By Jennifer McDonell
The Albion College art department invited Katie St. Clair, a fine arts graduate student from the University of Michigan, to complete an artist in residency program at the Bobbitt Art Center during the Fall 2014 semester. St. Clair combines nature, photography and paint to create intricate collages that grapple with themes such as decay, life, death and rebirth. St. Clair “sees stories in the landscapes,” and finds that Albion is just one of the many places where she can find beauty in the outside world. She spends time working on her exhibit, “Waterlogged,” in Bobbitt, and riding her bike around town and tracking the water system of the Kalamazoo River. She has been using twigs, leaves, and images she finds in Albion and the surrounding area to create ice-cylinders that drip color onto canvas. Because the paintings are divided among many themes and symbolize a crisscross connection of ideas, their names reflect that, many touting ones that sound similar to a familiar word, but make a play on the sound. Katie spoke with the Pleiad about her career as an artist and student, as well as the work she has been doing at Albion this semester.
Pleiad: I get the impression that you are trying to show us the layers of nature and asking us to peel them back in your paintings. What are you trying to communicate through your work?
St.Clair: I think that layers in general are really important in the work, because I see layers as lived experience. I see layers as kind of a skin that as people we wear around. I think that the paintings can be read as that complex. I think a bunch of it is surprise too, that when you put things together that you weren’t expecting, the juxtaposition really can be arresting. There are a bunch of things with layers that are hugely important. When it comes to the natural world, it is all about layers. Decomposition, my work has very much to do with things breaking down, growing again, and also, especially in this show, washing away. I’ve been tracking Albion’s water systems, which has been a really fun way to kind of explore the town because I normally explore on my bike. Waterways are so connected metaphorically to the body of earth being a body, being very similar to us as in the way that we have veins and tributaries and movement, that somehow has a flow and an ebb and everything water has.
What did you find on your bike ride from Ann Arbor to Marquette? Did that change your perspective on Michigan?
I’ve always had a secret love affair with Michigan. Ever since I was a kid, we used to vacation here and when we would cross over the border I would be like, ‘MICHIGAN!’ It’s really quite funny because it is still the Midwest but there is something intrinsically magical about the northern climate and the water totally intrigues me. So when I went over to the lake side to bike up (I was on the lake most of the way) and I am constantly shocked of the kindness of people in Michigan, the kind of groundedness, the beauty, the dichotomy. Going to school in Ann Arbor and knowing how that functions and then seeing how it functions in the northern parts, I mean Grand Rapids has a totally different feeling from Lansing and Albion—In Marquette you are in a whole different world and it feels exciting and comfortable at the same time.
How had your time at Parsons differed from your time in Michigan?
I have spent a lot of time in the big cities. I loved being in New York when I was there for three years. That was great and there were things about it that were wonderful but it didn’t necessarily match what I was interested in looking at and my lifestyle, I’m not a big partier. I remember having the realization after being there for a couple years and it just clicked, I’m like, oh, I have this whole garden growing on my fire escape because I literally don’t have any dirt to call my own, not that it is ever my own. But that had always been such an intrinsic part of my life and I’m wondering what am I doing, like I throw parties for my friends to come over to my New York apartment? I could be doing this anywhere, and I’m paying crazy rent. I mean the best parts of New York were that you could people watch and go to really fun markets and I love the cultural diversity, like that is spectacular, it is like traveling every time you leave your house.
What is the education like at Parsons?
I attended a residency there. I wasn’t a formal student in that way. But when I was there they gave us so much freedom, freedom I have never had in a studio practice before. They had critics coming in to encourage us and group critiques and readings. There was some structure, but very little, almost like a European style education, which was great. I think it can be really confusing because you have to be self-directed and self-driven. It made me grow up really fast; I was in my sophomore or junior year of undergrad– just to be completely immersed in this city that has a heartbeat. I found my way certainly, I wasn’t about to leave New York with my tail between my legs.
When did you decide to go to University of Michigan for graduate studies?
I was living in New York and strangely enough I lost my job because of the market crash. Meanwhile, I was kind of dreaming about a trip to South America but I knew I didn’t have the time. And literally within a week after scheming about this I got the news that I wouldn’t have a job anymore and I was like, ok! Done, bye. And I packed up and I decided that I was going to travel for a few months and then I was going to go back to Cincinnati for a few months and apply for graduate school and then travel more which is more or less what happened. I got some work in Cincinnati that I wasn’t expecting so I stayed a lot longer than I had anticipated but ended up getting into graduate school. I applied to Cranbrook for my MFA and I was in Chicago at a conference and the University of Michigan was in the same room as Cranbrook. I went in to apply for Cranbrook and there was such a long line I thought oh why not? I’ll apply to U of M while I’m waiting. Well the funny thing is I learned it was like a fully-funded three year program, they gave you a traveling stipend—it was perfect for me. I was sold. And then it was my turn to go to Cranbrook and I was like yeah yeah, whatever. It was like falling in love.
What was it like to combine work in the School of Natural Resources and creative writing while at University of Michigan? Did they lend themselves to each other?
I’ve always struggled with writing; I am dyslexic so it has always been a real challenge for me. But it is in my personality that when I am challenged with something I hit it head on, I’m not one to shy away from those things. So when I started everyone told me that I wrote like a poet and I was like well I just can’t figure out this whole writing thing, it is so hard and so instead of trying to control my writing and force it to be something that it wasn’t, I just let myself do the writing I wanted to do and all of the sudden it became a creative practice and then it started opening doors up to my own practice with art and I was like oh, I’m really starting to get some insight into a practice I never would have had if I hadn’t done this writing. So it kind of blew my mind. And so now I’ll consistently write if I have a problem or ideas or if I’m just out and about and need to capture a moment, I tend to pull out my journals. My journals are all writing, sometimes a doodle, but most of it is writing and I also love lists.
I think poetry does do the same things the paintings do. They give you a sense of a landscape, a sense of objects, but they don’t necessarily spell them out completely, they leave you guessing. I’ve written a lot of haikus where the last stanza or phrase is actually what opens the other words up into the meaning.
So you can break through that whole thing. Everything from telephone wires where I was literally using telephone cords in the imagery. It was those kinds of feelings and sensations that I was also trying to capture, movement and time and the essence of something that was growing beneath the surface. I think the structure is important, I think it helps to focus writing.
All the way through there is a mixture of imagery and word. That is how I normally write academic papers; I cut it up like collage. It’s intense. The natural world and taking courses at the University of Michigan and the school of natural resources, was highly important to me because it is my inspiration, it’s how I live my life.
I think that it is an important part of art practice to surround yourself with the things that you’re going to be inspired by. I think it is why place is important. It’s why I have boxes of old collage material and I hate putting it away. I like to walk in and see things on the floor. It makes it so much easier to dive into the practice.
What was your favorite commissioned work?
I’ve done a lot of murals and commissioned kind of stuff. My favorites are when they are pretty open about what they want. I think I’m pretty receptive and good at balancing what I would be decently good at doing along with what their intent is. And so, when you have someone who is flexible and doesn’t have a set idea, that is the best because then you can go in and you can be creative and you can bring everything that you re good at to the table. I love working with students so any time that that happens, it always makes me really appreciative of student’s thoughts and their learning their practice and how much that changes you as a person over time especially creative practice and how it morphs into life practice. I don’t know if I have necessarily a favorite I mean I got some that I feel were more successful than others. I did a mural in a mansion over the summer that was really fun, the walls were very old in the house. It had huge ceilings and the walls were crumbling but they were gorgeous, they looked like old frescos from Italy. And so I talked the woman letting me keep the walls unpatched, at least the major holes were patched but most of it I kept. I ended up making stencils, her favorite flowers were peonies, so I made stencils of peonies and they look like they are coming out of the cracks. They look like they are part of the wall, which was really fun, it was fun to work with what was there and also her hopes to have a really feminine room that at the moment looked like a crumbling, like very masculine room. And so it was fun to be able to balance those things out for her.
Have you seen your work have an impact on people? What was the woman’s reaction to your work, did she like it?
Yeah! I think the most exciting part about my work, or it seems to be, is that you can live with them over time, like you never see everything at once because it is so layered and drenched with imagery and material. They change over time and they change with what you bring to them and I really, I’ve always appreciated hearing that. The ones that I really like, I feel like yeah, it is really hard to give them up sometimes. And it is normally the ones that I’ve struggled with the most that I somehow conquered and then it is like uh that one is sticking around, that one can go. Yeah it is good in that way.
When I started these paintings behind us I had no cohesive idea what I was doing, I was just kind of throwing paint around, kind of like these round spheres. But then I was able to turn them upside and flip them over.
She combines photos from her travels that offer similar textures and colors and using them for inspiration for her paintings (i.e. coral in Indonesia) they seem to run into each and doesn’t look obscure together. You don’t think about what cement looks or what coral looks like naturally and what happens with paint naturally.
How has traveling inspired your art?
I went to Indonesia, I went to South America, Colombia, and Peru. I’ve been to Canada pretty extensively and Europe, a lot of time in Germany– Kind of running the gamut of different experiences. But every time I travel I not only gather and glean like physical materials (photographs) but I think the essence of a place ends up coming out in the work, even if I’m not thinking about it.
Like when I came back from Ecuador I remember thinking that I want to make work about Ecuador and everything I tried ended up looking really hokey. I remember being like this is stupid, like I love to travel, I love to glean on these from the space but then I don’t have anything to make. I kind of threw it aside and kept working on other things and I realized that after looking at that body of work that I had been working on after I got back: the colors had changed. The movement of some of the things I was interested in totally shifted. And it wasn’t anything I was doing consciously, but it was all of the things I had been picking up subconsciously that were working in the piece. That’s the real stuff; it isn’t forcing something to fit a mold, so you can explain it in an academic paper. It’s like wow– this is how experiences like travel can change your life without you being able to put your finger on what actually did that changing.
Ever since then I realized how important it was and I kept seeking out different opportunities to travel. Part of that is like residencies, I mean I don’t think Albion is very different than any place that I’ve ever lived for this extent of time. So it definitely feels like travel, even though I could set up a tent in my backyard and feel like I was traveling. I have a very elastic view of what traveling could be.
Do you work with the Albion students?
I’ve had some of the students kind of flutter in and out. But mostly I will find them working and ask what they are doing. And then there are some students who I seem to run into all the time. It’s been fun starting to get to know them. And of course, while I’m making the spheres in the gallery space, they are so active people want to come in and talk. So that has been a really nice outlet to get to know people.
If you are interested in learning more about Katie or her artwork, check out her website. Her exhibit is being displayed in the Bobbitt Art Center through December 5, 2014.