Fine-Art Craft | Carol Shinn

Patio Door, machine stitched fabric, 21" x 15", private collection
Patio Door, machine stitched fabric, 21″ x 15″, private collection
By Wolf Schneider

A fiber artist finds success where fine art, craft, and applied science intersect

Everyone always asks Carol Shinn about the technique behind her machine-stitched fiber artworks of detailed scenes that turn out almost photorealistic. Her process begins with photographs she takes, then alters and collages digitally on her computer. She prints the images onto a heat-transfer paper, which she then irons onto broadcloth and bonds to a painter’s canvas. And then she completely covers the canvas with stitching, using a 30-year-old sewing machine. “Sometimes I change the image as I go, but basically I’m working on top of my own photograph,” explains Shinn, who’s based in Fort Collins, CO.

It’s an embroidery technique she developed in the late 1980s. Essentially, she moves the fabric to control the direction and size of the stitch as the sewing machine’s needle goes up and down. “It’s almost like impressionism,” she contends. And while she definitely uses technology in her work, she maintains that she’s “not as far along as the digitized printing of fabrics and all those things going on in the cusp between the artistic world and the applied world, because I’m still applying the color in the end.”

Shinn, 59, has taught her technique at Arizona State University, Arrowmont School, Penland School of Crafts, and Haystack Mountain School of Crafts—but her main preoccupation is with design, not technique. Her work focuses on the way natural forces alter and redefine all things. Her earlier subject matter involved old cars and landscapes, but today she often creates images of doors, windows, and chairs.
“I’m very interested in the mood of a place, and portraying that mood,” she says. Usually, this is how she goes about it: “You make it so enticing that you feel you’re in that location. Often I use an opening like a window or door that invites you to travel through to the next level of perspective.”

Her biggest influences are contemporary painters like Woody Gwyn (“for the starkness of his landscapes and the evocative quality of them”) and Carol Mothner (“for her sensitive interiors”). Shinn also commends Frank Relle for the colorful, evocative quality of his photography of old buildings in New Orleans.


Shinn’s artworks are typically mounted on archival foam core, which is in turn mounted onto fabric-covered foam core, and then framed. It takes an average of two weeks to create a piece, and the artworks sell for $2,500 to $4,500.

Shinn was born in Denver, CO, in 1948 to an architectural engineer father and homemaker mother. She decided to become an artist back in the third grade and eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Then she got married, had kids, and relocated numerous times with her husband, who was in the U.S. Air Force Academy Band and later taught music composition at Arizona State University. Shinn, who’d been weaving tapestries, went back to school and earned a master’s degree in fine arts at ASU in 1988, focusing on fiber arts and developing her current technique.


The couple stayed in Arizona for two decades as Shinn’s career solidified and she started teaching. However, she confides, “I was sick of the heat, the pollution, and the traffic.” So in 2005 they moved to Fort Collins, a university town north of Denver. Shinn is happy with Colorado State University being nearby and happier still to cultivate a colorful garden with more than just cactus in it.
Color mixing is a preoccupation in her artworks, too. “I’m not into bright, bold primaries. I’m more interested in subtler, mixed colors,” Shinn says. For a melancholy mood, she might rely on inky charcoals, but she also did a scene of an empty train station in Winslow, AZ, with lots of golden colors as the afternoon sun came in—because that’s the way it looked when she really looked carefully.

“The pleasure is in investigating something really closely. When we move through our lives we are always thinking about what we’re doing and events, and we’re not really paying attention to the physical world,” Shinn reflects. “For me, the greatest pleasure is the intense involvement with the physical world that I can achieve by the investigation of stitching.”

Which brings her to mention famed nature writer Edward Abbey, author of Desert Solitaire and the fellow whom novelist Larry McMurtry dubbed “the Thoreau of the American West.” Shinn points out, “Abbey said the most spiritual thing was the physical reality around him—I so resonate with that. There’s nothing more spiritual than the details of the physical world around you.”

Shinn is represented by Hibberd McGrath Gallery, Breckenridge, CO, and Jane Sauer Gallery, Santa Fe, NM.

Featured in “Fine-Art Craft” in January 2008