Denver artist Gina Klawitter has worked all over the creative world, but after years as an art director and graphic designer, she was dying to get back to making art with her hands. That’s when her self-developed medium of “Figurative Fabric Sculptures” was born. Klawitter drapes live models in fabric, then uses layers of glaze to harden the material before painting it. The result is a piece full of “energy and motion,” she said. “It’s like the sculptures are almost animated.”
Klawitter picks her subjects carefully. After doing a series with Colorado Ballet dancers, her fascination with the athletic body — and with disability — led her to create a collection of sculptures molded from the bodies of paralympians. Constantly striving for representation in her art, she’s also done work related to the Syrian refugee crisis and the LGBTQ community, in addition to stand-alone custom pieces. Klawitter currently creates at Prism Workspaces, a creative community in downtown Denver.
Molding the Athletic Body
Klawitter’s collection of Colorado Ballet pieces showed at the Armstrong Center for Dance in 2018 and 2019, shortly after she began working with the medium. “They were tremendous models who are really into making art,” said Klawitter. “So strong and athletic.” She was partially inspired by the work of Martha Graham, a choreographer who would often have her dancers move while confined by large pieces of fabric. Though the pieces are life-size, they weigh around 10 pounds and can be mounted onto the wall using picture hooks. “It’s not anything heavier than a framed painting,” she said.
She cites her experience working with the paralympic athletes as incredibly rewarding. “I was just very interested in disabilities and very interested in inclusion, and showing the beauty of all different sizes, shapes and appearances of people,” she said. “They were great models, and their stories—just how empowering,” she added. “It just thrills me to be able to work with people like that.” Three of Klawitter’s pieces were purchased by the Paralympic Center in Colorado Springs, and remain there on permanent display.
Representing Refugees and ADA Heroes
Another piece of Klawitter’s work centered on disability and depicts Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins. At the age of eight, she “got out of her wheelchair and climbed the 82 steps of the capitol building in support of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” explained Klawitter. A Colorado local born with cerebral palsy, Keelan-Chaffins is still fighting for equality within the disability rights movement. Klawitter’s choice to mold the activist’s adult body plays into her desire for inclusion and representation, especially of those with disabilities.
Due to the semi-abstract nature of the process, some of the sculptures may represent something different to each viewer. “Refuge” was Klawitter’s first Figurative Fabric Sculpture with a live model. She created it during the Syrian refugee crisis, when bodies were coming ashore. “I just wanted to express my feelings about that,” she said. “I think I heard about people coming across refugees just lying on the beach. And I wanted to bring that to people’s attention,” she added.
Since then, however, she’s had viewers comment on the different subject they see within the piece, including a “cancer survivor and an archangel.” Since it was her first venture into this type of sculpture, Klawitter didn’t quite have her technique perfected yet. “It was all just perfect. And then we lifted it off and it collapsed,” she explained. “So I stuffed it to make it full again, and thought ‘No, it was a lot more interesting when it was collapsed.’”
Custom Pieces and Smaller Work
Though she loves selecting the subjects for her collections, Klawitter has also been approached by those wanting to commission something custom. This was how her first-ever maternity piece came to be. “She came in and we made it and it was really fabulous,” she said of molding her pregnant model. “It’s more than a belly casting because there’s all of the energy and motion of the fabric. And I can cast a broader area of the figure,” she added. “She said it was just like being in a spa — she just laid there and relaxed and the baby was moving.”
Recently, there’s been more demand for smaller pieces, and Klawitter has been reproducing her work using 3D scanners and printers. Some are hand-painted and turned into jewelry, while others stand as smaller sculptures. “I’m excited about 3D technology, and it’s great for anyone with a smaller space or a smaller budget,” she said.
Though the pandemic made her relocate her workspace, Klawitter says that the past year has really made her “go for it..all of the shows and events and opportunities I had were cancelled,” she said. “Either you go even harder or… I don’t know what else you can do.”
Now in her new space at Prism, she’s “in a wonderful community of artists and that just helps so much,” she said. “This has given me an opportunity, I think, to grow my vision more in this big space.” She plans to resume a project with Mile High Behavioral Healthcare showcasing LGBTQ stories. “I have other projects that I want to do to help show inclusion and foster good feelings for humankind…So now I’m in a space where I really have the opportunity to do that,” she added. For her, the human interaction is the most special part of her work. “I do love working with people and I just love that connection,” she said.
In thinking about the impact of her art, Klawitter described a particularly rewarding moment – the moment when the model gets to see the piece they posed for. “They usually will sigh or put their hand over their heart and have expressed to me a lot of deep feelings that they’ve gotten through connecting to this art, and it kind of goes full circle. And that’s the best part of it all.”
For those wanting to view it in person, she’ll be having an open studio tour and open house at Prism Workspaces on July 25 from 5 to 8 p.m.