Katie Pell Puts Herself Into Her Art

Like a gracious hostess, following greetings, Katie Pell give her visitor a tour of the premises. She and her husband, Peter Zubiate, a fellow artist and master craftsman, live and work in a former commercial building downtown that they have adapted for their needs. Zubiate’s large furniture workshop dominates the place, flanked by Pell’s studio on one side and their simple living quarters on the other. In the backyard, pottery kilns share space with a chicken coop, where a large white rooster rules the roost. There’s a certain casual, funky charm about the entire property, a sense that creative energies may be allowed to flow freely through its spaces, pleasantly mixing with loving family life. The couple has a 9-year-old daughter named Bygoe.

As we settle in the non-air-conditioned studio to talk, Pell points out that the windows facing the back have no glass, just bars. Air-conditioning is not even an option. “This is the first time that I am not working in a climate-controlled, closed building,” she says. “Those make you sick. I like the air; the inside/outside atmosphere of this place. Yes, it gets hot in the summer, but if you give up on the idea of being clean and dry and accept being sweaty, it’s OK.” Pell is preparing for Texas Draws, the Southwest School of Art and Craft drawing survey that will be up throughout the summer in the Russell Hill Rogers Galleries on SSAC’s Navarro Campus. She will be one of 13 artists selected by SSAC director of exhibitions and show curator Kathy Armstrong. But right now we are still in May, and she is putting the final touches on three large sculptural pieces that don’t look anything like conventional drawings. One of them, a huge, open-wing butterfly, stands in her studio, leaning against a wall, its wings covered with drawings of flowers, plants and animals. Upon closer inspection one can also spot a familiar face peeking out from all that natural beauty. It’s Mick Jagger, but more about that later. The artist explains that viewers will be invited to stand on a pedestal placed in the center of the butterfly. The title of the piece, You Are Beautiful and Meant to Be Adored, says something about her intentions. “It’s tongue in cheek, but I like the idea of people standing up and everybody giving them a hand for who they are,” she explains. “The butterfly is universally recognized as beautiful, so I am creating the framework for us to honor you. At the same time, it’s a comment about the subtle ways we create context for ourselves. Whoever stands there will look beautiful.”

Another sculptural piece called Storm Raining Down Love and Concern consists of two charcoal-on-paper floor-to-ceiling panels that extend partially across the ceiling. Those ceiling parts feature two large, enigmatic eyes out of which paper spirals flow down toward the viewers. The eyes may be the eyes of God or any overarching force in your life, even something like an addiction that controls you. It may be comforting or disturbing, depending on how the viewer experiences it. “There’s always ambiguity in love and concern,” notes Pell. The drawings covering the panels on the way up include, once again, flowers, small animals and trees reaching toward the sky, and on the way down “it’s heaven raining all the animals from above.” A third sculpture, to be made using oil sticks on PVC sheets, will emphasize the rapport with the viewer even more. It will be a visual metaphor for how our personal histories “spill out” and play a part in our interaction with other human beings. “Katie’s pieces push the boundary of what it means to connect with the viewer,” says Armstrong, who strived for visual diversity in planning Texas Draws. “They transform the viewer into a different entity. I’ve seen people interact with her pieces. They really respond to them.”

Pell is delighted to be back at SSAC, which was the first major art institution in San Antonio to open its doors to her and her husband. Several years ago, Zubiate showed his stunning art furniture there, and Pell considers her 2002 solo exhibit at the school, Mick and Mom, (there is Mick again!) a significant breakthrough in her career. She also teaches two drawing workshops at SSAC and a children’s class that takes place at the McNay but is sponsored by SSAC. Back in the early 2000s, she was still doing more traditional drawings in the style of narrative cartoons when her artist friend Vinnie Angel told her that the way she talked about things she cared about was more interesting than her art. Put more of yourself in your art, he suggested. That was the push she needed to become freer to express herself “instead of being part of someone else’s idea of what art should be.” She got in touch with her mission, as she puts it. At the center of it was her curiosity about how people make themselves into what they are. “People always talk about nature and nurture as the forces that shape us,” she notes. “But I have always been interested in a third element — free will.”

Mick,”Bitchen” and a lot more

This interest was sparked by a Rolling Stones album she got from a neighbor at the tender age of 9. Looking at photos of Jagger, young Katie made a discovery. He was kind of like her: skinny, English (her parents came here from Britain), huge lips, not particularly good-looking and not particularly gifted. But he had built himself into the Mick Jagger persona we all know — a sexy, free-wheeling rock star. That made an impression. “I thought that the good life happened to others, the more gifted, more beautiful, richer people. There was nothing exceptional about me,” she explains. “Looking at Mick, for the first time, I had some hope that I, too, could be something incredible. I just love Mick Jagger.” The aforementioned Mick and Mom show was inspired by her childhood fascination with the ageless rocker. It consisted of comic-book-type drawings starring Jagger and was the first show Pell did after taking her friend Angel’s advice to heart. The drawings followed a fantasy narrative line about a young girl (Katie) who frolics with Mick for a while but wakes up from the dream looking as dorky as before. Yet, now she thinks she is cool because she was with Mick, and he encouraged her “to go for it.”

The part about “Mom” explored another influence on young Katie’s ideas of what she wanted to be. Not the influence of her very proper, restrained mother, as the title implies, but of young, hippie-like American mothers she saw taking a class with her mom. From such experiences and influences — Mick Jagger and hippie moms, from what we see, read and encounter — the artist believes we construct ourselves beyond what nature and nurture have done for us. Pell’s reputation has been growing steadily since Mick and Mom. In 2006, she was selected for a residency at ArtPace – an honor and opportunity for any contemporary artist – that resulted in the humorous and much-talked-about show, Bitchen. It featured brightly painted and specially engineered home appliances that performed all sorts of tricks: a jazzed up stove that erupted into flames; a refrigerator with a paneled interior, complete with a chandelier and a hunting scene painted on the door; a dryer turned into a bar, etc. A comic book that accompanied the installation tells a story of a group of women who win a discrimination class action suit against AllMart and spend the windfall on customizing their appliances the way some men do with their cars. It was a satirical look at male versus female cultural domains. To fabricate her contraptions the artist had to work with car customizing shops, and one of them invited her to show her stoves and toasters at a car show. Eventually, a number of smaller “appliances” sold to art collectors, though she still keeps a couple of the larger ones in her studio.

Other local venues that have hosted Pell’s solo exhibitions include the Joan Grona Gallery, Cactus Bra, Palo Alto College and the Parchman Stremmel Gallery. Moreover, in 2007-8, her gorgeous ceramic flower creations added to the natural beauty of the San Antonio Botanical Garden as part of Art in the Gardenprogram. But that event might have been her swan song as a potter. She’s given up clay work, she says, and will no longer produce functional pottery as she did in years past.
A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design (painting), Pell roamed across Europe, the Near East and the United States for years after graduation, taking odd jobs, making some art and engaging in a great deal of soul searching. In 1993, she met her husband during an art residency in Snowmass Village, Colo., and the two eventually moved to Texas, where Zubiate is from. After considering Austin for a while, they decided to settle in San Antonio, which seemed more “distinctive,” “a little more foreign.” It also had affordable property downtown. “It’s hard to be creative if you are saddled with a big mortgage,” she notes.

Because so many other artists also live and work in the downtown-Southtown area, in 2002 Pell initiated the Automatic Downtown Studio Tour during Contemporary Art Month in July and kept it up for five years. It was a way to bring folks downtown to expose them to making art as a serious pursuit. Now, she is considering a new community project – an artist-run series of informal fund-raisers to support a variety of causes artists need or care about. One thing that these fund-raisers will not include is asking her colleagues to donate their work for free, as some organizations do. She feels strongly about that, justifiably pointing out that few would ask doctors or lawyers to donate their services to raise funds for a cause. This all plays into the idea that art is just fun, she says, which, of course, is a misperception. It takes education, effort and financial investment to create art, and artists need to make money like everybody else. As for herself, she makes a living through a combination of teaching, grants, sales and commissions. In fact, she’s just received a public art commission from the city to embellish seven sites around town, including parks and skate parks, and the intersection of New Braunfels Avenue and Nacogdoches Road. She also recently joined the art faculty of Texas State University.

“At the point of success I have now, I am able to make a range of things and have them seen. I find that helpful,” she says. “I think I am exploding as an artist. I have books full of ideas. I am on a personal mission now.”

TEXAS DRAWS features selected drawings of 13 Texas artists, including three San Antonians: Katie Pell, Jayne Lawrence and Regis Shephard; July 2-Sept. 6; Russell Hill Rogers Galleries, Navarro Campus, Southwest School of Art and Craft, 300 Augusta, (210) 224-1848. This is the inaugural show of a new series of biennial drawing surveys at SSAC.

CONTEMPORARY ART MONTH — Last chance to enjoy CAM in July. In 2010, it will move to March. As in the past, participation is open to all, from major art institutions to individual artists’ studios. Pick up the calendar of events at Blue Star Contemporary Art Center or check CAM’s Web site, www.contemporaryartmonth.com.

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