Photos by Dina Kantor
As a youngster growing up in Bloomington, Minnesota, multimedia artist Brandi Kole spent her after-school hours watching her grandmother sew. Kole’s grandmother made hundreds of quilts she donated to nursing homes across the Twin Cities, and her mother was also a seamstress and an artist working in charcoal. As a teen, Kole sewed clothes and thought she’d become a fashion designer, but while studying painting, drawing, and sculpture at the University of Arizona in Tucson, a professor encouraged Kole try mixed-media work. “I began exploring different techniques and materials,” she recalls. “It made sense to start introducing sewing into my work by drawing with thread.”
Today, Kole and her husband, international aerosol artist Rock “CYFI” Martinez, who painted the famous Prince mural in uptown Minneapolis, live in both Bloomington and Tucson. Back in 2020 during the pandemic, not only did Kole turn 30 but her beloved grandmother also passed—propelling her to delve into her artwork with a new focus. While she has participated in numerous group shows, Kole’s first show with Martinez, “Other Significance,” opened Sept. 14 at NewStudio Gallery in St. Paul. The exhibition includes Kole’s portraits, Martinez’s aerosol works, and several large pieces on which they’ve collaborated.
Many of your pieces are portraits of your grandparents. Tell us more about that inspiration.
My work is so rooted in my history and childhood. I acquired all my grandmother’s thread, sewing materials, and even her sewing machine, all of which I use in my work. She was always so encouraging and supportive, and told me, “Don’t lose your voice.” I do this work to make her proud. Traditionally, sewing was a domestic practice done by women. I’m exploring that history in my work while breaking out of it.
You also create a lot of self-portraits that are strong, questioning, demure, confrontational, dreamy, and whimsical. Do you feel, in the aggregate, they’re all aspects of you?
Yes, for sure. I’m always exploring my sense of self and identity. The loose loops of thread and torn paper evoke a sense of emotional femininity and raw energy. The images include themes of identity, gender, and sexuality, and are rendered in a way that invites the viewer to take an intimate look.
Describe your creative process.
I sketch out the portrait or design first, then move the image underneath the needle. I do all of my work on a sewing machine—no hand embroidery. I go through so many sewing needles as they have to punch through paper, vinyl, even cardboard. Sometimes the piece is large and working it through the machine can be challenging. I’ve sewn through my fingers many times! While creating the loose and knotted threads, I don’t use the pressure foot, which can help protect your fingers. It’s a risk I take to achieve the results I want. Another part of the process is tearing away parts of the image, unpeeling layers, to reveal unseen backgrounds. I like the tattered, incomplete images created. I finish with watercolor. The process is very organic and might also include weaving or the addition of elements from nature—like flowers or butterflies.
What do you hope individuals see and feel when experiencing your work?
I hope people connect with the sense of nostalgia and memory I feel while creating the work. My pieces are elegant, loose, and raw. The loose threads can feel emotional. They can be mysterious and evocative, but I hope people can find themselves tangled within the thread.