Saturday, September 19, 2009

6+ 1 Interview: Kate D. MacDowell

Kate D. MacDowell hand builds porcelain into figures (birds, rabbits, human hands, nests) that one is certain will move. But they won't, will they? Truncated, stripped back as if on the anatomist's table to reveal transposed organs and misplaced skeletons, these creatures are gorgeous grotesques, chimerae, small fragile renderings of death.

For more images and her resume, see Kate's website.

Here's what Kate told the lobster and the canary:

"I fell in love with clay as soon as I first started working with it about four years ago. Prior to that I taught English to high school students and produced websites for hi-tech companies. Although I had just finished a year and half working at a meditation retreat center in rural India, it wasn’t until stopping off in Italy for several weeks on the way home that it fully hit me that making artwork was not an indulgence but served a vital need. I’ve been lucky to be able to work in the studio full-time since then, and continue to collect visual imagery and ideas from travelling to Classical Greece, Nepal and Thailand, where I almost never take pictures, but just absorb".

Thanks Kate, and now for your questions.

Question 1: You pass finally through the hedgerows, after walking the smuggler's trace between hawthorn, rowan and bramble, scrambling over the thorn-brakes and out of blind sumps, where the windle sang mockingly and iridescent flies flocked 'round your face. At last you reach the meadow, in sunlight, and hear the sound of horns off distant hillsides. A huge oak stands alone in the middle of the meadow. At its roots is a bronze box, whose key hangs from a nail driven into the tree. What do you find when you open the box? How do you share your discovery with the rest of us?

Kate answers: I'm inclined to take this question literally as my in-law’s live at the end of a Viking/Smuggler's trace on the Isle of Man. What I have found on or around that trace in the past include: a rooting hedgehog, a jogger-attacking billy goat, a tiny shrine with a Buddha and coins, the British farm odor of burning tires and fresh cow dung, and blooming gorse. In the bronze box I find some 10-shilling notes and a bottle of whiskey (galore!) found and hidden away after the wreck of the SS Politician. What do you mean share?

Question 2: I love the C.S. Lewis quote that heads the artist's statement on your website: "We do not want merely to see beauty...we be united with the beauty we become part of it." I think often of Lewis's use of the German concept Sehnsucht, impossible to translate fully into English, but connoting a sense of longing for places we have never seen (and that may or may not even exist), of loss, nostalgia, separation. Does Sehnsucht play a role in your creative process, and, if so, what triggers the yearning, where are you trying to take us?

Kate: Yes, I think so. I experienced this very strongly reading "Tintern Abbey" in college (and bursting into tears unexpectedly in my concrete bunker of a dorm in a noisy East Coast city) and soon after I left the US for Scotland to follow that feeling. But what I was looking for seemed always out of reach, even in the apparent wilderness of a hike in the highlands I would find myself longing to experience the primeval past.

The quality of our lives, the very way we perceive ourselves and find happiness is completely different when we are living closer to the natural world. Anyone who walks into a grocery store after a three-day backpacking trip feels the jolt. I'm trying to remind myself, and others, of feelings many of us had as children hunkered down on our bellies with the grass growing tall above our heads, pondering the world of the ants and inch-worms, or caught up in the tragedy of a dead sparrow on the sidewalk.

Question 3: Your work is self-described as in part a response to (here I paraphrase) human encroachment on and abuse of the rest of the natural world. Your work speaks deeply to me in this respect: each piece strikes a warning note, embodies a mute but eloquent admonition. I see your work as standing in (among other things) the vanitas and memento mori tradition exemplified by Dutch painters in the 17th-century, reminding viewers of our prideful folly and inescapable mortality. For instance, you "dissect" birds and animals to reveal a skeleton within...and go beyond the tradition by making the skeleton human within a non-human corpse. To what extent do you reference the Old Masters, old techniques, old tropes-- and why might you do so?

Kate: I do definitely reference old tropes and specific works. My art education has been largely experiential (wandering through museums in Rome, Paris, London, and Athens) rather than academic, except for a great art history survey course in college taught by an expert on Dutch painters of the 17th century….so I respond more to what I've seen in person and what has fascinated me. So far that has included a lot of work of the Italian Baroque, especially Bernini and Caravaggio.

I think right now I am approaching my work more as a kitsch artist might (as defined by Odd Nerdrum - not in the ironic sense), than a contemporary artist - in part because the themes you mention. The evocation of emotions such as intimate loss and grand tragedy, and the utilization of parables and myths fit more comfortably for me into pre-modern frameworks. I also study natural forms closely and attempt to sculpt them realistically by hand which for the most part has been out of fashion for the last century. I also really like contemporary environmental / land art a la Andy Goldsworthy so my approach may change.

Question 4: As you note, porcelain is strong but fragile-- the threat of shattering is ever present. In one of your signature pieces, Daphne, the nymph and tree are in fact shattered. Reminds me of the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, the imperative to repair a splintered world, glue back the shards of divinity. Tell us more about your choice of porcelain as your medium.

Kate: Fitting-- I first fell in love with it because I was carrying an elaborate finished and dry porcelain piece into the studio, and it bumped into a table and shattered into thousands of pieces on the concrete floor. I was briefly in shock and didn’t have anything better to do for several hours, so started picking up the tiny pieces and wetting the edges with a brush to stick them back to each other. You can't usually do this with dried clay, but with porcelain you can. I reassembled the piece after a day or so, and fired it with few ill effects. Porcelain still develops cracks more than any other clay body, but it also seems to offer more opportunities to patch and move on at various stages.

Esthetically, I first started working with porcelain because of its’ translucent qualities, when lit from within I could evoke the effect of an ultrasound or x-ray. I could also reference marble sculpture (classical and baroque), and draw the viewer's eye to the form rather the surface colors of the piece. A pure white piece also speaks to me of ghosts or negative space--it suggests something missing from the world.

Question 5: Your earlier works seem more explicitly narrative (for instance, Tyger, Tyger), while your current style is more lyrical. Also, you no longer paint the porcelain. Tell us about the evolution in your technique and form-making, and where you may be heading next.

Kate: My earlier body of work was a visual response to figurative language, in particular, an attempt to render into three dimensional space the imagery evoked by certain poems that had stuck with me over the years ("To his Coy Mistress" and "From the Republic of Conscience", for example) . I almost always started with a title before envisioning the piece, and I still am more comfortable with words than images. My sketchbook is full of sentences describing ideas for pieces rather than drawings. The technique change (from using color and a narrative approach) followed the change in thematic focus to environmental issues.

As I move forward I want to engage much more directly with the natural environment, either by placing and photographing groupings of work in wilderness settings (the artist Lotte Glob who lives in Scotland does some interesting things, or by doing larger multi-piece installations that create more of an immersive environment (for example, a ghost rainforest: a small room in which you are surrounded by trees, leaf mold, birds, and insects all rendered life-size from white porcelain). I'm not sure when this work will get made because of practical and financial considerations, but that's where I feel the pull.

Question 6: Your figures, both human and animal, are exquisitely rendered. What is your process? How do you structure-- or not-- your periods of observation and modeling? Do you sketch regularly, and then refer to your sketches? Do you use maquettes, make bozetti, use CAD-CAM or other digital visualization tools?

Kate: I really need to sketch out variations and make tiny maquettes more often in order to explore bringing more torsion and movement into my work (as Beth Cavener Stichner does – I do sometimes make models but I usually have a very detailed mental photograph of the finished piece before I begin so I skip that step a lot.

The only modern technology I rely heavily on is the Google image search function -- I type in anything: “pigeon foot”, “dead mouse”, “frog deformity” and instantly pull up photographs from various angles. I have a dusty laptop cycling images and a pushpin covered wall of color prints whenever I'm working. I'm always looking as closely at photographic source images as possible. I work from life when I can, though a trout on a melting pile of ice in your studio is only bearable for a day or two. I rarely use or make molds although I do pick up texture by rolling clay over tiny leaves, for example. I usually build a piece solid and then hollow everything out to 1/4" thickness. The structural implications of putting together delicate and complicated natural forms are sometimes intriguing, sometimes maddening.

Lobster & Canary says: Your turn, Kate. Ask Lobster & Canary a question!

Kate: What do you recommend for the best books to listen to on mp3, disk, or tape while carving away in my basement studio for hours at a time? I love good character-driven fantasy and sci-fi (Bujold's Vorkosigan series and Song of Ice and Fire are my top choices so far primarily for cumulative length, quality, and ability to keep me sucked into the story and working through the night when necessary). But I have also had some great listens all over the map from children's books, to 18th and 19th century classics, to historical nonfiction.


Anonymous said...

great interview! I am in awe of her work, slight hero worship....

Becca said...

This is much later, but what a tremendously inspiring artist, and a very interesting interview! I'd love to see Kate at work, wonder if she'd consider a wee video.