Profiles

My Aunt, The Super Artist

For Katherine Kerr Allen, arthritis was just another reason to evolve her art.

For painter Katherine Kerr Allen, creating an art-centered life has called for an ever evolving engagement with the physical world and her body.

Her first memory of “art” is from childhood, sitting on the wet earth making mud pies. Back then, there were almost no limitations, except that of the materials available, and the ways she had learned to use them.

Of course, she acknowledges, that wasn’t exactly the most unique phase of her career.

“It’s sort of like painting rocks,” she told me with a wry smile, “A lot of people draw from that well … But from that early time on, the materials and their tactile qualities were always what I loved.”

A moment of disclosure here: Allen is my aunt. For years, I’ve admired her artistic talents and the ease with which she seems to be able to turn anything she touches into a thing of beauty. She does it everywhere — whether we’re cooking Christmas dinner or tie dying t-shirts for the Fourth of July. Her house in the Maryland woods is a work of art, too, decorated with vintage family heirlooms, quirky accents and her own creations. Her studio, a bright and airy barn at the beginning of the driveway, is hung with her finished canvasses and paint-splattered works in progress. Even the way she dresses is artful, intentional and unique. There is always a pair of brightly colored eyeglasses, a gigantic piece of jewelry that resembles a statue more than a necklace, or some other wardrobe item that distinguishes her when she walks into a room. She reminds me that every choice we make can, in some way, be a form of creative expression.

Something had changed. Her paintings were more open, the colors more brilliant. I loved the way her new pieces looked.

Allen and I sat down at a cafe in San Jose, California last month to discuss her recent work, her artistic pursuits and the way they have changed over time. When I visited last winter for the holidays, I had ample time to look at her work. Something had changed. Her paintings were more open, the colors more brilliant. I loved the way her new pieces looked. When I asked her about them, she told me that the change had arisen out of necessity. Over the years, she’s developed Arthritis. As it’s gotten worse, she’s responded by changing the way she uses her most important tool: her body.

Allen grew up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in the 1950s and 60s, in a neighborhood with plenty of space for playing outside. After her initial forays into the worlds of rock painting and mud pies, my grandparents noticed that she had a knack for drawing and sent her to art classes with her aunt. And it was in that unusual environment, surrounded by mature ladies, that my aunt began learning how to use her eyes and her hands to create works of lines and colors that allowed her to express something about the world around her.

An art lover admires “Dive into Dreaming”

“It was basically all older ladies and me, the only child in the class,” she said. At the time, painting vases of flowers was very much in vogue among her older classmates, she joked. So after Allen painted a horse head — her own idea — she “succumbed to peer pressure” and began painting flower vases, too. She was good at it, and the ladies in class praised her. Her aunt hung her flower vase painting on her wall.

When it comes to having a wealth of artistic aunts, Allen hit the motherlode. Along with her aunt who loved painting, she was exposed to the work of another aunt who worked with sculpture. When Allen saw what she was doing, she became enthralled and set her sights on being a sculptor, too. It was, in some ways, a return to her early, tactile experiments molding mud as a child. She discovered that she was good at imagining objects in space — thinking about the way they’d fit and work together.

After getting a general art education by studying “every art medium under the sun” as an undergraduate at Colorado College, Allen went to Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan and enrolled in their graduate sculpting program. Being there, living and breathing sculpture night and day, Allen began to realize just how few women sculptors there were. Part of it, she said, had to do with the intense physicality of the discipline.

They stopped and looked at me and I stopped and looked at them, and then we all just went back to practicing our welds.

“When I walked into my first welding class, it was all men. They stopped and looked at me and I stopped and looked at them, and then we all just went back to practicing our welds,” she said. As she learned some of the more masculine aspects of the trade, Allen found that though they were physically challenging, she could absolutely do them.

So Allen persisted, and began making feminist art and large installations.

“I was working with metals and very ‘macho’ materials,” she said. “So I was looking for a way to counter or react to that.” One of her favorite pieces was a giant outdoor sundial that could be experienced by walking through it.

After school, Allen began making large public installations. Many are still around, including “Facing Circles” at the University of Boca Raton, Florida, outside of the Social Sciences building.

That sculpture, built in 1993, contains two crescent shaped forms that look like couches. Each one has the impression of a body in it — one male and one female. The two shapes represented typical male and female gender ideals. The idea, Allen said, was that people could sit in the impression and see how they measured up. The piece was a commentary on the way we try to fit gender stereotypes, she said.

But after graduation Allen started to noticed things she didn’t like so much about sculpture. Large-scale public pieces often involved years-long processes between conception and installation, and by the time it was completed, she had already been itching to move on to new projects for months. And, even though it was years before she developed arthritis, Allen began to realize that sculpture was taxing her body in a way that she likely couldn’t abide forever.

 Allen began to realize that sculpture was taxing her body in a way that she likely couldn’t abide forever.

“There was always a lot of pouring concrete, cranes, lifting… at some point I realized, ‘This is unsustainable,’” she said. “Because one of the reasons why I wanted to be an artist was so that I wouldn’t have to retire from my work — ever,” she said.

So in the late 1990s, Allen decided to take a break from business as usual. She put her sculpting practice on-hold and signed up for a quilt making class at a local shop. It was just for fun, she reasoned, a break from her work that would help her get re-inspired.

“It was great,” she said. “After that, I stopped making anything else. I saw that I could incorporate everything I had learned up to that point into quilting. I brought in ideas from painting, graphic design, photography, sculpture — because quilts are actually like very flat sculptures.”

In quilting, Allen also saw a practice that was less taxing on her physical body. It was one she could conceivably do as long a she made art — in other words, for the rest of her life.

“First, you can quilt indoors, so you can do it year-round. Obviously there were problems doing that with sculpture where you’re out in the sun or rain. And, you can do it sitting down.” But that wasn’t all, Allen said, after being a sculptor for so long, diving into quilting felt like “the ultimate feminist experience.”

Smaller works show the style Kerr Allen was working with several years ago, when her work was heavily influenced by the marshlands of Florida.

After Allen learned the rules of quilting, she began to break them. Quilts have straight edges. They’re typically flat, made from fabric that’s often sourced from someone else. They’re usually based on visual and geometric patterns. But Allen began bringing in techniques from painting and sculpting. She began to silkscreen the fabrics, to make her own fabric colors and designs. She stitched non-geometric shapes, like the blades of grass that grew near her old home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, or images of adults and children that appeared to jump out from the background. She broke with tradition and told linear stories with the images, even writing. People are more familiar with paintings, which typically get more recognition than quilts, so she began making quilt/painting hybrids.

“It’s easier to begin with someone’s idea of a painting and stretch that (into a quilt) than it is to begin with their idea of a quilt and try to expand that,” she said.

Inspired the natural environment surrounding her homes in Florida and Maryland, Allen stitched and painted narratives about the world around her.

Then, in recent years, Allen again found herself making new artistic decisions based on her body. The silk screening technique she had developed to paint her fabric had begun to feel unsustainable.  She was beginning to have arthritis flare ups more often, and realized that if she was going to keep creating art for years to come, she needed to modify her style once again.

“Arthritis is something that I am aware of almost on a daily basis,” she told me.

Arthritis is something that I am aware of almost on a daily basis.

“(At the time) I thought, ‘What can I do?’ And I just let the seed germinate in my head.” So Allen started to change the way she was working. She started to move away from the intensive silkscreening technique and the demanding hand stitching that she’d been doing for years, because those involved repetitive motions that caused the Arthritis to flare up. When it did, she’d calm it by switch to machine sewing instead of hand stitching, or she’d start painting or designing to give herself a break.

Soon, Allen had developed a new way of distributing paints on the fabric and canvas. Using water, she allowed the paints to separate and spread as they wanted to naturally, a thing she calls, “letting the materials speak.” The technique gave birth to a new phase of her work, the one that caught my eye. The colors are bolder, the “brush strokes” more unbridled and wild. Each piece has evidence of the artist’s hand and the serendipity of the moment it was created.

At Allen’s latest show in the Los Altos Hills, CA Town Hall, it was clear that viewers responded to the new paintings.

A sign guides visitors to Allen’s show, “Reflections on Water” at the Los Altos Hills, CA town hall in March.

“I feel like I can look at your pieces and understand them without asking any questions,” one woman told Allen before she left. Allen said that was important to her — as important as it is for her to maintain peace and balance between the work she does and the way she can take care of her body.

“Now,” she said, “I’m able to really use my body and my materials to make something large without having to be as strong and without having to force anything.”

Allen told me that she’s been able to look at Arthritis as something that pushed her to take a new direction in her art. It’s been important to look at it that way, she said, as something that pushed her forward towards something, instead of something that held her back from doing what she wanted, something that she couldn’t control.

“It’s important to think about my choices as an evolution — moving from one thing to another — rather than an abandonment of some part of your life. So my choices weren’t a retreat. I was going on to something, going back to concentrate on the materials I love,” she said. “I’ll see where it takes me.”

My choices weren’t a retreat. I was going on to something, going back to concentrate on the materials I love.

Allen’s perspective makes me think of a painting that hung in her show — my favorite one. On a white canvas, a brilliant red sun bled into gold. Globs of orange red spill off the orb like melting sunshine. It strikes me that the way Allen looks at Arthritis, with the pain and the limits it imposes, as something inspiring, something catalyzing, bears a resemblance to that painting. When she showed it to me, Allen explained that she didn’t add any red or orange paint to the canvas. Those colors were already in the gold paint, but needed to be drawn out with the new technique she’s been using. It’s that same alchemical principle. She’s made something beautiful and unexpected out of something common. And in the process, she’s become a braver, more dynamic artist.