Animal lover Iris Katz of Westminster has been a textile artist for almost 40 years and specializes in creating animal portraiture in needlepoint and cross stitch.
“A needle is my brush and my paints are yarn and embroidery floss,” Katz said.
Katz and her younger sister were exposed to the arts at an early age. Their father, Sidney Levine, was an oil painter who focused on painting landscapes as a hobby. Their mother, Bea, enjoyed drawing cartoon characters particularly Betty Boop.
The family frequently visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington. A favorite book in the Levine household was the “History of Painting” which was filled with animal art that captivated the young Katz who always doodled images of animals. She took art classes in middle and high school.
In 1974, Katz was given a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, who changed the course of her life when he was enrolled in a basic obedience class. “Quick” became the first Cavalier in the state of Maryland (a rare breed in this country at that time) to earn an American Kennel Club obedience title).
Quick became her muse and she was constantly sketching him. Eventually, “Cecily” another Cavalier entered the Katz household and was trained to compete in the dog sports of obedience, breed conformation and tracking test.
Katz did not like Home Economics in school, but after she got married, her parents gave her a sewing machine. Katz began to make her own clothing.
Then, a friend of the family thought she might be interested in learning about needlepoint. At that time, Katz was a public-school speech language pathologist for the Carroll County Public Schools.
In 1980, with the encouragement of her friend, Katz finally took the plunge and visited a needlepoint shop in Roland Park. There was an artist connected with the needlepoint shop that designed a canvas from photographs of pets. Katz took a photograph of her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel for the artist to work from.
It was spring break for the school system and Katz came down with a severe case of mononucleosis and was bedridden. Since Katz was ill, the woman mailed her the needlepoint kit featuring her dog, complete kit with basic stitch instructions.
“That kit kept me sitting quietly and busy,” Katz said.
Katz liked the kit so much that she sent another dog photograph to the woman for another kit. Katz did not think the image on the canvas was an accurate reflection of her dog, so she widened the head of the dog herself. From that point on, Katz did her own design work.
She began to do needlework images as gifts. At that time there was a good needlework shop in downtown Westminster called the Yarn Basket where she was able to get supplies. The people at the shop also gave Katz good advice.
Because Katz is involved in the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Clubs, both regional and national, she donated her needlework items with images of the dogs to their auctions to raise money. She also donates her needlework for Cavalier rescue.
Going back to her sewing machine, Katz began to create items for show dogs such as snoods to keep their ears out of the water and food bowls. She also made after-bath coats to flatten their coats after a bath. Katz also attended Cavalier dog shows as a vendor and sold them.
Katz began to get commissions for needlework on clothing. Some became auction items as well. For example, she did a cross stitch of a Cavalier on a sweater as a judge’s gift. Katz has done many commissions of dog portraits on a wide variety of materials.
Because England is the country of origin for the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, many English judges were invited to judge the breed at Cavalier shows in the United States. They were presented with customized gifts created by Katz depicting a portrait of a dog they owned from their past.
“In 1988 I was asked to make a needlepoint pillow with a portrait of a ruby cavalier (solid red color variety of the breed) from a photo of a pastel portrait that was created in 1948. The dog’s name was Poppy, the judge’s favorite cavalier,” Katz said.
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The wrapped box was presented to the judge at the dog club’s banquet. Katz recalls sitting on the edge of her seat waiting to see the judge’s reaction when she opened the box. She cried out, “My Poppy!”
“I was so touched by her response,” Katz said.
In 1989, thanks to encouragement she received from the staff at the Yarn Basket, Katz competed at the Maryland State Fair with a needlepoint soft sculpture of her cat Molson. It was awarded first place; one of many first place awards she won over the years.
Katz has also shown her textile artwork in the Non-Profit Center Art Gallery in Westminster run by the GFDC Woman’s Club. She is also a member of the Carroll County Arts Council.
Good lighting is essential and sometimes a magnifying lamp is required especially for projects requiring tiny stitches.
“I raised the bar for myself a few years ago when I stitched Cavalier head studies for creating jewelry pendants. The stitch size for those projects was 40 stitches to the inch so I was aided by using a magnifying lamp but could stitch only for an hour at a time,” Katz explained, noting that projects can take more than 300 hours to complete.
Katz continues to create her own special textile dog images while she spends time with her husband and three dogs. She also enjoys her English gardens at her home near Westminster.