Cultural Weekly’s Associate Poetry Editor Mish recently caught up with artist-writer Katherine Koch, seeking insight into Koch’s work as a memoirist and life-long painter.
Mish (Eileen Murphy): In terms of art and of writing, what have you been up to lately? And what are your creative plans for 2021?
Katherine (Katherine Koch): I had to trick myself into starting to paint again after having arrived here in Oaxaca, Mexico from New York City four years ago. I would say to myself, oh, how about this? I’ll fill this glass with water, here, and take out this tiny set of travel watercolors, and look, a couple of pads of 5” x 7” paper, maybe I can find a brush or two…I made starting to work as low-stress and gradual as possible, so as not to terrify myself.
I needed to seize the moment.
The paintings made me immediately want to write. They kicked off all kinds of thinking and poetic imagery. Painting had always been the activity that made me the smartest, dreamiest version of myself, the most philosophical—and not having been able to work for a while caused an intense release of that part of me, which had been lying dormant.
I began writing on the back of each small painting. Because the notes were diaristic and personal and really just for myself, I kind of grimaced when Lourdes Cue, the Mexico City sculptor who curated my show here last year, saw a group of the paintings, turned them over and was moved and fascinated by the writing. She immediately began scheming ways for me to show both together.
A group of the paintings/writings became triptychs sandwiched between panes of glass and shown upright on tables so you could move around and see both sides of the paintings. We varied them, back, front, back, front, so you could see writing and painting at the same time and segue from one piece to the next.
This month I’m moving into a new studio, spacious and full of light. There’s an expansive 2-story-tall space with high up windows—where I’m going to paint—and a smaller, sunny space beyond an arch, for writing. French doors open onto a patio where potted succulents appeared, revealed by a preliminary cleanup. The plants survived years of being hidden, like Sleeping Beauty. This resonates with me, coming back into my working self after many troubling years in New York, followed by the psychic disorganization of moving.
It’s been wonderful, as well as very hard work, translating my artist self from New York City to Oaxaca: putting on a terrific solo show here, renting a large studio, and, best of all, making new work which is different from paintings I would have thought of and focused on had I stayed in New York, a learning experience of its own kind in addition to the continuing learning experience of living inside a new culture.
Mish: How has living in Mexico affected you and your creative endeavors—your painting and writing?
Katherine: There has been a big shift in the relationship between the inner world and the outer world since moving here. Living most of my life in New York City, from 1958-2016, having studios and teaching in marginal neighborhoods, taking the subway everywhere—I had learned a kind of psychic trick.
I noticed this when I last visited New York: I was on a crowded subway car looking out the window, when I realized I was “seeing” within myself, like a contemplative nun or a prisoner. There was a space within me I could burrow down into, in which I was experiencing moments that had nothing to do with, say, the gloom-infected metal girder I was looking at. It was a kind of meditation and self-defense.
Now it’s almost laughable how inside-out that’s become. Everywhere I look I see beauty: mountains and enormous skies; streets of houses of breathtaking colors, sometimes painted with murals. Markets are cornucopias of local fruits, vegetables, flowers. Before the pandemic shut the city down, festivals, parades, music, dancing happened all the time—all free to anyone, all taking place outdoors. The strong cultural and political scene is visible everywhere. The weather is almost always nice. Oaxaca is a small city, and a great walking city. You walk around seeing people being kind to each other and really loving to their kids. A few miles outside the city you can hang out with goats and oxen in fields stretching off to the western mountains. Our house in the city is at the edge of town, so we get to see and hear birds, butterflies and crickets, singing frogs in the rainy season.
Mish: Given the fame of your father (Kenneth Koch) and the amazing group of writers and artists that exposed you to writing and art at a very early age, how has that (if at all) affected your work and your progression as an artist/creative person?
Katherine: Of course I had no idea they were amazing when I was a child, it was just life. Sometimes a very uncomfortable life for a kid. In other ways, fun and wild and enchanting.
The ways I intuited and understood painting, from earliest childhood, came from the artists I knew the best: Fairfield Porter, Jane Freilicher, Alex Katz, Larry Rivers, Red Grooms, Rudy Burckhardt, Joe Brainard, among others. And I was helped to think about art by the adults around me who wrote about art and artists: Frank O’Hara, Jimmy Schuyler, John Ashbery, Edith Schloss, Fairfield, David Shapiro, Elaine de Kooning, Bill Berkson, Rackstraw Downes, Trevor Winkfield.
The artists I’d grown up with had taught me how to see, how to see people, how to see New York City, and Long Island, and Maine, see light and water and tabletops and the various minutiae of life, how to play with all of that, how to play with and think about culture and history. I didn’t feel that underground electrical attachment to the artists I studied with at Berkeley, Elmer Bischoff, Joan Brown, Robert Hartman—though their paintings are wonderful and Joan Brown continues to be a hero of mine. I loved and learned from sculptors like Peter Voulkos and Bob Arneson, painters like Roy deForest (ESPECIALLY Roy deForest) and William Wiley, Wayne Thiebaud and Richard Diebenkorn—they just weren’t home.
As time went on I grew more and more appreciative of the artists and writers I’d grown up with, more and more grateful for my father, especially, having provided me the strange and complex, difficult and rewarding and hilarious childhood I had. Art and poetry, travel and irony were second nature to me—maybe first nature!—and I couldn’t imagine my life without them.
Mish: What’s your painting process? For example, what medium/media do you usually paint with? Do you paint every day? How long does each piece typically take you, from inspiration to finished work?
Katherine: Since 1989 I’ve been working primarily in water-based media on paper and board, and, for large pieces, canvas-backed paper that I can mount on stretchers. For years I worked in fluid acrylic and egg tempera. Since moving to Oaxaca four years ago I’ve shifted to watercolor and gouache. I began to do this mainly out of concern about contaminating the already-compromised water supply here—especially at our casita in the country. Its grey-water system takes most of our household water out into our yard, watering our trees and eventually working its way among fields of corn and alfalfa to the river down the slope from us. The idea of sending non-biodegradable paint into this ecosystem felt all wrong.
I also started painting in watercolor to gently nudge myself back into working again after a time here when I couldn’t paint…it was a lot easier to pull my reluctant self into painting if it was as easy-care as possible, not having to worry about acrylic paint hardening on brushes and palettes, for instance.
I’ve come to love what watercolor and gouache can do, still learning about them after over 25 years of thinking and dreaming in other media.
I have some casein paints, also biodegradable, that I’m going to start working with.
I don’t get inspired to paint. I start by working. I make the muse learn to keep appointments, as the painter Amédée Ozenfant counseled.
I can collect all kinds of ideas and examples and get inspired by the art and life I see around me—but they don’t translate into my own paintings until I’m working. Then sometimes they show up to say, “Hi, Katherine, why not include me?”
How long pieces take depends on all kinds of things. Large paintings usually though not necessarily take longer—could be a day, a few days, a few weeks or months, could be I paint a layer and don’t return to the painting for a couple of years.
Mish: Adjacent to your patio, there is a bright yellow—almost chartreuse—wall that I admire. Is there a story behind that yellow wall—does that color yellow have special meaning for you?
Katherine: When we moved in to this rental house four years ago the patio walls were a grimy, flaking grayish-white. It almost killed me how bleak it looked, especially in comparison to the glorious rich color combinations on other people’s houses and patios all over Oaxaca and all over Mexico.
I pored over images of patios and finally it seemed to me that that patio would look terrific with warm yellow walls and cobalt blue trim.
Those colors are deeply satisfying to me, you’re right to pick up on that. Warm yellows and all kinds of blues have always been my home. It used to be that when I started a painting it would inevitably start with blue and yellow, blue and yellow were the foundation. Placing those colors first of all was a way to start perceiving what the structure and form would be, as well as determining how colors would make sense as the painting progressed. I’ve used yellows a surprising amount in my paintings, creating various kinds of light; and something about ultramarine blue almost always unconsciously strikes me as “right.” I also love phthalo blue for its warm oceanic flavor, and the way it mixes with yellowish or beigeish whites.
Mish: Do you have any secrets or shortcuts that you can recommend to other artists?
Katherine: You have a way of working which is yours alone. Opening up to the world inside you, which has its own rules and regulations, happens differently for different people, and sometimes it takes a while to find that opening within you. Sometimes you need to start the search all over again at different points in your life, and this can be depressing. Ultimately it all works out, but…
Many years ago I read an interview with a potter, a Laguna Pueblo woman from the Southwestern US. The author asked her what it was she was painting on her pots, what the decorations were about, and she answered, “All my thoughts.”
She said: “I get all my ideas from my thoughts. I think of my thoughts as a person who tells me what to do…Some people do not think that pottery is anything, but it means a great deal to me. It is something sacred. I try to paint all my thoughts.”
This was like a talisman I had kept with me ever since. How do you do that, paint all your thoughts? How can I do that?
Now, since coming to Oaxaca, I see to my surprise that painting all my thoughts is what I am doing.
The paintings are almost like journal entries…what comes up each day as I work…what’s in my mind and heart.
All my thoughts.
Photo credits: Katherine Koch