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Kentucky Native Gina Phillips Brings Art Home in 21C Exhibit

New Orleans-based artist Gina Phillips has a scavenger's heart. She plucked the name of her latest exhibit, "A Thirsty Switch Still Quivers For Me," from a childhood memory of her grandmother using divining rods to search for water underground. She uses a long-arm quilting machine to free-form stitch bits of synthetic hair and silk onto scraps of fabric to create textured objects that exist somewhere between the two- and three-dimensional art plane. She comes by the assemblage approach naturally, she said. 

"I grew up in a junk yard, basically. It was great training ground to be an artist. I grew up in a poor family, I didn’t know that at the time, but looking back it was a great environment because I had so many raw materials at my disposal, and I would create my own environments out of the junk," said Phillips.

"A Thirsty Switch Still Quivers For Me" opened Thursday at 21C Museum Hotel. It's a five-year survey of work that pulls pieces from five different bodies of work and remixes them into a new narrative. Tiny figures in historic dress look up in awe at oversized eagles dropping human limbs from the heavens.  Trees anchor two corners of the exhibit. Colorful portraits congregate in intimate groups. 

This show is the Richmond, Kentucky, native's first professional show back in her home state. She grew up in Madison County in the 1970s, and after graduating from the University of Kentucky, Phillips moved to New Orleans in 1995, where she felt, as it turns out, completely at home. 

"It’s interesting because moving to New Orleans, there were of course parts that were incredibly different and exotic-seeming, but other parts I felt completely at home, because of the shackiness of New Orleans and the characters," said Phillips. "I felt a kinship with that, growing up in Kentucky and the characters in the stories of those Southern people, and then going to a completely different part of the South."

New Orleans permeates her work—the portraits are of her neighbors, floating on the white gallery walls. One series she draws from, "Heroes and Villains," imagines forgotten conflicts between people of the area. A tree in one corner springs from visits to Holt Cemetery, a paupers' burial ground (and one of the only underground cemeteries in the sea-level city) where bones and other human remains occasionally resurface.

And Hurricane Katrina flooding, which claimed her sewing machine and other tools, she revisited her methods, turning to a long-arm quilting machine to perfect the multi-layered stitching that creates her thin textile wall sculptures. The designs are cut out from their backgrounds, too, so they pop out from the negative space, their colors and patterns vibrant against the white gallery wall.

"From afar they look like paintings, and then you get up on them and you realize they’re very shallow, flat objects. But they’re very textural," she said. "I pin them on the wall to reinforce their object-hood."

She draws her pieces first, then projects them onto a surface to enlarge them to various perspectives and re-draws the initial design. After an under-painting, she begins quilting with the long-arm machine.

"Anything goes in terms of what I’m going to appliqué on those surfaces. It could be synthetic hair or yarn or silk or polyester. Whatever I can sew onto the surface, I’ve probably tried," she said.

Quilting inadvertently put her back in touch with her Kentucky folk art roots, but Phillips said she didn't inherit these skills.

"People in my family were artists and made lots of things, but nobody was a quilter," said Phillips.

"A Thirsty Switch Still Quivers For Me" runs at 21C Museum Hotel through April 2015.