OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Katie Vota

Douglas Fur
Cut Paper
28" x 40"

KATIE VOTA’s delicate cut-paper works appear to float off the wall, casting shifting shadows that evoke the gentle motion of leaves rustling in the breeze. The combination of material and image—paper, sometimes cut to the brink of disintegration and enlarged micrographs of the cellular structures of natural dye plants—is a testament to the simultaneous fragility and robustness of nature. Katie was an artist-in-residence at ISLAND Hill House in Michigan in 2011. Later that same year, she received a Fulbright Fellowship to study natural dyes in Cuzco, Peru. Her work is currently on view in the group exhibition Under Construction at the Indianapolis Art Center through August 4, 2013. She will be a first year MFA candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the fall of 2013, and you have 9 more days to support her education by contributing to her Indiegogo campaign. Katie lives and works in Chicago.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Could you explain the process behind your current cut-paper work? How is delicacy integral?

Katie Vota: I start with the most fragile thing I can think of—an idea of form and line derived from a delicate slice of plant, laid on a slide to be viewed at a microscopic level. It’s truly beautiful to think that everything in the universe is made up of such tiny pieces, of atoms, of cells. I build my images from cellular micrographs. I draw and re-draw in big, sweeping lines and gestures, preserving the essence of the plant I’m referencing. It’s the least precise, least delicate part of the process. Then, I draw again, but this time with an exacto knife.

Cutting is a painstaking, methodical process. It’s a more precise form of drawing that’s  akin to a scientific process. My space and hands must be clean—ah, the perils of working with white paper! I can’t lean on the paper at the edges of my mat or it will damage the paper’s structure. A delicacy of touch is required with cutting tools or I’ll cut too much away.

Cutting is a subtractive process. It’s like chipping away at a stone block, or relief carving—the piece emerges slowly over time. I cut a while. I hold it up and look at the reflection in the windows of my studio. I walk away, have a cup of tea or pet the cat. Then I come back and look at the reflection again. I sit down and keep working. Deciding it’s finished is about balancing the amount of detail present in the work with whether or not it will buckle in on itself because I’ve cut too much out. A cut paper piece can be too delicate.

When I exhibit these works, I hang them about an inch off the wall so that they cast shadows that change and move. Delicacy is the fragility of the paper floating away from the wall; it seems to weigh nothing, to occupy so little space. This lightness allows for intricacy in the form of a single line that moves through the entirety of a piece. The works move and sway slightly if there’s a light breeze or if you're walking past quickly. In those moments, I think of them as breathing, as if the plant within the piece has found a new life.

Cut Paper
40" x 14"

OPP: This work is specifically based on the cellular imagery of natural dye plants, correct? How has your interest in natural dyes evolved since your 2011-2012 Fulbright trip to Peru?

KV: Correct. I first fell in love with the process and labor of natural dyeing during my senior year of my undergrad at MICA. I love the nuance of color found within the dyes, the presence of the hand in the work, the physical process of collecting the plants, and the staggering amount of chemical knowledge required to understand the differences between dyes. So I went to Peru on my Fulbright to expand my knowledge. I worked with 13 dye plants in the Cusco region of Peru. Although the plants were native to Peru, the colors they yielded were similar to what I could get from plants here in the States. I began to wonder: Are the cellular structures of good dye plants similar? And can I then infer whether a plant is a good dye plant by looking at its cellular structure? 

The color a dye plant yields depends on so many variables—rain fall, soil type and acidity, climate/temperature, amount of sun—that it’s hard to get repeatable results. There isn’t much research on the topic. Initially, I tried to find scientists to help me take cellular micrographs of my plants. When that proved difficult, I switched tactics and began scavenging for existing micrographs from databases that catalog plants seeing rapid effects from disease and climate change. It turns out I was right. You can see structural similarities between plants of the same family, all of which give the same color.

I’ve come to have a contextual understanding of the growing world around me, of how the actions of people affect the world. I can walk down a street and feel a sense of connectedness with my surroundings, rooted in my knowledge of local wild craft dye plants. I started examining and pH testing the soil as well as the dye baths, to better understand why I was getting color variations. I decided to start growing my own plants, including Yarrow, Coreopsis and Madder, so I could control the variables that affect color. I discovered how much I enjoyed growing things.

Being so involved with plants created a domino effect. I can’t help but care about the quality of my dirt and how the chemicals I use in dyeing effect the local water table. I think about the quality and locality of the food I eat, about giving back to the planet that sustains me and gives me the resources to use plants as dye. 

Plus, there’s something magical about the fact that many of the plants we take for granted—weeds and garden plants, for example—give us colors in infinite variation. I’m fascinated by what might have caused these plants to evolve in this way.

Broken Path Gradation
Weaving with natural dyes

OPP: How did your older work in weaving lead to your current body of work?

KV: In the fall of 2009, about the time natural dyes began appearing in my work, I was working exclusively in weaving, manipulating structures on the loom to create large, fragile open weave textiles. There were too many structural limitations on the loom, so I started “translating” the weavings onto paper. I projected light through them and traced the shadows. Then I began cutting into the paper to create faux open weaves. Something clicked, and I began working between paper and weaving, allowing one to influence the other. The structure of the paper works would decay until it was almost unrecognizable and suddenly I’d have an "ah-ha!" moment and I would go back to the loom with something really fresh, something I never would have come to otherwise.

OPP: Could you expand on the theme of decay in your work?

KV: I approach decay as part of a cycle of transformation and recreation. Natural dyes are fragile. They fade over time with exposure to light. As I projected light through the weavings, I ran the risk of destroying the color. By using these dyes, I embed decay into the work because their colors are fugitive. Every time I show them, I have to consider how the exhibition space will affect their color. Are there windows? A skylight?

Decay and transformation show up in the site-responsive installations I’ve done. I love the freedom of someone saying “here’s this space, breathe life into it.” In 2011, I was given a chance to show in an old brewery that had since been turned into a music venue. It was dank and humid. The staircases were dark and dirty and littered with cigarette butts. The space was chilly and had high rounded ceilings; it used to hold beer casks. The paint was peeling away. I created a cut paper piece that mimicked the look and feel of the paint. I was so drawn to its faded colors and the slight greying that resulted from exposure to moisture. I suspended the piece from the ceiling and let the paper be exposed to the moisture and decay in the same way the paint had. The piece cast shadows on the walls and looked as if it belonged there, floating, sagging and swaying.When I took it down, it had to be recycled. There was nothing more that could be done for it—it had decayed past saving, but that was the point. 

Nine Types of Light
Cut Paper Installation
6' x 24'

OPP: You'll be starting graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the fall of 2013. How do you feel on the verge of being an MFA candidate?

KV: I can’t decide if I’m more excited or terrified. I’m leaning towards excited. Since I finished new work for Under Construction, a group show that opened in June at the Indianapolis Art Center, I've had the time to just goof off, generate ideas and make mock-ups. This summer feels like the calm before a storm. . . the more time I spend wandering aimlessly through my sketchbook, the more I want it to start already.

OPP: Tell us about your plan to make it happen without taking out any privatized loans.

KV: SAIC gave me a financial aid package, but after scholarships and federal loans, there’s about $3,000 left. It’s not a large amount of money, but it’s not something I just have lying around. I started an Indiegogo campaign so that I won't have to take out a private loan on top of my federal loans. I’m offering editions and prints, small cut works and even some of my previously-exhibited large works as incentives. People of all different demographics and income brackets can own a piece of my work. 

Cut Paper
22.5" x 60"

OPP: How is crowdfunding particularly relevant to visual artists?

KV: Sometimes I feel like people in the sciences might have an easier time getting donations than those in the arts. Potential funders look at their projects and say, "yeah, curing cancer is something I can put some money towards. But what does art give people?" I had this problem in choosing a country to apply to for my Fulbright grant. Many countries only wanted scholars, scientists, doctors—people who could do physical good on the ground. But what about cultural enrichment? Isn’t that important too? 

I’ve seen friends raise money via Kickstarter and Indiegogo to do research and large-scale art projects that otherwise would have been outside their budgets. It doesn’t take much. If 100 people donate $10 each, that’s a good chunk of change.

And, as I’ve seen time and again in community arts, people like to be involved in the making of art. The ability to fund a project lets people feel connected to the work. They helped it come into being and that gives them sense of accomplishment and ownership. 

Most artists don’t have a steady cash-flow in order to make larger works, so crowdfunding allows them to dream bigger and to make those larger works a reality. As grants and art endowments continue to shrink, it will be harder and harder for artists to land the funding to make work. That’s not a great place to be, but most of the artists I know are resilient and will find a way. I think crowdfunding is going to be one of those ways. 

To contribute to Katie's Indiegogo campaign, go here.
To see more of Katie's work, visit katievota.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and spiritual significance of repetition in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her work is on view through September 2013 in
Abstracting the Seam (Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago), and she has two upcoming solo exhibitions: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Klemm Gallery, Adrian, Michigan) in November 2013 and Right Here, Right Now (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.