An Interview with artist Katie Halton
Interview by Katie Kirk
April 14th, 2015
KK: How would you describe your work to other people?
KH: My work is representational and playful. As far as subject matter, I draw from a lot of sources—animals, humans, dream scenes, nightmares, and familiar objects. The materials I use are acrylic and marker on canvas. My sculptures are mixed media sculptures; I use common, everyday materials like wire, bubble wrap, plaster, cardboard, and paper-mache. I also like to describe them as humorous. They reference a lot of different periods and styles like the history of art, pop-culture, punk, and graffiti.
KK: So you have just started as a first year MFA student here at SAIC. There was a lot of discussion at the beginning of the year about how many representational painters there are this year. Why do you choose to paint more representationally?
KH: Representation allows an immediate connection for the viewer. This is missing for me in abstract. Abstraction feels like it is all about the formal elements. When you bring imagery in they can react to the painting on a different level. This level of accessibility is necessary for my work.
KK: Subject matter in your paintings seems to be extremely important. How do you choose your subjects?
KH: I pull from my dreams, nightmares, movies, books, music and experiences. Then I filter all of these through my imagination. I’m especially into psychedelic rock, punk and Jamaican music. I was also trained in classical piano so music has always played a central role in my art.
KH: How exactly do you see music translating into your pieces?
KK: It’s about the feeling the songs give me. I like to think about translating this emotion into the painting- the emotion I want to be conjured for the viewer. For example the painting I am working on now. I put the Dark Side of the Moon album on the right side as a reference to a kind of mood. The scene is really surrealist, weird, and creepy so the imagery references this mood.
KK: How do you incorporate ideas you read in books into your paintings?
KH: Books have always really helped me get my imagination going. Sometimes I find something in a book and I’m like whoa that is strange imagery, I’m going to put that in a painting. What really inspires me is the non-art stuff…the stuff of life!
KK: This big painting seems like it could be drawn from parts of nightmare with the hanging limbs. I like the tension your paintings have between being creepy and playful at the same time.
KH: I often put nightmare imagery into the paintings. I have had reoccurring fish nightmares for a really long time. Once I dreamed I was in this high-class penthouse where the window/wall was looking out onto the outside, except the outside was underwater. There were fishes and sharks swimming around and a fish started to bang its head against the glass to break through—and then I woke up. I used that for a whole premise of a painting a few years ago (I Dream of Fishes).
KK: So how did you start choosing the animals to put into your paintings? Were those from your dreams too or books?
KH: Well in deciding what to do for my undergraduate degree, I almost went into biology or zoology. I have always been really into animals. I’ve also always had really unique pets- lots of reptiles and exotic animals. So I’ve always been interested in the intersection of the animal world and the human world. You can really see this in my painting Night Time Playground with Skunks. (The painting shows a group of skunks scurrying across a moonlight playground). For me, a central question is—what are the tensions that exist when wild animals have to navigate man made spaces? On one hand the skunks are going across what to them is just the earth, but on the other hand, to us, it is a curated space for little humans. I really like this idea of animals existing in man made spaces. This theme exists again in my painting London Parakeets. There was this crazy thing in London in the newspapers about the overbreeding of parakeets, so there were parakeets everywhere—on buses, flying around etc.
KK: Your work seems to have this literalness to it. There is something refreshing about that. There is so much painting not trying to be painting and trying to be something else. It is nice to see painting that sort of is what it is.
KH: Yes I agree.
KK: So how did your subject matter continue to progress?
KH: So then I started to incorporate a lot of animals being used as decoration- animal hides, patterns, skeletons, taxidermy, etc. I would start with an object, say a taxidermy moose head and then I would build a scene around it (Hunting Lodge).
KK: There seems to be a lot of imagination in these; you take a lot of liberty displacing objects and figures from their normal reality.
KH: I’m always using my imagination—depicting the way I want my world to be. Sometimes I’m painting stuff I want in my house or how I would want the world to be. In this one here with the aquarium dance floor, I was interested in depicting a high-class interior. I was using a lot of imagery of cliché objects of interior design. Or like the fringe on the lamp, made out of twist ties behind you there.
KK: What is the significance of the body in your paintings?
KH: In a lot of my paintings, I look at the human body as animal. So looking at human beings as meat/blood like animals, not as these celestial beings floating on the earth. I show a lot of skeletal frames and muscles in the body to get this point across (Reflection as Meat and Bones).
KK: I can see that in the painting you are working on now. You’ve got arms hanging down as blinds and the half-man torso sitting propped on the couch.
KH: I’m really obsessed with thinking about the body, themes of body parts, discomfort, and pain.
KK: What was it like exploring those issues in the 14 pieces you did for the Stations of the Cross?
KH: I actually felt this real connection to the paintings while making them. I’m not a religious person, but I really connected to the bodily struggle in the story. This series was also really important to me because it gave me a ton of confidence in drawing. I painted them on wood and I really wanted the ground to come through. I only had one shot to lay the marks down.
KK: That confidence really comes through. The confidence and spirit of the line is really obvious in all your recent paintings too. There isn’t a sense that these were labored over and changed too many times. It feels like you lay the line and paint down and move on to the next part.
KH: Yeah totally, that’s what I’ve been trying to figure out in paint. How do you incorporate the spirit of a line, the immediacy of drawing into paint?
KK: It seems like it becomes more about these large shapes you have then. Laying out these shapes and leaving them. Not overworking them. That seems like a similar gesture.
KH: That is working. I’ve been asking my advisors a lot about this question lately and that is one thing we’ve been working on this semester. How can I translate the spirit of my drawings into my paintings? They’re encouraging me to draw with paint, so I am figuring out strategies to do that. I used to kind of cheat a lot by using the markers to depict linework… or I’m not sure maybe it’s not cheating.
KK: It’s not cheating! Also, you seem to have a lot of elements of the home recreated in your sculptures. Where do these come from?
KH: It started because I’ve always had these fantasies of creating life size tableau scenes of interiors. Since moving to Chicago, I’ve been thinking a lot about my life here. I live in the dorms and I have my studio in MacLean so I spend a lot of time in these sterile white cubes. I’m creating these things for comfort—to create the feeling of furnishings, plants, animals, etc. It just feels so barren here.
KK: That’s funny they are like comfort furnishings instead of comfort food.
KH: Yeah right, and when people come in they always go sit by the (paper) plant. Because we all just have this subconscious feeling that plants are peaceful and comforting. I like the associations these objects bring. I’m always asking why do certain objects make you feel a certain way even if it is not the actual thing, but just a representation of that thing?
KK: It seems like it’s all about peripheral vision too.
KH: Right, like you see the (paper mache) deer out of the corner of your eye and feel comforted by the feeling there is an animal or pet in the room.
KK: So tell me a little about your past and how you ended up here at SAIC?
KH: I was never trained as a painter. I started painting in 2006. I was a photo major and did a lot of wedding photography. Then I messed my back up and couldn’t work full time so I started creating paintings and drawings. At first it was really a distraction from pain. I started showing the paintings in Ann Arbor. Then people started seeing them and I started to get commissions. I applied to some residencies and go into Vermont Studio Center. It was my first residency in ten years. I wanted the freedom to make weird things and I felt like a residency would give me the space and time to do this. This was in May of 2013 and it really changed my trajectory. At Vermont Studio Center I met so many people that had their MFAs and this got me thinking about maybe going to pursue mine. My work also changed a lot. It got much more personal. It became bigger and more psychological. I was really encouraged by people there to go back to school. I found that the community I had at Vermont was something I was really craving and wanting.
KK: So why did you pick SAIC?
KH: Being from Michigan, I’ve always wanted to be in Chicago, but I wasn’t going to just move here without having a job or for school, etc. I also have a lot of friends here so that was a pull to the city as well. SAIC has a really good reputation and ranking. I went to University of Michigan, which is a state school, for my undergraduate. So I felt like I needed to go to a really competitive top school for my graduate degree. Also, in 2003 I went to Ox-Bow on a full fellowship. This was my first exposure to some of the people from SAIC and it was a great experience. So I had a good introduction to SAIC many years ago.
KK: What are your goals after graduating?
KH: I want to teach at the college level and be able to make creative work that doesn’t have to be marketable. I don’t want to have to comprise my vision for the market. This is one thing I learned from doing so many commissions. Also, I’m going to continue with painting and sculpture. The sculptures are actually perhaps more interesting to me right now. I’m constantly questioning how I am going to merge these things.