Karen Hampton is a textile artist whose moving work captures the stories and energy of the narratives she has discovered from extensive fieldwork throughout the American South and the African Diaspora. She has served on the Board of the Textile Society of America since 2018 and has recently taken on the position of Vice President. In this two-part interview for TSA News, Karen tells us about her artistic foundations formed in fibers and family, her research shaped through fieldwork, and her important work expanding the textile world by promoting other African American textile artists.
Part 1: Foundations and Fieldwork with Karen Hampton
Why did you choose textiles as your medium for your creative practice?
I don’t know if I chose it. My grandmother had been a seamstress in New York and my mother and her three sisters all sewed. It was like a family heritage. By the time I came along, we had a sewing room in our house and all I wanted was to go and join them in there. My grandmother taught me to sew my doll’s clothes when I was 6. Then when I was 8, my mother taught me how to use my grandmother’s Singer, and I made my first dress from beginning to end. By the time I was entering high school I made all of my clothes. Then I was a hippie wannabe and stopped sewing. As I was entering my final semester of high school, I was at a real crossroads in my life and couldn’t figure out what track I was on. I decided to allow myself to take art classes, to balance myself. I had always made crafts and that was when I discovered weaving. I was weaving on a frame loom, a picture frame loom, and that was the moment when I knew that I could do that for the rest of my life. From there I moved to Oakland, CA, and enrolled in Laney College, and to my surprise, they offered weaving. My class was all-day Saturdays and Pat Ravarra was the instructor. All my work was off-loom. By my second weaving, I was selling my work so it was really feeding my ego. A few years later I apprenticed with Master Weaver Ida Grae. I was a scholarship apprentice so I worked for 1.5 years and 2/3 of the work I made in Ida’s studio was for her. In turn, I became a good weaver, spinner, and natural dyer.
Do you remember what it was that excited you so much about that first piece of woven cloth?
I remember it was so natural. It felt like I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. My hands held the memory. I felt like I was taking care of my soul and healing.
The theme of place is a repetitive theme in your work. Can you tell us about the importance of fieldwork and how taking research visits to different Southern plantations shaped your work?
Yes, I work from a sense of place, but that was never my intent. I entered grad school in ’98, and I attended UC Davis for my MFA. In between my interview and my move to Davis, CA I gave a lecture on my work to a Handweavers Guild and was asked why there were so few African American weavers. In short, my hypothesis turned into my research project in graduate school. My undergraduate degree was in Art and Anthropology, so anthropological research was my norm. I guess I need to share a little more of the backstory.
I came up in Anthropology at a time when the study of cultural anthropology was shifting and many young anthropologists were studying self instead of other cultures. So, as I was entering this fibers program I decided to study the history of fiber in the United States, so it meant that I had to study slavery. My thesis was African American Women and Plantation Weaving from 1750-1830.
While I loved weaving and knew it was my calling, I was very lonely as a weaver because there were so few Black weavers nationally. I began to follow my own path of discovery and started addressing social issues. I figured if Picasso could have beautiful women as his muse, I could have my family and history as mine. No one talked about representation in weaving in the early ‘90s at all when I was first doing it. I decided to put imagery into my work and to use my family. And so that’s where I started, I spoke about issues like colorism as I tried to understand my own family and how hurtful it was that people always questioned how my sister and I have such different complexions—always remarking that we could not be sisters. My art became my therapy. When I spoke to the handweavers guild, I spoke about weaving as a colonial craft and ownership and property. This became my thesis in graduate school; it took me back in time to colonial America, slavery, and issues of property. After I cleaned up and headed to my car, I sat in my car and said to myself, “Bingo! I have the research topic that will keep me busy for two years of graduate school.”
During the summer of 1999, I conducted fieldwork in the low country of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia; drove 2300 miles; and visited 11 plantations and other historical sites.
It was this research that taught me a sense of place. The land held memory and told me stories. You have to remember that I am from California and did not realize quite what I was stepping into. Part of my research involves reading lots of narratives and historical fiction to understand the landscape.
At this point, did you choose the plantations specifically for their connection to your family?
No at the time. I knew very little about my family and slavery. My research was based on Cotton becoming King, indigo as the second oldest field crop, and plantation weaving. I knew that all of the plantations that I was researching would cover that. I was only looking at colonial plantations, so my time period was 1750- 1830.
Therefore, I needed to understand everything from the Huguenots of the 17th and 18th centuries to the early colonial plantations, where enslaved people had their own gardens and raised sea island cotton. I had to understand how indigo was grown and processed on the plantation. I traced the history of plantation weaving and envisioned the lives of enslaved women who wove.
How did walking the shared space with your ancestors affect your work?
My research trip turned out to be very different than I expected. I found that the landscape spoke to me, first it happened at Boone Hall Plantation. Walking through the plantations fields, I met a young family.
After speaking, we went out exploring together. The wife/mother and I walked out into the former cotton fields and both returned with similar stories of having visions and hearing sounds. This was the moment that I began to feel that the landscape had a story to tell. In many ways, I am an interpreter, a translator of the story from the past into a language from which society today can learn.
Did you present this project for TSA?
Yes, I presented my first paper in October 2000 in Santa Fe. Prior to applying, I had never heard of TSA. I was in my department office and spotted the flyer. I could not believe that there was a conference that my research might fit. It was a big deal.
Next week, we will learn about some of Karen’s recent work including her “Moving Forward” series supported by the Center for Craft, Creativity, and Design.
Links for Karen Hampton:
Karen Hampton’s presentation for the 2000 Textile Society of America Symposium in Sante Fe, New Mexico, “AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMEN: PLANTATION TEXTILE PRODUCTION FROM 1750 TO 1830”
Karen Hampton’s website: https://www.kdhampton.com/