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Clothes Make The Cowboy
The plan was an MFA in painting. But plans don’t always work out.
So when she didn’t get into her dream graduate program, Kathie Sever up and moved in 1996 from her esoteric Boston art scene to a Montana ranch where her sister had a job. Gone were the installations, the conceptual work, and insular art world. In its place: cowboys and cowgirls.
“The dudes hung out at the forge in McLeod making bridles and fences, and all the womenfolk made quilts,” Sever says. It was the antithesis of East Coast life. She loved that nobody was trying to get their work on a gallery wall, but that everything they did was deeply artistic. “It’s pragmatic work that’s completely infused with creativity.”
Sever’s pendulum swung from a hyper-intellectual realm of abstract painting to a world deeply rooted in craft. She took up sewing again, a pastime she had enjoyed growing up on California’s Monterey Peninsula. Her mother, an expert seamstress, always had fabric galore and gave Sever and her sister free rein with the sewing machine. Her sister followed in their mother’s footsteps, making perfectly tailored pieces at age 12. Sever preferred to “throw things together.”
Today, her creative process involves sewing commissioned Western wear from scratch and customizing each piece with embroidery, playing on Sever’s fascination with cowboys as the ultimate macho guys – yet total dandies in what they wear. “They’d wear these crazy, embellished shirts – way fancier than what their wives or girlfriends were wearing.”
Now in Austin, Texas, Sever makes and sells custom dresses, children’s clothes, men’s shirts, camera straps, and guitar straps – all with a Western flair. “I have always enjoyed the ‘fun-ness’ of Western wear,” explains Sever, “but living in Montana solidified my obsession with this American costume.” She’s a favorite of musicians, who order shirts for the stage or guitar straps that reflect their style. But others appreciate this uniquely American style too. “I love that a hipster, a rocker, and a lawyer can all enjoy and want this work,” she says.
Sever is creating modern heirlooms. “I like making things that feel special to people,” she says. One couple asked Sever to make matching swing dance clothes for their wedding reception in a huge old dance hall. They had gotten engaged under a tree, so she used a tree as the focal point of the embroidery, hiding their names among the foliage. “I can’t imagine grabbing a pre-made garment and embellishing that. It wouldn’t feel right.” Sever is mindful of “the energetic quality of every step.”
The discipline of craft comes through in her custom patterns and sharp silhouettes, the art in the embroidered stories she tells of people’s lives. Along with her clothing business, she juggles raising two children (and multiple chickens) with her musician husband and making mixed-media illustrations – among other artwork.
In addition to Western wear, Sever makes stop-motion music videos for her husband, hand-embroidered school portraits, and garment work intended for the walls. “I want to be a master of one craft, but I always want to explore everything I can get my hands on,” she says.
So far, so good.
Martha Hopkins works on books, advertising, and design in Austin, Texas. She wants an embroidered swing dress for Valentine’s Day.