Becka Rahn is an artist and teacher whose primary work is designing fabric with engineered and manipulated photographic prints. She uses these prints to make one-of-a-kind wearable art garments, accessories, and the occasional home decor wall art piece. One of the traditions of fiber art that inspired her is the idea of making practical and every day things be beautiful as well as functional. As a teacher, rather than being a specialist in one area, Becka’s specialty is being able to teach a beginning class in just about everything related to fiber art – felting, dyes, weaving, knitting, sewing, embroidery, beadwork, quilting. She loves watching the light bulb come on for someone as they have that “ah-ha!” moment or the gasp of excitement as they unfold their first dye project.
Check out Becka’s work at the upcoming American Craft Show at RiverCenter in St. Paul put on by American Craft Council.
What drew you to the work you’re doing now? What inspired you to begin this endeavor?
I have been sewing and making clothes and costumes since I was a kid, but I feel like I finally found my art form when I discovered digital printing on fabric. In a nutshell, I create art from paper, paint, or photos. I turn that art into a digital file, manipulate and engineer it to fit a specific shape or garment design, and have it printed onto fabric using a giant ink jet printer. Then I sew those custom fabrics into clothing and accessories.
I have always been a little bit of a computer geek. Back when it was relatively easy to program your own computer, my dad and I used to get a magazine that published games that you could type in and save on a cassette tape on your Commodore 64. I went from that to coding my own animated graphics to making websites to learning Photoshop. In 2008, a company called Spoonflower came on to the scene and they made it possible to upload and print your own fabric designs in small amounts. Traditional fabric printing wasn’t even something I had thought about because you had to order thousands of yards to get anything produced. It seemed totally unapproachable. I instantly signed up to be on the beta test list for Spoonflower and I still have the very first fabric I had printed. I can’t cut it up; it’s become sort of a good luck charm for me.
How has your business evolved? How have you evolved alongside it?
I had an Etsy shop for several years before I started designing fabric, but it didn’t really have a focus. I made whatever seemed fun at the time. For a few years, I sold hand puppets at local shows and farmers markets. And then several things happened which pushed me to make some decisions. In 2008, a law was passed regulating handmade items for children and it turned out that the required testing and labeling for my puppets made it very expensive as a small-scale maker. I couldn’t make enough to cover the new expenses without seriously scaling up and that just wasn’t practical for me. Etsy was also becoming much more well known and I needed get a focus in my shop so that I could stand out in that growing marketplace. And Spoonflower expanded their printing options to include a much wider range of fabrics. Suddenly I had choices to make. I decided to put aside the “kid stuff” and reinvent my art to use my custom fabrics. Fast forward to now: a couple of years ago, I quit my day job as an arts administrator and I am working now as an artist full time. I split my time between creating and selling my designs at shows; teaching and making art with community grants; and selling through Etsy, Spoonflower, and RedBubble.
Have you always been creative? What forms or channels have you explored in your creative journey?
I have absolutely always been creative and I am never without a project or two or seven. I never understand classes and exercises about “finding inspiration” because I feel like that’s never something I need more of. I have more creative ideas than I will use up in my lifetime.
It took me a while to figure out what art form I loved and how to make that happen. When I went to college, I loved art but I didn’t want to take a bunch of painting and drawing classes. I really don’t like painting and that wasn’t what I was interested in, but it was required if you were going to major in art. Fiber art programs are pretty rare. So I decided to be a tech theater major and work with costumes and scenic design as the closest thing I could get to working with fiber and textiles. I had a super glamorous work-study job in the scene shop washing paint brushes and scrubbing rust off of metal pipes. It ended up that theater life didn’t really fit me either, and so I switched completely and got a degree in education. People are often surprised when I say that I don’t have a degree in art. I had decided that I should be practical and have a degree where I could get a job anywhere and I could do art on the side, so I got certified to teach middle school math, science and computers. I worked as a teller trainer at a bank for several years and then by luck found a job as a summer camp & school residency instructor, teaching primarily fiber art techniques. So it came around full circle.
It sounds like teaching and being involved in the community plays a significant role in your artistic choices. Can you speak to that a bit?
I love teaching. I worked for almost 12 years as an arts administrator, overseeing all of the education programs at Textile Center in Minneapolis. That was a full time job, so I wasn’t making much of my own art, but I was absolutely immersed in art-making, mentoring and fostering artistic development in others. When I decided it was time to leave that position and make more of my own art, I created my own job description, which is a balance of teaching, making and selling art, and partnering with organizations to make art with others. This past year I was awarded a grant from the MN State Arts Board to do a community project. I partnered with three local museums — The Museum of Russian Art, The Bakken, and Hennepin History Museum – to lead a series of workshops designing fabrics inspired by unusual pieces from those museum collections. Community participants studied Geissler tubes, pacemakers, doorknobs and more, and then created their own digitally printed fabrics. I incorporated the community designs into the culminating exhibition for the project by creating an installation of paper dresses to accompany my garments in the show. I folded more than 12 dozen mini origami dresses, using paper printed with the workshop participants’ designs, and installed them together on one wall of the gallery. It was like I got to collaborate with 60 other artists on that piece.
Even informally, I am always teaching through my art. There is a philosophy of fine art that says that you shouldn’t have to explain a piece to the viewer through labels and didactics, but that it should be able to communicate everything all on its own. I totally disagree. Art is all about telling stories and by just looking at a piece, you are only getting to experience one story. I love to be right there to talk about my work and answer questions for people. I want to tell the story about the title or why I chose the color I used. I want people to connect to it in a personal way by finding the story that speaks to them, whether it’s about the aesthetic of the design or learning about the techhie way I achieved a specific effect. When I display my work, I have a lot of ways for people to get more info. My tags talk about where designs came from and talk about process. I post lots of behind-the-scenes and work-in-progress photos to social media.
What do you find special about working with textiles?
Textiles are so tactile. Everyone wants to touch them; you almost can’t help yourself. They are ubiquitous. Every day you are surrounded by textiles: clothing, rugs, towels, upholstery. You use them every day and I think it’s so exciting to take something practical and make it interesting and unusual. I make art that you can interact with and that can be a part of your everyday life. Textiles are also ubiquitous in that they are a part of nearly every culture throughout the world. I think everyone has some kind of tradition with a fabric component: a beloved teddy bear, a wedding dress handed down through generations, a special tea towel you use for holidays. That makes textile art familiar and approachable in a way that other art forms might not be.
In terms of living and making in Minnesota, do you feel connected to this place? Why is local important?
I am a Minnesota import. I grew up in South Dakota and my husband and I moved to MN about 15 years ago. The connection I feel to Minnesota isn’t about place, but is all about community. My husband is a musician, as well as a software developer, and we both have found amazing groups of people who do what we do. I am an active member of several arts groups and have collaborated with so many fantastic artists and organizations. He plays with several community bands and orchestras. We felt instantly adopted by the arts community and it is a huge part of what we love about being here. Local is important to us because it is personal. We go to concerts, attend events, volunteer time and skills, and buy art because we know the people involved and we love being able to support the members of that community.
What was the process of writing your two books like? Did the process come naturally to you? Do you hope to write more?
Both books were super different. The Spoonflower Handbook was a collaboration with Spoonflower, who is the company that I work with for all of my digital printing. Because I was an early and enthusiastic user of their service, I got to be friends with the founder of the company and we worked together on several other projects. When the opportunity came up to do a book, I was thrilled to be asked to be a part of that team as a co-author because the topic was a perfect fit for my skills: a how-to book about digital fabric design. The Handbook was a very traditional book process. We worked with a publisher, editors, photographers, and art directors. It was a huge team and a very intense timeline. It’s a great book and learned so much through the whole process. The second book, I See Art Every Day, was written by a team of one: me. I wrote the book to accompany a public art project I had done with the Prospect Park neighborhood in Minneapolis. I made digital art to cover utility boxes in that neighborhood and the book tells the story of that art in the form of a children’s story of taking a walk with an artist and looking for art in your neighborhood. I self-published that book and I loved the total creative control that gave me.
I think I always dreamed about writing a book, but I never thought it would actually happen. I absolutely hope to write more. I have outlines roughed out for both another how-to and another kids/art book, so I am definitely thinking about it.
What do you see for the future of your business?
Don’t we all wish we could have a crystal ball? I have learned so much in the last two years of being a full time artist. I love the balance that my business has now between selling, making, and teaching art and I am hoping to keep that going. My day is never the same two days in a row and that is really exciting for me. I really look forward to seeing new technologies evolve, especially the on-demand kinds of services. I have started incorporating more laser cut materials into my garments and art pieces by using an on-demand laser cutting service. I wonder what material will be next in that on-demand realm. I am getting ready to start teaching some online classes so hopefully I can reach more people who are interested in learning about digital design for fabric.
Do you feel like making and creating through your business allows you to contribute to something larger than yourself?
Absolutely. Teaching is often the most significant way this happens for me. I teach a wide variety of topics from art making to artist development. I especially love to teach technology-related classes because they are so empowering. A lot of my students are of a generation that didn’t grow up with computers in the way that I did. Helping them to get past that “fear of technology” so that they can open an Etsy shop or print their first fabric design is awesome. I love to be a role model of “a girl who is good at computers”. Textile and fiber arts isn’t often considered very cutting edge. The clichéd headline “It’s not your granny’s sewing/knitting…” pops up in my social media feed on an annoyingly regular basis and I hope I am helping to change that stereotype.