-painting effect. Once the frame is secured on a worktable easel, she begins slowly building up the surface with hand embroidery and seed beads sewn on individually.

The artist relishes the combination of these media. “I like the contrast between the spontaneous, watery background and precise, orderly embroidery and beadwork sitting on the surface,” she says. Seldom working out designs in advance on paper, she explains, “I dive in, get going, and solve problems along the way.”

Each step requires her to decide how the next choice relates to all others, as she considers the balance of colors and the interplay of textures and matte and shimmering areas. “It gets tricky, especially further into a piece. There are always unexpected problems," Birch notes.“The choice is to spend a lot of time tearing work out or finding a way out of the problem by coming up with new ideas.” In one case, unable to resolve a design dilemma by stitching, she turned the small piece on its side and added end panels, forming a three-part composition, "Displacement Triptych.”

Throughout, she uses a few basic materials: acrylic paints; threads of cotton, silk or rayon made in France and America; glass seed beads from Czechoslovakia and Japan. After experimenting with a range of techniques over decades, she favors just a few stitches, employed in a process she describes as “drawing with thread.”

Birch trained as a painter, taking courses at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Working on large-scale wall paintings as her two-year-old played underfoot in the studio, she remembers, “I began embroidering to maintain my sanity.” That first piece portrayed an ironing board in fabric appliqué against a jubilant backdrop of buttons and beads. “As soon as I made that piece, I knew I had found my medium,” the artist beams.

Birch had learned stitching as a teenager during summers visiting her grandmother in Minneapolis. While her grandmother knitted she sat nearby, embroidering her jeans with decorative suns, moons and flowers.

Her early art pieces depicted personal narratives of family life. She gradually introduced painting, experimenting until the painting and stitching worked together. Three pieces from her "Wintry Cycle,” small lyrical works from the 1990s, are owned by The Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

In 2003 Birch received a Maryland State Arts Council individual artist award to support an exhibition of her "Delicious Garden” series, focused on variations in reds and pinks. Successive series explored different color themes. An interest in aqua and yellow intensified in 2002 after the death of her husband from multiple sclerosis, when, she notes, “aqua started to symbolize something to me about loss and hope.”

Her most recent series,“Meaning in Abeyance,” further develops these poetic designs in more complex patterns and contemplative grays and blacks. She compares the images to scenes glimpsed through a garden gate. “It’s like looking through something into another world,” she observes, “a source of mystery.”  

Writer Tina Coplan is based in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

For more information on Karin Birch’s fiber art, contact, or
Snyderman-Works Galleries in Philadelphia at or 215-238-9576.

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