A creative life in the city often leads to one's necessity to flee to the wild places, and so remains true for textile and book artist, Natalie Stopka. The striking nature of her work melds both urban and organic seamlessly, with natural, often cosmic looking prints in bold and electric hues. We sat down with her to talk about her evolution on classic arts, and the value of a good cheesemonger. Read on...
Nativen: Tell me a little bit about where you're from, and how your upbringing has influenced your work.
Natalie: I'm from Massachusetts. Both of my parents have art degrees, so I had a really creative upbringing. My mom is a textile designer, so textile projects were part of our creative experience from a young age.
Moving to New York City was an abrupt change, and it really spurred my interest in working with natural dyes. I wanted to get back to using natural forms and naturally derived materials in my work. As soon as I didn't have them, I wanted them.
Nativen: When did you realize you wanted to get into paper and textile arts?
Natalie: It was a gradual transition. My degree is in illustration, so a residency program at the Center for Book Arts was an easy step into book arts. I wanted to control all of my bookbinding materials, paper and fabric. It's really great to be able to create your own surface patterning and your own palette. Soon, I started using natural dyes and marbling to pattern my paper and textiles.
Nativen: Obviously, there's a history of marbled paper in bookbinding. What’s the relationship in your approach between the historical and the contemporary?
Natalie: Well, I love history. Pretty much everybody that's interested in bookbinding has a love of history and historical forms and structures. It's definitely important to keep your own voice and aesthetic and not just mimic the historical patterns. It's too much fun to experiment just to keep re-creating. For instance, I try to meld both European traditions of marbling with influence from Japanese suminagashi.
Nativen: Is there something about living in New York or the West Village neighborhood that you're in, or even being out here in New Jersey, that is integral to the work that you're doing?
Natalie: I meet a lot of interesting people who are pursuing sort of parallel paths in other art forms. I teach a lot at the Textile Arts Center; they have a studio in the West Village and the one in Gowanus. There are so many creative people there. That would be the biggest touchstone for me. Besides that it's not important, really, where I am. I get a lot more influence working upstate or in Massachusetts and foraging for natural dyes. Working in the country is more important than probably being a city dweller.
Nativen: Do you do a lot of foraging now?
Natalie: My fiancé’s family has a place upstate, so I get to go up there and forage for things a lot. It's really fun. I also do all of the natural dying up there and all of the marbling here.
Nativen: Just a couple of rapid-fire questions... Do you have a favorite park or outdoor space?
Natalie: Washington Square Park is great. I also like occasionally taking the water taxi to my studio. It’s so much more refreshing than staying underground.
Nativen: Yeah definitely, that's nice. How about a hidden gem?
Natalie: I don't want to share it.
Nativen: The hard reveal.
Natalie: I don't know. I'm going to have to think about it more. It's unfortunate so many things are closing. But I suppose I’ll go with NY Central. It's hidden in plain sight and my favorite art supply vendor in NYC.
Nativen: Well then... What do you think is the greatest resource for your work in New York City?
Natalie: The material vendors. You can get really specific high-quality amazing materials from these tiny mom and pop shops that have been in Manhattan or in Brooklyn for a generation or two. If they don't have a presence online, you would otherwise have no access. You know you're in, once they learn your name. I feel the same way about my cheesemonger.
Nativen: Do you have a favorite piece that you've created?
Natalie: I have been really enjoying working with the large-scale suminagashi prints. I've been looking a lot at drawing traditions from the East to influence that work. For instance, I’m really enjoying this large-scale suminagashi on fabric, using experimental additives. These are natural dyes that I foraged upstate. It's mostly tree barks printed on silk cotton blend and each one is a mono print just made large.
Nativen: They're gorgeous. What part of the process then do you think brings you the most joy?
Natalie: Getting into the mindset where you can create something. When you get back to a place of naivety. You are in charge of the materials but they are pulling you and you can set up a system where the natural elements and the materials can all express themselves and you’re just sort of a conductor. It has to do with sort of letting go of your preconceived notions of what you want the piece to look like and letting it express itself. That is a moment I am proud of when I can attain it.
Nativen: That's a very rewarding and liberating experience to operate from, I think, when you can sort of touch that zen zone. What do you think is the greatest struggle for you?
Natalie: Probably getting to that place. You start working with all these thoughts and concerns and deadlines. You're going to have to let all of it go or all of your anxiety will come out in your work.
Nativen: Yeah exactly, but what a beautiful relationship there. In order to create your best work you have to be a peaceful and happy person basically.
Natalie: I think it's true, and it's only more recently that I've started realizing that. The things, the pieces that I'm most proud of come from those moments.
There are mundane struggles as well. I'm working with a process that requires some delicate chemistry. It can be really difficult to get the chemistry working in your favor just because of the humidity one day or adulterants or any number of things.
Nativen: One thing you've always wanted to do, but haven't done yet?
Natalie: I have been so interested in and influenced by Japanese textiles recently, but I’ve never been to Japan. That would pretty much be the top of the list.
Nativen: Anywhere in Japan in particular?
Natalie: I haven't allowed myself to research it too much because that is a very expensive daydream to indulge in and get attached to.
Nativen: Do you think traveling to Japan would inspire or alter your work in any way?
Natalie: I think that there are some really practical material considerations that I would love to learn. But I also think that it's a little bit dangerous to have too much knowledge of a tradition that you're playing with, because it becomes precious at that point. If you become tradition-bound, you can't experiment as much. Here, on the other side of the world, I don't have a master or a mentor that's teaching me these things. I'm coming up with it on my own. Right now, it's quite free.
Nativen: Do you have any songs or music on heavy rotation now?
Natalie: Well, the Felice Brothers are my favorite band so that's always good. Today I love 'Lincoln Continental.' I've also been listening a lot to Buke and Gase, 'Hard Times'."
Nativen: What are a couple of words that sum up your work for you?
Natalie: Natural, I guess. I try to keep things natural. Shape is something I play with a lot, even working in two dimensions. It's all about shape.
Nativen: Is there anything you do with your work to specifically connect with your community?
Natalie: The biggest way is my teaching. I teach a lot of classes, which I really enjoy. Teaching, educating people who are already excited about learning the technique. They come with so much curiosity. Ready with questions to ask of me and we get to spend some time together making art. Whether they're artists or novices or they work in a textile industry and they just want to get their hands dirty.
Nativen: What is the most helpful advice you've received or advise that you might give to someone who's looking to pursue their creative dream?
Natalie: Well one of the things that I learned from a teacher of mine is that you have to make something 20 times to understand it. It's really true. Every time you reiterate the process, your understanding of it is exponentially increased. The amount of time it takes is decreased and that has shown itself to be true time and again, so you just have to keep at it.
It's also important to get to the point where you really understand your process so that you can give up a little bit of control over it. Allow your hand to show again. So many artists and artisans are initially focused on making something that's perfect and they can't let go of that, but if you can allow your hand to show, then it's a much more interesting object at the end of the day.
Nativen: Absolutely. It's a personal object that you can connect to. Do you have a hero or maybe someone who's helped influence your work?
Natalie: I guess you could say Don Guyot is someone who has written a lot about marbling, both in the European tradition and in the Japanese tradition. He has made that information available to a whole new generation of people that might not have had access to the information.
Nativen: If you weren't pursuing book arts as a career, what do you think you would be doing?
Natalie: Maybe I would be an historian. Yeah, another bookish trade. I really love history. I listened to history podcasts the whole time while I'm working pretty much.
Nativen: What are three objects you can't live without?
Natalie: I'm very attached to my sewing machine. It’s been in my family for a long time. Any bookbinder would also say their bone folder... There's just so many...
Nativen: It can be from your personal life, too.
Natalie: Then cheese, obviously.
Interview By: Lily Hetzler
Photos By: Ethan Covey
Edited by: Kristin Knox (This interview has been condensed & edited
all images copyright of Nativen