UNO art graduate returns to display her exhibit in Hexagon Gallery


Sara Meadows

Who knew quilts could be so provocative? Image courtesy of the University of Nebraska Omaha College of Communication, Fine Arts and Media.

McKenzie Phelps, a 2016 graduate of UNO comes back to present her exhibition, “The Ethereal Body.

The Ethereal Body features figurative quilts that were made from 2017 to 2019. The exhibit is a hypersexualized take on femininity, specifically centering around the performance of femininity itself.

“My work always comes from a personal place, and then I hope it translates to something more universal that people can connect to,” says Phelps.

The exhibit displays quilted nudes that are larger than life, taking up a lot of space, and Phelps describes it as a play between the empowerment of female sexuality and being commanding. She explains that the quilted nudes do not have faces, so the viewer can consume them without the pressure of them staring back.

Phelps has always used her art to express what she is feeling and dealing with, and she mentions that the quilting crowd is an extremely specific crowd, usually older women who are a bit more conservative. She gets satisfaction from making her message loud and clear and has always had the desire to push the buttons, even when she graduated from UNO.

“I got to go out with a bang,” says Phelps.

Phelps is a Nebraska native and is a graduate of UNO’s art program. She started her art journey with painting, but then discovered she has a passion for textiles shortly after graduation when she started quilting. She describes her start in sewing as serendipitous. She learned how to sew on her parents’ old sewing machine and has now been sewing for four years.

“I have always been a hands-on person, in childhood I was always doing crafts,” says Phelps.

When Phelps started college she had no idea what to do; she could not find anything that interested her, and she did not want to spend four years doing something she was not passionate about. This is when she decided to pursue an art career — she simply could not see herself doing anything else.

A big inspiration for Phelps is textile artist Sheila Hicks, who is originally from Nebraska. Joslyn Art Museum did a retrospective on Hicks that Phelps attended. She was inspired by her large-scale fiber pieces and said they really amazed her. With Phelps being a very touch-textile person, it felt like a natural transition for her.

“I loved painting, but there wasn’t that same aspect of touch involved,” says Phelps.

Phelps describes quilts as a very approachable medium — everyone can relate to them. Most of the time, people have warm feelings about quilts because they are very comforting. She hopes that people can approach her quilts as an object that does not feel too pretentious, and people can better understand the message behind them.

“I try to bring in a little humor into my work. I don’t try to take myself too seriously when I do it,” says Phelps.

Phelps hopes her work makes others think of their own biases and helps them have a good laugh as well.