story and photos by Ellis Anderson//
A show of recent work by Bay St. Louis artist Kerr Grabowski opened at Smith & Lens Gallery in May. If you missed it, you’ll have opportunity this fall to see her work in another gallery…in Australia.
Grabowski is something of a legend in the international world of fiber art, having pioneered techniques that have people flying her in to teach in places like Australia and New Zealand, Chicago and Los Angeles.
She’s also taught on the university level. Her work has shown in top galleries around the country, garnering favorable reviews from art critics. The New York Times has even written about Grabowski three times.
For most of this stellar career, Grabowski created wearable art — painting, printing and dyeing fabric that was then used to construct high fashion, one-of-a-kind garments. Grabowski’s show-stopping silk kimonos might retail for thousands of dollars in a metropolitan gallery. Since the pieces were naturally limited in production, they became highly sought after by serious fashionistas. None of this acclaim has gone to the artist’s head.
“I’ve just happened to be at the right place, at the right time,” she says.
Now, Grabowski is moving into fine art, utilizing those same unique techniques to create wall hangings and paintings that can be framed. She finds the new work challenging but exciting, saying that she can “play with them more, take them further.”
But she’s still motivated by the same passion she’s had since she was a child, the love of a beautiful mark.
“One tiny mark can be the most beautiful, eloquent line,” Grabowski says. “My brain synthesizes the world through making marks. It’s the way I try to make sense of things.”
She started making her marks early, in Jasper, Alabama, in the hill country north of Birmingham. Recognizing her talent early on, her parents signed her up for art classes, but in a bizarre effort to impress Grabowski’s parents and keep the lessons going, the art teacher would paint over each of her works. The experience almost turned Grabowski against art altogether.
The family moved to Gulfport, where she continued pursuing that eloquent line in high school. After graduation, her parents convinced her that making a living with art was unrealistic, so she headed off to college majoring in chemistry and biology, first at Mississippi University for Women and then Mississippi State.
Leaving school to become a wife and mother, Grabowski began painting children’s furniture and purses. Her success convinced her to return to college, this time for art. After she obtained her degree from Delta State, the young family moved back to the Coast. She began drawing late at night, then focusing on batik, an ancient method of using wax and dye to produce designs on cloth.
Divorcing when her daughter, Crawford, was six, Grabowski had $200 in the bank when she decided to start selling her work at craft shows to pay the bills. She traveled to regional shows in a 1958 VW van that could “only go for about four hours without breaking down.” When Crawford had sleepovers, Grabowski would enlist (and pay) the children to help iron and sew.
The business grew, and so did Grabowski’s skills. With a more reliable vehicle, she was able to show at crafts venues in the northeast. It turned out to be an enormous asset that she’d been working on the Mississippi Coast, where fiber artists who might have influenced her work were rare. In the Northeast, where fine crafts were sought after and revered, she realized that her work and the some of the techniques she’d developed were unique.
Grabowski hired assistants and purchased a studio in Pass Christian. By the mid-80s, she’d become a shoo-in for highly competitive shows featuring the top craftspeople in the country like the Smithsonian. Gallery owners across the country snapped up her work.
She’d been considering moving to the Northeast when she was offered a position as head of the fiber program at the prestigious Peter’s Valley Crafts Center on the Delaware River in New Jersey.
“I felt immediately at home in those woods,” Grabowski says. “The rock formations and the forests seemed just like the ones I’d loved as a child in Huntsville. It turns out they’re both bookends of the Appalachian Mountains. The job was for three years. I stayed for nine. I did a lot of adjunct teaching in the surrounding universities during that time.”
In the mid-90s she purchased a derelict historic building in downtown Sussex, New Jersey, 60 miles from New York City. She rehabbed the bottom floor, and it served as her gallery, studio and living space.
She continued teaching, extending her range exponentially in 2007 when she made a DVD demonstrating her signature deconstructed screen-printing technique. The DVD sold internationally, and the invitations to teach outside the country began arriving regularly.
But her granddaughter was born in Jackson, Miss., that same year, and Grabowski began to feel the tug to return to the South. Artist friends, including Vicki Niolet, Kat Fitzpatrick, J.J. Foley, John McKellar and Bill Myers all urged her to move back.
In 2010, she found the perfect house on Keller Street in Bay St. Louis. With an original historic cottage and a small contemporary guesthouse, it provided ample space for both home and studio. The guesthouse had been renovated, but the restoration of the 1920s cottage had stopped mid-stream. After its purchase, she flew back and forth to supervise the construction. When it was completed in 2011, Kerr moved to Bay St. Louis full time.
“I love the vibe here,” she says. “I can sit on my porch, or walk over to the Mockingbird [Café] and meet friends and have coffee. There’s a wonderful energy in this town. And the arts scene across the whole Mississippi Coast is really taking off.”
Soon, locals interested in learning from Grabowski won’t have to fly to Australia to take one of her classes. She’ll be offering instruction at the new Bay Creative Arts Center later this year.