Lesbians You Should Know: Kathy King
Kathy King is an independent studio artist in the Atlanta, GA area and she and her assistant Kairo (40 lb. terrier-mix) run the Kathy King Art Studio. She was formerly an Associate Professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. Her narrative vessels, tiled furniture and printmaking, either presented individually, or combined in installation, present narratives from a feminist point of view. Her goal is to translate her own experiences dealing with such issues as sexual orientation, reproduction and issues of the body and gender into works of art. Her imagery, reminiscent of an underground comic book style, uses satirical humor, irony and sarcasm to map her journey from pubescence to menopause.
She has had exhibits have included solo shows in galleries, universities and museums across the nation and in Korea. She was featured as both an Emerging Artist in 1999 and a Demonstrator in 2002 at the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts conferences.
Shannon: When did you become interested in art and how did that develop into your specialty of ceramics? Was your mom one of those moms who knew you had a gift and pushed you to go that way? Tell me about that.
Kathy: Oh hell no, Kitty King’s creative outlet has always been finding bargains at Wal-Mart. I was spawned raised by two amazing and open-minded parents outside of Boston. Kitty was a secretary and Tom is still a manager at a semi-truck company. Their message was basically, “Don’t end up like us. Do what you love to do!”
I derived my love of the process of art and craft through my dad. After a full day of work he would disappear into the garage and build hot rods. He has a 1931 Model A Ford Roadster and a 1940 Ford Coupe that are insanely brought back to their original glory after 8-10 years of work - I mean talk about passion! There are so many similarities with what we do: a lot of time alone, standing on concrete, collecting tools to work with the TV on as company. I grew up going to “rod runs” and hot rod shows on the weekends so my aesthetic vocabulary of imagery including cool cars, pin-up girls, dice and flames is not a mystery!
My dream growing up was to be a pin-striper and specialize in flames. I was doing great until around age 14 when I discovered coffee and, later, cigarettes and my steady hand was a thing of the past!
Art was always something that I loved, but coming from a blue-collar existence, a thing that was not practical or reasonable to choose as a career, let alone as a field of study! I was more nervous coming home my sophomore year in college to tell my mom and dad that I was switching majors from English to Fine Arts/Ceramics than I was when I came out! They simply were happy if I was happy. I think I avoided coming out to them for years because I thought after the whole “ceramics thing” they may not be able to take much more. I mean, really, a daughter who is both lesbian and does ceramic art! I was afraid they would immediately stereotype and start picturing me in loose fitting clothing, turquoise jewelry and the rolling, desert hills of Santa Fe in the background of my “side of the road” pottery stand. They were completely cool, though, and are very supportive.
I think I may be trying her patience though at this point. You see, my mom puts up a Christmas stocking for whomever I may be dating and bring home for the holidays. I noticed last year she had started “recycling” the stockings. I noticed there was another name in glitter glue on the opposite site from that which displayed the name of the girl I had brought home. Yikes!
Shannon: You have been a university professor in the past and taught for a number of years at many different schools. What motivated you to want to teach instead of solely focus on your art?
Kathy: Well, I had always wondered about the saying, “Those who do not do, ‘teach’”. I certainly don’t believe that statement but personally, I wasn’t sure if I could “do” and “teach” simultaneously and not go insane. I never dreamed I would be able to teach university level as you can imagine the meager number of ceramics positions there are open nationally each year! I got really lucky after grad school with offers and due to the insistence of the Sallie Mae Student Loan Company that I pay the money back. I took every opportunity I was offered. Teaching is an amazing challenge and I learned so much over the 10 years I taught. The students are the best part and quite a few are some of my best friends today.
I taught at a small private art school, a private liberal arts school as well as a large, urban university. I’ve certainly been around and I know I’m a good teacher. The thing is, I gave so much to it that I started to get a bit burnt out with my exhibition demands and dedicating myself to my teaching. It is truly hard to do both and I’m not sure you can even aspire to ever have it balance out. There were certainly plenty of faculty that I observed over the years “make it work” by simply not coming into school, doing a half-ass job and finagling grad students to do their work for them. I can’t do that; I get too involved in my work and see enough amazing, dedicated teachers doing amazing things in the classroom with little recognition because they may not have the same level of academic ambition.
This past year I left my teaching position and am taking a breather to regroup and decide what I truly want to do with my life. It seemed insane at first but it has been amazing to be able to make art for no one except myself for the first time in ten years. Don’t get me wrong, I feel that I was always true to my artistic vision while teaching but the shows I would accept were sometimes fueled by being able to have one more accomplishment for the academic record than truly questioning if this was the best venue for my work. I took a position as a grant writer at the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Atlanta this year and working among such, amazing, passionate and politically active women has been more inspiring than I can say. I’ve always considered myself a “feminist artist” but actually being involved in a non-profit that works tirelessly towards reproductive justice for women has really reminded me what the label of feminist means - it is not a scary thing, it is empowering.
Shannon: When did you come out and did that have an impact on your art or teaching career?
Kathy: Well, I was a late bloomer who considered herself “bi” until my early 30’s. I wish the Debbie Harry of Blondie posters all over my room in sixth grade had nudged me towards an “alternative” lifestyle a bit earlier. I have one of those typical late bloomer stories whereby I grew up in the Boston area - completely Irish Catholic and repressed sexually but our best girlfriends were really, really, really close friends. We never questioned the role of the “best friend” of our completely butch high school field hockey coach though she still stars in some fantasies of mine to this day! (Shout out to Sue! Call me!) Anyway, it took a few bouts of falling head-over-heels in love and getting my heart dragged behind her parent’s Volvo to get me to start waking up to maybe I was just a big ol’ lezzy.
The thing is the basis of my work is exploring dynamics of human relationships as told through the voice of a contemporary woman. My experience hadn’t always been “gay” so I made art that spoke to female/male dynamics. I always assumed that the art would be about the art, not about me personally as the maker. That was completely naïve because looking at earlier work; people are still surprised that I am a lesbian. For the last five years I’ve seen a change towards keeping my work ambiguous to what the gender of the subject is to a point that it is clearly about relationships between women. I make work about what I know, so that is not surprising. I haven’t felt much of response from the public regarding this but I know the more clearly I “gay it up” the smaller my audience may end up being. I would, of course, hope it will not but I don’t need to water things down at this point in order to sell work and make it buyer friendly. I do want to speak to the largest audience possible but I’ve matured to the point that I, indeed, cannot possibly please everyone.
Shannon: Nobody can. I find it interesting that your art incorporates social statements, not just aesthetics alone. Do most people get what your art is about? If not, what do they think, say or ask about it?
Kathy: Well, my attempt at viewer seduction is mainly through the use of humor. If I can attract a viewer through the graphic-novel style narrative accompanied by one-liner jokes and sarcasm then I’m usually able to present the underlying concept as almost an after-thought. This is certainly not as bad-ass an approach as that used by say, political art, but instead almost comes across as a one-sided conversation of what I think about my place in the world as a human/woman/sexual being/lesbian etc. I find it a really freeing vehicle to bring up conversations and I DO love to talk! It has worked for me as I’ve changed personally over the years and still find it interesting to speak through how I make art.
For instance, I made an installation entitled, “To Reproduce or Not to Reproduce” as a way of representing the conversation of women discussing whether or not they want to have children. The piece doesn’t give a resolution or reflect my personal decision about the subject. It simply reflects the thought process of a woman weighing out all the aspects of it, from the vanity (what it may do to one’s breasts) to the serious (our government’s attempts to control what a woman chooses to do with her body). This type of work doesn’t tend to sell due to the size of the work but in this case a collector did buy the Rocking Chair and one of the cradles as almost a “sampler” of the bigger installation. That type of compromise can be really disappointing but I would rather know that those pieces are with a collector who will care for and respect the work while the rest of it sits in my basement!
I’ve gotten a bit smarter about this over time and started to do installations that are more modular and easier to pack, ship and sell. The most recent example was a wall installation entitled “We Need to Talk” that dealt with what one person in a relationship actually “heard”. What I mean is that often, when overwhelmed with love and lust for another person one can hear what they want to hear. In that piece that dealt with being in love with someone who was in a relationship. This was based on a personal experience and though I can say infidelity is, in my opinion, morally “icky”, still it happened and I was involved. I may not be proud of it but I did need to try and make sense of it without being so naïve as to try and justify my actions. Love is such a powerful thing and that is why a 20/20 perspective later can be so alarming! Love is fascinating.
Overall, the work, for me, is just another form of expression and I am thrilled whenever I see people approach it with laughter and end up in conversation. I get a lot of sharing from the audience with stories of everything from jilted lovers to urinary tract infections. I guess because I don’t seem afraid to be honest, that I expect the same from others. Of course, it freaks some more conservative folks out sometimes but even they have snickered at my showing a piece say, based on masturbation. I mean, even if you don’t feel comfortable about it discussing it, you know you do it!
Shannon: Kathy, when your work is on display, do you ever sit back and sort of listen to what people say about it to gain some perspective?
Kathy: Absolutely, my favorite comment that I overheard about a piece that was sexual in nature was “Wow, she needs to get laid!” At the time, they were completely correct and it was quite an intuitive observation! Overall, I think viewers just read it all as completely autobiographical and close to the “art as therapy” philosophy of making. I agree to a point but honestly I’ve found it takes me about two years to process a life experience to the point that I was to speak about it through work. By that time, I’ve added so many different thoughts and input from others into the subject matter it becomes more of a societal commentary rather than a visual representation of my journal.
Shannon: Tell me about the process of making a piece from the initial concept until it is finished. I am especially interested how you get an idea and in the "carved" aspect. How long does it all take?
Kathy: I basically make tiles, sculpt or throw porcelain clay, which provides a white canvas. When it is somewhat dry, I cover it with a layer of black, liquid clay called slip. I then carved through that layer with a blade revealing the white clay beneath to create the image. This carving is referred to as “graffito” when one wants to sound cool but it is essentially the same idea as carving a wood cut or linoleum cut for printmaking. The work is then allowed to dry, put in a kiln for the first bisque firing and then I’m ready to glaze. I glaze everything with either clear or tinted colored glaze that then goes into higher temperature kiln firing where the liquid glaze turns to a layer of glass. If my panties aren’t knocked off when I get the work out of that firing, I may end up using enamel (aka China Paint) for a third firing to deepen the color or add highlights.
If I actually figured out the time from start to finish I may never do it again so I just keep the work rotating and try not to think about it!
Shannon: What kind of support do you get from the lesbian community? Does your sexuality have any positive or negative impact on your art career?
Kathy: Well, I’ve always felt supported by the lesbian community but again I haven’t made whole bodies of work speaking to only lesbian issues (yet, stay tuned). Right now I’m really interested in ideas of gender identity and how people perceive their own identity. There are so many inspiring writers addressing the issue right now and I think something will definitely come out of that.
The only negative thing I can think of is hearing the fear of perhaps showing up in my work at some point! I must admit I do try and disguise characters in the work to avoid this. On the flip side, using the character of myself in the work allows me to draw myself 25 forever and ever. Hot for prosperity’s sake, that is my goal.
Shannon: Besides me, who do you have a girl crush on?
Kathy: Oh Shannon, what can I say? How can anyone escape your undeniable charm and endless knowledge of Jon Bon Jovi lyrics and music facts? Celebrity-wise, I would say Leisha Hailey (Uh Huh Her), Rhadha Mitchelle and Clea Duvall. Otherwise, I have a couple of little crushes right now but nothing serious. I am currently looking for someone smart, funny and not afraid of possibly being future source of inspiration. I promise I’ll be sweet - maybe.