Kate Stewart is an excited artist. She has a show this month at Vox Populi in Philadelphia and another show opens next month, but her real excitement is derived from the Mayan Calendar and the apocalyptic aftermath. If the end happens, her paintings will be better understood. I’m not sure if this equation works or whether people would be left to see them, but that is beside the point.
In reality, Kate isn’t that excited about the world coming to an end, though it is the subject for the majority of her work. I sat down with Kate Stewart, painter and West Chester University assistant professor, at Iron Hill Brewery in West Chester to gain insight into her art over a pint.
First off, Kate does not carry the dismal outlook of someone that contemplates the world ending. She has time to contemplate while driving between her two studios, one in Philadelphia and the other in Carlisle, and her teaching job in West Chester. She enjoys the drive. It’s a time to gather information for future paintings, think about life, and critique her work through the images on her phone. (We did discuss how texting is now illegal in PA, but we don’t think critiquing is.)
Kate’s paintings are simple apocalyptic scenes, not mass destruction. They consist of smoke, a little bit of fire and bright pink skies. An intense pink can be found in many of her paintings. This is not the dreary stuff found in movies like 12 Monkeys.
Our meeting at Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant (3 W. Gay St., West Chester) wasn’t a random choice. I always let the artist pick the restaurant for the interview. I am a bit partial to Iron Hill though, especially since I painted the art work inside. You might say I’m biased, but not really. Because I go there often, I always review the featured beer selection and featured entrees first, since there is always something new to try! I opted for the andouille sausage sandwich with peppers and onions, smoked paprika aioli smothered with cheese.
Of course I had to have beer. I reached for the seasonal list; this season is the best because all the beers are strong and heavy to keep you warm during the winter months. I went with an old favorite, FE10 brewed originally for Iron Hill’s 10th Anniversary. Kate broke tradition and strayed from her self-imposed vegetarian diet during the week and grabbed a juicy burger. This too was smothered with cheese. Nestled underneath was a pile of exotic mushrooms. We both had a brief health epiphany and chose salads as a side instead of the fries. That was a wise decision because it left room for dessert. Let’s get to the interview, then I’ll tell you about the dessert and the other beer and the other beer and…
How did you get started making art?
I kind of grew up with it. My mom and her side of the family had a lot of creativity. We always had art supplies around the house, so I was always around it. I lived in Baltimore and we would go to the museum and I loved it as a kid.
Where did you go to college and what was your major?
Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA. I went in as a Bio major, but was a little lazy in signing up for classes. So, I didn’t get into Bio 101. But I really loved dissecting and the anatomical side of biology so I got into environmental science and started taking some art classes. I knew I had a propensity towards art but I didn’t want to just do that. That’s why I went to a liberal arts school. But then I changed my major at the end of my freshmen year. I majored in art and minored in art history.
Can you describe your work in general for the readers?
I work in a variety of media mainly in painting. I do drawings and collage works on paper and I also do installation. I am very inspired by the natural world but in terms of imagery, I am always thinking about the apocalyptic worlds. So over the years it’s gone through an evolution through these explosions or natural disasters – into beyond that – to what the world would be like without the constructs of society. Almost like referencing Trinova. Nature has sort of taken over because mankind is no more. My recent paintings are about re-purposing relics of our culture now and having a different value tied to them. It’s really kind of far out. I am sort of fascinated by the idea that everything we have now might not be there.
What is your favorite medium?
How do you do choose your subject matter?
I think about this stuff all the time. I have read some apocalyptic literature like, The Road, that is interesting to me. I guess I seek it out because I have an interest in it. But, I also watch things like Rachel Maddow in reference to the way I look at things and it has seeped into the way I look at politics now. They aren’t separate.
What are your thoughts on perfection?
I use to think about it a lot. I was a taper in my paintings. I masked it off with matt medium. I wanted the crispness in the paintings. Now in my paintings, I am not interested in that at all. I want messy, I want cluster, and I want it to feel really lived in and visceral. I think that my paintings used to have a real flatness and attachment and coldness to them, and I wanted that. I wanted that attachment. But now I don’t want that; I want a painting to feel lived in and experienced and labored in, to have a surrealistic feel within the piece.
As a professor at WCU what do you hope your students walk away with after taking your class?
I hope they have a sense of who they are as an artist. I hope that they continue to make work, but that they also kind of carve out a creative life for themselves. I think it is really hard that first year out to generate that enthusiasm about art and work as you’re able to do in school. I also encourage them to find a community to identify themselves with in terms of a creative community.
How do you decide when an artwork is done?
If nothing in it bothers me anymore. What I do, because I drive a lot, is I take pictures and look at them with fresh eyes while I am driving. If they feel okay and if I am excited by them still, then that’s a good thing.
For some of your shows you have painted or wallpapered the walls behind your paintings. You do this because?
I designed a stencil and painted all of that so I’ll damask the walls with my own design in those installations. For a while, before I was teaching full time, I was a decorative painter. I was in peoples’ homes constantly. I would be on a ladder listening to the radio to the atrocities going on, you know war and so forth. It was kind of gross to me that I was hiding out in these mansions while all this was going on. As Americans we have this luxury of ignoring or escaping what’s going on in the world by just staying home and turning on the tube watching Family Guy or something. So I wanted to start paying attention to that in the paintings and I wanted to have some sort of catastrophic thing going on outside of this real austere beautiful environment on the inside. Then I started to break out and think about it in terms of three dimensionality and how that would look. So I started doing the paintings in these sort of catastrophic moments and the environment was sort of enveloping and seductive. So there would be this little play, some tension.
What inspires you?
A lot. I garden extensively. I love seeing things grow. The different greens I see I can mix and bring into my paintings. Seeing things get overgrown, that’s the natural world that comes into my art a lot. I definitely go to New York as much as I can to see what’s going on and get to the shows. Apart from just my life, what I see every day, I really try to push it and see as much as I can.
Do you have any habits or routines before you paint?
Yeah, I kind of meditate a bit. It’s not like I look at an egg and meditate. I mean, I call it meditation but it’s probably not traditional meditation. I kind of just sit there and look at things. Look at everything together; figure out what my next move is and where to go in my work.
A majority of your paintings have this intense pink, why?
I love it. I love color. I love knock out color. I always come back to pink. There are so many different kinds of pink. There’s likePepto-Bismol pink, there’s neon flashy pink, there’s voluptuous fleshy pink. But I think at the heart of things it has a presence. It jumps out at you, hopefully.
What are you eating right now?
I am eating a burger. It’s a black forest burger. I have not been eating meat really, so this morning I woke up really craving a cheeseburger. So that’s why I got it, with a side salad, a nice healthy salad.
What is your favorite food?
Quiche. I love quiche. I named my cat Quiche. My husband cooks…I feel like I married Julia Child. He is a brilliant cook and cooks all the time.
What does home mean to you?
Home is where the things that I love the most are.
What is your proudest moment?
I just got a grant, a research and development grant, through West Chester, as a way to implement technology into my work. So I am going to take classes at this studio called NextFab Studio in Philly. It’s like a sculpture gym. You go in, pay a membership fee, and you learn all these different programs that allow you to use machinery like 3D printing, laser cutting. So for my stencils I am going to learn how to do the laser cutter and really know the ins and outs of it to do my own stencils.
What was your mother right about?
I was lucky. I had a mom who basically said that if you focus on what you love you will be successful. I am not making tons of money but I am happy.
Money is okay, but it isn’t what life is about. What is it about?
Trying to make money…No. I think being fulfilled and being stimulated. I feel very much those things, which makes me really happy.
Where did you grow up?
In a suburb outside of Baltimore called Catonsville.
What is the last book you read?
Just Kids by Patti Smith.
Oh God, Lots of things. My husband and I really love old Pulp novels; so, Pulp novels. We collect a lot of religious literature. Some of the darker ones, like your time is coming and it might be now. They are about the apocalypse. I collect tons of things though, like really kitschy dolls, moths; I collect cats, apparently.
Something that is important on your nightstand?
Usually the book I am reading and my phone.
Your strangest possession?
I love this weird lamp that’s made out of three deer hooves.
Favorite time of day?
I love, really early in the morning. I am not a morning person but I love when the sun rises. But I do love the evening too, that kind of alpine glow where everything is lit from behind.
I gave Kate time to finish up her burger after the interview. I had bombarded her with enough questions and side conversations to write a novel. In my head I was already on to dessert and another beer selection. I thought about the Oatmeal Cookie beer but opted for the Old Tom Barleywine and a slice of chocolate hazelnut cake, just so I didn’t feel as though I was eating two desserts.
Kate chose the old fashioned oatmeal cake with vanilla ice cream. It was as comforting as a warm muffin. She definitely won the dessert choice award. After the last round of drinks I whipped out my iPhone and broke out the speed questions. The beverages didn’t slow her down but she emailed me later. During her two hour ride home she thought about how she would have liked to change some of her answers. I said it’s all on video, no can do. But I will share that there are three other things you won’t find Kate doing: getting a twitter account, never telling someone not to pursue the arts, and she’ll never stop traveling.
Kate Stewart will also be showing at John Bakers Studio; 119 West Evergreen St.,West Grove PA 19390, during the Chester County Open Studio Tour, May 19 – 20th. For more information please visit chestercountystudiotour.com.