Katrina Coombs is making art with her head, her hands and her heart, and she's exploring the whole human condition piece by piece.
Katrina Coombs isn’t trying to be provocative. She’s just taking the results of her introspection and turning them into fine art.
Coombs, a textile and fiber artist, has a debut exhibition at the Sarasota Art Museum entitled “I M(O)ther,” and her pieces invite you to consider subjects that aren’t everyday conversation.
Coombs tackles birth and death, sexuality and the menstrual cycle, and she wants to examine maternal identity and what it means to be a woman in the world. But the works are subtle, and sometimes only hint at deeper meaning through their title or materials.
“One of the most beautiful things about the works themselves is that I’m not directing it toward a specific issue and forcing that issue,” she says. “I am simply giving you my truth as it is, as raw as it may be or as pure as it may be. You can take it or you can leave it. But it’s neither here nor there, because it is who I am. This is who I am. And I love it.”
Coombs, based in Jamaica, uses a variety of methods to create her pieces. Some of them are done by hand, while others are created with the help of a floor loom. Coombs began her discovery of textile art through macrame while in high school, and she later progressed to the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Jamaica.
Eventually, she earned a masters in fine art from Transart Institute via the University of Plymouth.
But in many ways, she’s creating the very methods by which her art will be conveyed.
“I’ve been fascinated with the medium and I’m always constantly exploring new techniques,” she says. “A lot of times, it’s an exploration of the material. What can I do with it? Can I build a form with it? Or do I stay on a two-dimensional plane? For me, it’s about the textures, about the form and the thickness as well as the colors.”
As you walk around the exhibit, you can’t help but notice the many different styles. Her piece “Oshun’s Glory,” inspired by Yoruba culture and also by the death of her grandmother, consists of several cone-shaped knit structures protruding from the ceiling.
There are other pieces that resemble rich tapestries, and one that could be a coffee table centerpiece. The unifying element — beyond the themes connecting them — is the literal thread, and Coombs estimates that it could be thousands or millions of strands.
So what’s her studio look like? Are you imagining an explosion of fabric?
Coombs said that her material lives in a finely sorted and color-coded cupboard in her home studio.
“I’m a neat freak,” she says. “There’s a lot of structure in the space, but sometimes it does become a chaotic space of thread. I just throw the threads on the ground and process through them to select and get my palette through. I do a lot of sketches, both on paper but also with the material. A lot of it is just me exploring what the material can do in small bits.”
Coombs, at root, is fascinated by the ways the human body is constantly evolving and by the apparent contradictions contained in some of their very basic functions.
She gestures at her work “Her Constellation,” a vertical wall piece with hand-woven mixed fibers and beads. The piece’s coloring starts with lighter yellow threading near the top and red tasseled fringes toward the bottom, and it’s imbued with a deeper meaning.
“The woman’s body,” she says, “You’re born with thousands of eggs within you that are constantly combusting before they even go to the fallopian tube to then kind of form and cause the process of the menstrual cycle. It’s just amazing how the body transforms. You’re not even realizing it, but you’re creating life and also you’re taking life.
"There’s constant destruction that’s happening within the body but then also there’s constant healing.”
That’s also the theme of “As It Breathes, Life is Taken,” a horizontal hand-woven piece with mixed fibers and cowrie shells. Here, Coombs is referencing the many ways we perceive the maternal figure both as a symbol of value and of spirituality.
“A lot of the work is really on identity and maternal instincts and the maternal figure literally and metaphorically,” she says. “But also even just rites of passage of a girl going into adulthood.
“I brought in the cowrie shells because universally it has this element of currency. But it also represents security. It represents the womb. It represents authority as well as position in society. Within this piece, there's a right of passage once a girl sees her first cycle. She's now garnered with beads around her waist, and the cowrie shell is also used as that.”
Some of the pieces are literal, and some are figurative.
Coombs addresses the male and female gaze with an eye-catching piece entitled “The Beauty Between Her Thighs,” and she confronts loss and tragedy with works entitled “Prolapse” and “Lost Souls Not Forgotten.”
Coombs says all of her pieces have been inspired by her life, except Prolapse, which was inspired by one of her closest friends. Her art has helped her recover from the loss of a child, and it’s helped her better understand who she is and where she’s come from.
“It’s how I process my life,” she says.” It’s how I move through everything that is going on with me. But it’s not even so much about healing. It’s really for me about celebrating at this point. Because even with the loss, it has made me who I am as a woman. It has given me the opportunity to explore so much. I have been able to build myself as a woman.”
The creative process differs with each piece. For some, says Coombs, the hard work was done in hours or a week. And for others, she says, they’ve developed over years. She worked on them, put them down, worked on other things and came back with fresh fingers.
Rosie Gordon-Wallace, the founder of Miami-based Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator, has worked for decades to discover artists in the Caribbean. Gordon-Wallace met Coombs when she was still a student, and she’s seen her work develop over the last 15 years.
There are many great textile artists, says Gordon-Wallace, but what separates Coombs from many others is her ability to take relevant complex themes and turn them into art.
“I admire her ability to do a body of work around a personal narrative with boldness,” says Gordon-Wallace. “That is unique, because the subject she's talking about — loss and spirituality, memory and joy — are probably not seen in this genre of work in the same sentence. And we live in Florida. In this time, when our government is making all of these different suggestions around the body of women, it is wonderful to see an artistic outcome with labor and material that everyday people can enjoy. That's the draw.”
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