Rattling the Eyes Through ‘Observational Abstraction’
By: Steve Mitchell
Katie St. Clair is an assistant professor of art at Davidson College. She’s tall, slim and her hands are constantly in motion as she speaks. She arrived at a rapt crowd on Oct. 27 in the InFocus Gallery at GreenHill, located at 200 N. Davie St. Her show is titled “Observational Abstraction” and includes work by St. Clair, Kirk Fanelly, Murry Handler, Désirée Petty and Bayley Wharton. The show runs until Nov.5 at Green Hill. “Where the viewers understand my work as visual, I understand my painting by feel,” she said. “I don’t sit at an easel but crawl around on the floor. I use my hands to mix the paint in buckets. I work from instinct, experimentation and observation.” She began painting almost before she could walk. Growing up, she would listen to audiobooks as she painted; this tension and overlap between writing and visual art have continued as her work has developed. This tension was also a recurring theme in the artist talk, co-sponsored by Greensboro Bound Literary Festival.
“Painting, for me,” she explained, her hands fanning around her, “is about ambiguity and non-linear connections but my writing practice is different. It functions more to focus and clarify my creative practice.”
St. Clair’s paintings are from a series titled, “Erratics,” based on her experience observing glacial erratics in Ireland. Glacial erratics are pieces of rock that differ in size and type from the rock of a native region, rocks transported from far away to the region by glaciers.
“I don’t start by knowing where I’m going in a painting,” she said. “I have a lot of sensations from experiencing a landscape. During my time in Ireland, I was immersed in this raw, limestone world. I’d go back to my studio with very specific forms and thoughts about what I’d seen and felt, but I didn’t go back thinking, ‘I’m going to paint rocks.’”
Another theme that was discussed during the artist talk was St. Clair’s striving to shift or interfere with the way we normally see and experience the world. St. Clair said she was diagnosed with dyslexia when she was young so linear thinking was not something that came naturally.
St. Clair said her studio is cluttered with color-coded words and phrases that are spread out on her floor. She said this method helps her to see order, repetition, themes and have a “color-palette of ideas” when she goes to write.
“My idea of painting is really broad,” she said. “Collage and painting are one and the same to me. The tension and playfulness between the two help me question why we create rules for ourselves and how we can break them. We need to create a distance from ourselves, to lose our perspective, to find another way of seeing. We need to rattle our eyes.”
Since she moved to North Carolina two years ago, she’s found herself becoming intrigued with the landscape of the Triad. She said she is inspired by the Southern red clay and “rearranging debris on the forest floor to inspire new compositions.”
St. Clair said she feels alive when she sits in the dirt, shrouded by plants, mushrooms, lichen and insects.
“My art is embedded with the wonderfully impossible task of conveying all these sensations,” she said.
During the question and answer period after the talk, a young girl asked in a soft voice, “Did being dyslexic make it harder for you to learn to paint?”
St. Clair’s face brightened into a grin and said, “You know, I’m not sure I’d even be a painter if I weren’t dyslexic,” she said. “It taught me so many things. It became the way I could understand the world.”
“I’m a big girl, 6 feet 2 inches,” she said swinging her arms expansively. “But when I paint, I get bigger. I can shine.” The girl nodded quietly. Understanding, perhaps, that one day she could shine too.
Steve Mitchell’s novel, Cloud Diary, will be published by C&R Press in March 2018. He’s co-owner of Scuppernong Books. Find more at www.authorstevemitchell.com