Kathleen Velo is a brilliant artist who grew up in Chicago, but has spent many years in Arizona where she continues to live. Her work http://kathleenvelo.com/home.html is very refined and poignant. It also gives me a strong sense of formidability and serenity. Check it out and you’ll see what I mean. Here’s our cool chat …
“… Representation of female artists has probably improved somewhat in the past 30 years, but women are certainly not equally-represented in galleries and museum collections. If things are getting better for female artists, it is happening much too slowly ...”
MICHAEL: Hello Kathleen, I get the feeling from looking at your work that you're very intrigued by exploring the boundaries of photography ... seeing what may or may not work. Am I right? What inspires you?
KATHLEEN: Hello Michael, Thanks for the opportunity to talk with you about my work. Yes, you're right about my interest in exploring the boundaries of photography. I tend to think of the photographic process as a synergy between light, time and space and the alchemy that takes place when the photographic material is integrated. I am a very process-based artist; I've always loved the part about getting messy and seeing what happens. My initial approach, once I'm involved in an idea, is often “I wonder what would happen if....” and then I try to let things play out from there. My inspiration comes from the natural world, usually in a non-tangible, non-figurative way. For example, the way light plays off dust motes, or the elusive stillness of a lone space.
MICHAEL: Your work and approach to art is so freeing. I mean, if people simply read what you've just said, that alone should give newcomers to contemporary art more confidence about collecting about the very least. They can also be experimental and surrender. Your thoughts?
KATHLEEN: I'm not sure my approach is as freeing as it sounds. I think the key is, “Once I'm involved in an idea ...”
I am happiest when I am working on a “project,” a concept that resonates with me at a deep level. When that idea or project arrives, which is not often, I tend to view it as a gift from the gods and I try to keep my approach open until I get a sense of the best way to work with that gift. Working with photographic media and techniques can be very seductive because it is easy to get caught up in the technical or formal devices. Over the years, I've minimized my use of many technical devices in order to maximize my interaction with those elements of light, time and space. That being said, the experimentation that takes place, while often illuminating, also has a high rate of “failures”; things that just don't work for whatever reason. There is a lot of unpredictability, so when I keep in mind the spirit of the idea - whatever it is, I hope to say with the work - the failures help guide my next step.
Hmm ... This all sounds pretty cerebral and may scare off newcomers to contemporary art.
MICHAEL: Don’t worry. That’s why I’m here. We’ll keep them on track.
KATHLEEN: It would be great if newcomers to contemporary art could trust their instincts, their initial “gut reaction” to the work and not worry too much about whether it will be a good investment, if they'll still love it tomorrow (they will) and what the artist is trying to say. This is probably much easier said than done!
MICHAEL: I love your experimentation and use of photography as a tool and not only the end product. What do you think about the explosion in photography in the past few years?
KATHLEEN: Your question is a good one and I've been pondering what DO I think about the explosion in photography? I've also been traveling and have had the opportunity to view some contemporary photography in a few galleries and museums. It's always refreshing to see work in a different context and venue. Overall, I think the resurgence of photography has been very liberating, more collaborative and more ‘content aware.’ I think it brings a new openness of creativity and perception to artists (as in photographic artists) and viewers. It seems there is more acceptance of a wide variety of processes and approaches and not just the “black-and-white-silver-gelatin-print-mounted-and framed as-fine-art” even in the museum world. I love that photography, mixed media and new media often crossover. I love that an artist who has a strong traditional photographic background, has the freedom to experiment with digital, with alternative processes, with video, etc., and challenge their own ideas.
MICHAEL: Yes, that’s fantastic.
KATHLEEN: I teach traditional and digital photography to college students and I am always delighted at how fearless these students are in their approaches to subject, to process and with their ideas. I'd like to think this fearlessness is supported by the ‘explosion’ of the photographic world once they leave the shelter of academia. Photography has changed in many respects: it is no longer as solitary as it once was and I think technology has helped the medium become more collaborative, less isolative. Importantly, I think the ‘explosion’ of photography has pushed photographic artists to become more aware of their message and has given them the means to their voice. In the color digital photo world, I think it is sometimes, intellectually and formally, challenging for artists to have clarity of vision; I have great respect for artists who can work past distractions and maintain an integrity in their work.
MICHAEL: What are your painted photographs? Are they actually painted photographs? What’s the inspiration behind them?
KATHLEEN: Yes, they are silver gelatin prints with oil paint. My painted photos began with an investigation into the process of adding color to images; the emotional and psychological affects, as well as my fascination with the act of painting. I love the very tactile, hands-on involvement in image creation that painting provides. Many of the photographic images were made when I was living in England and ultimately the content of my painted photographs became very personal.
MICHAEL: What do you think about being an artist in this digitally-obsessed world where people barely look at other people let alone art because they're so focused on their hand-held devices?
KATHLEEN: I think people who look at art will do so in spite of technology. It is disconcerting to be in a gallery or museum or in front of a really wonderful public art piece and see too many people paying more attention to their devices than the artwork. But, there's always been that depressing statistic that people spend, on average, about three seconds looking at any given piece of artwork on exhibit. I don't think that has changed. I do think people are becoming more aware of the distractions of technology. Several times recently when I've looked at work in a gallery or museum, the attendant has actually thanked me for spending time really looking at the work. I think since I teach college, I see a slice of younger people who really do value the opportunity to pay attention to art and learn about ways of seeing, and ways to filter out their digital distractions. As a teaching artist, I feel I have the opportunity to raise awareness of the importance art has in our everyday world. I'd like to think every artist has this intention on some level.
MICHAEL: What do you tell your students about majoring in art these days? Don't they really need to have a plan and be aware of the harsh realities?
KATHLEEN: I encourage them to do what they love, whether it be art or physics, (or a combination) or whatever else they love. But I also tell them about the facts of being an artist. They will not make a lot of money, they will not be famous, they will get a lot of rejection, they will often be isolated, they will experience incredible self doubt and incredible gratification. Also, that the few really big "aha" moments in their artistic lives will carry them through all kinds of dark periods - both in and out of the studio; that when their peers are wondering about their own purpose in life, they will - for better or worse - have a sense of this. I tell them being an artist is both a gift and a curse. If they think it's a gift, it will be. I don't think they need to have a plan, but more practical people would vehemently disagree with this! I think the main plan they need to have is a willingness to pursue their passion. As you know, this is easier said than done and takes a tremendous amount of courage.
MICHAEL: Yes, it does. You know Kathleen, I think many if not most people give up on their dreams because of the loneliness often involved. Following a vision for your life is not easy. It's much easier to give into distractions, especially if those distractions are other people.
KATHLEEN: Yes, I totally agree. And, fortunately, I've always realized the people in my life are more important than art. I've been a single mom for 20+ years and my kids always came first. Now, I feel total gratitude that they, and others, are so supportive of me as an artist, and I know that people (the distractions!) are more important than art....maybe not by much, but still …
MICHAEL: 91-year-old artist Dorothy Krakovsky (now deceased, she passed away just before Christmas 2015) recently told me that female artists simply aren't as BOLD as their male counterparts. This was one of her major reasons why female artists aren't as prominent in museums and top galleries as male artists. What do you think? Could children and family life be a factor?
KATHLEEN: I think it may be true, in SOME respects, that female artists aren't as bold as their male counterparts. I think for many female artists, the competitiveness, the ego and the drive to be seen is not as motivating as it may be for their male counterparts. Let's face it, being prominent in a museum or top gallery doesn't necessarily mean one is a terrific artist. It may just mean men - or whoever are most visible - are better at self promotion. Also, let's not overlook the fact that many of the decision makers in museums and galleries have generally (until very recently) been white, educated, males of a “certain age” who tend to select similar artists (i.e. white male) to promote. And yes, I think children and family life may be a factor in the amount of time and energy female artists want to devote to their self promotion, their art or themselves. But the distractions of family are time limited ... i.e. kids grow up and move away, etc., and an artist who wants to create will do so in spite - and sometimes because of - children and family.
MICHAEL: You're based in Arizona. What's that climate and environment like for you? Does it inspire you and impact your work or do you create independently of it?
KATHLEEN: I interpret "climate and environment" differently depending on whether we are talking political or physical climate and environment. Politically, it is difficult to live in Arizona; the political environment is harsh, conservative and racist.
Fortunately, in Tucson and southern Arizona, there is a much more balanced political climate and I am fortunate to have a strong community of like-minded friends and colleagues for mutual support. The physical environment - vast desert spaces and mountains of pine forests - are a spiritual haven for me. I grew up in Chicago and lived some of my adult life in the Midwest surrounded by beautiful green landscapes and water. I've lived in Tucson for 30 years now and I love the desert. I love the subtle bravery of desert plants, the light as it shifts through the day and the seasons; I love the skies - both day and night skies; I love the smell of the desert at all times of day and especially the smell of rain. I love the starkness of the desert and the soft desert air. I even dig the super hot days of summer in the desert. When I am not here, I long for the desert.
The desert absolutely informs my work and inspires me to create work with the hopes of protecting this space. I never considered myself an environmentalist or an environmental artist, but my project, “Water Flow,” which I have been working on for the past several years and continues to evolve, is directly inspired by the droughts and the overuse of water in the west.
MICHAEL: Throughout the progression of your career, have you felt things getting better for female artists in terms of representation in galleries and especially museum shows and collections?
KATHLEEN: Unfortunately, no. Representation of female artists has probably improved somewhat in the past 30 years, but women are certainly not equally-represented in galleries and museum collections. If things are getting better for female artists, it is happening much too slowly. I'm not sure the youngest generation of female artists realize what a persistent struggle it is to have equal representation.
MICHAEL: Ugh. That's terrible. I understand what you mean Kathleen. However, I do think it's encouraging that there are so many talented female artists out there. I've chatted with many of them like you. Given that, is there a message in your body of work? Long after you're gone and your work is still here, what do you want it to say on your behalf?
KATHLEEN: I agree with you, Michael. There are a lot of talented female artists around and I'm sure there will continue to be. I think what I was trying to say in my previous answer is that being an artist is a life-long process; the most talented artists - female or male - may never get the recognition they deserve if they aren't persistent and steadfast in their passion.
My hopes for the long term message in this body of work, if there is one, is that my art has brought a different awareness to the crucial shortage of water in the west at this point in time and that in a highly digital age, the beauty of the most basic photographic processes - light, time and alchemy - has helped raise awareness of different possibilities.
MICHAEL: That’s a great ending point. Thanks Kathleen. I’ve enjoyed this immensely.
Check out Kathleen Velo at http://kathleenvelo.com/home.html.