The whir of a small sewing machine fills the bright studio, as the needle bangs its way through multiple layers of printed cotton. Catherine Paul leans over her Bernina, pinching pieces together to create in cloth, the geometric layers of a national monument called Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks, near Santa Fe. “I’m sort of playing with Georgia O’Keeffe,” explains the deep-thinking textile artist. “She spent a lot of time in New Mexico. It was a salve to her.”
No one’s around as Catherine works on the two-by-three-foot quilt, but she’s far from alone. Georgia O’Keeffe, Virginia Woolf, and Frida Kahlo fill the room—if not in person, in words and art. “That’s my thinking wall,” reveals the quilter, pointing to a side surface plastered in quotes and paintings. “All of these women dealt with illness. Illness and disability are the human condition, right? If you don’t die young from an accident, you will be disabled. So, these artists doing their work in response to that seems very human.” If that’s the case, then Catherine is superhuman. She’s found art within her illness, one that’s stolen her identity.
“I had another life,” the petite brunette admits. “For 17 years, I was a professor in the English Department at Clemson. That had been my entire life. I thought I was going to be an academic my whole career. I had tenure. You don’t give up tenure.” Unless you’re forced to by chronic migraine disease. Catherine lost herself when she lost her professional existence. Yet a few years ago, between bouts of head pain, tingling sensations, and visual distortions, she found a path of rediscovery that began when several T-shirts needed re-hemming. And now, the one-time British lit expert is a talented textile craftswoman, using traditional quilting to create abstract pieces of art blending natural and literary worlds.
“It just sort of happened,” she recalls. “I came home from Christmas with my mom’s 1968 Singer to repair some things, and a friend said, ‘Try quilting.’” A quirky bag and simple blocks came first, with Catherine loving each pattern, piece, and placement. She especially found joy tapping into a creative side long-hidden behind scholarly texts on Ezra Pound’s new modernism and literature of exploration. “The idea of playing with colors and fabrics and shapes. I just love it,” the adept artist shares excitedly.
Twentieth century writers, once researched for publishing, now provide fodder for her craft. Catherine’s current series of quilts Hysteria explores relationships between women’s illness, disability, and creativity. One witnesses the mind give way in Hysteria 1: The Yellow Wallpaper, as traditional hexies bleed into clashing, bright patterns with runaway stitching. Hysteria 2: Deserters from the Army of the Upright presents rare, golden rays of hope, desperately breaking free from muted striations of pewter and charcoal.
The well-read artisan has sold some quilts from her workspace at the Greenville Center for Creative Arts and displayed others at The Warehouse Theatre. But nowadays, Catherine measures success by continually moving forward, merging her new identity with the old, on a quest for comfort combined with enlightenment. Like the layers in her quilts, some days are soft and colorful, others hard and filled with jagged pain. She turns to smooth fabric on Hysteria 3: O’Keeffe’s Medicine, saying, “One of the things with illness, and not particular to illness, is the grieving process doesn’t end. Working with art has been a vital way of confronting that. Art has given me a great deal, and this new insight into humanity. I like being here now.”