Artist of the Week

Kate Berry Brown

March 12, 2024

Kate Berry Brown (1978) attended Washington University Art School where she earned a BFA in fashion design. Though she spent a couple of years working in the industry, she soon realized her true passion wasn’t clothes. It was in fact the act of designing and making that was what she loved, and she found the job of designing clothes to be interchangeable. Not too long after leaving fashion she got a job in a flower shop which scratched her creative itch, and literally allowed her to get her hands dirty. She dove into this new passion head first. Brown’s deep curiosity led her to the Netherlands where she spent 6 months getting her masters in floral design at Boerma Instituut. While there, she and her bulldog lived in a trailer she rented from a dairy farmer. Over the years, Brown returned to art making. Drawing, immediate and meditative mark making, has always been her deepest love. What continues to intrigue her today is consistent to constructing a dress or making a floral arrangement: design, color and texture. Her wood and paper sculptures are her newest endeavor and allow for her to explore 3 dimensionality - and for her to get her hands dirty. She is represented by Ricco/Maresca gallery in NYC.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.

I grew up in Evanston, IL where I live today with my husband and three children (ages 11, 13, 15) and our French Bulldog named Mochi. I am an abstract artist. I work in two ways: wood and paper wall sculptures and large pen and ink drawings. My wood and paper sculptures are small, smooth and soft. They are greatly inspired by beach treasures one might find washed onto the shore. I love the symbolism of how the thrashing ocean, though calm on the surface, simultaneously breaks and polishes rocks, glass or shells. This process feels so parallel to life. My pen and ink drawings are made up of layer upon layer of crosshatching. Through this mark making I create pattern and depth. It is tedious and meditative work as I fill the paper line by line. At an opening years ago I overheard someone exclaim “this artist clearly has no life!” As if on cue, my 3 small children came barreling into me, their cup of popcorn overflowing onto the floor. This person was wrong; my life was full to the brim, but it was my favorite compliment. She SAW how much work went into that piece.

Silent Overwhelm | 2023 | Pen and ink on paper | 30” x 40”

How would you describe your practice?

I consider myself a full time mom AND a full time artist. I struggled when my kids were very young because there was little time for an art practice. If I can’t work, I begin to feel like I’m holding my breath. Now, as soon as my kids go to school, I have the day for my practice. I split the time between my rented studio and my basement woodshop. In both mediums, my work is abstract. If I’m carving a sculpture, I’m using large, noisy tools. It is a very physical process. By contrast, I can quietly sit for hours in my studio working on a drawing. In many ways they are two very different practices. However I approach both drawing and sculpting similarly. I start with an idea and then sketch a loose design plan. Along the way I make choices and changes that honor both. Whatever I’m working on, the sole act of creating feeds my soul. I have no trouble putting off laundry or going to the grocery store!

Describe your current studio or workspace.

I rent a light filled studio in Evanston’s Noyes Cultural Art Center. I share the enormous space with a painter and a metal sculptor which means I have a built-in community. We lend each other ideas, suggestions and materials, but just as often we work in silence together. As I child I took painting classes in one of the building’s rooms. It’s old with gracious hallways and huge windows. In contrast, my basement woodshop is small. I have to think hard about how to best use the space in terms of any new machinery or large sized work.

Untitled | 2022 | Wood, paper paint | 6” x 7”

What are the overarching motifs in your work?

In my last body of drawings, I was working through the fullness of being a parent to small children. I was being squished both mentally and physically, my life was overflowing with love and fear and abundance; it was all SO MUCH. I was creating bulging shapes reminiscent of a body’s rolls. My mark making was dense and heavy because I was craving space.

Today I use the same cross hatching technique but am exploring the idea of Pandora’s box – how a family secret can take on a life of its own. This new body of work has more negative space, more sharp corners and uses the simple shapes of a two dimensional box template.

My wood work has remained more consistent. I began wood working six years ago when I took the kids to the Massachusetts island of Cuttyhunk for six weeks. We lived with my dad and step mom, and thus the kids were able to attend the one room schoolhouse as residents. I spent the days making wood sculptures. When we came home to Evanston, I brought with me a stack of work that was white and smooth and quiet, reminiscent of my days spent combing the beach on a tiny island in winter.

Can you explain the challenges and importance of working as an artist in the current political climate?

As humans we balance a lot: our past traumas, our busy daily schedules and our fears. As artists, we process these life experiences through our work. Although I do not make political work, who of us can ignore the world we live in? The fear for our planet, our rights, our fellow humans and the world’s growing unrest is palpable everywhere. I once read that as an art buyer, you might buy one painting, but that is not all you are doing. You are supporting an artist’s entire process from raw idea all the way to fruition. I think artists are like sponges; we soak up the world around us, wringing out what we’ve gathered in the form of art. We tell the critical stories of the human existence as we experience it.

Moon | 2020 | Pen and ink on paper | 30” x 34”

You work with paint on wood and ink on paper. How do the characteristics of the different materials and processes shift the meaning of your work?

I have really struggled to make a physical and/or mental connection between my wood pieces and my ink drawings. I don’t yet know why I feel this to be important. Sometimes they seem so disparate to me. On one hand I have my ink work which evokes a sense of depth and volume and on the other I have my wood pieces that evoke a sense of calm and peace. Bringing the crosshatching onto my wood pieces have led to several failures. I continue to feel like if I can bridge these two ways of working I will understand each better. In the meantime, they continue in their own directions, and I feel excited to see how they more obviously communicate with each other in the future. It will happen, but sometimes ideas need years to form and come about more organically.

You’ve mentioned that you enjoy when people reach out to touch your work. What about this is most exciting to you?

I get a real kick out of people telling me they’d like to touch my sculptures. I use paper on most of the wood work, and after A LOT of sanding, the effect is soft like iced cookies or new fallen snow on a patio. I love that peoples’ reactions are so human and visceral.

Untitled | 2022 | Wood, paper, ink | Both 6” x 7”

You studied fashion design in undergrad and hold an MFA in Floral Design–tell us a bit about the ways in which your educational background has impacted your practice.

I received a BFA in fashion design and a Masters in floral design (not a thing in the States, but it is in the Netherlands!) I don’t think I was ever cut out for the fashion industry, so I didn’t last long. The things I loved about fashion are exactly what I loved about doing floral design, but it was a happier environment. I love color, texture and really good design. These are what I love about making art too. There is a very clear through line. However I’ve been surprised lately by what is showing up that can be traced back to my art education. I have become fascinated with 2D plans and templates that are meant to become realized projects. For instance I’m inspired by garden plans, architectural plans, box templates and the idea blueprints in general. As humans we make so many plans with the intention of making them happen a certain way.

Having a previous background in portraiture, what prompted you to delve into abstraction? What do you enjoy most about it?

Years ago people hired me to draw colored pencil portraits. There was satisfaction in doing realistic work. Colored pencils require immense patience, and they are not forgiving. I loved the challenge, and I loved the satisfaction of knowing I can draw anything. Plus, being able to draw well is a crowd pleaser; it gets a big reaction. But I knew there are always artists who are doing it better. I needed to make art that said the things I want to say in the way that only I could say them. I’ll never forget finishing my last portrait and pulling out a giant piece of blank paper and wondering what was about to happen. It was like embarking on a scary new world, but I’ve never looked back.

How To Belong III | 2023 | Pen and ink on paper | 18” x 24”

Any recent, upcoming or current projects you are working on?

Last year I had two shows at my NYC gallery Ricco/Maresca. They represent my sculptures, so all year I spent the majority of time preparing for the shows in my wood shop. It was an extremely busy year, so now I am taking time to process it all. This means I am back in my drawing studio while ALSO testing out new sculpture ideas. There have been a lot of failed attempts at new ideas, but it’s been a productive few months. I’m definitely in the process of paving new paths, and it’s really exciting.

All images courtesy of Kate Berry Brown. Interview conducted and edited by Ellie Schrader.