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‘Then I add a lot of fabric’

“Flight” by Kay Khan: Cotton, silk, satin evening dress (disassembled), fabric scraps, felt, paper, plastic, fake leaves, costume jewelry pearls, glass beads. (Courtesy of the artist)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Kay Khan stitches silk into mosaic sculptures of whimsy and grace.

The Santa Fe artist transforms cloth into three dimensions, embellishing her pieces with embroidery, beads, paint, jewelry, text and found objects ranging from the lid of a sardine can to silk flowers. They combine into metaphorical works of connection, collected memories and mystery encompassing everything from the serious to the absurd. Many of her works begin as garments.

Khan sees clothing as metaphor, both expressing and disguising the wearer.

“Garments are such a part of our lives,” she said. “I call it the ‘Armor and Facade’ series.”

Her inspiration is life itself: her experiences, the things she touches, things that touch her, the interplay of words. Using all of this, she lets ideas and thoughts percolate, and the pieces emerge.

“Flight” germinated from a white satin thrift-store mermaid dress.

“It’s probably something a teenager would wear to the prom,” she said.

Kay Khan displaying a piece. (Courtesy of the artist)

Khan splashed the gown with painted butterflies, sculpted birds, collage, quilting, plastic and the aforementioned tin can lid.

“I was thinking of the dress as a sort of armored facade,” she said. “Birds are regal to me. And every dress is like dressing in plumage, preparing for flight.”

Although she sometimes begins with a sketch or a pattern, Khan usually designs as she works.

“I use a lot of silk because I like the color and it doesn’t fade,” she said. “Then, I add a lot of fabric.”

First, she quilts her vessels to make them sturdy. She began adding text when she realized she could express some ideas better with words than with images.

“It’s meant to stimulate something in the viewer,” she said.

Her sculpted “Bodice” came about because she liked the form. She stitched a text, then cut it into pieces to create cryptic sections.

“Clothing is meant to protect us, but it’s also meant to convey social and cultural norms,” she said. She sometimes turns to fairy tales or fiction, such as with her Shakespearian series of masks based on “Hamlet.”

“In so many ways, a mask hides, but it also reveals,” Khan said.

Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Khan normally spends much of her time at home, even without the pandemic.

“I think MS has directed my work,” she said. “I see more fictional imagery, stories of resilience and healing.”

After graduating from college in Virginia, Khan looked for a job making furniture and ended up working as an upholsterer. She had always wanted to learn to sew, but never did until her first job placed her in front of a sewing machine. Assigned to rebuild a motorcycle seat, she learned to sculpt a complex pattern. From then on, fabric became her chosen medium.

“The Lion, the Cardinal and the Rose” combines childhood imagery in a 16-by-16-inch wall piece. Khan grew up in Virginia, where cardinals are the state bird and where her mother grew roses.

“When I was a child, my father showed me the constellations,” she added. “I’m a Leo.”

The piece mixes silk, linen, plastic and beads.

“I use everything that works,” she said.

With “Skin,” Khan ripped apart a suit jacket, and rebuilt it using text and embroidery. Her inspiration came from a Japanese movie called “Pillow Book.”

“It’s an erotic Japanese film,” she said. “I didn’t like the film, but I got an idea. A Japanese woman was painting text onto people.”

Khan moved to Santa Fe in 1991 from Washington state.

“We decided to move to a small town with lots of sunshine and arts, and I never left.”

The artist’s work has been exhibited in numerous galleries nationally, published in magazines and books, and is included in the permanent collections of the Albuquerque Museum, the New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, the Museum of Art and Design in New York, the Arizona State University Museum in Tempe, and in San Francisco’s De Young Museum. Khan’s work is currently being exhibited at the Racine Art Museum in Racine, Wisconsin. She is represented by Santa Fe’s Patina Gallery and at

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