Follow the Thread

Follow the Thread

Paula Kovarik Round And Round It Goes

Made of a worn tablecloth, Round and Round It Goes (2012) is Kovarik’s most ambitious quilt to date. She stitched the spiral first, then began the mind-boggling work of “puzzling in” the sections. It took her about four months. Photo: Allen Mims

In her dazzling and detailed quilts, Paula Kovarik traces big ideas about life on Earth.

Sometimes, when she’s deep in the flow of stitching a quilt, Paula Kovarik will tap into what she has come to think of as a fourth dimension. 

“I search for that collective unconscious that I believe is there, in the air,” says Kovarik, who lives in Memphis, Tennessee. “Artists talk about being in that zone of a creative, different consciousness, of being in the painting or in the sculpture or in the quilt – that zone that I strive to find. If I’m lucky enough to get there, if I feel like I’m seeing the piece properly and moving it forward, I will perceive a different dimension. It’s from within. It’s not a visual thing. It’s a feeling.” 

Maybe it’s that extrasensory zing that makes her quilts so engaging, pulls us in. Certainly it’s the amazing stitchery. Kovarik draws with thread, using the quilt as a canvas for incredibly detailed worlds, crammed with odd little shapes, structures, and creatures, real and imagined. Her style could be described as a mash-up of Dr. Seuss, Kandinsky, and Where’s Waldo, yet it’s all her own. Quirky as they are, her quilts explore big ideas about love, psychology, nature, politics. The unifying thread, so to speak, is the notion of life as a complex web of seemingly random energies and events, things that connect in ways both obvious and unexpected.

“I don’t try to make a clear narrative statement. I like it to be a little chaotic. Inputs and influences and vibrations and all kinds of things that we’re not aware of are affecting us, and I try to channel those,” she says. “I want to find beauty in chaos, but also show that chaos sometimes has order.” 

Some of her most heartfelt quilts are about the natural world. “Nature provides us such beautiful chaos,” she says. “I’m constantly amazed by the intricacies of natural forms, how certain ones are repeated over and over again.” In Stream of Consequences (2013), her homage to the work of Memphis’ Wolf River Conservancy, stitches form rhythmic, textured swirls over a changing landscape of city, suburbs, farmland, and wetlands. For Round and Round It Goes (2012), she transformed a stained white tablecloth into an epic vision of Earth in the balance, the effects of human vagary – war, pollution, economic collapse – on every imaginable resource and living creature. In Global Warming, the Great Unraveling (2009), frayed edges and a satiny border made from a worn baby blanket lend tenderness and emotional impact.

Other pieces ponder modern life on a more personal level. Same But Not (2011) is a yin-yang design: On one side, a single white line travels an unbroken, labyrinthine path on a black background, while on the other, a black thread takes a similar – but different – trip on white fabric. Connecting Fantasy to Reality Proved Difficult (2010) is a meditation on how our best-laid plans morph and change, start as one thing but become something else entirely. In Worry (2011), large black circles represent the burdens of anxiety, tiny opposing arrows our conflicted thoughts, and fractured stitchwork the mounting pressure of it all. 

Lately, she has been incorporating into her work children’s drawings submitted by readers of her blog. “They’re really inspiring to me,” Kovarik says. “Between 4 and 6 years old, children’s drawings are really soulful. Their art is serious and bold. About the time they go into school, they start trying to make it ‘look like’ something. It’s interesting to see that transition.” 

Kovarik herself has been in a kind of transition. She was a graphic designer for some 30 years, specializing in internal communications for corporations, things like booklets on health care and pension plans. Then, her objective was to present information in a clear and engaging manner. Even now, with quilts, “I don’t let that go,” she says. “Symbols, structure, layout, form, and color are all critical to a piece.” Since becoming a full-time artist two years ago, she’s feeling freer, more spontaneous. “My life as a graphic designer was ruled by the grid. It was all about creating structure for content. And I love the grid. I feel comfortable using a grid underneath everything that I do. But I always like to break it, too, for a little extra tension.”

She starts each quilt with a basic idea, a rough sketch. She lets the fabric tell her what it wants to be: Whole-cloth quilt? Pieced composition? Increasingly, it’s the stitch that takes center stage. “I leave spaces for myself to draw, so my piecing is minimal. If I add too much piecing, I lose the thread.” 

She then begins the slow work of moving fabric under the needle of her well-worn Bernina 153 sewing machine. Pictures and patterns emerge stitch by stitch, maybe a square foot’s worth on a typical workday, “if I’m lucky.” Some elements are recognizable, such as animals or trees. Often, though, Kovarik simply doodles, letting her unconscious, or as she likes to think of it, the thread itself – guide the way, almost like automatic writing. Shapes and forms repeat themselves “whether I want them there or not.” Spirals, branches, ladders, and clouds recur. So do towers, spires, steeples, and antennae, structures that reach for the sky and transmit messages. “I let it be a journey, let one stitch influence the next. I have to let the line have its own voice,” she says of her free-motion method. 

Kovarik’s own path has had its twists and turns. Born in 1953, she moved around a lot growing up, whenever her father, a Sears executive, got transferred – to Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana, and finally Chicago. She majored in graphic design at Southern Illinois University and married in 1975. She and her husband, Jim, moved to southern Illinois and worked various jobs for a few years; then, like many idealistic young people of their generation, they made an adventure of going back to the land. They bought 10 acres in southern Illinois, designed and built a house, and became vegetable farmers. Then, in 1981, their 3-year-old son, Damien, was diagnosed with leukemia, and everything changed. 

“We were lucky enough to be handed over to St. Jude’s. We had no money, no insurance. They covered everything,” Kovarik says of the famed Memphis hospital, a “mythical, wonderful place” where children are treated regardless of a family’s ability to pay. After three years of chemo and radiation, Damien was declared cancer-free. Today, at 36, he has two boys of his own and works for St. Jude’s fundraising arm – “a great circular story,” as Kovarik says. 

That sudden catastrophe, and eventual miracle, led Kovarik and her family to settle in Memphis in the early 1980s. Jim became a grant writer in community development, while she started her graphic design business; they had a second son, Miles (now 26 and studying to be a nurse). She always did art on the side, painting or knitting or crochet. Around 2002, she took up quilting, inspired by her mother, an avid quilter in retirement. She took a six-week crash course at a local quilt shop, but disliked the constraints of traditional patterns. 

“One day, I took a piece I’d started and thrown into a corner because it was boring, slashed it up and sewed it back together the way I wanted it to be. I thought, ‘This might work.’ ” 

Soon Kovarik’s interest shifted from alternative piecing to a purposeful exploration of the stitch. Quilting went from hobby to obsession. She’d come home from work, eat a quick dinner, then head out to her backyard studio and quilt until midnight. She did it for herself, with no real desire to show her work. Then in 2008, a friend urged her to enter Quilt National, the prestigious competition held at the Dairy Barn Arts Center in Ohio. Kovarik had never heard of it but went ahead and submitted a piece. It not only got in but was chosen for the catalogue cover. At the opening, “I met all these artists who had incredible work. I thought, ‘These are my people!’ ” 

The year 2013 brought another turning point, in which Quilt National figured once again. Her mother had fallen ill and was in hospice in Kovarik’s home. Kovarik got a call from the organizers of that year’s show: Round and Round It Goes, her most ambitious quilt to date, had won a prize. She hung up, went into her mother’s room, and shared the news. “Mom was ecstatic, just crying with joy,” she recalls. “Two hours later, she died.” Within weeks, Kovarik decided to close her graphic design business and focus on her art. “Bleary-eyed” with emotion, she went to Quilt National to accept the Award of Excellence. “It brought a certain closure to my mom’s death and affirmed the direction of my life and the choice I was making.” 

Now the thread of life – that long, strange trip – is the subject of Kovarik’s art. “You just move forward, keep taking steps,” she says. “It’s been a great journey, and continues to be. All of it informs my work. It makes me dig deeper, gives me more considered thoughts about what I’m doing, what’s important in life.” 

She still finds it hard to say “I’m an artist,” but it’s getting easier. Quilting “has created a passion for me. I’m eager every day to be making, to create things. I’m tireless at it, and I’m also breathless,” Kovarik says. “I’m amazed by the number of things that inspire me now – music, news, daffodils coming up, my kids, grandkids, everything. I have piles of ideas. 

“I just feel like I’m in the right space. This is right for me now.”