“Humour has the ability to make the unthinkable easier to process”: meet tapestry artist Kayla Mattes

Introduced to the medium of tapestry while studying textiles at Rhode Island School of Design, artist Kayla now utilises the form to comment on the trials and tribulations of society.

19 March 2020


Tapestry artist Kayla Mattes, whose work often looks at the wider world and the way we discuss it digitally, has noticed something specific about internet culture’s fondness of cats. Across social media, many meme fans will notice that cats are used in a variety of ways, leading these furry creatures to have a variety of roles and representations in society. The artist realised: “Cats have this incredible power on the internet,” she tells It’s Nice That, “to disseminate information through memes, and Instagram fame.”

This realisation led Kayla to consider the possibility of making a series of “cat-centric” works, a project which would be the next step in her work utilising tapestry “as a means to slow down and archive the chaos of the present moment, in regards to digital consumption, climate change and socio-political issues,” she explains. In turn, the series represents “the catastrophic result of human’s ecological impact on Earth from the perspective of cats.” The results, which are in equal parts alarming and hilarious, feature a whole troop of feline friends, some who are angry or frustrated, maybe nervous, and often “travelling in packs, kind of like protestors,” she points out.

Settling on cats as an area to represent these themes in her work, Kayla also begun to think about the representation of cats in relation to femininity too, “especially when explored through a historically feminised medium, like weaving,” she tells us. “We can look at cat-lady stereotypes, witches, and even language like ‘cat-calling’ and ‘pussy’ and note that there’s this cultural connection between women and cats.” Diving deeper, the artist also points out how there is often “this socially accepted disdain for cats, something that isn’t permitted with dogs,” she says. “Cats are gendered as female and dogs are gendered as male.” Consequently, this adds a whole other level to Kayla’s brilliant pieces which, “in the context of the work” represent marginalised voices, “especially since weaving has a history of being used by women as a political tool.”

Viewers of Kayla’s Cat-astrophe will begin to unpack the nuanced ideas which fill the artist’s work upon further inspection, but the immediate element which draws audiences in is her use of humour. The first to admit this, Kayla explains that the level of humour within her work demonstrates a personal interest in “what happens when comedy and tragedy intersect,” she says. “Humour has the ability to make the unthinkable easier to process.” And in this case: “The cats provide that outlet.”

Outside of the immediate use of cats in the series however, it’s also Kayla’s approach to naming the works which has had us cracking up with laughter. A self-described “strategic decision to title the works in LOL-cat speak to frame each scene with a cat's voice to amp up the humour,” examples include: HALP! TEH HOUSE IZ ON FYRE! (“a reference to Greta Thunberg’s iconic message”) and wut will they fed us when all teh fishes r gone? Compositionally, these pieces act differently depending on the comment Kayla is making. Some pieces are “intimate honed-in scenes of perilous situations that the cats are attempting to navigate” for instance.


Kayla Mattes: Cat-astrophe

Making these works, and the statements attached to them, via the medium of handwoven tapestries is a process Kayla describes as “crucial to the work”. Originally introduced to her practice while studying her undergraduate degree in textiles at Rhode Island School of Design, initially, Kayla worked with both a mix of traditional and contemporary textile processes. “In the first year I was literally given a raw fleece straight from the sheep that I had to card by hand and spin into wool,” she recalls.

This then led to other forms, such as programming weave structures in jacquard software. This stark contrast has formed much of the artist’s creative interest now, especially around “the unexpected relationship between an ancient material tradition and computing.” It was also during this programme that Kayla was introduced specifically to floor looms, the process she uses in her studio today. An alternate process which “is different from structure-based weaving where you’re using variations of treading sequences”, tapestry allows “a fluid yet systematic process,” the artist describes. “You’re not bound to the looms algorithms, so you can work really graphically. This is how I make my tapestries.”

In relation to her Cat-astrophe series in particular, certain methods Kayla adopted were heavily considered in the planning of the series. For instance, “rather than adding pigmented material to a surface, I’m drawing from the narrative and technological history of tapestry weaving,” the artist describes, noting how this approach displays an interest “in slowing down chaos through tangible material”. Other details demonstrating Kayla’s immense attention to detail include the fact that she also dip-dyes her wool used in the backgrounds of pieces, such as in grass, “to create this distorted pixel effect that brings the material back to the screen.”

Following an exhibit of these works at Richard Heller Gallery in Los Angeles at the end of last year, Kayla is currently working out new ways to continue the series. Also in research mode for a series which will jump out of this cat realm, the artist’s work feels more vital than ever due to the current Covid-19 crisis. “Especially now with the coronavirus spreading, I’ve been thinking about the parallels between the medieval era and contemporary culture,” Kayla tells us of future plans. Looking to medieval tapestries such as the Apocalypse Tapestry from France and the Bayeux Tapestry, these pieces “offer a starting point for me to create narratives and compositions that reflect the issues of the moment, while also building off of tapestry tradition.” And, with Kayla utilising humour to make the incomprehensible easier to compartmentalise, her work might be just what we need.

GalleryKayla Mattes: Cat-astrophe

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Kayla Mattes: Cat-astrophe

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.


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