Joyce Watkins King

Artist Joyce Watkins King in her studio in Raleigh, Amber Nimocks
photographs by Lissa Gotwals 

The first time you hear Joyce Watkins King laugh, it takes you by surprise. King is a petite woman with a trim waist and pretty smile. But her laugh is the size of a linebacker.

It bounds from her heart with the zeal of a Labrador puppy and bounces around the room, filling the air with joy. When telling stories about herself, King laughs often, seeming surprised by her successes and strokes of good fortune, and bemused by turns of bad luck.

Local art aficionados know King as a creative force whose work has evolved through the years from representative painting to mixed-media abstracts to her current passion, creating art out of an unlikely medium: pantyhose.

She is equally as well known as a dynamic communications expert who most recently worked for the Lucy Daniels Center and who counts many years with N.C. State University’s arts program and Habitat for Humanity of Wake County among her career accomplishments. Her resume also includes designing luxury upholstery fabric, running a textile sales business, and working as a graphic designer, among other things.

King is that rare specimen who defies absolute categorization, straddling the line between extrovert and introvert, between thinking and feeling, managing to be both artistic and organized.

“I’ve always felt like an odd duck,” she says, laughing. “They say nobody is ever right down the middle – I am.”

King, who is in her mid-50’s, is also relentlessly optimistic. Over the past year that optimism has stood her in good stead as she has battled breast cancer, a fight she is taking on with all the good humor she can muster. On a recent cold winter evening she appeared for an interview looking as fresh as a spring morning, despite having spent the day in radiation treatment.

A light brown fedora set over a multi-print scarf camouflages her hair loss. Bright coral lipstick and a black floral print scarf pull her look together. She’s waiting in the small studio behind her house. It is tidy, with a high ceiling and a brown tile floor. The scent of freshly cut paper fills the air while NPR’s All Things Considered murmurs from a speaker in a corner.

A pile of pantyhose occupies the end of a rectangular worktable. A lone pink pair stretches over the back of an armless chair, looking like a long-eared bunny, rosy legs dangling almost to the ground.

Artist Joyce Watkins King burns stockings in her studio in Raleigh, NC.Textiles as a force

Pantyhose as a creative medium is just the latest way that textiles have emerged as a force in King’s artistic career. She began experimenting with them during her first artist’s residency at Vermont Studio Center in summer 2011. In the seven years before that, she had already moved from figurative painting to mixed media, creating her own “painting vocabulary” along the way.

During that time she’d created dreamscapes featuring women swimming in oceans of magazine clippings; compositions that wove together bits of Chinese writing, photographs, and flower petals; she’d made abstract hot wax creations that served as meditations on shapes and colors. Newsprint, hand-made paper, photographs, lace, gauze, cheesecloth, a stretch of cassette tape a bird dropped on her porch while making a nest: All were her raw materials.

“I love this whole freedom of starting one thing and not knowing where it’s going to go,” she said. “I was trying to get out of being so rigid.”

So as she packed for the Vermont residency, King gathered art supplies for projects she had in mind, and on a whim, grabbed five pairs of stockings from her dresser drawer. Once she arrived, she began experimenting, stretching the tights over squares of canvas, picking runs and holes in them to see what patterns emerged, layering them to study the color contrasts.

It turns out she was on to something. Steve Locke, an accomplished painter and installation artist based in Boston, told her he had never seen anyone do what she was doing.

“That stuff is really good,” he said.

His reaction gave her the permission she needed to follow her instincts. More positive feedback came from other visiting artists, and King was emboldened to embrace pantyhose wholeheartedly.

What’s most compelling about King’s pantyhose art is that it transforms a familiar source of irritation and confinement into lines, abstract shapes and almost familiar silhouettes. It celebrates the bold beauty of teal-colored hose, for example, without subjecting anyone to the discomfort of wearing them. Before you know that pantyhose is the medium, the pieces give you a vague sense of déjà vu: You get the feeling you’ve seen it before, but you can’t quite place it.

King often hangs square panels of stretched stockings together as one work, letting the patterns created by distorted black fishnets, for example, sit alongside the misshapen seams of orange-tinted sheers. Instead of a fashion accessory, you see the crisscrosses of a chain link fence; a black half moon peeking above the horizon; a row of irregular oblong peepholes. It’s a bit like lying on your back staring up at the clouds, letting your imagination find tangible objects, small stories in the curves and wisps.

Lee Tripi, an artist and co-owner of the new downtown gallery TRIG Modern, featured some of King’s pantyhose work and collages earlier this year. He describes her works in nylon as clean and modern.

020113_as_or_-21“You look at it and it catches your eye, but you don’t really know how it’s done,” he said. “As an artist, that’s really what struck me.”

Tripi has been familiar with King’s work for about a decade. The former chairman of Raleigh Arts Commission’s Public Arts Committee, he first saw King’s hot-wax encaustic work at the Visual Art Exchange gallery years ago. The texture was so appealing he couldn’t help but violate the art lover’s taboo and touch it. He asked King later how she felt about people putting their hands on her work.

“I thought it was interesting that she didn’t mind if people touched,” he said.  She’s just scratched the surface of her natural talent, he says.

Tripi is not alone in appreciating her work and sensibility. King is represented by Flanders Gallery in the warehouse district and has been featured in scores of exhibitions in Raleigh and throughout the state over the past 15 years. Her nylon-on-canvas pieces are currently on view in the lobby at Two Hannover Square downtown.

Creative beginnings

Textiles are King’s artistic birthright. Her mother and grandmother were expert seamstresses with a flair for turning out ball gowns. This knack helped King’s mother, a picture of beauty and poise, create enviable pageant dresses and collect quite a number of rhinestone-studded tiaras.

“My mother was the queen of everything,” King says.

Growing up in Oxford in the 1950s and ’60s, King herself learned to sew at a young age and quickly began discarding patterns in favor of her own designs.

By the time she was in high school in the 1970s, she was creating her own bold fashion statements – gaucho pants and palazzo pants, with bolero jackets to match. When she won a full scholarship to the N.C. State University School of Design, she enrolled in its architecture program. But it didn’t take long before she realized architecture wasn’t her calling. She switched instead to graphic and product design, with a minor in textiles, and found quick success.

“My biggest dream was to have a fabric in Architectural Digest,” she said. “And it happened before I even graduated.”

King flips open a yellowing copy of the magazine to show off her first professional triumph, featured in an ad for high-end sofas by Henredon. The upholstery patterns are botanicals, with willowy, spidery lines and muted tones.

She also discovered a knack for business, earned a degree in management, and then began to work in administrative and support roles at N.C. State, including a stint as the first development director for the school’s visual arts program. “Almost every job I’ve ever had I was the first person to ever have it,” King said. She enjoyed decades as a successful communications consultant, but all the while, thoughts of her art intruded.

“It was always tugging at me, that I wanted to get back to the business of doing art,” she said.

020113_as_or_-150Creative rebirth 

Then a textile show at the Gregg Museum struck her in the heart. The piece was made of large, net woven panels that you could see through and walk into. It used the medium of textiles in a way King had not considered. Shortly afterward, as a chaperone for a group of students on a summer program in England, she had the chance to walk through the halls of London art museums, and returned ready to set a new course.

“I went and bought a canvas and 10 acrylics and started painting again, and I’ve never stopped,” she said. She left her job at the Lucy Daniels Center with the intention of concentrating on her art. “Look, life is short, you’ve got to figure out how to do what you want to do,” she said. But her creative time has been curtailed.

“This little thing called cancer came along and altered my plan,” she says, laughing again. Doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer last May. She has been in treatment – chemotherapy, surgery and now radiation – since. As it turns out, King can find an upside to everything, even cancer.

“It forced me to slow down, and I’ve had more time to think about what I want to do and reconnect with people,” she said. “In a way, it’s actually been a gift.”

She is supported by her family – her grow son and her husband, Gary King – and friends in the art community, some of whom accompany her to treatments and stay throughout the day.

A few months ago, doctors told her they originally misdiagnosed her type of cancer. It’s less aggressive than they first thought, but the difference means she will have to endure another year of chemotherapy. But it will be directed chemotherapy, so it will be better than the first round, she says brightly.

That brightness could be her optimistic artist’s heart, or her years of communications experience talking. Whichever it is, she says it with a smile.