The Beauty of Life and the Beauty of Decay: Interview with Artist Kamila Mlynarczyk

20 October 2021
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Ad featuring a mocked up cover of a book called Quilting, and the words "Essays and exercises for creative exploration. Back the book on Kickstarter from Nine Ten Publications."

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I recently backed a Kickstarter for an art book by an artist who used to make macabre dolls and now focuses on drawing. I was immediately moved by Kamila Mlynarczyk’s work because I, too, have spent a fair chunk of my creative life exploring the juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness.

I was excited to see how the artist and her publisher are crowdfunding this book, so much so that I reached out to Eye of Newt to see if they’d chat with me, one tiny, Canadian niche publisher to another. After the ensuing conversation, I had the very obvious epiphany that their author has used textiles extensively in her art, and I publish pieces about textiles for a living, so I asked my new contact at Eye of Newt to introduce me to the Kamila. My job is to ask an expert why lace can be so creepy, and that is but one of many reasons I love going to work.

Perfect for this time of year leading up to Hallowe’en, below is an email interview with artist and author Kamila Mlynarczyk (edited mildly for clarity and style).

Kim Werker: Tell me a bit about your background—what drew you to making art dolls (and macabre ones at that) and using the mediums you’ve worked in? What more recently led you to shift more into drawing?

Kamila Mlynarczyk: I have drawn from an early age, really as far back as I can remember. I’ve often used it as a coping mechanism, from immigrating to Canada as a child, all the way through to battling depression and difficult times in adulthood. I attended Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) in Toronto in the early 2000s, graduated with a bachelor of design and promptly swore off of drawing from the burnout of creativity in art school. That is when I turned to art dolls, I fell in love with them from the images I had found on the internet and threw myself into creating them with no experience with sculpting or sewing. I had never worked with fabric a day in my life and was hard-pressed to even sew a missing button on an old coat.

image description: a small handmade doll, held in the artist hand

So as I learned sculpting, I realized I would also need to learn to choose fabric, learn what to say to the seasoned ladies at the fabric store without looking too much like a crazy fool and yes, learn to actually sew as well! Over the next six or seven years I learned to sew, not from anyone in my life or any particularly good tutorials or classes but in my own haphazard way, and by the end of my doll-making phase I think I did well. I taught myself enough to achieve my vision for each doll I created and their outfits ended up being just as important as the sculpting in terms of telling their story.

I found my way back to drawing after it stopped making me feel neurotic and ended up facilitating letting me share my own feelings and where I was in my life a lot easier, and less time-consuming than creating a whole doll, days and days of work stretching into the late hours of the night. 

image description: a handmade doll on a stand in front of a tree

KW: While the dolls themselves were not made of textiles (correct me if I’m wrong!), the clothes they wear seem just as important to their character as their sculpted faces. What is it about lace, specifically, that makes it the perfect thing for conveying creepiness?

KM: Lace is absolute magic to me; it is the perfect expression of age and delicateness that I wanted my dolls adorned with. Most of my dolls were not modern—they were from periods of time where lace was more treasured and special. It only made sense to use that material to me. Also I wanted my art dolls to look well loved, battered, old but timeless—I can’t imagine a better detail to use. As for creepiness, lace has long been used as a trope in drawings, books and now modern horror movies to convey something special, on something dead or ghastly or ghostly. It has an ethereal elegance to it that we also want our ghouls to have, to juxtapose the beauty with the decay.

KW: Speaking of doll clothing and lace, where did you find your materials? Did you make them yourself? Did you distress them yourself?

KM: Well, we’ve established that I did not know a thing about fabric, but lace is accessible to even the most clueless traveller to the fabric store, and then I learned about eBay, buying huge lots of different scraps of the stuff and hoping for the best, and finally the most coveted thing in the art doll world: a really beautiful and fingers-crossed affordable old christening gown—the older the better!

I never actually dared to make lace myself. I remember attempting embroidery once but it ended up thrown to the other side of the room in frustration. I learned about distressing fabric and laces after I had gone to my first art doll convention and got a real-life look at some of the creations by the masters who had been making them for far longer than I had at that point. As I admired the works on display I often had a chance to pick the brain of the artists, and found out that you can actually sand, tea-stain and dry brush fabric to appear more haunted. Definitely a look I was going for. So like artists before me, I learned from the masters.

KW: Now that you’re mostly focusing on drawing, have you found that the clothing of the creatures you draw is as important as it was when you were making 3D art dolls? How do you approach drawing the textures and character of the textiles in your artwork?

KM: I don’t think I would be the artist I am today without taking that extended leave from 2D art to traverse around and learn new skills in the 3D world. When I came back to drawing I did so not even realizing that all of a sudden I knew a thing or two more than I had known about textures, how fabric lays, the way garments are constructed and therefore how to make my drawings more believable, but at the same time causal and effortless and a little more graceful than before. Now I really relish spending a lot of time on the fabrics. There’s nothing more I I love in the world than spending an extra hour designing and rendering a big complicated many-patterned quilt adorning a little tired ghoul in bed (representative of me, haha).

image description: a handmade doll beside a sketchbook showing its likeness drawn in pencil

KW: There’s a lot of tension in your work—between monstrosity and lovability, horror and playfulness, art-school art and not-art-school art. What role do these kinds of tensions play in what you create?

KM: I think a lot of people are only given permission to be one thing without exploring the opposite thing that will surely surface in themselves and around themselves. Why is a flower acceptable to admire and render as beautiful without also looking at the so called “ugliness” of the decay of that flower? Or the beauty of ourselves in the height of our lives without also exploring the aging, the degrading, the subsequent decay that follows. They are both parts of us and I refuse to call it ugliness, or lesser than the ideal. I refuse to see it as taboo or negative; I think it is beautiful and just as valid and just a part of our experience in this world. I find drawing these dualities, these tensions, very cathartic for myself and I’ve been told many times for others as well. For me it’s all about the beauty of life and the beauty of decay all while celebrating the joy of it all.

KW: The book you’ve written is part memoir, part art retrospective. Tell me a bit about it, and about how you’re working to fund its creation.

KM: When I was originally approached by the publisher I thought we would be doing just a simple art book: pictures, title, that’s it. But they described to me in the first meeting how I would go through rigorous, year-long conversation interviews. And of course I said yes, because my dream was to have an art book of my own and I would jump through any hoop to get it. But through the process I realized that maybe they were on to something and we could create something a lot more special than just a book dump of all my images. I ended up with a lot to say despite me being a self-proclaimed introvert who hated talking, and especially hated talking about my work. My motto was that the picture speaks for itself, and while I still think that is the case, I do appreciate that they picked my brain and my fans or just anyone who picks up the book can have a bit more insight into the monster that actually drew all those pictures and what kind of person I am outside of the page.

image description: the cover of the author's new book

Currently, we are near the end of a Kickstarter campaign for I can be myself when everyone I know is dead… That also took me a lot of convincing to participate in. I was worried about the stress and it interfering with my creative flow, and while I was painfully right about the stress, I have found it to be exciting, an emotional rollercoaster from day to day and it’s actually made me more creative on the other side of things, the business side that I usually shy away from like a ‘50s housewife on a chair with a mouse running around, but that I actually need to address and learn some things about. I am very excited about all the preorders that have been placed!

image description: the artist's book, open to a double spread of drawings of people

Art images courtesy of Kamila Mlynarczyk. Book cover and spread mock-ups courtesy of Eye of Newt Books.

Digits & Threads Is a Member-Supported Independent Online Magazine

The articles, tutorials and patterns we publish about Canadian fibre and textile arts, crafts and industry are made possible by our members.

Copyright © Kim Werker except as indicated.

About Kim Werker

Kim Werker (she/her) is a co-founder and publisher at Digits & Threads and Nine Ten Publications. She has worked in the crafts industry in one way or another since 2004 as an editor, writer, instructor and speaker. She's authored six books about crochet and one about making ugly things on purpose as a creativity exercise. Kim lives in Vancouver, BC, with her husband and son, and their mutt who's named after a tree.

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