Kami Goertz is a fibre artist whose plush boogeymen and hobgoblins have been described as being as much at home tucked in a child’s bed as lurking under one.
With Halloween right around the corner, Goertz agrees that assessment fits her huggable, bug-eyed creatures to a T, citing the television show My Pet Monster, a fave of hers growing up, as an early inspiration.
"He was this stuffed animal with horns and blue fur that came alive and protected the kid, and I guess I liked the idea that monsters could be on your side instead of something you should be afraid of," she says, seated on a stool in her Exchange District studio, located on the fourth floor of the Silvester-Willson Building, 222 McDermot Ave.
"It’s funny, when I’m doing a craft sale, adults sometimes seem apprehensive about my stuff, commenting it might be too scary for their son or daughter. But seriously, what kid isn’t fascinated by something that’s a little dark and spooky? From my experience as a mom, kids seem to enjoy having a bit of ‘Boo!’ in their life."
Goertz, 38, grew up in East Kildonan. The eldest of four siblings — she jokingly refers to herself as the "gang leader" — she began developing her creative side at an early age thanks, in large part, to her parents, who used to scour their neighbourhood for empty appliance boxes, wooden crates... anything, pretty much, they could turn into backyard playthings for their kids. No surprise, art was her favourite subject at Angus McKay School, where she would regularly plow through her assignments then raise her hand, begging her instructor for more.
"In Grade 5, our teacher, Mr. Holowka, told us to write down what we wanted to be when we grew up, but also what we thought we were going to be. I wrote that I wanted to be an artist, but thought I was going to be a mom. I guess that makes me two for two," she says, noting her daughter, Gwynedd — her partner, musician Myke Lewis, is Welsh, hence the traditional spelling of Gwyneth — just turned 11.
In 2008, Goertz was working part-time at a Wolseley neighbourhood bakery while pursuing a science degree at the University of Winnipeg. That’s when, "Boom, a family happened," she says with a chuckle. It was while she was on maternity leave with Gwynedd that she took up sewing and needle felting, primarily to occupy her time while she was "listening to a crying baby."
She started off making frightful-looking animals that she gave away to friends and family as gifts. As time went on, people outside her social circle, folks who spotted her handiwork on a pal’s couch or bookshelf, began inquiring about her creations, too, wondering if they were available for purchase.
"Whoa," she thought, "people actually like my stuff. Maybe I should start applying to craft shows."
Andee Penner, owner of the online, pop culture shop Sew Dandee, met Goertz in 2012, at a pop-up sale held at a downtown book store. At the time, Penner was operating a boutique in Osborne Village, also called Sew Dandee. The second she spotted Goertz’s assortment of ooglie-booglies, she was certain they would be a hit with her clientele.
"If I recall correctly, I started off selling mostly her stuffed ‘katties’ and owls," Penner says, adding she also stocked prints and greeting cards Goertz produced from photographs she’d snapped of her motley crew.
"Kami has to be one of the most uniquely creative, incredibly fascinating makers that I have ever met. She continues to blow my mind with the tactile creations she comes up with. Seriously, I would love to get a sneak peek into her dreams, seeing her come up with such wild and interesting ideas."
From the get-go, Goertz has used upcycled material almost exclusively for her menagerie, remnants she picks up from thrift stores or collects from friends, many of whom are also artists.
"I never use patterns, and honest to God, I wouldn’t even know how to," she explains. "When I started making these demented, teddy bear things, it was mostly trial and error... it’s not like I knew how to make arms and legs. To me, it feels more like sculpting. I’ll use a piece of material I think would make a good ear or nose but if it doesn’t suit my eye, I’ll put it somewhere else, or ditch it altogether. My daughter has a bed full of dudes that didn’t quite do it for me."
Goertz, whose work has been displayed in Berlin, New York City and Seattle (it’s not often we get scooped by Stuffed magazine, but she’s also been a featured artist in that publication three times to date), has shipped as far as Australia and Europe, and was recently contacted by Fifty Eight North, a gift shop in Churchill, the manager of which is particularly interested in her narwhal- and beluga-inspired plushies.
Closer to home, you can peruse her stuff at the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s shop, Forth Café in the east Exchange and the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba in Brandon.
"I’ve been carrying Kami’s creatures for nine years," says Tara Davis, owner of Tara Davis Studio Boutique, 246 McDermot Ave. "I’m drawn to them because they’re the perfect balance of cute and creepy. Kami is a whole lot of fun (because) she packs them so that when I open up a box, a bunch of faces are looking up at me."
Davis has heard the same comments Goertz has, adults who think the one-eyed minions or maniacal-looking mushrooms are going to give their children the heebie-jeebies. Like Goertz, she’s having none of it, considering how kids react to Goertz’s creatures when they spot them in her shop.
"One of my favourite interactions was with a three-year-old girl who told me if they are furmaids (she was referring to Goertz’s creatures that sport a fur mane and long, patchwork fin) they should be swimming, and assertively changed my display from having them standing up to laying down, like they were moving through the water," Davis says.
"From then on, I’ve been sure to keep some in a swimming position."
In closing, Goertz says if you ever eye one of her pieces and think, hmm, that looks vaguely familiar, you may well be right. Goertz, also a full-time sous chef at the Park Café in Assiniboine Park, never knows where or when an idea for a stuffed figure is going to come from next: on her way to work, out for a walk in her West Broadway neighbourhood or while she’s watching a late-night movie with "the fam."
"I take inspiration from everywhere and everything — colours, people, patterns. Honestly, why would you waste the opportunity of being alive if you couldn’t filter what you see and experience through something that appeals to people? It might be as simple as somebody glaring at me for whatever reason. Rather than getting upset, I’ll turn that into a monster’s facial expression and be like, ‘OK, now you’re immortalized.’"
(If you want to "meet" her monsters in person, Goertz will be a featured vendor at the Crafted Show + Sale, Nov. 8 - 9, at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.)