Image of a student with a blue shirt and round glasses standing with plants
May 2023

Painting with Thread

Kevin Wu 23 TX weaves colors and textures from the natural world into his designs.

“It all started during quarantine,” Kevin Wu 23 TX remembers.

That’s when he got his first house plant, a pilea peperomioides with leaves that reminded him of lily pads in the koi pond back home in Southern California. The plant became his roommate in February of 2021, when he was a sophomore. It was a time when COVID precautions could have left him feeling lonely. But the pilea kept him connected, first to nature and home, then to a community of online plant enthusiasts who shared tips and even cuttings so he could grow his collection, and then to his practice as a textile artist.

Before that first plant and the botanical motifs he weaves and prints on different fabrics, Wu, the recipient of the Warren Family Scholarship and the Marc Harrison Scholarship, was a high school student in Tustin, California, who considered becoming a veterinarian. But he couldn’t shake his love for art, so he began researching the paths of alumni from different schools and talking to his art teachers about their experiences. Soon, Wu began to think RISD was a place where he could belong. When RISD’s acceptance letter and scholarship offer arrived, Wu considered it a sign. “When I got in, I was like, ‘well, that’s settled!’ My scholarships are the reason I’m here.”

As a freshman, he turned his attention and research to RISD’s curriculum. “I had a portfolio of illustrations and paintings and I wasn’t sure what else I could do. I did my best to look at all the majors and hear from faculty,” he says. A Wintersession course exposed him to textiles, and he was intrigued. “It was a rug making class, very intense,” he remembers. “We wove beautiful samples in different colors using the amazing yarn room. I learned to paint with thread.”

Now a senior, Wu jokes that the trajectory of a textiles student is to learn everything by hand and then re-learn it on a printer. But he’s excited by the technology he can use in his designs. In his final fall semester, Wu took courses that taught him to work with Stoll knitting machines and a jacquard loom, an electronic machine that creates complex patterns such as brocade and damask, as well as a course on functional textiles that can detect stimuli from touch to temperature.

“I had been weaving by hand for a few years and honestly, I enjoyed it. But weaving takes a long, long time. Learning that there are machines that can weave my designs exactly as I imagine them is quite amazing,” he says.

Wu’s scholarships and support from the Materials Fund have made all the difference for him. On a basic level, his scholarships made attending RISD possible and the materials support means he can be more creative, purchase an upgraded yarn or experiment with a new fabric. But in other ways, the scholarships are a show of support and a vote of confidence. He had the opportunity to meet donors Helga and Harry Warren, both P 11, at last spring’s Celebration of Scholarships dinner, something he calls an amazing experience.

“Learning that there are machines that can weave my designs exactly as I imagine them is quite amazing.”
Kevin Wu 23 TX

It’s nice to know there are people out there who support my work,” he says. “This unconditional support makes education affordable and is a genuine, real way someone can help a student who is learning and exploring. It’s incredible.”

image of hands holding a small green plant
Wu says that his approach involves moving slowly and methodically, inspecting his work as he goes. “With textiles, you can’t go backwards,” he explains. “But if you notice a mistake as you make it, you can fix it and all will be fine.”

The late Marc Harrision, former faculty member and chair of Industrial Design, was a pioneer in the field of universal design. His work, most famously for Cuisinart, was dedicated to making mainstream products accessible for users of all abilities. Harrison received an honorary degree from RISD in 1999. RISD honors his legacy with the scholarship and the Marc Harrison Fund, which supports the development of courses in the Division of Architecture and Design that explore innovation in sustainable design.