Though she graduated from College of Charleston as a painter, Kristy Bishop didn’t come into her own until she experimented with thread. For Bishop, it’s an ironic twist. As the granddaughter of a prolific seamstress, she resisted any overtures to learn the craft. But finding herself unfulfilled using oils alone, she painted a fox in December 2009, cut it out, and appliquéd it to fabric. The fiber artist was born (with her grandmother as her biggest supporter).
“I could never paint abstractly for some reason,” says Bishop. “With fiber art, I feel like the sky is the limit.” Her original foray into mixed-media resulted in her first serious collection of work, “Unearthed,” exploring the loss of the longleaf pine ecosystem that once spread from Louisiana to coastal Virginia and is now practically nonexistent. “Most people don’t even know about it or remember it,” Bishop notes.
In Traveling Song—a 67 x 91-inch oil on canvas with appliquéd cotton, polyester, and dyed linen—a background of textured, exoskeleton-like pine bark and a stark animal skull contrast with lively birds. “I depicted species I saw while traveling the U.S., but included a Carolina wren because I always come home,” says Bishop.
Abandoning representation for pure abstraction, her next collection, “Yarn and Rag,” combines embroidery and fancy stitches with bold stripes of bright silks and coarse linen, leaving painting out entirely. As for her most recent work, it remains abstract, but is even more meticulous. She hand-dyes silk chiffon in her kitchen, then cuts and hand-stitches rows of delicate ruffles onto large canvases of dyed silk. The undulating color palette and graceful sway of silk pay homage to the extravagant fashions of the 18th century—one of Bishop’s current inspirations—the flounces and poufs, rich fabrics and details so eloquently worn by fashion grande dame Marie Antoinette.
Created for 2011’s “The HeArt Attack” exhibit at Eye Level Art, Bishop’s Love’s a Feeling is dominated by intricate concentric circles of silk chiffon ruffles in pinks, oranges, and dusty mauves that allude to that sumptuous period. “The styles of the aristocracy clearly reflected their status and the class divide,” says Bishop. “Today, there’s still a big class divide, but it’s not as overt through fashion.”
The relationship between fashion and sociopolitical trends—such as Antoinette’s imports of English cottons and muslins that nearly killed the French silk industry (not to mention upending visual class cues)—is a theme Bishop wants to explore further. She’s working out ideas for an installation of panniers (side hoops that widened 18th-century skirts) draped in modern fabrics. “I don’t know how to build them yet, but I want my work to go in that direction,” says the artist. “There are interesting parallels between today and that era in France.”