Katherine Coons Interview

In response to an inquiry and in addition to her artist statement for her exhibition at the Alaska State Museum, Katherine Coons supplied the following description of her work:

"As an abstract painter, I have been experimenting on unstructured surfaces that go outside the traditional stretcher bar format. The pieces in this exhibit can be termed as tapestries or scrolls, paintings on fabric, objects or sculptural forms. They are becoming more sculptural in nature and I want to continue working with more three-dimensional concepts, either through installations or (by) suspending the pieces."

"Recent tapestries such as Kathy's Wrap and Closet Drama take on a more tattered anti-aesthetic appeal, and these works transcend time and place. I think these pieces have a Native Alaskan feel to them as I view them almost as skins or hides in our contemporary fetishistic 21st-century pop-culture.

"I work intuitively; surrounding myself with materials and objects that interest me and I really never know what direction the art expression will take me. The journey involves immense physical work and each piece is demanding. The art piece must sit and incubate and over time, I rework each piece until it resonates and takes on an interesting form I value as worth keeping.Ē

This interview with Katherine Coons was conducted by email, in March 2009, for the on-line version of her exhibit at the State Museum. Questions were posed by Ken DeRoux, a former curator at the museum.

K.D.: Letís start with a few basic questions about your background: Where were you raised? How did you become interested in art, and what brought you to Alaska?

K.C.: I was born in Albany, NY and spent most of my childhood living on the Jersey coast. My mother was a seamstress, so I grew up with the notion of putting things together with patterns and constructing; sewing and knitting was a norm in the household. My dad was a free thinker and a theologian, so the family was introduced to various philosophies and religions. Art-making practices included painting murals on places that I rented after high school and during college summers. I also painted non-serious figurative paintings and would give them away. Often, I would frequent NYC and visit the theatres and galleries. It wasn't until I moved to Los Angeles and fell into the artist community, that I invested myself as an artist; something I could do as a career. I moved to Alaska because I met my husband, who is a field entomologist. We lived together in Los Angeles for four months and decided to move to Anchorage because Ken had an ongoing job. The thought of a new adventure and a change from the politics of Los Angeles for twenty years excited me.

K.D.: Judging from your earlier work, from Los Angeles, your artistic roots are in abstract expressionism and pop art. To what do you attribute your interest in Asian art and influences? And are you now (referencing your statement above) coming more under the influence of Native Alaskan art?

K.C.: I had spent some time in Europe. My studies in France and my mother being Swiss gave me the opportunity to engage in these European sensibilities, but I had wanted to visit India for a long time. When I met Ken, he had traveled to Southeast Asia, so we decided to visit India together. Also, I had gotten a residency at the Sanskriti Foundation in New Delhi in 2006. India was a shock to my being! The colors, sounds and the constant barrage of people, not to mention the mystic appeal of the Hindu religion, which mesmerized me, opened up another dimension, another way of seeing how the world operates. Now we travel often to those parts of the world; Malaysia, Borneo, Bali, Java, Thailand and Cambodia are some of my favorites. Living in Anchorage is a contrast to my Asian travels but I am greatly influenced by my environment and the Alaskan landscape. I think it creeps up on you in a subtle manner and you become more attached to and curious about its histories and people. It takes a long time to understand this dynamic. Nature is a big part of life now and I think the Alaskan landscape is becoming one of the elements that I experience more deeply as a visual artist. My travels to other parts of the world are as important too. I would have to say that my art statements become fused from my collective spirit of what I have seen and what I experience presently. They are universal in nature.

K.D.: Seeing as some of your work makes reference to Bali, and some of the visual effects in paint seem to resemble batik, do you ever utilize Indonesian techniques like batik or block printing on fabric?

K.C.: I have not used batik or block printing on fabric. It was never something I took the time to explore or perhaps it never drew me in as something to do. When I travel, I take a notebook and write my sensations, record my thoughts and draw and sketch. It is when I return home that I work and devise. It becomes a new exercise of working - putting a statement together that is only known to me, something completely new and individual. I try not to mimic but of course everything has its references.

K.D.: While the work in the gallery seems at first glance to be mostly all of a kind, tapestry-like, having dimension, etc., on closer look there are some real differences. For instance, some pieces, especially earlier ones, are more decorative; and by that I mean they emphasize pattern, repetition and embellishment, and others are more gutsy, and seem to reference Pop Art (Tie Me Up) or maybe Abstract Expressionism (Closet Drama). Any comment?

K.C.: The newer pieces are gutsy, I agree with you, like Tie Me Up, Kathy's Wrap and Closet Drama and that is where I would like to continue to go, into a more sculptural, contemporary way of using fabric where the fabric does not get into the way of the art piece. The tapestries and scrolls were another way of experimenting, another way of making paintings. I would like them to become more sculptural paintings.

These pieces created a huge challenge to me and at the moment, I am still digesting this work and the method of making them. With much of my artwork, I go back and forth from using traditional methods to more contemporary, far out things to do with paintings. I am nervous about straying from the method of painting - using paint to let the work speak. Using decorative elements or mixed media brings another dimension of taking away what the paint wants to say too. I would have to say that some of these new works are still works in progress. Perhaps time will give me more insights into these works.

K.D.: Would you care to comment on the current state of the arts in Alaska?

K.C.: I find making artwork in Alaska very challenging and I question the process of making art all the time. Is it a necessary tool and how does art contribute to the 21st century? When I lived in Los Angeles, you were validated everyday with your processes because you were surrounded with other artists and their struggles. There was the bigger banquet of cultural things to do, to see and to become inspired by.

It is very isolating for me living in Alaska. I think however that the contemporary artists in Alaska, the Alaskan Natives and the people that I know working in this area, do a great job at their craft and there is a special unique aesthetic to the art works. But there is little dialogue among the artists. People are busy with their lives, working their day jobs and getting by and I totally relate to this! Perhaps I am looking for more cohesiveness in the art community of Anchorage. Otherwise, it is a great place to make artwork. Getting it seen in other parts of the world and country is another story.