Conversation with Artists Kevin Lustik and Sam Wojcik

Charlie Leppert speaking with Sam Wojcik and Kevin Lustik
Mulberry Street Library
Fully Accessible
Charlie Leppert speaking with Sam Wojcik and Kevin Lustik

Kevin Lustik and Sam Wojcik are both artists showcasing at the Mulberry Street Library, and both artists work with fiber arts. Born and raised in Joliet, Illinois, now living in New York City, Kevin Lustik has been sewing for 40 years. He started by creating quilts, moved on to needlepoint kits, then finally created his own original designs. The best place to see his work is on Instagram or Facebook at LustikArt.

Wojcik has integrated fabric into her paintings, and has created two landscape quilts of farmland outside of Chicago. Wojcik is an artist located in New York, working in oil paint, ink, and textiles. Her work draws heavily on her family background, images of the city, and the midwestern landscape where she grew up. Her academic interests include Old Hollywood, Willa Cather, James Baldwin, queer studies a la Eve Sedgwick, and socialist cinema.

On Tuesday, June 13, Charlie Leppert, Librarian Trainee C at Mulberry Street Library, spoke with Kevin Lustik and Sam Wojcik about their work as fiber artists. Transcribed below is this conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Charlie Leppert (CL): Thank you so much for joining us, if you’d like to introduce yourselves, we can get started. Sam, would you like to start?

Sam Wojcik (SW): Sure! I’m Sam Wojcik, I’m a painter and textile artist. I’m from Chicago originally, I came out here for college and I’m based in Brooklyn right now. I’m a working artist, mostly portraits, but also landscape textiles.

Kevin Lustik (KL): My name is Kevin Lustik, I’m a needlepoint artist – sometimes I call myself a needlepoint rebel because I break the rules. I tear things, I leave yarn frayed. I live in New York City with my partner Jim.

CL: Great, thank you so much! So, how did each of you begin working with fiber arts or textiles, or how did you get involved in art in general?

KL: For me, it started after college. I’d been working with my brain for so many years and I wanted to do something with my hands so I started making quilts. After I’d done a few of those, I wanted to try needlepoint and I bought a kit – that’s just color by numbers… then I decided to create my own designs, and all the craziness you’re going to see up here followed. That was about forty years ago, so I’ve been doing this a long time.

SW: I was kind of always making art as a kid, but I didn’t start taking it super seriously until about halfway through high school going into college. I was primarily working as a painter and then the pandemic hit, and I was in a painting class and I ran out of surfaces to paint on. It wasn’t a great place to be doing oil painting in an unventilated bedroom, so I took a couple of years off and came to quilting as a very practical thing. I had a lot of fabric lying around my house that I wanted to reuse… It’s come from there, and I’ve been trying to combine the two for a couple of years now.

KL: I just want to say – quilting takes up a lot of space.

SW: Right, a different kind of space though.

CL: But not quite as smelly as oil painting. Speaking of your roots – you’re both from Chicago and now living in New York, and you’ve both made depictions of maps or places in your work. Do you feel that the physicality of fiber arts is connected to your sense of place?

SW: I think for me it is. I live out in New York now but I still go back to Chicago when I can – I drive back every time, so I’m passing these farmlands very quickly… it’s this weird, ephemeral thing. This inbetween space is something I’m very interested in, and I think working very physically is a way to capture that and bring that into something contained… I think there’s also something about the nostalgic aspect of quilting that goes hand in hand with our conceptions of the midwest. So those are things I’m thinking about, I’m also thinking about the materials. The green quilt has yellow duck fabric like you’d find on Carhartt pants and jackets that I was really specifically thinking about the midwest as a working area and Chicago as a working city and having that reverberate through how the landscape is built. 

CL: So you’re pulling this sense of space into the artwork by using materials that remind you of that physical space. Kevin, did you want to respond?

KL: Well, needlework is on a grid, and maps, especially New York City, are on a grid, so it makes sense to create maps. I do always identify with the city I’m living in, whether it’s originally the Chicago area and now New York, because we’re a product of our environments. But really, it was that grid.

CL: So in your case, Sam, the materials were informed by the place, and in your case, Kevin, the materials informed what you made. So the physical act of quilting or needlepoint is at issue here, too. Do you feel that this is a meditative process for you? Is creating art in general a more frenetic or calming experience?

KL: I work at a law firm during the day, and a lot of the time we have to rush, rush, rush, it’s very busy. But when I come home, sewing is such a slow process.. You pull the needle through up and out, up and out, and the repetition is so soothing… You’re stressed after work, you just come home and relax… It’s very calming, I love it.

SW: Yeah, I think the time aspect is very meditative. I have certain pieces where it was the entire summer, June through August, and that’s interesting to think about. But I’m a very messy sewer – I’m not very good at it, it’s something I came to very late – so I don’t feel like I can hit that point of zen. I’m always like, “Is this a straight line? I don’t entirely know.” But it is nice to look back at something and say “Okay, this was a season, and now it is something that is in the world.”

KL: Is yours all hand sewn or do you use a machine?

SW: Machine pieces [the patchwork of the quilt being connected], hand quilted [sewing between the three layers of the quilt: front, batting, and backing, which creates texture], usually. But I have a very old rickety machine, so I have to help it out a lot.

CL: Do you feel that this is a meditative process for you? Is creating art in general a more frenetic or calming experience? Is creating art something you’re driven to do?

KL: I have to do this. I have a creative mind, so I have to always be creating something – I just can’t seem to stop it. There are times where I have to push and move fast, but for the most part it’s a slow meditative process. And just a side note – some of my ideas come in that twilight time between sleeping and waking up in the morning, 5 AM, 6 AM. My brain is working in a different way: once you’re up you’re thinking about your day, but in that time my mind is looser. Do you have a particular time when your mind opens up?

SW: I always work best, weirdly, from 2 PM onwards, 2 PM to 10 PM is usually when I get most of my stuff done. A lot of these paintings I painted very late at night. I think I work a little differently with quilting because you need more light.

KL: But what about the ideas – when do they pop into your head?

SW: I think the same time period – I think that’s when I tend to be most active, up and about, and in the morning I feel like I’m a little foggy, like “what do I have to do next?” But that [afternoon and evening] is the period I really get to sit and think.

But I think, about your original question, kind of similar to Kevin, it’s all that I do all the time. There are times where I’m more stressed out, and the work feels really stressing, or times where I think, “Okay, I’m just going to make the most beautiful thing in the world and I’m not going to think about it.” And it goes back and forth like that. But I do think quilting generally feels more relaxed than when I’m painting, I don’t really know why.

CL: Speaking to those time constraints, you’re both artists with day jobs. Is art something you think of as a hobby, or as your “real work”?

SW: I just graduated undergraduate, and I went to Sarah Lawrence, which is a school where you don’t have to choose, you can do whatever. And I’m pursuing graduate work not in the visual arts, I’m thinking about film theory, and this is a question that I keep getting, like, “You did the art and now it's done, right?” But for me, I don’t think I’m capable of doing the art if I’m not doing something else. I get really, really bored when all I’m doing is art all the time. I like being a working artist, I like having other things that can feed me. A lot of my material comes from the other kind of work I’m doing. I’m really into this image of the subway, and so much of that comes from commuting, going to and from work and my house, and to school, and being out and about. When I don’t have access to that, my work suffers a bit – I don’t think it’s as bright as it could be.

CL: That’s a great point – I’m a writer and I never feel like I have anything to write about if I’m not working. Kevin, please, what do you think?

KL: I actually agree 100% with you – I love sewing but I can’t sew all day, so it’s both. I also never had any interest in being a starving artist living in a garret somewhere. I don’t have to be rich, but I at least have to be comfortable, I have three square meals a day and a roof over my head and then I can do my sewing comfortably.

CL: And you still feel like you have a fulfilling artist life outside of that.

KL: Absolutely.

SW: And I don’t know about you, but I also think that not being the main income takes a lot of pressure off. Like, “Is this painting going to sell? What do other people think?”

KL: Especially if you have a family to support, I can’t imagine the pressure.

CL: Absolutely. Moving more into the content of your work, Kevin, your work is explicitly political, and Sam, yours has more subtle political implications. What role do you feel politics plays in your work as an artist?

KL: It’s funny because, of the two of us, my partner is much more political than I, I’m not really a political creature, but these things seep in. You watch the news and you hear about Donald Trump and climate change, and these things work themselves through the mind. As artists we have to document what we see and experience in our lifetimes, it’s a part of it. So I don’t think of myself as political, particularly, but there’s so much of it that it works its way into my art.

SW: It’s funny because I think I’m the opposite where I think of myself as a very political person, and I’m always thinking about these things, but my work tends to get read as very apolitical. And it’s not as if I’m necessarily thinking that there’s a statement I want to make, it’s more little moments, but… The quilts, for example: I was in an airplane, looking at the fields overhead, thinking how interesting it is to have this very structured agricultural capitalist thing that we read as very natural, but is also echoed in American patchwork quilting. The tradition that quilting has is very class based in America, it’s very race based on America, and that’s something I’m really interested in and don’t really know what to do with. It’s strange to have all of these ideas and not have them come through, even though they’re what is leading me to make them. I don’t know if I’m interested in making them more explicit, but they do inform a lot of what I’m doing.

Even the paintings – I actually don’t think of the masks in my paintings as political, because I’m painting from life, but that’s the one thing people do read as very political in my paintings. But there are other things that I think of – like what it means to be in this space of public infrastructure, who’s riding the train, who’s sitting together, what kinds of duos are you seeing?

KL: What’s interesting about paintings of people wearing masks is that they’re firmly rooted 2020, 2021, 2022 – when you see a movie with people wearing masks, or an artwork with people wearing masks, you know when that work was created, it’s really specific.

SW: That’s something that I’m really interested in, too, because a lot of these are photos that I took of people on the train, but I didn’t paint for a year or so. The painting of the two girls, I think I took that in 2021 and didn’t paint it until 2023, so it’s this very specific moment but outside of time in a weird way.

CL: I also wanted to ask – it’s Pride month, so how do you feel that your identities as queer or LGBT+ people informs your work. Do you feel that marginality is an influence on your decision to work with a historical undervalued art form?

KL: Well I’m a gay man, and I have a gay brain, and gay eyes, so everything goes through that gay filter – the books I read, the art I create, the way I see the world, it’s inevitable… We have these filters. I like that needlework is a tradition associated with women and gay men, that adds a queerness to my work that I like, I like being an outsider. Chicago has a really good museum, the Outsider Art Museum, and I’d love to get an exhibit there. My gay identity absolutely is in my art, almost every piece, either visibly or invisibly.

SW: I think what you said about gay eyes is really interesting. We were talking beforehand about my favorite movies, and I said “oh, they’re all the gay ones.”

KL: Yes you did – Cabaret, Boys in the Band

SW: It’s everything I’m always thinking about. It’s weird with fiber arts because I think about it a lot with the paintings, these paintings grew out of my academic work on cruising and I was thinking about public desire. I think of my paintings as much more explicitly queer, and everyone tends to read the fiber arts as the queer thing I’m doing, like “oh, you’re reclaiming something.” It’s not that that’s not something I’m interested in – the AIDS Quilt is one of the most powerful things I’ve ever and I think about it constantly, and I always kind of feel like a failed woman when I’m sewing, because I didn’t learn until I was 19, so there’s all those layers. But I think it’s interesting that that’s what gets labeled as the more subversive thing I’m doing, and I don’t entirely know what to do with that – maybe it’s just that my gay eyes are unstoppable and it’s coming through no matter what. But I’m interested in how other people are perceiving these things, and whether I want control over that.

KL: I just put it out in the world and I let people interpret it however they want.

CL: So I wanted to ask a couple smaller questions here at the end – are there any particular artists that really inspire your work or inform the work that you do?

SW: There’s this artist from the midwest, Grace Rother, she’s a quilter who makes very traditional patchwork quilts, but she specifically tries to use only reclaimed fabric in this really interesting way. She has a blog that I read a lot and she has this whole essay about how she started quilting out of necessity, her bedspread was worn through and she didn’t have money for a new one so she made one. It’s very interesting to think about coming back to quilting as this very material thing and that materiality is informed by class and geography. I love Bisa Butler’s quilted paintings, she does these really finely detailed appliqued images. She takes historical images of Black life… they’re really colorful, and it really pushes the medium past what seems possible.

KL: I heard somewhere that when artists first start, they copy, they find an artist they like and they copy that work, intentionally or not. So, for example, I like Frank Lloyd Wright, and when I was staring out, I’d make geometric pieces that looked like his stained glass. But eventually you have to get away from copying and create your own ideas, and one of the hardest things is to be original and come up with new ideas, which is where I am now. I used to go to a lot of museums and exhibits but less now, because I’m afraid those ideas are going to seep into my work and I’d rather get an idea from the streets, or a dream. So now, no, I try not to be influenced by others.

CL: Finally, do either of you have anything you’d like to promote before we go?

KL: I’m always exhibiting at the Library, so next I’ll be up at the Epiphany branch on East 23rd Street, and I’m just starting something new. I like logos – Andy Warhol made pop art, and corporate logos are usually bold primary colors, so I thought it would be interesting to take a Burger King logo from a cup, tear it, and needlepoint the other half… That’s what I have coming up.

CL: Thank you both so much for such a wonderful conversation.

Kevin Lustik’s work is on display on the ground floor of Mulberry Street Library through Saturday, July 8. Sam Lustik’s work is on display in our community room through Tuesday, September 5. We hope you’ll take the time to come view their work, and keep an eye out for upcoming community showcases.