Textile artists weave a compelling, evolving narrative in new 934 Gallery exhibit

Andy Downing

In some sense, touring the new 934 Gallery duo show “The More I Think About It, the More It Hurts,” which opens both virtually and for reserved in-person appointments today (Friday, Jan. 8), offers a picture of both pre- and post-COVID times. Artists Dre McLeod and Kathryn Shinko both work in textiles, which can be a labor-intensive process, meaning many of the pieces on display were conceived and executed before the coronavirus hit our shores.

A handful of McLeod’s tapestries, for example, feature blank, bulbous, long-limbed “egg people” who are often depicted as intersecting or working together (in one piece, two fill a jug held by another pair), suggesting a sense of community that has been largely absent as of late. Tellingly, the newer works on display are more architectural and symbolic, completely absent McLeod’s egg citizenry and reflecting the sense of isolation brought on by the virus.

“What I really wanted to express changed a lot from when I applied [for the gallery showing] because of living in this pandemic world,” McLeod said recently at the gallery. “A lot of my work is me processing my mental health issues and the world around me and trying to navigate it, and so it really shifted. I feel like I use a lot of symbolism, and not cultural symbolism, but more personal, like, ‘This shape means this to me.’ Before [the coronavirus] I was using more obvious symbolism, where now I’m just rolling with whatever I feel.”

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The Cleveland-based Shinko described a similar evolution that has taken place within her own work. Most of the pieces on display at 934 were conceived pre-COVID and are more text-heavy, including a series of large tapestries where serene nature vistas are overlaid with jarring, pornographic text, and a four-foot long “Faceb666k” logo that was latch-hooked by hand — a painstaking, months-long process in which individual threads were knotted on a grid.

More recently, though, Shinko has abandoned language in her art altogether. “I kind of took a foray into more conceptual work,” said Shinko, who was let go from her job when the pandemic hit in March, a jarring development that left her feeling disposable, unsafe and insecure. “A lot of the pieces in this show are very thought-heavy and cerebral, but when I got laid off in March, I started doing weavings on a loom that are just completely material based. There’s no concept. It’s just about bringing colors and shapes and textures together.”

However, at least one exhibited piece by Shinko conceived prior to the pandemic has taken on new dimensions amid the stay-at-home era. The piece, a rotating still life, consists of a series of Polaroids of the artist’s disorganized kitchen, taken during a time she was living in Akron and feeling depressed and isolated. “I didn’t feel like I was home and I was lonely, and I would often leave my kitchen a mess with food and dishes, which is shameful for me to say and share with other people,” Shinko said.

Now, months later, the still life feels more universal. “When I made the piece it was about my depression, my isolation, my dissatisfaction with life,” the artist continued. “But as the pandemic happened, and we had to shelter in place, it took on new meaning and dimension. How long can you be surrounded by the same four walls without completely losing your mind?”

Both Shinko and McLeod had similar introductions to art-making via family members who crafted. 

McLeod grew up in West Virginia with grandmothers and great grandmothers who quilted and made clothing, and she got her start crafting in similar fashion, eventually attending school at Savannah College of Art & Design where she studied fashion design. (“Because I didn’t know it was possible to just be an artist,” she said.)

Eventually, though, McLeod drifted from a fashion world she described as “toxic,” returning to art and quilt-making, which gradually evolved into the more freeform style she embraces now. Elements of this earlier practice remain, however, including the use of repurposed fabrics, which McLeod embraces as a means of reducing waste but also because the history of the material can bring unexpected extra weight to her work.

“The quilts I grew up with, they were made from the scraps after you made the clothes or the flour sacks,” McLeod said. “For me, quilting has always been very comforting, and when you add that emotional, sentimental value, there’s just another layer of comfort.”

Shinko’s introduction to art arrived via her mother, who cross-stitched and quilted  though it quickly became apparent that Shinko would take the craft in a wildly different direction from her instructor.

“When I started stitching, my mom would kind of observe what I was doing and she would be like, ‘Why are you doing this?’” Shinko said. “There was one time, I think I was 23, and I was cross-stitching a Russian general, and his face was surrounded by strawberries, and she kind of looked at me disdainfully and said, ‘I don’t know any other 23-year-old girls who cross-stitch Russian generals.’

"She would stitch family trees and flowers and kitchen towels and floral designs and all of these really beautiful things, and she didn’t understand why I was doing what I was doing. But the reason I do it is because it’s exciting. It’s a relatively untapped avenue with which to deliver ideas.”

"Cherish" by Dre McLeod


"Faceb666k" by Kathryn Shinko