Queer Fiber Artist Katy Batsel Creates Safe Spaces, One Stitch at a Time

Katy Batsel, "Witch Banner."
Katy Batsel, "Witch Banner." Katy Batsel, photo by Enoved Studios
Katy Batsel is a dreamer wielding needle and thread to imagine a better world for herself and her queer community. As a member of the like-minded Secret Love Collective, she encourages the disenfranchised to step out of their world, try on identities and find new ways to live life. But her fiber works on their own can still be big and funny, cheeky, heavy with subtle memories and loud with slogans, ready for a parade, and evidence of a massive imagination.

What fires Batsel’s message? The artist tells all as she answers the Colorado Creatives questionnaire.

Westword: What (or who) is your creative muse?

Katy Batsel: I draw a lot of inspiration from the world-building inherent in DIY culture, as well as different science-fiction perceptions of different worlds. I’m always trying to envision a better future, which for me personally has a lot of roots in radical politics and, specifically, anarchism. What I want to do in my work is to take a playful approach to world-building.

I also take a lot of inspiration through processing memory and the narratives we tell about ourselves. In my work I try to both build new possibilities of existence as well as celebrating what already exists. In this way, I get a lot of inspiration from the community around me and from my significant relationships.

In terms of specific art inspiration, definitely I’ve been drawing a lot from Jim Henson for my puppetry, as well as the history of puppets in protest art. In a lot of my work, I’m trying to make something weird and unusual and celebratory. A lot of protest art is, as expected, kind of dark: effigies of what’s being protested against, and that kind of thing. In my work, I’m trying to capture something worth fighting for.

There are a lot of text artists I get inspiration from, as well. I love Tracey Emin’s quilt series and all of Jenny Holzer’s work. It took me a while to get confident about putting my own words on my art, but I feel like I’ve gotten there.

Which three people, dead or alive, would you like to invite to your next party, and why?

On that science-fiction bent, I’m going to go with Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler and adrienne maree brown. Speculative fiction is an important building block for me on thinking through what other forms or existence can look like. I’ve loved Ursula Le Guin’s work since college, and it’s been very formative to my way of thinking about the world. I love her perspective on human nature being essentially very flexible, and the ways she uses her work to explore different worlds. I read Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Kindred and Lilith’s Brood for the first time while in quarantine. Lilith’s Brood was probably my favorite of those; I’d recommend it for anyone looking for some sci-fi escapism that also makes you think about the nature of being human.

I love adrienne maree brown’s work of similarly taking inspiration from these authors and using their work to explore better ways of being in relationship to each other and to the world. The podcast she does with her sister Autumn Brown, How to Survive the End of the World, is incredible. It feels both practically useful and comforting to listen to, the latter of which I think is a huge accomplishment — with a name like How to Survive the End of the World. Ultimately, I’m just trying to continue the work of envisioning creative solutions to create new realities.
click to enlarge Katy Batsel, Piper Rose and Lares Feliciano of the Secret Love Collective dress up for a selfie. - SUSAN FROYD
Katy Batsel, Piper Rose and Lares Feliciano of the Secret Love Collective dress up for a selfie.
Susan Froyd
What made you pick up a needle and thread as your creative medium in the first place?

I actually can’t remember when I first learned how to sew — I was a little kid. My family, especially my mom, always encouraged me to pursue creative projects. For a long time, I conceptualized myself more as a crafter than an artist. I’m almost entirely self-taught in most of what I do — skills like knitting, embroidery and weaving, I picked up because there was a specific project I wanted to do.

Making art and crafting is my way of moving through the world and processing existence. A lot of what I do is portable and allows for easy multi-tasking. Constantly working on a project helps me feel grounded. I find I tend to gravitate toward the kind of project that involves mostly initial planning, then a lot of somewhat mindless work. I think being able to turn off my brain a little and zone out into making art is what feels best and comfortable to me.

I started conceptualizing myself more as an artist in the time I’ve lived in Denver. I think the distinction between art and craft can be arbitrary, and there’s definitely some weird gendered stuff, with women’s art more likely to be considered craft than art. For me, the work that I define more as art rather than craft, I’ve made with a purpose or a story I’m trying to tell, but before I had the opportunity and space, I’d mainly work on crafts just for me, usually wearable stuff. I still like doing that every now and then, and love projects that are both functional and make a statement. Art and craft is ultimately just another false binary, I guess.

How does art and creativity promote activism and change? Do you see this aspect of art as a necessary practice in 2021?

For me, art and creativity are both great access points for imagining different worlds. I think making art can be an access point to tapping into the radical imagination that allows space to think of new possibilities.

Some of the most powerful ways I see art tie into activism has to do with carving a space for your own experiences to be recognized and using art as a form of healing. As a queer person, I think a lot about art made during the AIDS crisis and how powerful that public grief is. There’s a couple of Felix Gonzalez-Torres works that I think about all the time — “Untitled (Perfect Lovers),” with the two synchronized clocks, and “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA),” where a pile of candy is placed in an exhibition depicting the weight of his lover, and viewers can take candy away. I think both are strong examples of addressing impermanence and grief.

Ultimately, I think there will always be room for this aspect of art. Art is, for me, a way of processing human existence, and part of that processing should be working toward a better future.
click to enlarge Katy Batsel's "Squidney" puppet. - KATY BATSEL, PHOTO BY RICHARD ROMERO
Katy Batsel's "Squidney" puppet.
Katy Batsel, photo by Richard Romero
What’s your dream project?

I’d love more opportunities to work in large-scale soft sculpture! I had an opportunity to do this for the first time at my residency with PlatteForum, where I built "Mama," who I usually describe as friend, puppet and furniture. I’m confined a lot by space, as I’m usually working out of my bedroom, so any opportunity to create something larger is exciting for me. I also love unconventional DIY opportunities for showing art. A few years ago I did an installation and performance in an empty house to celebrate the space, and that was one of my favorite art opportunities I’ve had.

Denver (or Colorado), love it or leave it? What keeps you here — or makes you want to leave?

I feel like I have a strong sense of community in Denver, which is amazing! Also the weather is incredible, and I feel so lucky to be close to so many beautiful places. I moved to town on a whim. When I finished college, I did a year of AmeriCorps in Kansas City, and then I decided to move to Denver. I feel so appreciative of the people I’ve met!

Working with the Secret Love Collective over the past few years has been extremely influential on me as an artist. I have a really strong devotion to my house, too. I’ve been living in the same house for the entire time I’ve lived in Denver. Its name is the Bogden, and I feel spiritually fused to it. I really love my roommates, and I feel truly grateful to be trapped with them in these pandemic times.

While I think ultimately I’ll return to Denver, I’ve been talking with some friends about moving to New Orleans for a while. The one struggle I have living out here that is it’s so far from my family, who are all in the South, so it would nice to be closer to them. I think a lot about parades, and I feel like New Orleans really understands a parade. But I definitely can’t picture leaving forever, so I always think I’ll go away and eventually return.
click to enlarge Katy Batsel, “March 21, 2016,” embroidery on cloth. - KATY BATSEL, PHOTO BY ALEJANDRA RODRIGUEZ
Katy Batsel, “March 21, 2016,” embroidery on cloth.
Katy Batsel, photo by Alejandra Rodriguez
Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?

I’m going to cheat and give you a lot of names! I’m always excited to see what the other artists I’ve worked with in Secret Love are up to, particularly Frankie Toan, Katy Zimmerman and Lares Feliciano. I connect really intuitively to Frankie’s work as a fellow fiber artist who loves similar symbols. I’ve really been loving Katy Zimmerman’s papier-mâché work, and I’m very excited for the Rainbow Dome project she’s been scheming with Frankie. Lares is an all-time fave of mine, and I’ve been loving seeing what she’s been coming up with recently on healing and grief.

I always love to see what Nicole Banowetz is up to. I love what she’s doing in bringing inflatables to the people! Moe Gram is another artist I love — basically all of her work. I love her aesthetic so much, and it’s always cool to see what she’s up to. I also am continuously inspired by Alex Fiedler, who is such a talented artist and musician.

What's on your agenda now and in the coming year?

Right now I’m spending a lot of time getting ready for my upcoming Untitled event at the Denver Art Museum with Chris Bagley at the end of April! Our theme is "Show & Tell," and I’ve been working on a lot of wild wearables for it — both embroidered clothing and some big freaky head masks.

I’m not totally sure what I’ll be working on after that’s done. I’ve been conceptualizing making a quilt for my house for a while; I’ve got a lot of embroideries I’ve made of events that took place in my house. I love the idea of a commemorative punk-house quilt. My house is really special to me!
click to enlarge Katy Batsel's "Strike Cat" puppet. - KATY BATSEL, PHOTO BY RICHARD ROMERO
Katy Batsel's "Strike Cat" puppet.
Katy Batsel, photo by Richard Romero
Who do you think will (or should) get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?

I’ve been really excited to see what Narkita Gold has been up to, and I’m glad to see her getting more attention! I’d definitely recommend checking out her Black in Denver portrait and interview series.

Katy Batsel and Chris Bagley host Untitled: Creative Fusions at Home, with help from influencer/performance artist Quarantina, a puppet created by Batsel and voiced by Jessica Robblee, and a crew of local contributing creatives on Friday, April 30, from 7 to 8 p.m. The free event, livestreamed by the Denver Art Museum on Facebook and YouTube, is inspired by the theme of Show & Tell and the current DAM exhibition Paris to Hollywood: The Fashion and Influence of Véronique and Gregory Peck.

Follow Katy Batsel and her work at her website.
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Susan Froyd started writing for Westword as the "Thrills" editor in 1992 and never quite left the fold. These days she still freelances for the paper in addition to walking her dogs, enjoying cheap ethnic food and reading voraciously. Sometimes she writes poetry.
Contact: Susan Froyd