New Era American

Kim Schnaubert

Artist, Founder of Permian
West Texas

Made in America
Jul 11, 2023


Tell us about yourself.

I talked with someone recently at a wedding, an older person who's worked with a lot of artists, a printmaker, who told me that he calls himself an “artist-collaborator.” And that rang a bell with me. I like that idea of work. My work does involve other people who are making things and participating in a process. I collaborate with artists and I also do my own work as an artist and as a designer. I think about just designing a reality that I want to live in, with the people I want to live in it.

It took some time to get to a place where I feel like I'm able to do that. And then, you know, there are many irons in the fire all the time. I also make a practice of doing something that I call “dropping hooks” in the water. Figuring out how to turn an artist's ideas into reality, basically. I try to do that for myself. I dream up ideas and craft projects that seem interesting to me, and then I apply for grants. I apply for open calls. I drop hooks in the water and some fish bite. But there's a lot of no's and a lot of things don't work out. But I appreciate the thought exercise. I like coming up with ideas and figuring out how they might be possible.

You support folks in the tedium of grants and applying.

Yeah, definitely. I like working with words. I write as a practice. And so turning ideas into language is a process that I like to do.

So as an artist-collaborator, as a designer and artist, what are some of the media that you work with? I know a little bit about Permian and the bags that you're making.

I work with words and representation of self. For me, that’s always been about clothing. I'm a pretty serious thrift store shopper and have been since I was a kid. I couldn't find anything to fit my body, so my mom used a sewing machine to make clothing for me. At a certain point, I just started doing that for myself. Cutting up clothing, taking the sleeves off, or removing a collar—all of that. My relationship with clothing showed me something about construction and deconstruction.

My dad is also a contractor, so my mind also thinks a little bit in terms of building a house. As a family, we used to drive around and look at projects that were in all different phases of completion. I think about foundations and framing and wires. That kind of building has translated into my writing and grant writing too, to be able to take an idea and turn it into something physical. The Permian project was about that too. It was a conceptual idea that I had about trying to tie myself through a project back to the place where I come from.

West Texas is so oil heavy. It’s the most oil productive region in the entire world. But in West Texas, too, there's been a long history of musicians and artists and designers and people who work close to the land.

I collaborated with my sister, which was really special. We wanted to work with leather. Could we make a leather object from beginning to end in a traceable, sustainable, and environmentally thoughtful way? We learned about the leather industry and how it works and what happens when the cows are slaughtered and their skin is a waste byproduct.

Ranching is a part of the industry history in West Texas. As a designer and artist, I want to support other designers and artists and artisans as well. People working with leather, working with their hands and making things, you know, that's a dying art form. So we wanted to try to see if we could produce something with artisans that were in the region. It was challenging. And it was an interesting process. I love a process!

In one of our conversations prior to this, we talked a little bit about extraction and provenance. It's so difficult, especially now when you think about a country that prided itself on making things. Where does the Permian idea come from?

“Permian” in West Texas is everywhere as a word. The high school that I went to is called Permian High School. When I came up with this idea of calling this project Permian, it was reclaiming that word in some way. “The Permian” is a geologic period of time. It was about 250 million years ago, and it ended with the largest mass extinction in Earth's history. During that time, West Texas was an ocean, and the flora and fauna died off in the Permian era, and in time, became the oil that exists under the ground in West Texas. Now, the organic material is supporting life in another way. I thought it would be interesting to work with Permian as a more expansive idea and design around it outside of oil and gas.

It's ironic to be in a place of oil and gas that is simultaneously the site of a mass extinction that it appears to also now be contributing to one with climate change.

Yes. I try to work with that, you know, whatever that feeling is. It's a heavy one. It’s hard to figure out how to turn it into something that's positive.


What is your favorite thing “made in America?”

With Permian, we wanted to make sure that whatever we made was made fully in the United States. We couldn't find a zipper. It brought me in touch with a person named Gary Dunshee, from Big Bend Saddlery in Alpine, Texas. He is making all sorts of gear for ranch life, saddles, chaps, the ropes and whatever the horses wear. He was really generous with his time, and I hung in the studio with him a lot. He also trains people to work with leather. He works closely with Sul Ross, which is a university that's based in Alpine that passes along the knowledge of hand leather work, which is hard to find in the United States. I like a lot of the stuff coming out of his studio. A lot of my favorite Made in America stuff is coming out of West Texas.

I also love things that are reused, that have had a life, that have been on their own journey and find their way to me. I love this idea of being together for a little while, and then the object moves onto another person's life. That colors the way that I think about design as well. I want to make things that last, that can be passed along. I also think about the end of the life of the object and what it will become as a part of the earth. I don't want to make anything that's not going to decompose or can’t be recycled. I also don't want to work with plastic. Pleather is a scam.

Where do you land on animal rights? Plastic also kills a lot of animals…

There's really interesting technology being developed around mushroom leathers and lab grown, pineapple skin leather. There's grapeskin leather. For me, we only wanted to use the waste of cows that were being killed for meat. There's also a whole other leather market of animals being killed for their skin–we didn’t want to use that. As long as people are eating beef, there will be this waste.

Is there a certain craft or process you’re dedicated to, or is it really dependent on the project?

There's another part of the medium, which is the body. I work with my body expressing energy, and so I try to sort of direct that physically, which ends up looking like running, stretching. I did a performance in L.A. from January to April 2023. That was new for me. It was at the Museum of Contemporary Art, a Simone Forti retrospective, her dance constructions. There were three dance construction pieces that were performed that I did. I was embodied in the museum space, which was interesting to me, because I've worked in museums before. Art spaces have always been a place where I can find support and community. They've paid me money to do things. But most of my experience has been on the administrative side. I entered the art space from an artist’s perspective – full circle.

Embodiment is really important to me as a practice. I think about input and output. I’m in a Rudolf Steiner camp where I think that the brain is a muscle. And I try to work on that as well as other muscles in my body that make me feel strong and planted in the ground.


If you build it, will He come?

Who's he? He. She. They, whoever, anybody. Making space and building things matters. Sometimes I think they come and sometimes I think that it's just about a process of making something that ends up informing the next thing. So I think everything rolls into the next. People come along. I think if you build it they will come, but maybe not on every project. Project by project. Dropping the hooks.

Dropping those hooks is about developing ideas for myself and then putting something out into the world for me. Feels like that's all I need. I let it go after that, you know. That's a success to me, just turning my idea into something that is alive. Whether or not it ever gets built is another story. Not all ideas really should be built. Sometimes they're about developing the idea and letting it go out into the world. Maybe it's never seen. The novels that are written that are never shared? They have value and they exist and mean something. Will they come? You never know. Every now and then, somebody shows up, though.


What is your calling?

I feel in relationship with the blood in my veins. The ancestors. The people who survived. The world's history made me. I feel connected to those people, those survivors.

Blood and oil. You definitely have a relationship to the sort of subterranean flow.

Whatever is happening underground and inside. I also think growing up in the desert… there’s nothing. You just see the horizon, all the way around. And so for me, I think in those spaces, I feel there's some pressure. I feel sandwiched in between the earth and the sky. It's heavy there. It's made me want to have a more broad perspective. I like to be able to see a wide view, conceptually and literally. That helps me navigate. I want to be looking far ahead. It helps me feel like I can see both danger and opportunities.

I have spiritual practices that involve working with my body and my space and also being in communion with people who are past and present. I feel like artists are my community in a very broad sense, and so I try to maintain relationships with their work. That involves a lot of reading and just sort of trying to pay attention to what other people's experiences are and have them to broaden my own experience of the world.

Your People

Is there a symbol for you and your people?

It's something about authenticity. I think people who do the best they can to represent themselves, good and bad. I think that that's sort of what I look for as a symbol of connectedness. That is what I appreciate in people, an authentic representation of self and as best as they can get to it.

How would you define an artist?

Someone who is working with different mediums to express how they're experiencing their own reality. I am a person who thinks everybody can be an artist if they want. It's about paying attention, processing and letting something come out of you, making something, writing something down. I think that it's about effort as well. It's about care.


It's a very American thing to believe that you can express your own reality. Do you think there is an American dream or an American nightmare?

I think there's both. There are dreams and nightmares everywhere, in all places. And I don't think the American dream is any more special than any dream in any other part of the world. But I do think the United States is interesting because it's a complicated place, as all places are. The United States is a place where I hope people can come together and represent their own communities equally and share and grow and change. I think change is really important. It's scary to make changes. Change keeps you moving. Movement is really important as a part of the practice for me. It leads into these ideas about collaboration. I believe in getting everyone around the table. The more diverse community is in conversation, the more that you're able to really have an impact. I'm not really interested in echo chambers of people talking to only people who look like them or are from where they're from or, you know, who just represent something all the same.

You mentioned one of your first jobs was actually working in local politics.

My experience in politics was really eye opening for me, and I appreciate that time. It was really informative in terms of what I think about bringing people together and also how, you know, just learning how policies are made, who's making the policies, what a lobbyist is. I worked for a state representative in the House of Representatives who was also the chair of the energy committee, actually. That was very eye opening. And I was young when the veil was lifted there. I had to take some time away and figure out how I could participate in our political system moving forward. It meant that I technically left working in politics.

How are you participating now, and how would you like other people to participate with you?

I think just being in community is important and connects you with your neighbors literally. And ideally, governmental systems are representations of the people, by the people. So for me, when I look at the governmental system and who's representing, logistically, they should look like the population. That's just a very simple, logical representation that I think is ideal. That’s on every level of governmental representation generally. I think that it's just important to participate in your own neighborhood, in your own community. Volunteering at polls. I think voting is really important and just being in dialogue with people who live around you. Mutual aid is really important, as are reciprocal exchanges outside of money. Living in a capitalist society makes money front and center. But I think that there are so many ways that people can support each other by bartering, making, sharing, swapping, you know, giving space. The United States is the place where that kind of mutual aid is also baked into survival here.

I think that I definitely learned these lessons in the past few years, though. I say, “Trusted nets will catch,” even if you don't know they exist. Then you're able to pay it forward. I find humanity incredibly inspiring.


Is there something you know that you wish everyone knew?

There are certain “keys” that I feel like I figured out. One is that the road will appear underfoot if you keep moving. The road is there. Like I said, “Trusted nets catch.” Systems that one puts in place or seeds planted will grow. I think in terms of gardening, fishing, driving, you know.

You're an outdoors woman for sure.

You can design a life that feels good to you that you want to live in. And you don't necessarily have to participate or work within systems that exist around you. That’s what I would like people to know.

You seem like a book of aphorisms.

I write poetry.


Speaking of aphorisms, do you believe that you reap what you sow?

Yes. Gardening 100%. Not that everything can be reaped, though, I must say. I think some of what you sow stays sowed. Seeds sprout, but you have to consider the season. I believe in cycles and life cycles and moments and different times in life. There are different chapters.

Very Permian of you. You really do think about cycles and extinctions and growth and death.

It’s just about growing up in a place where you're so connected with the land. Like the weather is majorly impactful and can hurt you. There's a lot that can hurt you around. Awareness of the natural world is a part of my deep reality, and it helps me stay grounded. I like to watch the rain cloud.

What kind of weather can hurt you?

Well, there's hail, there's tornadoes. There's big, bigtime storms. And the weather rolls in, you can see it coming. Sometimes giant dirt storms come in. When I was in high school, I remember getting out of my car one time. Look, the wind blows all the time – there are no trees, it is so windy. But this time, the wind came with dirt. It felt like sandpaper. It stung. You’d leave your little safe bubble and run to another bubble because of the flying sand. It is an environment that you have to feel very present in.

The sunsets are incredible though. Rainbow skies all the time, every night. I was at the beach recently with a new friend, and we were walking along the water. And in the distance, there was a boardwalk and the stairs that led from the beach to the boardwalk, the horizontal lines. It was hot outside, so when I looked at those horizontal lines, I could see heat waves, and I mentioned them to my friend. And she said something like, “Oh, yeah. People think they can see those.” And I was like, “You CAN see it, right there!” But she didn't, she didn't pick up on it. I realize living in a place where there's heat waves all the time, in West Texas, your surroundings are sort of moving. It's sort of a psychedelic experience, you know. The sky is on fire. It's like rainbow skies and heat waves everywhere. That’s what being in the desert feels like.

Parts of America are really psychedelic without even being on anything. Constant movement.

Things will work out for both of us in the way that they do.

The road will appear. The road will be long.

Roads will appear indeed.

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