One of the most fascinating aspects of art is that two artists can use the same exact materials and create vastly different works. Last week, I posted an interview with Heather Knight, an artist who creates abstract porcelain tiles inspired by nature’s patterns and textures. Today, I introduce Kate MacDowell, another artist working in unglazed porcelain whose work is also inspired by what she sees in nature. Whereas Knight’s abstractions of nature create a comfortable distance from which we can lose ourselves in the beauty of the repetitive patterns she creates, Kate MacDowell’s sculptures blend the hyper-real with the surreal, pulling us in with exquisite detail and then shocking us with an unexpected and uncomfortable reality. I was initially drawn to interview MacDowell because of the striking anatomical nature of her work; I had not expected to discover her deep regard for the environment and conservation efforts.
Ok, rapidfire: How long have you been creating art professionally? What type of work do you do? What’s your background?
I’ve been a sculpting full-time for about five years. I work in hand-built porcelain clay, and my work often explores our problematic relationship with the natural environment. I started studying ceramics in evening classes at the local art school and community college shortly after returning from living and traveling overseas in India and Europe. I have a Masters in Teaching English Literature, and in the past have produced websites for high-tech companies, taught high school English, and worked at a meditation retreat center in India.
Your work reveals an intimate familiarity with anatomy. Do you have formal medical or biological training?
No, though I have taken a class in figure sculpting that focused on human anatomy. I study scientific drawings, especially of skeletal systems, and both professional and snapshot photographs of the animals I’m sculpting. Sometimes I’ll watch online youtube videos of animals to see how they move and get a sense of their posture at rest.
What inspires you as an artist?
Conceptually, environmental case studies based on online reading about threatened species and environmental impacts such as climate change. Visually, people’s snapshots of road-kill up on the web, contemporary artwork I come across online, and baroque marble sculpture. I also create pieces spurred on by my own feelings of solastalgia. This word, coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht, describes the palpable sense of dislocation and loss that people feel when they perceive changes to their local environment as harmful—it’s a form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change.
How and why do you incorporate science or the natural world into your art?
I find the complexity of natural forms both inside and out beautiful and interesting, and I think biodiversity loss and climate change is a multifaceted tragedy worth exploring this way. Visuals can communicate so much, yet still be open to multiple and contradictory interpretations. So even though my starting point might be the introduction of the myxomatosis virus to control pest rabbits, or pollution in lakes affecting the sexual organs of alligators, the viewer might create a completely different narrative to explain the images.
In your experience, is realism treated with disdain in the art world? Why do you think this is? Does the surreal nature of your work allow you to transcend this attitude?
Not necessarily. It seems to be that narrative realism is perhaps more looked down upon, though, and is embraced more by the underground art/pop surrealist/new contemporary movement than mainstream contemporary art – but there are plenty of exceptions to this. I think that both the unusual material, surrealism, and dark subject matter of my work makes it different from a lot of mainstream realist animal sculpture and I’m sure that has helped with some galleries, buyers and media coverage.
If you could travel in time to any point in the universe’s history – forward or back – where would you go and what would you see/do?
Well, assuming I could take modern medicine with me and choose my gender for maximum freedom of movement, or even better yet be Emerson’s transparent eyeball, hmm… I think seeing the Pleistocene megafauna in the Americas or Asia would have been incredible, but I would be worried about getting eaten. I also think pre-Colombian North America would have been amazing to experience and document, or even the American West prior to the first railroads. I would have liked to see passenger pigeons cover the sky.
Any practical tips for aspiring artists on how to make a living doing art?
First, figure out what your niche is artistically; experiment until you find what you really feel passionate about making before looking for the market that will embrace it. The diversity of the market and the ways you can be visually creative are really pretty infinite right now with the breakdown between categories such as fine art/fashion/industrial design/film and TV. During your growth time create each piece to the best of your ability, both thematically and technically, even if it means slower production of work and fewer pieces to sell or show initially. Trying for quality helped me grow faster than trying for quantity. Try to find a consistent routine for making work (place, time, other people around you), that supports you over time and gets you through the rough spots. Get great photos of your work and have them online.
To what extent do you use social media to promote your work?
I spend a lot more time on social media for fun than for promoting my own work, although I know a lot of artists in the pop surrealism/new contemporary field who are very heavily connected to their buyers and fans through social media and keep up an ongoing dialogue. I do have a website which I edit and keep up to date myself, and I post images of every piece I finish on it in a form that’s easy for bloggers and tumblrs to borrow. I spread info through Twitter, Facebook and e-mail blasts myself, but after that I mostly let social media do its own thing and spread the photos I have out there – once you get picked up by design blogs and they start tweeting it becomes an infinitely perpetuating cycle. It’s been very good for me for the most part and brought me to the attention of international buyers, galleries, and print and online media. The key, as I mentioned earlier, is to have great, eye-catching photos, and of course make work that people are interested in looking at and discussing.
If you were conducting this interview, what question would you ask and what would your answer be!?
Hmm, I can’t really think of anything pressing, but some people ask what my dream art assignment would be:
If I had funding, a large warehouse or gallery space, and a crew of volunteers and artist collaborators I would create an installation of the by-catch of a deep-sea trawler. Basically I’d like to create a pile of life-sized dead sea-life out of fired porcelain or white clay, the approximate volume of a school bus, with here and there a brightly colored orange roughy visible, the actual intended “catch” which is not discarded.
Sounds incredible and worthwhile. Any donors willing to commission it?!