By Constance Garcia-Barrio
Designer and photographer Kim Soles seems so eco-conscious that I suspect her heart beats in sync with sacred terrestrial rhythms. Standing in the living room of her Mt. Airy home, with its gorgeous woodwork, I can see the trees in her backyard. The green of the leaves echoes a color in a stack of fabrics cut out from old sweaters.
“I bought the sweaters at the Salvation Army and other second-hand stores,” says Kim, giving me a cup of aromatic herbal tea. “The fabric will go into the 600 one-of-a-kind little girls’ dresses I’m making for Anthropologie.” The dresses will hit the upscale store, for which Kim also has made aprons, dishtowels and other home goods, this November.
“In the recycling process, I use as much of the sweaters as possible,” says Kim, 47. “That includes the sleeves. I make embellishments from the scraps. It’s my biggest project in a long time.”
Kim’s excitement when she points out flowers fashioned from bits of cloth recalls her face in a photo taken when she was five years old. In that picture a Polaroid camera hangs from a strap around her neck. She’s so small that the camera dangles to the hem of her dress. “I would photograph ladybugs, tadpoles, the little world inside my lens,” Kim said. She may have been absorbing images back then that would gain her entrée into top-tier stores decades later.
Kim’s closeness to nature began in the unlikely environment of McKeesport, Pa., once a steel mill town near Pittsburgh. “I would play under the overhang on the side of the house where tiger lilies and hedge roses grew,” said Kim, who has three brothers.
Kim’s delight in photography grew with time. She majored in it at Allegheny County Community College in the early 1980s. “Once the Art Department took us on a three-day trip to New York City,” Kim said. “I knew from the moment I stepped foot in Manhattan that I would live there.”
But she had to bide her time. “I didn’t have resources for an immediate move.” Meanwhile, she pursued independent studies in photography at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. (Some Northwest residents will recall the striking sensual images from Kim’s 2006 exhibition “Spirit Houses” at the Allens Lane Art Center.)
Kim bit the Big Apple in 1985 when she landed a job with Penta Group Architects. Her next position, studio manager at Guilford of Maine Design Studio in Soho, meant a decent income while she launched her accessories-design business. In 1993, Kim made the leap to freelance designer of fashion accessories. “Henri Bendel, a high-end couture store, invited me do a trunk show,” she said. “I came to the store with my whimsical painted gloves and other accessories. It was super-exciting, very expensive. I couldn’t have afforded my own wares.”
Kim’s clients also included Barney’s of New York, the American Folk Art Museum and specialty shops throughout the U.S. and Canada. Women’s Wear Daily, Mirabella, Seventeen and Brides Magazine, among others, featured her work. Developments came on other fronts, too. Kim married in 1997, and her daughter, Leila Rose, was born in 1998.
Kim lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn, for 14 years, and often visited the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. She continued to photograph while her daughter played. Immersed in the world of the young, Kim developed an art program for children at the Brooklyn Society of Ethical Culture. Then came 9/11/2001. “Something told me that it was time to leave New York City,” Kim said. “I wanted Leila to have more living space and a less hectic environment.”
Around that time a friend told Kim about Mt. Airy’s diversity. “We visited in September and moved here in November.” That very month she landed a job as assistant to Margie Ruddick, head of a landscape architecture and design firm. Kim gained experience in graphic design programs that assisted her photographic work.
Just when Margie Ruddick left to work for another firm, other changes brewed in Kim’s life. She and her husband separated amicably. Kim took a cue from nature to meet that challenge. “Trees know what to do in storm,” she said. “They sway.” Kim’s “swaying” led her to become founder and director of the Mt. Airy Healing Arts Space, which focused on holistic alternative therapies.
In 2006, Kim made another shift that brought her closer to her beloved forests. She began working part-time in an administrative position at the Wissahickon Environmental Center in Fairmount Park. She also helped develop nature programs for children ages 4 to 7. “It’s lots of fun,” she said. “I don’t see myself as a teacher. I let the children experience nature.”
Working part-time gives Kim flexibility and more time to spend with Leila. “Leila’s 13 now and a student at the Waldorf School,” she said. “Having a daughter has helped me slow down, live more in the moment. I gained patience from keeping my design work on the back burner. Leila continues to inspire me.”
Children have inspired Kim in other ways as well. She’s written and illustrated a book for children, “Peace Came Over.” Kim, whose work has appeared in several literary journals, also published “Photographing Home, Nature Spirits Unveiled.” “The more aware I am of nature beings’ energy, the more readily they show themselves,” Kim said of photographing the spirits. “Experience has shown me that what we consider the stuff of fairytales and folklore isn’t a separate realm, but one joined with ours. Children know that part of nature exists.”
The Wine Thief restaurant, 7152 Germantown Ave., is currently exhibiting some of Kim’s latest work. The exhibit, ‘Elaboration,’ mirrors images, forming illusions. Dusk steals over Kim’s backyard as we talk, and shifting leafy light does seem to conjure shapes. But I find the greater marvel in Kim’s juggling so much: photography, teaching, writing, raising a daughter and designing 600 dresses, each one unique. “When you work for yourself, you stay open to opportunities,” Kim said. “That openness lets you tap into possibilities.”
To see more of Kim’s work, visit www.kimsoles.com.