artist interview: joan bauer

APPALACHIAN ARTIST CRUSH is a series of interviews with artists from around the East Tennessee region, whose work I admire and who I want to share with the world.

Joan Bauer has a vast array of experience with fabric and sewing. Her intricate pieces of wall art are entirely hand-crafted, using mosaic, applique, and three-dimensional elements. Inspired by nature, classical, and impressionistic artists of the past, Bauer brings her incredible skill set into great use through her own modern approach to fabric.


Tell us about your creative beginnings. What was your earliest experience of artmaking, and what drew you in? Was creativity encouraged in your early years?

It's barely four years that I've been creating any artwork, but I've been sewing at the sewing machine since I was five. I was absolutely in love with sewing from the very beginning. By the time I was twelve, I designed and made my own clothes out of the New York Times fashion magazine, copying designs and making my own patterns. I made my mother's draperies for a huge window in the kitchen by taking apart the old ones, figuring it out, and making new ones.

I surpassed my mother's teaching skills by that time. My passion then, other than ballet or horses, was my sewing machine. I've been sewing my whole life, but artistically, not really. I'm not a very good drawer. I took basic art classes in junior high and enjoyed it, but was not encouraged at all. I didn't find out until I was 60 years old that the art teacher had told my mother that I had potential and that I should develop my art.

My family thought my fashion design business was silly, but I've worked in fabrics as a business my whole life. I had stints doing waitressing or bartending, but always the passion was to sew. I've designed and made costumes, made tents, awnings, concealed carry corsets, wedding gowns—you name it, I've made it. People come and ask me for the craziest things.

Tell us about your creative process--what makes it unique? How do you create your best work? What do you love most about your process?

All of my skills with sewing have rules rules rules—patterns and principles. My artwork is the exact opposite. I'll get an idea in my mind's eye or inspiration from an image and let that percolate in my subconscious for awhile. I look up lots of images and save them in a collection in a kind of digital sketchbook.

Sometimes I'll be fooling around on the internet and stumble across something that just hits me out of nowhere. I sit with them for ages and think on them before starting to make them. I like images with lots of “highs and lows,”--high contrast—and dynamic compositions.

Sometimes I find a fabric that grabs me, and I buy it, then I wait for something to click. I collect all different kinds of inspiration and pay attention to see what comes together.

What has been a habit or focus you've had that's integral to your art practice?

When I say that I'm going to do something, I do it. That comes from my business practices. My word is my honor; it always has been. If you shake my hand or sign on a piece of scrap paper that's what you want me to do, and I get it done. That's the kind of person I am.

a work of lily pads hanging in Joan's studio
details from Joan's 3D fabric work

Tell me about a hurdle you've had to overcome in your artmaking or art career.

I've recognized as I've struggled with some pieces that in my process, fields and dense forest foliage just don't come out the way I want them to. I finally said, “Okay, you know what, that's not what you're good at.” I realized after those pieces that I needed a different approach. That's when I hit on a three-dimensional approach to the fabric work. Enough with fields! The 3-D and abstracted work is my strength. They don't fight me!

Another hurdle has been to not choke on the word artist when referring to myself. It was made worse when I was blackballed by an art guild in the region that I had been invited to join, and that was a very hurtful, hard experience. I almost completely gave up art altogether—it felt like I had been cut in half--but by the grace of God and a friend and my husband, Hans, I kept going.

What is your educational background, and how does it influence your creative work, if at all?

I have no formal artistic education, but I have a lifelong experience working with the materials. I had a classic college prep background of education. I was packed off to boarding school, but there was no art class. There was music and music theory, and I was allowed to explore my ballet outside the classroom. But it was a classical & traditional education in the sense that we studied all the different philosophies. Nothing to do with art. That was more my parents who dragged me to just about every museum in America. I've had an exposure to the arts through my parents, my mother in particular.

I've always appreciated classic art. I don't care for contemporary or modern art, and have always been very drawn to the impressionists. About a year after we moved to Tennessee, I kept gravitating towards my art books that are now all in my studio (they used to be up in my living room). I'd study them at night. I'd pour over Monet and I'd say, “How can I do that in fabric?” I had no idea that there even was such a thing as fabric art. All I knew was traditional quilting, until I went online and I searched for “impressionist fabric,” and all of a sudden it showed up for me.

What are you most excited about in your creative landscape in the moment?

I am always happy when someone I like gets one of my creations. I'm also thrilled that my piece Bird of Paradise, was selected as one of the Best of TN Craft 2016 Exhibit.


I have a piece that I'm not excited about, but that I'm terrified about, and it came into my consciousness listening to a Christian song, about touching the hem of Jesus' garment. I'm terrified because I've never done anatomy in fabric, and I want to portray feet and hands.

I'm excited about and looking forward to figuring out how to get gallery representation.

You can find more of Joan's work at

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See all the local maker crush interviews here.