Cat Babbie’s artwork is as warm and soft as the afternoon sunshine in the spring.
Cat moved to North Carolina over a decade ago. She now works in her studio at the VAPA Center.
Cat describes herself as an abstract textile artist. She enjoys the freedom that abstract gives her and the endless avenue it provides to play with color.
Her love for textiles is expressed in a variety of forms: tuffing, felted sculptures, weaving and sewing. As long as it’s an art form that’s textile-related, she is interested in it.
Among the many obsessions of textile art, her favorite is machine tufting – using a yarn-fed power tool called tufting gun to create wall pillows and soft sculptures with hand-dyed wool.
The dye pot is where she fell in love with the world of textiles.
To her, dyeing yarn for tufting is like mixing colors for painting. She has to think in a way like solving a puzzle because it’s not possible to layer the colors on top of one another like in painting. Linear thinking is required when creating a tufted art. For each piece she creates, it’s like solving a puzzle that she doesn’t have a reference photo for, and this is what draws her interest.
“The color creation is what moves me to create,” she said.
This process is one of her favorites when creating an art piece. It provides subtleties and variations that cannot be found in commercially dyed yarn and can help her add more depth to her works.
For example, in her recent tufting series, “Future: Movement,” Cat noted, “Commercial blue is blue; my blue is aqua, robin’s egg blue, the first blue in the morning, all in one hank of yarn.”
In Cat’s hand-dyed wool, some colors come out so well that they are good enough to stand on their own and be celebrated in small works. They would then be hung together like map pins, vibrant and full of liveliness. Other colors form larger skyscapes, and become echoes of wayfinding through memories and dreams.
What’s more sentimental about textile and fiber arts is the comfort and coziness they bring to the environment they are in. When displayed, the pieces soften the space and invite the viewers to come closer.
Having always been wanting to create artwork that are immediately approachable and comforting, Cat is very happy to have fabric as her primary medium.
She describes tufting arts as “both soft and structured,” being able to “balance the tension between wanting to touch the artwork while knowing it is against ‘The Rules.'”
Fabric is something that we interact with every day – we wear clothes, we sit on the car seats, we walk on rugs; so when people see Cat’s work, there is a tension built when they eagerly want to touch the work, while knowing it’s not allowed. This interaction is very interesting and exciting to Cat, and is one of the biggest motives for her to create.
Although the main ideas are similar, the process of creating a tufted art piece is very different from painting. Either before or after she starts dyeing the yarn, the designs for the tufts are often sketched out loosely in watercolors.
Cat said although she goes off script a lot, the watercolor sketches help her get the colors in her head. If she is working with an odd shape, she would create a paper pattern to make sure she is tufting in the right direction.
Like a painter using canvases to paint, Cat uses backing cloth that’s made for tufting and stretches it across custom wood panels using carpet tacking. The panels, like our bones, are the invisible support for each piece.
After everything is ready, it’s time to start tufting using the tufting gun. It must be very relaxing, I think, to see the beautiful colors bloom on the plain cloth that’s in front of you, and immerse yourself in the white created by the tufting noise gun.
Nowadays, a lot of tufts and patches from gift shops are mass produced using computer programming and machines. In the age of mass production, Cat thinks the purpose of hand-making lies in the act itself.
“I think making things by hand, particularly textiles, is an immediate reminder to me that we are all human, and we need to slow down,” she said.
Handmade crafts are not as perfect as those that are machine-produced, but this shows how we as humans are imperfect in our special way, which makes each of us a unique individual. In modern society, where people move so fast, the act of hand-making a craft is almost like meditating, a conversation with your own soul.
My favorite series that Cat created is her cocoon series. Each of the cocoons is so unique and delicate, and even has its own name. They are her deeply intuitive pieces, and each title is a reflection of her thoughts and emotions while she was making it.
She said, “The cocoons are deeply imbued with a sense of safety, and each of the cocoon pieces I made is sometimes a reminder of being protected.”
The commission for a personalized cocoon is opened, and Cat would ask about the intention or emotions her client wants her to think about while working on it. They are special and personal pieces to both Cat and her clients.
Sometimes I would want to squeeze myself in a cocoon and be hugged by the thin wall of the tight space when I feel tired or sad. Cat agrees with me. She is dying for a chance to make a cocoon that’s big enough for people to sit in.
When talking about her journey as an artist, she said, “I’ve been an artist all my life. I’ve always been creative in an art-making sense, and I don’t remember having a moment of ‘NOW I want to be an artist,’ art making has been a constant friend.”
As a kid, Cat loved to make art and crafts in her free time, and the experience of being able to interact with working artists at a young age also inspired her to become an artist herself.
Looking back at some of her childhood pieces, she is surprised how they connect to her works now as an adult. Big swaths of colors and patterns have always been in her creative journey ever since she was little.
After studying studio art and art history at James Madison University in Virginia, Cat spent a while trying to figure out what field of art she wanted to go into. At first, she thought she would be a potter for the rest of her life. Although she later realized that pottery wasn’t for her, she said she didn’t regret all this, since learning different art forms helped her become the artist she is today.
If Cat has to describe her relationship with art in one word, it would be “constant.”
“It’s always there,” she said. “It’s always something I think about and return to.”
Cat doesn’t always have as much time as a full-time artist to work on her art since she has to balance a full-time job on top of her art, but art always gives her inner peace whenever she needs it. She told me that having a full-time job takes away the pressure off of the feeling that “I have to sell art” and the pressure of creating art for other people rather than herself. Having her bills paid means she can focus on her art with a pure passion without worrying about anything else.
“It almost makes it more exciting when I do sell my art because it’s not my sole means of survival,” she said. “As frustrating as it can be to not be able to work on my art full time, it does give me a lot of ease and relaxation while making art.”
Want to learn more?
You can see all Cat Babbie’s work online at www.catbabbie.com or see in-progress photos at @catbmakes on Instagram. She is always interested in taking commissions and working with people.