China Marks

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China Marks (born 1942, Kansas City, Missouri) is an American artist creating process-directed sewn drawings and one-of-a-kind books.


Marks earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Sculpture from the Kansas City Art Institute and a Master of Fine Arts in Sculpture from Washington University in St. Louis.



From the 1970s through the early 1980s, Marks, though trained and working primarily as a sculptor, embraced drawing, painting, and printmaking as well. A fellowship at the Center of Innovative Print and Paper, now the Brodsky Center for Innovative Print and Paper at Rutgers University in 1989 resulted in a group of monotypes created over a three-day period. These monotypes exhibited Marks’ affinity for imaginative figuration and narrative. They also reconfirmed her love of drawing [1]

In 1991, Marks experimented with decorative paint rollers in conjunction with sculptural reliefs. The patterns created by the rollers enriched the relief′s backgrounds, adding an additional element of visual complexity. Combined with her renewed commitment to drawing, Marks executed a series of fantastical figures drawn with a brush in acrylic paint on paper, working in black at first, and then expanding into other colors. The figures were drawn on patterned backgrounds created by the decorative paint rollers, and later, on printed backgrounds created by Marks from her older printed or drawn work, or from found imagery.[1]

This fusion of drawing, narrative, and pattern coalesced in Marks’ aesthetic, and on December 6, 2000, Marks experienced a major shift in her thinking: “My drawings told me they had to be sewn.”[citation needed] She also realized that simple hand-sewing or hand embroidery would not suffice to attain what she was after, and that mastering the properties of a sewing machine was required. She purchased a portable sewing machine, and “began to learn to draw with it, at first simply, then with greater complexity, making contemporary drawings that were enriched and transformed by the process of their creation. From the outset, I somehow knew that this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life and that the potential was enormous. I wanted to make the sewing machine an extension of my nervous system.”[citation needed] Marks thus broke with her earlier processes and expressed her aesthetic through fabric and the properties of sewing. Though her work had previously explored realms of the fantastic, the colors, textures and imagery in fabric, and the tonal, tactile, and linear properties of stitching provided Marks with an expanded repertoire of elements with which to actualize her ideas. Marks calls these works ″sewn drawings.″[2] Though she had no previous knowledge of the complexities of a sewing machine, Marks’ expertise with power tools, skills she acquired as a sculptor, served as the basis to understand the mechanics of machine sewing. Nevertheless, mastering the sewing machine and being able to draw with it was an intense learning process that moved from a combination of hand and machine embroidery through achieving the dexterity to draw on the machine.

Marks’ earliest sewn drawings began as a process of assembling imagery (faces, heads, human figures, fabulous beasts, flora, structures, objects, etc.) cut from scraps of disparate commercially printed fabrics, or creating forms from scratch with fabric scraps. After a process of arranging, re-arranging, and exploring potential variables, a phantasmagorical world would emerge. Marks would then construct a suitable ground for the narrative, using textiles from her growing collection of fabric scraps, swatches, and yardage. The resulting panels, reminiscent of applique, tapestry, embroidery, and traditional drawing, were self-contained narratives of vibrant color, abundant texture, and exuberant imagination.

As the sewn drawings developed and became larger, more layered, and generally more complex, Marks’ portable sewing machine could no longer handle the heavier load. In 2002, she purchased an industrial zigzag machine, the Consew 233R, which could handle Marks’ ambition. As a result of the sewing machine's greater capabilities, Marks′ work changed and grew to such a degree that the earlier work “suddenly seemed like the work of another person.”[citation needed] Forms became more intricate, compositions became more variegated, with enriched layers of texture and color. Shading achieved a greater range through pure stitching.


In 2007, at the prompting of book artist Esther K. Smith, who was writing “How to Make Books” for Random House, Marks created her first one-of-a-kind book, “Dream Girls.” Images from the first draft of “Dream Girls” appeared in Smith’s book. Created from fabric, and using the sewn drawings technique Marks was developing, “Dream Girls” extended Marks′ oeuvre from the self-contained narratives of the individual sewn drawings to a longer form of storytelling. The process, and end result, so enhanced the narrative impulse that already animated her drawings, Marks resolved “to make at least a book a year”[citation needed] for the rest of her life. She made two unique books the following year: “A Book of Horses” and “A Book of Lives.”

During this period, as Marks continued her development of sewn drawings and one-of-a-kind books, a chance walk in the Spring of 2009 resulted in Marks spotting a broken umbrella in the street. Intrigued by the black umbrella’s white-printed text, it eventually triggered her thinking about text. She silk-screened text of white ink on black fabric, creating a store of printed text which resulted in two books created in 2009: “The First Black Book,” consisting only of white text on black fabric; and “The Second Black Book,” which included additional text and a few illustrations created as sewn drawings and applied found objects. Her 2010 book, “Presing Questions,” broke from the pure black and added color and extensive text. The text, written in doggerel, was executed as appropriated lettering taken from fabric, as well as invented letters.

These breakthroughs in the relationship of text to imagery profoundly affected Marks’ sewn drawings, and by autumn of 2010, her drawings now included text. As with the books, the text in the sewn drawings was derived from words or cut letters from pieces of fabric, or letters Marks created from unrelated shapes. Her visual narratives were now enhanced by literary narrative; Marks′ characters could now speak.

In 2013, Marks’ process was further enhanced by the purchase of a state-of-the-art “computerized embroidery machine, specialty threads, stabilizers, and CAD software, along with a Windows-based laptop to manage the software,”[citation needed] all of it acquired with money awarded Marks by the Pollock-Krasner Foundation. With these new tools, Marks could now embroider lines and blocks of text directly onto the panels of sewn drawings, instead of piecing words or letters together from fabric sources. The text and typefaces could now be specific to the narrative and immediately legible, leading Marks to become as much writer as visual artist. Besides the sewn drawings, Marks’ fascination with written narrative also manifested itself in text pieces. These smaller works, with only minimal sewn imagery or devoid of imagery entirely, allow Marks’ “voice” its own presentation. Two of her text pieces were featured in the poetry publication, W.I.S.H. POETRY PRESS in January 2014.[3]

Marks sees her place in contemporary art as that of an “appropriationist and a synthesizer, influenced by manga, anime, and other contemporary art, as well as by almost everything else I see, hear, touch and taste.”[citation needed] Her driving purpose is to create art that entertains her audience, to make jaws drop, to surprise and delight. By appropriating images from printed fabric, techniques from the fabric arts of embroidery and tapestry, the textured experience of collage, the narrative of storytelling, and all of it supported by a consciousness of drawing, Marks unites tradition and experimentation. She considers her sewn drawings and fabric books to be “a new model for storytelling, more experiential than linear.”[citation needed]

Marks continues to create sewn drawings, books and text pieces at her studio in Long Island City, New York.

Exhibitions, Public Commissions and Collections[edit]

Marks has exhibited extensively since the first solo show of her sculptures and drawings in 1984 at BACA Downtown, a nonprofit gallery and black box theater in downtown Brooklyn. In 1986, she created a room-sized, installation titled “Intimations of a Parallel World,” at New York’s 22 Wooster Gallery’s Two Two Raw Downstairs space.[4] Using cut-out drawings of men and animals in action, recalling Ancient Greek relief friezes, “Intimations of a Parallel World” was an early expression of Marks’ interest in alternative realms, “a world parallel to our own, accessible only through my art.” [5] Marks created additional iterations of the “Parallel World” installations with “A World Made Flesh: Part Two of The Parallel World,” exhibited at the Morris Museum, Morristown, New Jersey, in 1987; “Sacred Precinct: Part Three of The Parallel World,” exhibited at New York’s Petrosino Park in 1991; and “Who Killed the Queen: Part Four of The Parallel World,” exhibited at the Tomasulo Gallery at Union County College, Cranford, New Jersey.

Other significant exhibitions during this period included solo shows at Rutgers University’s Paul Robeson Center Gallery in Newark; the Newark Museum; the Johnson and Johnson Gallery in Johnson & Johnson; the Trans Hudson Gallery in Jersey City; a fifteen-year retrospective at the Rabbet Gallery in New Brunswick; and Grand Arts in Kansas City, Missouri. Marks was also represented in important group exhibitions at this time at the Art Museum of Florida State University, Tallahassee; the Ben Shahn Galleries at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey; Kansas City Art Institute, Kansas City, Missouri; important exhibitions in New York’s Marymount Manhattan College; the Luise Ross Gallery; the George Adams Gallery; and other venues across the country.

By 2003, Marks was exhibiting her sewn drawings, and later, her one-of-a-kind books. Solo shows of this new material were mounted at O’Kane Gallery at the University of Houston–Downtown, Houston, Texas; the Luise Ross Gallery in New York; the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, Manhattan, Kansas; Emerson Center for Arts and Culture in Bozeman, Montana; the Schoolhouse History and Art Center, Colstrip; the Paris Gibson Square Art Center, Great Falls, the Visual Arts Gallery at the University of Montana, Missoula; Art 101, Brooklyn, New York; and the Thompson Gallery at the Cambridge School of Weston, Weston, Massachusetts. Solo exhibitions are scheduled through 2016 in New York’s prestigious Center for Book Arts; the Foosaner Art Museum at Florida Institute of Technology, Melbourne; and the Hampden Gallery at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, among others across the country.

Honors and awards[edit]

Marks won her first important award, a Fulbright-Hayes Fellowship for a 16-month stay in Nepal, making sculpture, in 1972. Additional honors followed, including a Graduate Fellowship from the Danforth Foundation; multiple fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts; an Esseff Foundation for the Arts Purchase Award; a National Endowment for the Arts-Mid Atlantic fellowship for works on paper; two George Sugarman Foundation grants; two New York Foundation for the Arts fellowships, the second as a Gregory Millard Fellow in Printmaking/Drawing/Artist’s Books; and many others. In 1988, Marks was honored as a Distinguished Artist by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. She served as an Artist-in-Residence at the Newark Museum in 2003; a residency at Anchor Graphics at Columbia College, Chicago in 2011; and in 2013 Marks was awarded the prestigious Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant.


  1. ^ a b North, Bill, ["Under Her Hands"], "Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art," October 2007
  2. ^ Ostrower, Jessica, ["China Marks at Luise Ross] "Art in America," February 2005
  3. ^ Berens, Joshua, ["Some Jazzy Stitches by China Marks] "W.I.S.H Poetry Press," January 2014
  4. ^ [1][permanent dead link]
  5. ^ Marks, China and Hicks, H.L. ["To Give Ourselves Over: A Conversation"], Numero Cinq Magazine, Volume IV, Number 3," March 2103


  • Berens, Joshua, “Some Jazzy Stitches by China Marks”, "W.I.S.H Poetry Press," January 2014
  • Marks, China, “Knee-deep in a Sea of Tears: Hybrid Drawings” "Numero Cinq Magazine, Volume IV, Number 9," September 2013
  • Sonnenberg, Rhonda, “The Sewn Drawings of China Marks”, "Fiberarts," September/October 2005
  • Bogosh, Sarah, “China Marks: Drawing with Fabric and Print,” interview, "Anchor Graphics, Columbia College, Chicaho, Volume 5, Number 1," Summer/Fall 2011

External links[edit]