It was when the land flattened out and the sky opened up that Monika knew she was home. More than a decade after her departure she returned wanting to capture all the memories of the prairie, her prairie, and never lose them again. Monika Kinner-Whalen began this journey only four years ago with her camera and a hunch she could celebrate her love of the prairie through artful sewing.
The prairie has two main features with shelter and trees not being either one of them. Although a solitary tree or farmstead windbreak does a great job of giving distance and perspective; all that sky is positive space shrinking the land, not just revealing itself between outlines and at the ends of narrow streets. Because the prairie is so open and big it can be a bit much to take in and when the land rolls out to meet it way out there somewhere, to really embrace all of it, you have to be comfortable with the subtleties of quiet prairie sound.
Reading the nuance of the sky’s changing light can be a lifesaving skill. Spending time on a prairie provides a challenge to face whatever turbulence rolls through as well as the reward of the sweet breeze and sway of long, tall grasses with deep roots in the soil. Capturing this light, the details of Monika’s ‘prairie-scapes’ emulate the wide expanse but bring it down to something you can hold in your hand and say, “yes, this is what I see.”
Raised by an artist who was always looking, sketching and painting enriched and framed Monika’s view for what art was supposed to be. Creative, playful, inspirational! Fiber and sewing were patterns and perfection—certainly not art. Monika’s first painstaking attempts to make baby quilts for her children resulted in taking a class for the purpose of learning how to read a quilt pattern! Not seeking perfection, but simply finished baby quilts, Monika’s dichotomous view of art and fiber held until she was gifted issues of Quilting Arts magazine. Once she contemplated art with a needle and thread, Monika knew fiber was her medium. She knew it would be a wonderful way to show off the prairie that’s so dear to her. As she says, “I love needle and thread. I didn’t love painting. Prairies and thread was the perfect marriage!”
Monika spends half of her work time outside walking and looking with her camera seeking the right light, composition and details. Thankful that digital cameras have unlimited ability for immediate feedback and do-overs, Monika has wide latitude for experimental photography. Later when she has taken the perfect image and is ready to begin work, she collects her thoughts and studies the photo until the muse appears and she jumps right in laying out fabric, background and her plans for free motion machine stitching and hand embellishing. Since most of her pieces are small, less than 8 X 10 inches, she often doesn’t see the sum of the parts until the work is completed and she stands back and takes it all in.
Monika says one of her biggest creative challenges is to let go of that inner siren song of quilt perfection. Feeling that she is not an abstract artist, she is always pushing herself to think differently and walk on the wild side of representational art. Her first works of artful sewing were small fabric postcards. These small 4 X 6 inch cards were the perfect place to begin. Thread painting with her sewing machine was completely fun and postcards have a short completion half life, so Monika dove in and experimented to her heart’s content. Examples from Quilting Arts magazine, funds for a class provided by her local quilt guild and an Experimental Fibre Art class at her local university were the beginning of Monika’s improvisational fiber art schooling.
Critiquing her own work; Monika studied composition and perspective and how she could best translate the hugeness of the prairie space and not lose the delicacy of prairie grasses and flowers. Monika began to use hand embellishment for this reason. For instance, capturing a canola field with French knots is an excellent expression of that stitch. She feels hand stitching works best for fence wires, tall grasses and even birds in the sky. Each piece is rich in its depth, layers and texture and zooms you in to take notice of what is at your feet while keeping the perspective of the big picture. She says the best reason for hand stitching is because it brings out textures, but also the humanness—the connection with the prairie in the piece.
Monika has won numerous awards for her work and has been written up in five magazines to date! Most recently, Monika was awarded 1st, 2nd and best of category for her work by the Edmonton Needlearts Guild in its recent biennial juried competition in Edmonton, Canada. She won best of category with the above skyline piece. To see where Monika has been featured (it’s a long list) click here! And if you happen to be in her Saskatchewan neighborhood, here’s a link to workshops taught by Monika Kinner-Whalen in 2014.
This was a fun story to write for me as I am from a long line of prairie farmers even though I’ve lived sheltered in the north woods for many years. I love the quiet noise of the prairie life.