By Patric Stillman
Cuauhtémoc Kish, an accomplished local fabric artist, has traversed a remarkable journey from a small Pennsylvania town called Natrona Heights near Pittsburgh, to becoming an inspiring creator of fabric artworks.
Born in 1949, Kish, soon to celebrate his 74th birthday, recalls how he left Natrona Heights at the age of 17, seeking a path beyond its conventional and conservative constraints. The discovery of his own identity as a gay individual was a secret he guarded to avoid any potential discomfort among his parents’ friends and family.
“I knew I was gay but I was too young and alone to know what that meant. I didn’t have community resources like they have today.”
Kish decided to serve in the Army, spending three years stationed in Germany, which opened the door to a transformative adventure across various European countries, including stays in England, Denmark, France, and Italy.
With the intention of pursuing higher education through the GI Bill, Kish settled in Pennsylvania after his military service. Joining his brother, he enrolled in Slippery Rock State College. Subsequently, he earned a scholarship in Theater Arts at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. His academic endeavors eventually led him to the University of Nevada, Reno, and San Diego State University. During this period, Kish explored diverse jobs, including working in casinos, studying court reporting and getting a cosmetology license.
“During those days, I never really considered the visual arts. I found my creative release in the theater and with writing.”
Finally settling in San Diego, Kish worked at local newspapers as a theater critic. His brother persuaded him to write children’s stories. Though they were never published, he found some success writing adult stories for several publications. He eventually self-published a book called The Sissy Chronicles.
His journey as a visual artist began unexpectedly during his time at Ayers Rock (Uluru) in Australia. Visiting a small cultural center, Kish encountered a captivating artwork created by the talented artist Caroline Sharkey. Enthralled by the beauty and intricacy of her artwork, he felt an immediate connection and decided to pursue fabric art. Without prior experience in sewing, Kish took the leap by enrolling in a local class taught by fabric artist Karen Cunagin. Guided by Karen, he quickly honed his skills, gaining mastery in the craft.
Kish’s artistic expression evolved over time, spanning a range of themes, from dancers and drag queens to political influences. His love for Mexico, fostered during his three-year sojourn there, inspired his art, often incorporating elements inspired by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s renowned works. Fascinated by the culture’s richness, he found himself particularly captivated by the duality of life and death as represented by the use of Day of the Dead skeletons in Mexican folk art.
In his artistic journey, Kish sought to embrace his identity wholeheartedly, even adopting a new name to reflect his uniqueness. The transformation resulted in adopting the moniker “Cuauhtémoc Quetzalcoatl Kish” symbolizing the God, the King and himself as “the Queen.” His partner, Jorge, has been an essential pillar of support throughout his artistic endeavors, the couple having met during a bike ride in Balboa Park in 1999.
Kish’s artistic process is fueled by inspiration drawn from his surroundings and experiences; be it political events, the inauguration, or personal encounters. While he occasionally accepts commissions, he values the freedom to create for himself, cherishing the creative flow unrestricted by external demands.
Reflecting on his journey as a fabric artist, Kish advises young aspiring artists to embark on a similar path of self-exploration. He encourages them to learn and refine their craft, taking inspiration from mentors, peers, and the artistic community.
For fiber artists, he recommends joining the national organization Studio Artists Quilt Associates (SAQA) and to participate locally with Visions Museum in Liberty Station, where they can make connections and find specialized workshops. For Kish, fabric art goes beyond the traditional perception of quilts, and he strives to elevate it to a new level of appreciation.
Kish’s artistic voyage has been one marked by discovery, self-expression, and unwavering dedication to his craft. His works are a testament to the beauty and complexity that fabric art can embody, a celebration of the diverse tapestry of life itself. As he continues to weave his art through life’s journey, Kish stands as an inspiration to all who seek creative liberation in their pursuit of artistic passion.
Cuauhtémoc Kish can be found online on Instagram at @cqkish and Facebook at @Cuauhtemoc.q.kish.
–Patric Stillman is a fine artist and gallery owner of The Studio Door. If you are an artist in San Diego’s LGBTQ+ community and would like to be featured in an artist profile, please contact Patric for consideration at [email protected].