Sponsored by The Pittsburgh Foundation and Opportunity Fund, the Exposure Artists Program (EAP) is guided by a shared belief in the need to support creative practice, to cultivate and fund diversity, and to advocate for racial justice in the arts community. EAP aims to elevate the work of artists through activities that create/generate/enhance visibility for the creative process, artwork and social issues of our time. LaVerne Kemp is a 2022 EAP honoree.
While this is the first grant that LaVerne Kemp has applied for and received, her 40-year career as a weaver is embellished with plenty of other accolades that laud her talent. Because of her keen eye, she is known locally and nationally as a weaver and textile artist. She has recently collaborated with other local women artists for a groundbreaking exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Most recently, she created a piece at August Wilson’s historically refurbished home to honor the legacy of African American artistry in Pittsburgh. “Up until now, I never thought about getting grant support. I was used to making do with what I had. I would go to flea markets and use found objects in my work. I’m a believer in repurposing something old to make something new,” says LaVerne.
LaVerne discovered her creative side while studying to be a teacher at the former California State Teachers College. One Threads and Fibers class with a passionate professor was all it took for her to start delving into the intricacies of weaving. “I found this color, this dye called peacock blue. I fell in love! When I went home on break, I had a pot on every burner of my mother’s stove dyeing that beautiful yarn. She could have had a fit, but she didn’t. She just wanted to see what I did, you know? And it was like she could tell that I had found myself early. And I did. That was my purpose. I knew it.”
Since then, LaVerne has worked with pieces large and small. She has woven sculptural wall hangings that stretch from the high ceiling of her studio all the way to the floor and has thoughtfully placed adorned swatches of her intricately woven fabric in miniature frames along the chair rail. As I ran my hands over shawls and scarves from her Art to Wear clothing collection, I immediately ached for the cool of fall.
The fruits of LaVerne’s life purpose are evident throughout her studio, a space that she was able to acquire after receiving the Exposure Artists Program award. “I love working big, but I never had anywhere to do it before, because I was limited by my workspace. This place gave me a chance to expand,” she says. To step into her studio at the Union Project in Highland Park is to lose yourself in the reverie of color that springs forth. Light spills through the stained-glass windows and down onto the tendrils of fibers that she meticulously maneuvers through the teeth of her formidable loom reed. Every nook has a purpose, an accompanying fabric, and a story that LaVerne can recall with detailed ease. Thumbing through a stack of leftover swatches, she shares, “At the end of whatever I’m doing, I always make sure there’s a little extra, so I can make more. These might get turned into hats or cards. I try to leave the door open for other repurposed possibilities.”
Over the last four decades, LaVerne has woven much more than wearable art. She’s become a part of the creative fabric of Pittsburgh by developing partnerships with other artists through organizations including Women of Visions and the Craftsmen’s Guild of Pittsburgh. She is a teaching artist with the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and works with students from pre-kindergarten age to senior citizens. She’s solidified her place as one of the artists who makes the city more beautiful, and she’s ready for more. The current source of her inspiration? Trees. Whether woven, wrapped, or coiled, they are prevalent throughout her space. I can’t help but take note of this serendipitous inspiration as I look around her stunning studio and think of what it means to be able to take root in space in proximity to other artists and with plenty of room to flourish. “The Exposure grant has given me opportunities that I have been needing for quite some time,” she says.
Read about other 2022 Exposure Artist Program honorees: