Interview: Kathryn Kelley: On treading where no one hears her foot fall

by Claire Ruud

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      Kathryn Kelley
      Installation view of treading where no one hears the echo of her foot fall
      2010
      Remnant tubes, foam, door, window, hardward, rebar
      Approximately 18 x 10 x 6 feet
      when i shut up love/ the door bangs closed/ i pound and scrape/ my fingers bloody with prying/ but without love/ without hope/ tightly shut it remains/ i smell the void/ the vacancy/ the remotest parting/ and i find/ my lips part as they/ press to the frame/ to drink in the waft/ that trickles through/ i scribble down/ as fast as can/ the words that/ spill over/ and i reach/ for the handle
      Courtesy the artist

      Kathryn Kelley's haunting exhibition at Women & Their Work, on treading where no one hears her foot fall, consists of  three large-scale sculptures made of old tires, door frames and other scavenged materials. Here, ...might be good talks to Kelley about her process and conceptual framework.

      …might be good [mbg]: Let’s start by talking about your process. Where do you find your materials?

      Kathryn Kelley [KK]: I harvest my materials from mom and pop tractor tire repair shops between Houston and Oklahoma, and Houston and Lubbock. Additionally, I harvest materials from the debris beside the roads, and I scavenge from big trash pick-up days in Houston. And I’ve been known to dumpster dive if something catches my interest.

      mbg: Conceptually, why do you use discarded objects as the building blocks of your installations?

      KK: Decay. Since the age of 40 or so, I’ve had a strong almost visceral attraction to decay. I assume this correlates to noticing the first hints of my own. I know beauty does exist in decay because I see it in the deep lines of rich life etched in my grand girlfriends’ (70 years+) faces. If I can learn to find the beauty in the broken and decay in the urban waste I harvest, perhaps it will aide me in finding the real beauty in myself and others—that beauty that develops from living deeply with both the joys and tragedies of life. Living causes decay. I want to live and not be afraid of the decay. Decay bears witness to life.

      Redemption. If I can take this refuse, these broken discarded nonfunctional things, and re-value them, giving them new meaning, new purpose, and an odd sumptuous beauty, then perhaps to, I can learn to do this with my life. If I can but take the things I have considered worthless, broken, discarded, filled with shadow and sorrow, and build something new where a weird goodness can come alive right alongside the hard and hurtful things in my life, my life will be richer, deeper. If I can only learn from the making…

      Parsimoniousness. For some reason, to which I have yet to understand, I experience a high degree of shame at being wasteful with money. Using mostly trash, which is free, allows me to follow my need to make without generating feelings of shame. That makes me feel a little a better about making art that sometimes feels like a frivolous luxury.
      A little Green. When I harvest from the waste stream, if what I make is trash, I can toss it back without increasing the load of the stream. I am not a tree hugger, but some things just make sense.

      Listening. There are huge places in my life into which I have been so very afraid to look for such a very long time. My work, which is material and process oriented, almost seems like my body’s response. Through the work, I am able to disclose to myself that which I am terribly afraid to name or see. As I work, as I make, as I write, I am constantly seeing and hearing from what the forms and process reveals.

      Often this past year, I have made or written myself into many corners piled deep with discoveries I had previously swept from view. And I have listened with my gut and quit answering with my head because my head so often doesn’t want to hear. For me the writing, the making, is a listening to what God is uncovering in me. Writing and making has emerged as my primary interaction with God. Though I sense I am on track with the writing and making, I may be off in the way I apply these interactions to my everyday life.
      The writing and making is listening, but it is obvious to me that I have a lot to learn in regard to what I hear.

      mbg: The language you use to describe your work is quite spiritual—concepts like living deeply (as you put it) with our mortality, redemption, listening to God. Can you say more about how your spiritual framework informs your artwork?

      KK: My spiritual framework informs my work in terms of my own seeking and trying to listen, trying to remain open to things beyond myself and my own understanding. The work is like a physical manifestation of my seeking to know, to understand and to revise as I am able in my living. Hours on end of sewing and making, with its physicality, is an intensely contemplative experience, so at some level my making becomes very much an interactive form of communion with myself, the materials, life and my maker. Cognitive prayer has always felt so forced and unnatural and has lead me away from listening. The making of these works leads me into a type of listening I have never been able to do before, teaching and showing me new ways to be open.

      mbg: The way you describe it, I understand spirituality within your work to be mostly about process. But how does it manifest formally in the work?

      KK: Ah. I am not sure the spirituality in the process is visible in the end pieces. I think perhaps the formal tension in the work simply bears witness to the more generic struggle to balance our light and shadow within ourselves.

      My work is about process; if I was going to farm out the process of making to others, I simply wouldn’t bother. For me, the art is in the making, the process. The end piece is fine and dandy, I do care about it and consider it, but without the act of making, for me it would be somewhat of a worthless endeavor. Perhaps someday the process and end pieces will be more overtly linked for the viewer but today the pieces are ambiguous enough that the viewer typically overlays his or her own meaning on to the work. With that, I am ok.

      mbg: There are three sculptures up at Women & Their Work right now. Can you talk a little bit about the relationships amongst them?

      KK: I have been working with remnant tire elements for the past three years. They tend to be self-portraits of the silent struggles of my interior. My previous works have been more wall based, and of a singular material. These three combine various refuse materials I have harvested and are fully freestanding. Their outer shells, almost home like, represent the constructed part of my identity into which I try to force my silent self, my shadow self, which as in life, hardly contain me. All have doors, even if hidden from viewer. All have stairs. Points of entry. Exit. Opening. Closing. Each comes out of the things I have hidden from myself. For example, in my life I had built a princess like tower that kept me isolated, and I expected my husband to come for me to help me down. Yet this tower had a door, it had a ladder, and he was unable to help me see what I, too, had blinded myself to. Each piece is not titled but is instead associated with a poem I had written during the same period in which I was making. 

      mbg: Rachel Koper mentioned to me that your degree is in graphic design. How did you get from there to these large-scale sculptures?

      KK: By a slow, accidental, unexpected fall.

      The graphic design MFA program I was in respected thinking and research above all else (critical theory). They respected the computer as simply one of but many tools. I was overly dependent on technology and they wanted me to think and problem solve without it. So they (Fiona McGettigan, Beckham Dossett, Cheryl Beckett) encouraged me to set my techno crutches down. This, paired with contemporary art history courses (with Dana Padgett and David Brauer,) showed me that I simply could not just respond from the intellect, but instead had a deep need to make. And the clincher that pushed me over the edge into sculpture was the fine art electives (with Louis Jimenez and Paul Kittleson) we were required to take outside our primary field. It was like stepping into my own skin for the first time in my life. All the elements seemed to come together. It just feels so right. It is where I am supposed to be for right now.

      Claire Ruud is Associate Director of Fluent~Collaborative.

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