And Down Came the Spiders: Narrative Figurative Painter, Katie O’Hagan
he terror of finding oneself adrift in unfamiliar waters. Inelegant changes in circumstances ~ a divorce, the loss of a job, a frightening health diagnosis, the death of someone close to you ~ and suddenly that compass you always relied upon to give you at least a sense if you were traveling in somewhat of the right direction is now spinning counter-clockwise, all crazylike and out of control.
And that’s it, of course: Nothing feels like it’s up to you anymore.
With one exception: that mysterious, magical thing you do called making art. That ability to reach inside yourself when it feels like you have absolutely nothing left to draw upon, and lo-and-behold, you create something that surprises. Something rather amazing. And there you have it: the foothold.
INTERVIEW WITH KATIE O’HAGAN
Beacon, New York ~
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Katie, when I look at your paintings, Listen, Suspension, and Messengers, I feel a shiver of recognition, as my own dreams tend to be very intense and vivid, and I do not always welcome them to me. How much do your dreams impact your creative process? Are you able to call up and remember your dreams fairly easily?
Katie O’Hagan: The spider dreams I had were particularly vivid. More like hallucinations. For years I would have episodes where I would wake up in a panic with spiders all over me, or descending towards me, and then I would watch them scurry off into a corner and at some point would wake up for real and they would be gone. Very unsettling. They stopped a few years ago, thank goodness. I was telling a friend about them and he told me that spiders in dreams are supposedly there as messengers to draw your attention to some trouble in your life that you are ignoring or suppressing which needs to be addressed. That made sense to me and that’s when I decided to do those paintings. Reflection is also based on a dream.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: In a video I caught of you, I was enchanted to learn that for your self-portrait, Life Raft, you actually constructed a real raft, and that your father pitched in by supplying you with the wood, but that when you took it out onto the water, the raft sank. Wouldn’t it have been far easier to just purchase a raft already constructed by someone who had experience in such things? Did you perceive the sinking of that raft as indicative of the emotional place you were in at the time? If so, did painting it help you with this?
Katie O’Hagan: Yes, I did make it! I had a lot going on personally. My marriage had just come to an end and my dad came over from Scotland for the summer to help me pack up my house and figure out a new place to live. I had the idea one night and I did look around online first to see if I could find a raft to buy. I couldn’t find anything though. At least nothing suitable. I wanted something very rustic and home-made looking and so there was nothing for it but to make it myself. My dad and I headed out into the woods behind my house and traded the hand-saw back and forth for a couple of hours until we had enough branches, then I got some twine and tied them together.
I wasn’t too surprised that it didn’t float. I took reference shots at a local reservoir at the crack of dawn. I didn’t read anything into its failure to float. Actually the process of trying was ridiculous and hilarious. My friend, Erin, tried to hold it up, then we rigged up some rope, but it was just a really crappy raft. I’ll never be a carpenter. We ended up taking shots on the bank instead and I made up the water and the sky.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Can you tell me a bit about Figment?
Katie O’Hagan: This is my youngest daughter, Lulu. It’s kind of a personal one…about the tendency a lot of kids have to idealize the past when their parents are no longer together. It’s kind of a sad painting, but I need to point out that she’s actually a really happy kid. This is just one aspect of her world that I felt like I wanted to get down on canvas. I do tend to gravitate towards the darker stuff, subject-wise.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Of all your works, I think the piece that haunts me the most is Dirty Laundry. I find myself torn between the desire to look away and leave her to her own private journey, so painful is it to watch,..and wanting to get in there and rescue her. I’m curious to learn what it’s like for you to place your subjects (which is almost always yourself) in these situations where they are so often at peril or in over their heads.
Katie O’Hagan: The ideas just show up that way sometimes. I really don’t seek them out at all. From a distance I can look back at the things I’ve chosen to paint and see a clear visual diary of what was going on with me at the time, but I don’t “try” to create that. I’m not sure I would be able to if I did try.
I don’t want to give the impression that I walk around in a constant state of angst. Life is pretty great most of the time. There are even a few lighter paintings ahead. I saw a parrot last week at a festival and it triggered a memory of a bizarre confrontation I had 20 years ago and now I can’t wait to paint it. I think it’s a funny one, but maybe it’s just weird. I guess I’ll find out when it’s done.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: I love how much you play around with hyperbole in your portraits. There is nothing subtle about Constriction, for instance, or Pity Party. Do you enjoy hearing what your viewers come up with after looking at your work, what comes up for them, the connections they make with their own lives and share with you?
Katie O’Hagan: Yes, I love it. I often get emails from people about how they specifically relate to a painting, and their interpretations sometimes take me by surprise. Once in a while I like a bit of melodrama and even silliness. For all that Life Raft came from an unhappy place, I actually intended it to be kind of funny. It is to me, but I like that people make it their own.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: And then there’s Aine, which works so successfully, I think, precisely because you have left the narrative so open-ended. Do you see what you do as being at all akin to storytelling?
Katie O’Hagan: Yes, definitely. With the more narrative paintings, there’s always the risk of being too heavy handed and dead-on. I’ve definitely been guilty of that at times, but it’s part of the learning process. The shift towards more narrative work is still relatively new, and I have a lot still to figure out. Although, as I mentioned, I don’t seek to intellectualize the ideas themselves, I’m trying to get better at what happens after the initial burst of inspiration, which is the shaping and editing of the raw idea into a successful painting. Paring it down as much as possible. Including just enough to tell the story but leaving enough open to interpretation that you aren’t spoon-feeding the viewer. The most compelling paintings have unanswered questions, but hopefully subtle ones. The question I ask most when composing a painting ~ looking at paintings – is “why?” If an object doesn’t have a reason to be there ~ even if it’s a cool object or one that would be fun to paint, I try to leave it out.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: I was intrigued to learn that you started out as a silversmith, attending the Edinburgh College of Art. What initially drew you to that art form? Was it the tactile pleasure of being able to feel what you’d given shape to?
Katie O’Hagan: To be honest, I could just have easily picked anything else. I had no idea what to expect from art college. I had always been able to draw well and it seemed like the easiest way to get out into the world. I didn’t give much thought to what I would do once I got there. Back then there were no fees and there were grants for living expenses, so for that reason I’m glad I was able to get a debt-free degree, but I didn’t get much out of it, except socially. During the first year we spent a few weeks in each department ~ they had everything from fashion to glass blowing to painting. I felt out of place everywhere ~ particularly in the painting department. I remember a couple of drawing classes but I don’t remember ever actually painting. Other students seemed to have much more purpose and confidence than I did. There was a lot of work I didn’t understand with in-depth explanations that I also didn’t understand. I felt like an impostor. Art just didn’t affect me on an emotional level at that age. I was kind of a late developer in a lot of ways and I was motivated primarily to go to the pub and play darts. Silversmithing seemed as good a choice as any but it was a fairly arbitrary decision. I bluffed my way through as well as I could, but I was mediocre at best. I don’t think I visited a single art gallery or museum while I was at college. It was a means to an end, not a calling. It would be over a decade before I found my way to painting. I may have the desire or the confidence or any real sense of who I was so it’s probably just as well I didn’t pursue it then.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: And then, while raising two young children, you transitioned into painting with oils. What inspired you to make this change? Was it the picture books you were reading to your children? How did you manage the dance between motherhood and contemplative artist?
Katie O’Hagan: It was sheer boredom that drove me to it! I was a stay at home mother and far from domestically-inclined. Every few years after college I would get the impulse to find paper and a pencil and sketch someone, but usually more as a party trick. Once, when I was bar-tending in the East village, a customer stole money. We only knew him as “Al the Murderer,” but it so happened I had sketched him once on a slow day. The cops were able to identify him from my sketch, which I actually felt kind of bad about. Anyway, it was that kind of thing. Never taken seriously. One day, I just sat in the kitchen during nap time and sketched some fruit that was sitting in a bowl. Shortly afterwards I had a sudden urge to try oil painting, so I went to Walmart and picked up some canvas panels and some cheap paint and brushes and started to paint. I got an instructional book which I can’t remember the name of. It wasn’t very useful because I didn’t know what a lot of the terms meant. I probably picked up a few tips there, but really you have to learn by just doing it, and then years later when I met other artists I picked up a lot of information. Paul McCormack has been a great influence. He’s always generous with his time and has talked me off a ledge more than once when I’ve screwed up. I will still email artists once in a while – even if I don’t know them – to ask how they do a specific thing. I still approach a painting pretty much the same way as I’ve done since day one, though. I start with one eye and work my way out. Paul did attempt to show me a more sensible way to do it, but the results were really bad and he said I should just go back to what felt natural. As for balance, I’ve never really had one. I always feel torn between being with my girls and being in the studio. We live a kind of chaotic existence. I’m not the traditional cookie-baking mother and I felt guilty for a long time about that, but luckily my girls are turning out to be very adaptable and self-sufficient and we make a great team. They accept my domestic limitations with a lot of humor.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Can you recall the moment when you realized this was a medium you had a real talent for?
Katie O’Hagan: One of my first paintings was of a friend’s kid and it was a pretty good likeness. I was surprised by how natural a brush felt, and from that point on I rarely ever drew again. I had a decent talent for drawing, but I didn’t love doing it and almost never did. Painting just felt “right” as soon as I did it, which was really unexpected. Even now I rarely even sketch ideas before I paint. I write them down and then I start right in with the paint. Although I have a couple of larger scale paintings coming up and I really need to make myself at least do thumbnail sketches first. I know it would be helpful. I just have an aversion to preamble. Not only with painting. I’m not a planner and I have a tendency to jump into things completely uninformed and figure it out as I go.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: I imagine it was a bit of a culture shock moving from Scotland to New York City. Looking back now, what required the greatest adjustment? What do you miss most about the country of your birth? Do you ever go back?
Katie O’Hagan: Yes, it was an exciting time. I grew up in a small, remote community and I spent a lot of time dreaming about leaving. My family situation was often unstable, and my way of coping was to focus on getting as far away as possible. I became obsessed with American movies and I decided that America would be my first stop. I had a great romantic (to me) notion of driving around the west in a pick-up truck, going to rodeos and listening to Hank Williams. I think my Dad expected that college would shake this fixation, but it really never wavered. I was totally unprepared, of course, and arrived with hardly any money, no job and no place to live, but I figured things out quickly. As it turns out my first stop was as far as I got. New York was overwhelming ~ in just the way I’d hoped it would be ~ and I felt like I had found a place where I could disappear and start over. I ended up living with a bunch of crazy hippies in Brooklyn, waiting tables, and having the time of my life. I never lived back in Scotland again, but from a distance I have developed a true appreciation and affection for the place where I grew up. The stark beauty of the land, walking on the moors for hours without seeing another soul, getting the “craic” down the pub, all of the crazy characters and even the dreich weather. Most of all though, I miss my dad. Other family and friends too, of course, but my Dad is hands-down the best person I know and I miss him a lot. I do get back every few years, but not as much as I’d like.
Katie O’Hagan was born and raised in the far north of Scotland and moved to the US in 1993. She lives in Beacon, NY with her two daughters and her dog, Seamus.
Her work has shown in many galleries and museums nationally and internationally, including The National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, The World Art Museum in Beijing, The National Arts Club and the Butler Institute of American Art. She has also received awards from the Salmagundi Club, Allied Artists of America, The Artist’s Magazine, Oil Painters of America, and The Portrait Society of America.
To enjoy more of O’Hagan’s paintings, please visit her website.