Katherine Fraser is a Philadelphia-based artist who graduated Magna Cum Laude from University of Pennsylvania in 2002. Her paintings have been shown recently at the James Oliver Gallery in Philadelphia, the Principle Gallery in Alexandria, Virginia, as well as the Scope Art Fair in Miami Beach. Her website is www.katherinefraser.com .
Interviewed by Helen Berhanu
Edited by Linda Lin
Could you give us a brief introduction to your art? For example, the themes you explore and the mediums you use?
I work in oil paint, and I create large scale, realistic paintings of people that tell a story. I usually paint single figures, and I think of them like film stills, frozen moments of awareness. While I come from a tradition of life-painting, which is painting what you see in front of you, I am not interested in recreating life; I am interested in creating feeling. I think of myself more as a storyteller than a documentarian. I don’t use live models. To a large extent I start the paintings with a feeling for an emotion that I want to express, and then the narrative grows around it.
I tend to paint women because I am a woman, and it’s the truest to my own experience; but my deepest goal is to create images that will resonate with everyone, male and female, young and old. This opportunity to connect and communicate with people is a huge part of why I make art. I need the paintings to get out and have a life of their own. I hope that by working from a place of authenticity and generosity, other people will recognize themselves in my work, and it will make them feel less alone. I never consciously pursue an interest in a certain theme; my process is much more intuitive.
I work on a number of paintings at once, and by going back and forth like this themes start to emerge, and the work grows up as a body. What makes this way of working fun is that I feel like I am in dialogue with the work; it’s a combination of actively making decisions, and of being quiet and letting the paintings tell me what they need. Because I work intuitively and from my own experience, the paintings are somewhat autobiographical. Rather than depicting specific memories, they are more recreations of feelings that I’ve had at certain times in my life. I make the images open-ended so that they can inspire multiple interpretations. I never want the viewer to feel that he or she is peering into something private. I filter my ideas through layers of symbolism and narrative so that I get away from making art that is purely self-expression, and move toward something that has more versatility in its ability to communicate.
How did you start making art?
I always loved art, but I didn’t understand until about the age of sixteen that it was what I was meant to do. The question “What do I like the best?” didn’t seem to illuminate the direction I should take in college, but when I asked myself, “What can I not live without?” the answer was undoubtedly art. Growing up in Maine, I had always known that I wanted to paint, but despite my determined efforts I never managed to find a teacher who could instruct me in the skills I wanted. I was incredibly frustrated not to have the language with which to communicate my ideas. Because of this, when I finally got to art school, I had my work cut out for me. I was humbled to realize that my knack for drawing did not make me a natural painter, and I was so discouraged by the end of my first year that I considered dropping out. It wasn’t until the end of my third year that I found I finally had the tools to start manifesting the emotions I had been struggling to express.
What are you working on at the moment?
For the last few years I’ve been blessed to have shows fairly consistently, so I’ve been under the pressure of deadlines for a long time. This year I have a little break from showing, so I have the luxury of slowing down and really giving my work a chance to lead me in its own direction, rather than being so focused on product. I think of painting as a practice. I believe it’s more important to show up in the studio and put in the time; from that place of integrity, good work will emerge.
The paintings are more full of questions than they are answers. People used to frequently comment on the darkness of my work, which at the time I believed was my character, but I can now see that it actually came from the fact that I was really unhappy in my twenties. Now that I am feeling more confident and happy, I am starting to see that manifest in my work. As I grow out of the vulnerability and insecurity inherent in being a young woman, the women in my paintings are starting to look more strong and determined. Right now I have paintings in progress of a woman shooting an arrow and of a woman eating an apple. I love that they both look absolutely confident. The light and color in these paintings are clear and bright. I’m excited to see what will come next.
Do you have any tips or wisdom for other female artists?
Thomas Mann said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is harder than it is for most people.” If you take your art seriously, it is an incredible struggle. My best advice about making a life in art is to be clear about it being the number one priority and to make compromises accordingly. Live simply, keep your expenses low, and make choices that suit your needs rather than what society, friends or family might expect from you. Don’t have a plan B and don’t give up!