A Conversation With Joanna Skumanich

1. Let’s start off by talking about your cool grandmother.  She was a seamstress and collector of notions and fabrics and she was a huge inspiration to you.  Did you spend a lot of time together when you were growing up, and what did you learn from her?

I grew up in Cleveland where my Dad’s family is from, and my Grandma Mary lived in Chicago. Since we lived far apart our time together was mostly spent during long summer stretches.  My grandma’s house felt like a museum of sewing crafts filled to the brim with stacks of fabrics and unfinished sewing projects, and pickle jars and pill bottles stuffed with buttons and beads. It was a wonderful sensory experience of colors, textures, and tools.  She took a real interest in sharing her craft with me. She was fun to be around. She swore a lot which I thought was so cool as a kid. She was obsessive about details and resourceful and resilient in her work and life which I greatly admired.

2. You are one of the most wildly creative human beings I know, always drawing or quilting or making papier-mâché ornaments.  When did you begin to experiment with textiles to make art?

I’ve been playing around with textiles in various forms since I was a kid hand sewing little dolls together, but started exploring it more seriously when I was in the BFA program at Otis. The first time I showed some embroidery work in a crit I was told I should stick to what I was good at- drawing and painting. Discouraged, I paused my textile practice for a few years and then picked it up again around 2012.

3. The three quilts you made at Kneeland Co. Rarities are very personal, telling a story from your childhood or your imagination.  I like the literal combined with the fantastical and over the top elements.  They are something to behold, and every time I look at one I see something totally new.  You can really get lost in them.  Do you start by sketching each piece with a subject in mind, or do you just create as you go?

It’s usually a combination of planned subject and making things up as I go along. There are the major characters like a person or a car or tree that are fixed and planned and the spontaneity happens in the details.  First, I make a crude sketch in my notebook, then I’ll do a bunch of research collecting references and techniques. Now with text to image AI, I’ll run through some prompts to see if I can further the idea. Then I will draw the scene to scale which becomes the master pattern for the textile pieces.

4. The last piece remaining at Rarities is Normal/Nermal.  It is an extraordinary, massive work that blows my mind.  The hand-sewn bricks made from denim scraps are next level.  Tell us about this bank scene.

I’m into aspects of car culture, especially vanity plates and I had been wanting to make a scene with a car. I had found this Garfield bedsheet at a thrift store and it sparked a memory from when I was about 6 years old and my dad had the rare task of watching me and my sisters for the afternoon. Us kids thought it would be hilarious if we snuck our cat in the car to run errands. We almost got away with it until the cat jumped into the front seat while were at the bank drive-thru and tried to escape out the window.  The license plate in this scene could read as NormalDad or NermalDad. Nermal is the name of Garfield’s girlfriend in the cartoon series.

5. When you’re not working or being a mother to your amazing son, Billy, how do you like to spend your time?  Is there anything you’re watching, reading, or listening to?

I just went through a heavy Duran Duran phase. I love learning about pretty much everything so I’m always listening to all sorts of podcasts. I go to the movie theater when I can and I must have buttered popcorn and a coke. My local YMCA reopened recently and I’m trying to get back into my racquetball game, if you know anyone who plays.