How did you first discover your talent for art, and specifically quilting?

I grew up really close with my grandmother, and she was into crochet. She worked quickly—so that was kind of fascinating to me as a six- or seven-year-old. I wanted to be her little helper, so I would sit there with a ball of yarn and watch her, and that turned into her showing me how to crochet. I made some blankets for her church, and just sort of naturally through YouTube, I was looking up some other techniques. As the YouTube rabbit hole works, I landed on quilting, and I really loved watching it—it was just a whole new field. So I had to explore that. I got a sewing machine and got into replicating what I would see online, and I was about eight or nine when I got my first sewing machine. So I kind of went from there, and then my neighbor donated me their sewing machine, and that’s the machine that grew up with me and created all of the pieces [from my series].

Can you tell me about the inspiration for your series, “A Walk in Their Shoes”?

I found the artwork of Bisa Butler, and I was completely blown away that you could create these sort of photorealistic portraits using fabric, so I created a piece that was about a collective American identity for [my American studies] class, and it was successful.

Quilting, especially in the South, is an interesting medium that is kind of disarming because a lot of people have intimate relationships with quilts, or people in their family have heirlooms with quilts, so there’s fond memories there. If you can tie those fond memories to real people, then you can start to have sort of an unarmed conversation about empathy and people.

I was really moved by the January 6th events, the BLM Movement, these sorts of things—I kind of felt frustrated, especially being confined at home second semester, I couldn’t really contribute or do anything about it. But there was clearly an empathy problem—people were seeing others as the issues that they discuss, not as people with stories that are complicated and the reasons behind why they may feel a certain type of way about an issue. And that goes for both sides of any issue, and so I wanted to sort of attack this empathy problem and be able to highlight people as three dimensional, textured, and full of emotion, and not just an idea—not just seeing someone as a BLM Movement poster, but as a real human who has experienced real things. I had some people in mind that I thought I’d highlight, so I started there.

Did you base your works on real people and their actual stories and experiences?

These were real people that I had interacted with. There’s not a lack of amazing or interesting people that have experienced a lot, but I knew these people, and I had about three in mind to start with and I thought that their stories were very distinct from one another. Those were the first three pieces I did, so I sat down and interviewed these people—because I knew something, but I didn’t know everything. I interviewed all of them for like an hour and a half, and just kind of sat there trying to be like the photographer; maybe change the lighting or the angle, but just take the picture and sort of remove that bias. It was a lot of listening.

Did you expect to receive the Gold Medal award?

With this portfolio, I don’t think anyone expects to win something like that because of how difficult it is and how there’s so many talented, wonderful people who submit, but I think I had a sort of newfound appreciation for the work that I had done, and based off that first piece, was able to be like, ‘If I put my mind to it and do my best effort, I have a chance.’ 

How was the experience of meeting the other Gold Medal award winners in Carnegie Hall?

It was cool. I mean, you see their work online and we had some zoom sessions as well, but to see them in person, and see what they were doing—there was someone who developed photographs on leaves—it was so cool. You get to talk to them about it and see what they’re doing—one of them’s going to fashion school in Paris. They’re kids, just like me. We’re all kind of the same, but we do really cool, different things. It was really wonderful to be in a place where you could sit down and pick their brain about things or see what they’re working on or hear what’s next for them—and just sort of have people like you.

What’s next for you? Will you continue to pursue your passion for art and quilting as you look ahead into college?

I have an art instagram @officialmacbarnes, I’m trying to try to share it with other people and develop that. Since the piece, I’ve done a commission piece for the Morganton campus, and I’m going to Washington University in St. Louis in the Fall where I’m going to try to double major with textile art and computer science—because there’s a connection there. A lot of my works used computer science or computer programming to get them completed, and to tell that story in a more interesting and communicative way. I really want to continue [with that], WashU has a wonderful art department and computer science department, and faculty who do research in both fields. I think textiles are an amazing way to tell stories, and I want to continue telling those stories in any artistic or computer science way that I can.

Is there anything else you want to share about your art?

I think STEM has a place in the arts and that creativity, as a methodology—I think people like to group it with the arts, but it really is a skill that is used in every single field, especially computer science. For example, the embroidery on one of the quilts was the handwriting of the actual individual, and turning that into embroidery on a quilt that size was a huge engineering and computer science and software problem that no one really sees. They only see the embroidery. Sometimes with my work, people see it as strictly art, which is wonderful, but I think there’s a whole other narrative there. There’s the people, but then there’s the process—and I think that gets missed sometimes, and if incorporated, that could really help people realize that you don’t have to choose art or science, you can blend the two. 

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