editing by Nick Pett
words and interview by Su Ciampa
About a decade ago, my friend Courtney, whom I met while living in a New York City women’s hotel run by Nuns, introduced me to the work of American artist Kathleen Lolley. Courtney met the artist at a gallery event that Lolley curated at Camp Fig in Austin, Texas. It was called “The Gentle Artist Show.”
I live far from Austin and have never seen any of Lolley’s shows in person, but from the moment I saw her work online and in prints given to me by Courtney, that show title fit: Gentle Artist is the perfect description for Lolley.
This is not to say she’s demure or deferential in her vision. Quite the opposite; her point of view is distinct and detailed. But her subject matter is highly stylized and often juxtaposes comforting and macabre images. Yet they never leave one feeling despondent.
Lolley’s work is greatly informed by the experiences of her childhood, which she recently described to me via email:
“I grew up in mostly in rural Kentucky. The countryside is lush, green and teeming with wild life. I would often daydream about the secret life of critters, ants, fish, anything that [I] came across. Many summer days were spent on my Grandparents farm. They used to grow tobacco but mainly it was a place out in the country seated in the middle of a forest. I have over 30 cousins and we would romp and play on old logs and in abandoned barns on the property.”
Growing up, Lolley also spent a good deal of time at her father’s house in western Pennsylvania, where she was again surrounded by the woods, a landscape in which she places most of her work. As an adult, Lolley does not name the geographic location where she lives other than declaring in her artist’s statement, “I currently reside in The Dark Forest where I spend most of my time making crafts, comics and art.”
She can be as mysterious as the woodland creatures in her artwork: birds and spirits, little girls and animal skeletons, benevolent demons and a prevalence of owls and owl-like creatures.
She also writes in her artist statement, “I use the forest as a backdrop. My paintings contain visual narratives usually involving imaginary creatures acting out scenes of magic and illumination.” Scenes such as that in her painting “Glimmer of Hope,” depicting a skeletal-faced figure cloaked in the head and feathers of a bird, standing in a hollow tree and looking up as what can only be described as stardust rains down gently, causing the figure to look up with a curiosity and hope. A piece of stardust is just reaching the figure’s right hand, the dagger in its left hand present but almost forgotten, as if protecting itself is, in that moment, no longer a concern.
“Glimmer of Hope” is one of Lolley’s pieces on display in a group show called “The Singing Bone,” which opened Friday at the grayDUCK Gallery in Austin, Texas. The show features work by fellow artists Katy Horan and Stephanie Chambers and runs through November 17th.
“Katy [Horan] brought us together because we have similar palettes and a crazy attention to detail. Also we paint similar themes but we each have a unique filter and use different techniques. My pieces are about darkness and illumination (shedding light on the shadow of the soul). When I sat down to paint these images I was thinking about how I could show all the magic I see on my daily walks in the forest. For example a demon rises from the dark murky water, a giant helps a dead flower come back to life, a lonely spirit is lost in a misty forest but does not lose hope.”
Lolley made a foray into the city for art school, which she described as “a way of rebelling” against her father, who would have preferred she become a housewife and mother. She went to the California Institute of the Arts, a.k.a. CalArts in Valencia, California. Her time in art school was a particularly fecund period: “I was experimenting with all forms of art; painting, photography, writing.” But she was most dominantly drawn to filmmaking. “I enjoyed making short animations and daydreamed I would weave them all together one day. But then I graduated college [in 2001] and reality sets in and you have to get a job.”
So for three years Lolley worked in the land of filmmaking: Los Angeles. “But after a while it got to me. Over three hours a day in a car just to get to and from my job. I was paid well but then it would all go to rent and gas and I felt like a hamster in a wheel. I really hated my routine.” Lolley found “salvation” in making art at night, “paint[ing] my frustrations and dreams.” Initially, she made gifts of her artwork to friends. Until, “one year I got a wild idea to hold onto everything I was making, instead of giving it away to family and friends. Finally I had enough for my first art show. And after that painting took over my life. “
Major influences on her work come from childhood experiences and exposures. Folktales have always fascinated her, as did her father’s medical books. “He was a surgeon and he always had medical books lying around. I thought the illustrations were beautiful. Before the Internet and a driver’s license these books were my gateway into another world. I was really attracted to the older ones. I would try to draw the pictures I saw, but I could never quite recreate it exactly.” As for folk art, Lolley says, “I am influenced by folk stories from around the world. It is interesting to see the similarities and differences among cultures. I see folktales as a way or a vehicle for people to make sense of the unexplainable. I try to do that in my work too.”
Lolley’s work bears similarity to that of Spanish-Mexican surrealist painter Remedios Varo, as was originally pointed out to me by Courtney and later by my art historian friend, Rebecca. When I saw Varo’s work, I immediately noticed commonalities of style and theme such as in Varo’s “Creation of Birds.”
Though not a direct influence, Lolley wrote in her email to me, “I am aware of [Varo] and her artist friend Leonora Carrington. They both are amazing artists and had lived interesting lives.” Lolley then relayed this story:
“I read somewhere that Varo was also influenced by Hieronymus Bosch, [whose] was the first piece of art I saw that deeply affected me. When I was 10 or 11 my mother had ordered a poster the ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ triptych. She saw it in a catalogue and liked the colors but when it came in the mail and she could see close up she did not like it. So she rolled it up and stuffed it somewhere in the basement. Well I found it and was frightened as well. But something weird happened, I wanted to keep looking at it. It was scary and at the same time it was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen. So I kept sneaking down to the basement so I could study the strange beasts and vegetation trapped within the paper. Every time I looked at it a different story would appear. That is also what I love about Varo and Carrington. Their work is rich in color and symbolism. They painted stories I connect with that I don’t truly understand myself… timeless mystery …”
The same can be said of Lolley’s work: there are ostensibly disturbing elements (skeletons, giants, demons) but there is always a gentleness, a protectiveness. One of my favorite paintings of Lolley’s — a print of which hangs in my apartment — is called “Belly of the Beast.” It features a small girl in a red cape asleep (or possibly dead) with a bird lying on her back. The girl is herself lying on the belly of a large owl whose body is transformed into the beginnings of a woodland garden, small trees sprouting along the edges. The question of whether the girl is unconscious or deceased could be seen as disturbing, but the feeling one gets in looking at the painting is one, ultimately, of comfort and safety. And there is a child-like quality as well as a sophistication of simplicity to the painting.
“I am very interested in exploring the unconscious influence of childhood in our adult lives,” writes Lolley in her artist statement. “When I paint, I use innocence and playfulness to explore complex themes. This playfulness comes out through a self-taught style of painting, which contrasts the dark, intricate ideas woven into my work.” She recalls making art as her first memory, explained via email, “I was an extremely shy child. If you asked me a question I would draw you a picture instead of speak.” When asked how she has evolved as an artist, Lolley replies, “I started as a child. I think my subject matter is similar now, but my technique has changed.”
She remains ever a storyteller, though the story is always ambiguous and left up to the interpretation of the viewer. She states, “In a way art is still the way I communicate with people. And I work out complex emotional feelings through the process. In the end I paint for myself, so what one gets out of it is up to the individual. But I do hope that my work conjures a sense of wonder and the viewer creates a story of their own.” She closes her artist statement simply saying, “My work is not about humans having a spiritual experience, but the spirits having a human experience.”
This turns one’s expectations of art on its head, or it does for me at least. It is a precise description of the communion of the natural world in which humans live but don’t often take notice of. Lolley, ever so gently, shines a light on it for all to see.
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