Part 6 | Artist Lindsay Ketterer Gates Manifests the Personal in the Unexpected
October 30, 2015
Part 6 | Artist Lindsay Ketterer Gates Manifests the Personal in the Unexpected
With Ideas on Craft and the Craft School Experience from Kristin Muller, Executive Director, Peters Valley School of Craft
I began this series with a quote from the Greek physician and philosopher Hippocrates: “Ars longa, vita brevis” which translates to “life is short, but art lives forever,” though its original meaning was more akin to “the life so short, the craft so long to learn.” And after six months of contemplating and conversing in-depth into the meanings of craft and creativity within the transformative style of craft school education, I find this to be even more true than when I started. The making of fine crafts is a distinctive kind of exploration, which patently relies on the integration of the heart, head, and hands; but, and perhaps most importantly, also depends on a life-long commitment to learning and practice within one’s chosen discipline. It is apparent that all of the above are true when it comes to the field of Craft and the Craft School Experience: the artists are extraordinary and the experiences immersive and life-changing – all resulting in impeccable, transformative works.
In my final interviews, I was seeking some closing revelations, some illuminating conclusions to tie the whole six-month conversation together, close the circle if you will. I began with Kristin Muller, Executive Director of Peters Valley School of Craft, who thoughtfully offered some of the most insightful and considered responses of the entire series. I started with the overreaching: What is craft? Muller paused and then concluded: “In a nutshell, Craft is Art you can touch, live with and ponder, executed with passion, skill, and imagination.” I asked her to elaborate: “Craft, both a verb and adjective, does not have a singular specific meaning. For me, Craft exists within a continuum of humanity’s creative development as makers of tools and objects to improve and enhance our lives. Depending on the affluence and abundance of a culture, craft can be a necessity to provide basic needs but as cultures develop and basic necessities are met; there is opportunity for further refinement. This is where I see the excitement in Craft in America today. Craft provides a broad field for artists, designers, artisans and fine craftsman, to work in one or more media and the freedom to explore utility, challenge it, apply it to industrial design, to the folk realm, to the conceptual and sculptural realms.” This was precisely what I was looking for: confirmation of my own suspicions that the settings for Craft are currently exploding beyond its traditional perimeters. Muller went further, “In a sense, the context for Craft is wide open [right now] because we are increasingly moving to conceptual work, sculpture and design using craft materials – this is exciting new territory.” While there will always be debate about the place for Craft, what is happening within the field is undeniably exciting and undeniably modern – both of which are celebrated at Peters Valley School of Craft.
Nestled amid the fields, forests and streams of the 70,000 acre Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Peters Valley is one of the best craft schools in the country, and not just because they offer intensive instruction from nationally and internationally recognized artists, or because they offer opportunities to refine traditional skills or learn new ones in state-of-the-art studios; but because they consider the themselves stewards of the creative process: from preparation, to incubation, to illumination. This is an important distinction: this mindset to promote the higher level of thinking that people develop while engaging in making, refining skills and concepts through processes that require precision and time to develop is exclusive to the power of the craft school experience. When I asked Muller to describe Peters Valley’s specific vision/mission towards craft education, she woos me with recurring words like exploration, experimentation, community, and immersive; but other more intriguing words that echoed throughout our conversation were vibrant, new, and joy. It is clear that in Peters Valley’s desire to function as a hub for focused creativity and exchanges (which it has certainly achieved), it has also successfully cultivated and carefully nurtured a unique framework that allows artists/students to evolve beyond just taking a simple workshop. It is a collective rebellion where they are invited to dig deep, to refine their skills in ancient and traditional techniques, to experiment with new technologies and materials; and they willingly do so, all in the pursuit of artistic, professional, and personal development.
So it is fitting that my final artist interview is with Lindsay Ketterer Gates: an innovative artist who harnesses that same underlying sense of revolution and evolution found at Peters Valley – the craft school that not only championed her artistically but also inspired her to join its ranks and continue its mission. With reckless abandon, Gates fearlessly incorporates unexpected and everyday materials with traditional fibers materials and techniques resulting in gorgeously subtle and graceful sculptures. As she obsessively gets lost in her work, repetitively looping and knotting, she finds the calm amid the chaos – and, quite often, much more. Our conversation was just as I suspected it would be, everything but ordinary…
Q: If you had to describe your work in three words what would they be and why?
A: Texture, Pattern, Balance
Transforming Ordinary Materials. Obsessive Repetitive Graceful...I cheated a little.
Q: Conceptually speaking, what do you identify as your primary concerns? If these have changed over the course of your career, can you speak about where you began to where you are now?
A: My work has no grand concepts to speak of. There is an internal dialog and meaning going on in my head when the ideas are flowing – usually based on something going on in my personal life. I think that the work started out having no particular focus beyond making oddly intriguing, beautiful objects. I was inspired by mundane materials with an interest in transforming them in a way that was interesting and surprising. Over the years as I’ve gotten older and experienced more of life and relationships, and those relationships have played a role in the work. Pieces started to seem to be disconnected, tied together, pulling apart, have gaping holes, etc. It’s subtle, but it’s there.
Q: Who do you draw inspiration from: artistically speaking (artists, philosophers, writers, musicians, etc.…)?
A: Hmmm…. There aren’t any specific people that come to mind. I work at Peters Valley School of Craft and my job puts me in the thick of the fine craft scene all the time. I’m constantly surrounded by makers and I think it’s safe to say that seeing multiple artist presentations on a weekly basis, watching students come through to experiment and create, and working on issues within the field, etc.…. definitely influences and inspires me. I get something from each bit of exposure that I have, which no doubt comes into my work in subtle ways.
Q: How did you come to work with textiles and fibers? What is it about this material and process that drew you in and continues to provoke your interest?
A: I’m definitely drawn to the self-soothing repetitive processes that exist in fiber techniques. I hear a lot of people say the same. The looping process that I use is very meditative and allows me to zone out and get lost in thought as I’m working. I love other techniques and materials too, but I always come back to looping. The technique has limitless potential and I’ve merely scratched the surface.
Q: I was reading an interview where you noted, “I’ve always loved hardware stores and anything that you can buy in bulk or buy in a bin or buy by the pound.” At what point did you begin to add in everyday materials such as wire, steel washers, joiner biscuits to your work?
A: I grew up going to hardware stores and junk shops with my parents and looking at anything and everything as an art material. My mother is an artist and saw things in a different way than most people and passed that gift on to me. My father used to rig things together and anything was potentially useful for a task. I always loved the look of multiples in bins and the textures they create. I also never held back from trying things when it came to creating art. I didn’t second guess grabbing for an odd material or two. I just went for it. There is a great quote that goes something like, “Trust that little voice inside your head that says ‘wouldn’t it be interesting if…?’ and then do it.” That’s how I’ve always been when it comes to artwork. Not so much in my personal life BTW. When I was first learning to weave on a loom I was constantly adding washers and other random things onto the warp and weft. When I was first learning how to make felt I was adding steel wool into it to see how the rust would change the material. I guess my entire life I’ve been taking random things and combining them in strange ways.
Q: Celestial Navigation is a fantastic example of your unique use of materials to imply complex conceptual ideas: the notion of concentric circles reaching out and into infinity, layers and layers multiplying and reproducing without end, and being able to reach in and through the piece adds another direction altogether. Can you speak about your ideas going into this piece and what it represents for you?
A: It’s funny - that piece was originally inspired by a simple button hole! I look at a lot of clothing, costuming, etc. and often get inspired by small details. While that was the launching point, it did expand from there. The title came after the fact – after living with the piece for a while and seeing it resemble stars in the night sky and also thinking about the idea of navigation and all of the things I was ‘navigating’ in my personal life while that piece was being created in my studio. I guess in a way the repetitive, meditative process of creating the piece helped me navigate through a lot of things at that time. The piece and the work I was doing on it was the one constant in a sea of change.
Q: As I began to research your work, immediately I noticed that the peacock is a recurring pattern / theme in your work, seen in pieces such as Borrowed Feathers (pictured above) and Kylix in Blue (pictured right) and even in other works in how the materials are applied or your color selections. Can you talk about its significance: is it conceptual? textural? purely aesthetics?
A: The interest lies in the overlapping forms that resemble feathers in texture. The literal representation of a peacock, which started with Kylix in Blue, came out of the challenge to reinterpret the ancient Greek form of a kylix (ceremonial drinking vessel) for an exhibition with that theme. When researching the form, I was most intrigued with the grace of the handles, which reminded me of the neck of a peacock. I used the peacock form to mimic the line of the handles of a kylix. What often happens after I complete a piece is that that piece influences the next piece, so Silver Peacock (pictured at top) followed.
Q: Year of the Snake, from your Teapot Series, depicts a snake that envelopes the form (becoming part of the form at various points), emerging from and into lush bunches of vegetation. The most striking component for me is the unending spiral in the center of the work, on both sides that implies the snake passes through, never escaping. With the obvious reference to the Chinese Zodiac, is there a particular year that is being commemorated? Or perhaps a celebration of your birth year?
A: The spirals are part of a vocabulary of forms that I’ve built up over the years and reoccur throughout the scope of my work. Gaping holes, overlapping ‘feathers’, spiraling forms, specific patterns, etc.
Q: The Pistachio Series, Basket with Gaping Hole in particular, is quite remarkable – the shells really become something magical when structured as a textile, becoming almost jewel-like. In some works, they serve merely as adornment and others they completely engulf the form. Tell me everything about this series!
A: I started out exclusively working with stainless steel mesh, silver wire, and pistachio shells making these strangely beautiful and graceful forms from this really odd combination of industrial, natural and handmade materials and techniques. The mesh was originally absent from the viewer and used merely to create form. I’d completely cover the mesh with looped and beaded pistachio shells, using it just as structure. This allowed the forms to take on more complicated and larger shapes. So I’d have these mesh armatures sitting around my studio all stitched together (I stitch all of the forms together creating seams like a dress maker would) and I started to really enjoy how you could read how they were created. You could see all of these beautiful seams and stitching… so I decided to start planning pieces that would let that show. It is tricky to strike the right balance between those moments of calm amongst the overall chaos of the work, but I think that the work is successful because I am able to do that part well. I love that challenge. I stopped working with pistachio shells because I was simply just tired of them. They pop up now and again, but when I started to be ‘the nut lady’ and people started suggesting different nuts to use…. I thought – this is NOT what my work is about. It’s not about this material being a gimmick. Time to change things up and start to bring to the public the other ideas and materials that I’d been working on in my studio and hadn’t shared yet. So I shifted my focus and explored all kinds of new things.
Q: Sometimes I find that artwork that has such a rich surface as yours often is all about the surface and the form is just an afterthought; however, your forms are obviously equally as important and are completely resolved. Which comes first for you: the surface or the form and how do you maintain such a visual balance?
A: I don’t actually know which comes first. It’s a bit of a chicken and the egg situation. What I can tell you is that my mind is buzzing 24/7 with ideas for new work. Most of them are terrible, but they are there like a film strip playing in my head no matter what else I’m doing (both a blessing and a curse). Once I have a general idea of what I want to create I make a full scale paper model or two or three…. This helps me work out the form and see where there are potential problems or unexpected possibilities. Pieces get fully resolved in the middle of the night when my restless mind sorts them out and I wake up suddenly at 3am and have solved the piece. That’s the REALLY short version of how my pieces come to life.
Q: Several of your works, such as Koi, are made of several components (freestanding) that make up the whole work. Can you elaborate on your decision to work in pieces as opposed to singular forms? Do you ever show just one portion without the other, or are they only viewed in the whole?
A: Many years ago I started designing work that was two ‘halves’ that form a ‘whole’. This creates an immediate relationship that can change depending on how the piece is displayed. Instead of me dictating how that should be, I like to allow the owner of the work to have that final say. I have no idea if they reposition them from time to time or leave them the same continuously. But it doesn’t matter to me. Later on the pieces started being interconnected or even two very separate forms springing out of the same base. All of this goes back to the earlier answer I gave about having a concept in the work. The forms usually come out of ideas of connectedness or disconnectedness within relationships of all kinds; pulling away, coming together, separating, getting tangled up, etc.
Q: Tangled, another beautiful example of dueling profiles working together to form a complete work – here, though, they actually woven together and within each other. Part of your Teapot Series, can you talk about your decision to actually merge the two forms whereas in other pieces you have kept them separate? How important is the divide for you, if at all, conceptually – or is it more aesthetics?
A: I think I covered most of this above but I wanted to point out the piece New York, New York (detail pictured below), which is a great example of using the form to push a relationship. The two halves are one at the base but seem to be simultaneously tangled together at the top and yet pulling and facing away from each other. On one half of the form the joiner biscuits are covered in city maps of urban areas in NY State. On the other half they are covered with topographical maps of open space in NY State.
Q: Duo, one of my favorite works, is such a provocative form, unapologetically feminine. Does gender play a role at all in your works or is it something you think about?
A: It’s not something that I think about but I do look at a lot of costuming and clothing that tends to be largely feminine.
Q: Ok…bigger question: how would you answer “What is craft?”
A: This is difficult to define especially these days with 3-D printing and so much other interesting cross-overs going on.
Q: Historically, and often critically, there has been a delineation between the disciplines of fine art and craft? Do you think there should be separate categories? And if so, what do you think causes this separation? Do you identify with one or the other?
A: I think there is a lot of overlap. I identify with the fine craft world and that’s where I’ve spent my career. My work and where it fits in the world has been mostly defined by the techniques that I use, which come out of the fiber art tradition for the most part (sewing, lashing, looping, etc.) even though I’m mostly using metal. It’s been somewhat accepted by the metals world too, but work tends to live where you put it and I keep putting it in the fiber world so that’s where it has largely lived. I guess I think of where art forms historically come from as being what has caused people to largely define them in separate categories. Painters and sculptors were commissioned to do work for the upper class and it was very much a status symbol to have the ability to commission a portrait or sculpture. The ‘craft forms’ such as weaving, metalsmithing, ceramics, etc. were not valued as much and were thought of as more utilitarian in purpose. That’s not where the two fields are now at all – there is much more to ‘craft’ than utilitarian work and it’s crossed into more conceptual thought, etc. which to me blurs the lines.
Q: Name 3 ideas / topics that you feel are the most relevant to the field of craft at-large right now.
A: Craft and community – bringing those two things together for social causes. B: The need to cultivate new collectors. C: Higher Education – where it is, where it’s going
Q: How would you describe a craft school experience? And how do you think it is different from other forms of arts education?
A: It is difficult to put into words what the experience of being in an immersion learning workshop and creative community like Peters Valley truly feels like. Because it is so much more than what it appears on the surface. Yes, you are attending a ‘class’ and learning a skill… but you are also in a think tank of other creative minds.
When I ask students what they enjoyed most about their experience on our campus I’m not surprised that the actual workshop they took isn’t always their first answer. I’m not surprised because I have had the same experience. It may be the comradery that they shared with other people who weren’t even in their workshop, the peacefulness of being surrounded by the National Park, the new ideas that they have after watching what other people were doing in other mediums, the uniqueness of learning side by side with people from other backgrounds and professions who range in age from 18 - 80 or the new found confidence they unearthed in themselves through the power of art. I try to get people to understand the magic that happens at places like this and how truly enriching and fulfilling it can be in your life. Peters Valley and schools like it nurture creative thinking through fine craft. That creative thinking launches people to amazing places at any age. The growth that I’ve seen from students taking even just a five-day workshop is amazing because they are fully immersed. And there is also a lot of cross pollination between students working in other studios and that is encouraged. These schools and workshops are not intimidating but instead they are accepting and encouraging. They attract lifelong learners, not just artists.
Q: How would you describe your personal experience(s) at Peters Valley School of Craft? How has your time there influenced your artistic pursuits?
A: How did I end up at Peters Valley? It’s pretty simple really – I came for a summer studio residency, I experienced the magic and I have been connected to the place ever since. Educational experiences in and out of formal classrooms have always been important in my life. There were things I wanted to learn about the field of fiber arts and in the field of fine craft that were unavailable to me at the university I attended, whether it was due to a lack of equipment, lack of extended knowledge of a particular skill from my professors, or something that simply wasn’t offered. Craft Schools such as Peters Valley, Penland, Haystack and Arrowmont served to fill that void. I was able to attend workshops on scholarship during the summer months and learn in one or two weeks the amount of knowledge on a specified subject that it would take an entire semester to learn. When I would be at these workshops I was surrounded by professional artists and emerging artists who were as focused and inspired as I was. I felt at home. The experience of getting to know how nonprofits like this survive and thrive drove me to pursue graduate work in Arts Administration at Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ.
Now, working as the Development Director for Peters Valley School of Craft, I feel like things have come full circle. I continue to have a thriving career as a studio artist but get to also use my administrative skills to help the school vision the future, nurture emerging and professional artists and opportunities and stay immersed in a culture of creativity that keeps me inspired.
Q: Just for fun: a major museum is burning and you have to go in and save 3 works — knowing that you may endanger yourself, what works do you rush in to get?
A: Ha! As a development director I immediately thought of grabbing the grant files and the database listing all of the supporters! But of course, that would be on a cloud based system. I’m not sure that I would even go in! I guess as far as what I’d save it would depend on the specific museum and what was intriguing me the most at that time in my life. I’m not really sure. I love looking at decorative armor; maybe I’d grab some of that… assuming I had some sort of way to carry it out on a cart! I’d probably also grab some historic textiles – some with ridiculous amounts of embroidery, which I love.
Q: Last question: what’s next?
A: Oh boy. I’m not really sure. I’m working on a piece about gun violence right now, which is a big departure from the type of work that I usually create in the sense that I’m starting with such a specific and obvious concept. Once I started in on the piece I began to see how it could really become a series since the subject and thought on it are so broad. If the ideas keep flowing, I think that’s what’s next…but for right now I’m trying to stay focused on just the one piece so that my gallery doesn’t kill me! The deadline is fast approaching to have this thing completed!
Lindsay Ketterer Gates was born in 1974 in Doylestown, PA and currently works and resides in Millford, PA.
For more information about the artist and her work, please visit the following:
Images courtesy of the artist (from top to bottom): Silver Peacock (detail), 2015, stainless mesh, paint, coated copper & silver wire, aluminum ring, 19 x 11.5 x 6 inches; Zodiac, 16 x 12 x 3 inches; Borrowed Feathers, 2008, stainless mesh, steel, patina, joiner biscuits, coated copper wire (looped & stitched), 23 x 11 x 5 inches; Celestial Navigation, 2014, stainless mesh, paint, steel, patina, coated copper wire (looped and stitched), 24 x 12 x 6 inches; Kylix in Blue, 2013, stainless mesh, paint, coated copper wire (looped and stitched), 15 x 12 x 6 inches; Year of the Snake (detail), 2013, stainless mesh, paint, coated copper wire (looped and stitched) 15 x 12 x 6 inches; The Pistachio Series: Basket with Gaping Hole, pistachio shells, stainless mesh, (wire looped & stitched), steel, patina, beads; Koi, 2006, (looped & stitched) coated copper wire, stainless mesh, paint, joiner biscuits, 26" x 12" x 12" (each half); Tangled, 2012, stainless steel wire mesh, copper wire mesh, steel washers, patina, paint, coated copper wire, beads, 18 x 24 x 5 inches; Duo, 2008, stainless steel mesh, pistachio shells, anti-tarnish silver wire, beads, 16.5 x 11.5 x 6 inches; Metamorphosis, 2008, stainless mesh, paint, coated copper wire (looped & stitched), aluminum rings, steel, patina, 32" x 16" x 10" (each half); New York, New York (detail), 2012, stainless steel and copper wire mesh, coated copper wire, topographical and street maps, paint, joiner biscuits, 19 x 24 x 6 inches; Artist working in her studio
This series is sponsored by the National Craft Schools Initiative – five US craft schools who have teamed up to promote the craft school experience on a national scale. For more information about the national initiative, visit www.craftschools.us
To learn more about Peters Valley School of Craft, visit www.petersvalley.org or for more information, contact them via email firstname.lastname@example.org or via telephone: 973-948-5200.