I met Kathleen Elliot through curator Robert Curcio who sent me her catalogue. I was stunned by the beauty of her work http://www.kathleenelliot.com/ and decided I had to chat with her. I’m glad I did. She’s a brilliant woman whose work is profound yet accessible. Check out our cool chat …
MICHAEL: Kathleen, you are literally giving new life to fruits and vegetables. I have NOT read anything about you or your work. I've just examined some photos which I LOVE. It seems to me that perhaps you're deconstructing traditional still-lifes and re-inventing them in a contemporary way through glass sculpture from 2D to 3D in form. Am I on the right track?
KATHLEEN: With my “natural botanicals,” although I might not have expressed it as you did, you are on the right track. I’m also reinventing the traditions of botanical illustration and trompe l’oeil, bringing them into 3D form. All of my work fundamentally plays with the questions, “What is real, and how do we know?” I use visual forms to provoke questions about reality about what we’re seeing or believing.
MICHAEL: And so, how do you define it?
KATHLEEN: My vocabulary is botanical. Sometimes I think I must be a simpleton because I never tire of still-lifes with fruits, vegetables and flowers or beautiful, detailed botanical illustration. After all these years of art making, I am still moved by a rendering of a single pear or a grouping of tomatoes or a beautiful illustration of a flower and leaves. Although they’re mundane, everyday objects, there’s something so fundamental, so true and right about them and their depictions. I tend to idealize them in my work to produce that moment I love to witness when people see my work for the first time, that little gasp of wonderment, the surprise that something unreal can appear so real. Making botanical forms in glass takes these objects even further. Glass is an amazing material with properties like no other, but I like to make glass not look like glass. I’m depicting objects that are organic, soft, and pliable, using a material that is hard and brittle, but making it appear organic and soft. It’s a moment of trickery, if you will; the layers of surprise when, for a second, even though they know it isn't the case, people think they’re looking at a real plant form, then realize they’re actually looking at glass and further discover that glass can actually look organic and not just shiny. I enjoy provoking those moments or even a few seconds, of questioning our reality.
MICHAEL: I would imagine that glass presents a lot of headaches in terms of breakage, etc. What's it like actually working with glass and molding it to your liking?
KATHLEEN: Yes, glass definitely has its special challenges, especially the delicate work I do. But if it's handled sensibly, it's fine. The technique I work in is called "flameworking" or its older term, "lampworking." Makers used to work the glass over the flame of an oil lamp, and now we work with torches. Unlike glass blowing where the artist works the glass at the end of a blow pipe, we hold the glass in our hands and work it in the flame, shaping it with tools. I didn't purposely choose glass as an artistic medium. I came to glass through the hobby of making glass beads, which I thoroughly enjoy. This is a lovely way to work with hot glass. It's gentle, intricate and has endless possibilities for creating tiny works of "art." It's like sculpting with butter. It's just plain fun.
Now doing sculptural work with glass is another matter. It's larger, it's hotter, it's trickier, it's expensive to make. I don't know if there is any other material like glass. The way I think of it is that we move the glass back and forth along a spectrum of solid to molten, forming and holding the shape we want as it cools and becomes more solid. It's not an easy medium. It takes a good deal of time to learn. I still find it fascinating to look at glass objects and know they were molten and shaped while in that state. It's rather magical. Glass definitely has the "cool" factor. But after all that, glass is like any other medium. It's a vehicle to express our ideas and tell our stories. The first couple of years that I worked with glass, I developed my natural botanicals. It took most of my attention just figuring out how to make them, how to work the glass and solve the problems I encountered. I remember the day I realized I had learned enough about glass that I didn't need to focus on the making any more and I could think about what I wanted to say with my work. That's when I started developing my imaginary botanicals. I suppose any medium requires time to learn enough to stop thinking about the medium itself. Glass just happens to be really cool along the way.
MICHAEL: What's the point in recreating botanicals and vegetables using glass when God does it using the real thing? What does your process bring? Or is it more about your own sense of expression?
KATHLEEN: Phew, what a question! You brought God in. Okay. God and botanicals are definitely connected. I recreate botanicals because they’re beautiful. Plain and simple, I find them beautiful. I never tire of looking at plants. In my studio, I have shelves of jars with dried plant parts, little bones, insects, and such. It feels obvious and natural that I would make these. Now and then, years later, I run into some of my early works and I’m surprised all over again with how beautiful they are. About God, I don’t belong to a formalized religion, so God is not a defined Being for me. I experience God in Nature. I experience God when I encounter either a very, very far off view or a very, very close up view of our existence. When I see images of outer space - solar systems, star nebula, solar flares, planets, etc. I experience God. I experience God when I see plants with their beautiful details – the silky feel of the white powder on the spadix of a calla lily, the prickly balls that fall off of maple trees and the teeny seeds that shake out after they dry. Looking out into what we call the universe, or looking at any small “corner”of life, if we drill down, down, down, underneath all that we understand and “know,” all our language of explanation, there’s a profound mystery that, to me, is God. No matter how serious, earnest, convicted and committed we are, no matter how much religious or scientific explanation we have, underneath it all, we really don’t know what life is and why or how we exist … and I’m sure I just offended a large number of people.
MICHAEL: Do you recall your first experience with art? How did you make the leap from that point to becoming an artist? Do you come from an art family?
KATHLEEN: No, I don’t come from an art family at all. My parents are modest, high school educated, working class people who probably never experienced art themselves. I don’t recall ever talking or hearing about art. It just wasn’t part of my reality. All the while growing up, I loved making things. I really wanted to make things, but we didn’t have money to buy materials. We had these two children’s books, “Make it Book” and “Do it Book” filled with all sorts of little projects kids could do with or without the help of their parents. Over the years, I stared at those books for hours, seriously, hours, wishing I could make the things in the pictures. In high school, I learned to sew and took one elective ceramics class and that was my “art experience.” Perhaps in my late teens, my mom did some painting; those classes where the instructor paints the background and everyone does theirs, then he paints the lake and everyone does their lake. Now and then she picks it up again.
MICHAEL: And your first experience with art?
KATHLEEN: My first experience with real art was in my very early 20’s when a friend took me to my first museum. I don’t remember much about it except I was moved by a painting of a girl and I bought a poster of it. I felt like I knew that girl, I knew the look in her eyes, I knew her feelings, I was compelled by her and could relate to her. Years later after the poster was worn and gone, I looked up the painting. It was William Bouguereau, “The Broken Pitcher.” After that, I didn’t encounter art for many years. In my mid-30’s I was introduced to glass bead making as a hobby and after years of that, I took a huge leap. I left my career and went to Pilchuck Glass School to study seriously. I was 43 and I was very determined, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it well and I went to the top glass school in the world. Along the way of working with glass, I started taking art classes and then my passion for art grew, I had my first inklings that I could perhaps become an artist and then my passion to be an artist took off. To date, I have been slowly taking art classes while raising our children. We have one teenager left at home. I haven’t achieved a degree yet and sometimes, well, most of the time, have the fear that I’m not yet really an artist. From time to time, I realize I’ve reached some new level of competence or connection or something I don’t know how to define and in those moments, I always think, “Yeah! I’m finally getting started as an artist.”
MICHAEL: Wow. That was fantastic. You're definitely an artist. I love your connection to the Bouguereau painting. I can see the beauty and serenity of that connection in your work. There's so much aloneness in the creation and appreciation of art. Could that be a reason why art seems so mysterious to so many people?
KATHLEEN: Well, art is mysterious to me! I’m not sure art is mysterious due to its aloneness though. Personally, I usually feel alone when I’m making art, but that’s because I am alone in my studio almost all the time. I don’t think that contributes to the mysterious nature of art though; it’s just the process. As far as appreciating art, do you think people are alone in that? It doesn’t occur to me that way. It seems very social. We gather around art, visit museums and art shows with others, talk about art with others, we have events about art, we listen to or read artists talk about their work, even if viewing an exhibition on our own, we still read about the art which is another form of conversation. Do you feel alone in appreciating art?
MICHAEL: Oftentimes, yes, but not when I’m visiting a big art fair.
KATHLEEN: I do still think art is mysterious though. Where the mystery mostly appears to me is the whole art landscape. There are millions of artists talking about their work and a million others saying half that work isn’t even art at all. There are gallery owners talking about which art is good and why. Critics and writers talk about what is art and what isn’t and which of it is good or bad. Art magazines publish largely unintelligible articles about art. A few artists achieve celebrity status and their works sell for multi-millions of dollars. Is their art better or are they better salesmen and business people? Some small number of artists’ work sells in the hundreds of thousands. Most artists barely scrape by. There are a few super power art dealers and collectors whose words either make or break an artist’s career. There are some discerning buyers who assemble collections of particular criteria and standards. There are little societies of art buyers who scramble to have the “cool” artists in their collections. An artist can be the new rage one month and completely forgotten the next. We have the notions that anyone can be an artist, that anything can be art if we call it such. We have myths about artists, that we have deep down ideas and feelings that we must express or die, or that we need to wait for inspiration before we create. Pop psychologists tell us to be true to ourselves and follow our bliss.
Add to all this, events such as the one Tilda Swinton and MOMA are doing as we speak. She’s sleeping in a glass box at MOMA and they’re calling that “Performance Art.” MOMA, one of the pillars of the art world is holding that up as art, so what are we to think? Some will think it’s a fabulous statement about the condition of humans in our modern culture, while others will think it’s pandering, publicity seeking bullshit.
Perhaps the nature of art is that we can’t make sense of it in our own time. Perhaps art is only made sense of a century later when historians can encapsulate a time period of art in an overarching explanation related to the cultural and political landscape. And even then, those are interpretations and not truths. Perhaps the nature of the art world, like any other realm of life, is that it’s up to each of us artists to invent what we define as success and get the best help we can in learning to achieve that. Perhaps the nature of art is that there is no real truth about art and each viewer sees in it their own truth.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. Well said. Let's talk about those unintelligible art articles. Every time I flip through some of them, I crack up laughing. They're not even serving their own best interest, although they think they are by speaking in code to other pompous windbags. It's so unfortunate. What's with the snobbery? Your thoughts?
KATHLEEN: Wow, Michael, you just jump right out there, don't you?
MICHAEL: Uh, yeah.
KATHLEEN: It is curious, this whole coded language. I hesitate to say I don’t get it because that would mean I’m not yet a “mature” artist and I don’t deserve to be included in that upper echelon of the art world. I think in any realm of career, ambitious people want to get to the “top.” These magazines, since they are such important “speakers” in the art world, presumably show us the cream of the crop of that world, or at least we are meant to think that. So artists and writers strive to be included in these magazines. Appearing there gives an artist or writer a big boost of legitimacy and stature. If that coded language is the language of the top of the art world, then I suppose artists and writers aim to talk that way.
You say they aren’t serving their own best interest. I wonder, what is their best interest? Clearly something is working there, because they aren’t going out of business. We keep buying their magazines. And it’s working in the sense of creating that notion of the upper echelon. I don’t know if the artists appearing in those magazines actually are the top of the art world or if appearing in them is a stepping stone to get there or if it doesn’t matter at all and the stars of the art world got there with no connection to these magazines at all. But the magazines give the illusion that they are important and it is important to appear in them and that’s working because artists and writers want to be included in them. I do. I look forward to the day my art appears in these magazines. It will be an important milestone in my career that I strive for. When I do get there though, I hope people can relate to my work. I hope I don’t show up as so out there in that code that my work is unapproachable. I don’t really think that will happen though. I have deep narratives of philosophy, linguistics and spirituality that my work expresses and I’m even starting to weave in some political statements. That’s all present for me and I can speak it to share my work with people who relate to art on that level. And I have a visual aesthetic that I hope evokes beauty and some wonder about the forms of the art, so people who don’t care about all that narrative can relate to it on a visual level.
MICHAEL: I find it interesting that you're considering how people will view your work and even how deeply they'll consider it. I have yet to talk with a single artist who insists that people see their work as they see it. Why is that? Do you feel that other people who see your work should share your view of it or is it okay that they have their own take on it?
KATHLEEN: Yes, it’s absolutely ok! It can’t be any other way. If there are 100 people in a room looking at one piece of art, there will be 100 experiences and interpretations of that art piece happening simultaneously. I don’t insist anyone see my art in any way other than what is natural for them. I look at art as a conversation. Art is not just the artifacts, the things we make and put out in the world. Art is a conversation. Art is a conversation between an artist and his or her work, between the art and the viewers, the artist and the viewers, the artist and other artists, critics, writers, gallery owners, dealers, collectors, texts, museums.
And yes, I absolutely do consider my viewers and how they will experience my work. Years ago, I experienced a conversation I’ve not forgotten since. A new friend invited me to meet his group of close friends. These people had known each other for years and they shared a sport that I had never participated in. Through the entire evening, that was all these people talked about. On and on they went. It was like hanging out with a football team while they talked over each play in each game, who caught the ball on which play, who tackled who when. I felt invisible. It was annoying, boring and rude and all I wanted to do was leave. I don’t want people’s experience of my art to be like that, with me droning on, focused only on myself. I’ve been to artist talks like that, the artist going on and on in their personal “code” language. Ugh. I try to imagine the viewers, how I might connect what I’m interested in with them, how my work might touch them or provoke feelings or moods, insights, ideas and questions.
I don’t mean that I make what I think viewers will want me to make. It’s not as specific or direct as that. Again, it’s a conversation and I pay attention to who I’m speaking with, how I’m speaking, how they are listening and that’s all a dance and the dance keeps evolving and changing. I don’t see any of this conversation as static and it can’t be dictated, predicted or controlled.
Every time we engage in the conversation of art, I think we have the opportunity to learn, to be touched and to change. I think it’s essential for artists to be in the conversation of art with as many people as possible. It’s how we learn, evolve, think, invent, listen, share, allow ourselves to be touched and changed, to touch and affect others. It’s the same with the actual art. Every time we look at a piece of art, even if we’ve looked at the same piece of art 50 times already, it has something new to say to us because we’re different.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. Given all of that, why do so many people seem to think that they need an advanced art degree to understand or even appreciate art?
KATHLEEN: Well, I think it goes back to the “art talk.” As soon as we move beyond appreciating art we simply like and enjoy, we run into that unintelligible language. And I imagine people have particular trouble with conceptual art, which seems more and more prevalent, since it often doesn’t have as much visual appeal and relies so heavily on the art talk. Perhaps art isn’t so different from other professions though. If I look at the major discourses of medicine, engineering, law, and science, each of these has its body of knowledge that people progress through, and the deeper they go, the more knowledge and competence they acquire. The more knowledge and competence they acquire, people newer to the discourse are less able to understand them. Perhaps art as a discourse is the same. Art has its body of knowledge too, that we all must progress through.
As you said earlier though, the writers, critics and art magazines are defeating their own purpose. IF their purpose is to make art available to more people, then yes, I think they are defeating that purpose. IF their intended purpose is to enable art folks to talk amongst themselves, I suppose they're at least partly fulfilling that purpose. I don’t know.
All that said, certainly, no matter how much knowledge and competence someone has, snobbery and arrogance are never appealing.
MICHAEL: What's a typical art day like for you? What's your routine?
KATHLEEN: I wish I had a routine! I imagine I would be a lot more productive and organized, but I am terrible at keeping routines. A typical day includes driving my son to and from school, time at my desk working on all the stuff there is to do around the art making (which is always way too much!), and time in the studio. As far as making art goes, I always work several projects at once and not necessarily in any order. All my glass work is done in my studio. Then there are other projects I can do elsewhere, so I work on those in the evenings while my family watches TV. Recently, I sewed a bunch of fruits made out of food packaging and I worked on those at my son’s baseball game. I really enjoy these types of projects I can do outside the studio. Then there are the couple of weeks before a show when I work late every night. Everything always takes longer than I anticipate so I end up in the last minute crunch. Again, the routine would come in handy!
MICHAEL: Is there any difference between creating art that you know will be part of a show compared to simply creating works?
KATHLEEN: No, not for me. I just assume all my art is going to be part of a show. If not immediately, at some point. There is one exception actually, which is gifts. I have given away so much art! It is a rare and special opportunity to be able to give gifts of art and I most often do that as thank you gifts. But even though they’re not going into a show, I make good work I’ll still be proud of in a decade. I guess I always approach work, whether for a specific show or not, as if it will be.
MICHAEL: Finally Kathleen, Where do you think contemporary art is headed and what do you want your work to say about you and your life?
KATHLEEN: It's hard to think about the long term future of my work because as much as I make the work, it teaches me. It seems I can only think ahead perhaps a year. In the next year, I want to continue with my imaginary botanicals, perhaps adding in botanical illustrations. I love traditional botanical illustrations and it would be interesting to do illustrations of imaginary botanical specimens. I've gotten very interested in the issue of genetically modified foods and have just scratched the surface of work about that. At some point, I'd like to do an exhibition on an organic farm. And I've gotten started on a series of works called "Offerings." These are hands of all sorts reaching out of the wall, each holding a glass botanical offering. I'm carving wood hands, casting, sculpting clay and I'll keep expanding the materials. I've been invited to make a proposal for a large outdoor sculpture, so that is also on the horizon.
What's so great about art and why should people care? Sometimes I imagine a world without art. I really try to see what that would be like. Imagine that the insides of our homes are all gray or white, furniture is square, household items are all basic shaped and gray, black or white, nothing hangs on the walls, rugs are square and uniform, all our clothes are gray and shapeless, all buildings are the same shape and gray, all cars are square and gray, all books and papers are plain white with the same font, there are no magazines, there's no sculpture, no paintings, no music or performances. Basically the world is flat, uniform, colorless, and completely uninspiring.
That's what's so great about art. Art is the spice of life and without it, life is colorless and tasteless.
MICHAEL: It most certainly would be. Thanks Kathleen. This has been great!
KATHLEEN: Thank you, Michael! I have thoroughly enjoyed our conversation and I wish you the best.
Check out Kathleen and her work at http://www.kathleenelliot.com/.