Luckett: I would love to start with you telling me a bit about yourself and your practice.
Kaye: I’m a local artist represented by Sandra Phillips Gallery in Denver. I organize and curate large-scale exhibitions that inspire connectivity and social action. I also teach Drop-In Drawing, a free program offered at the Denver Art Museum on every second Tuesday of the month from 1-3 PM. Right now it's a virtual program, but we do a lot of fun things, and I prepare demos that introduce participants to a variety of techniques and methods. It’s important for me to share the amazing things that the local communities create, so I try as much as I can to invite artists to participate too, in the drop-in session. And it's open to all mediums
As well as this, I’ve been working with wildfires in western landscape for over a decade. I grew up near Detroit, Michigan where vast urban decay was rampant from de-industrialization, crime, and other factors. This enhanced my sense of empathy, compassion, love for diversity and justice, and reverence for the natural world.
L: I personally research community engagement, collaborative arts, things like that. So I'm really drawn to the social engagement that you're talking about and community building. Could you expand a little bit more on the focus of community in your practice?
K: I think it's really important. It's one thing to work in your studio. I also think when you're making art, it's collaboration with the contemporary times, what's happening in the art scene, and in a historical context. As artists we are always in collaboration with something and in my practice, especially in the beginning, it started out more as a collaboration with science and it continues to be a collaboration with science. So I'm using my work as a tool to explore the quality of nature. I also find it extremely rewarding to create true collaborations with artists in my practice. So I’m starting to make artwork with other artists and then also working with communities to create art exhibitions.
In 2018, I organized an exhibition that was inspired by the women's march. And pink was such a controversial color that came out of the march. It was like seas of pink formed by all of the thousands of marchers. And this protest was significant because it was also worldwide. I wanted to see that momentum continue in our community. So I organized an exhibition that invited artists to use the color pink or reject the color pink as a way to keep the momentum up, but also to promote social issues and promote people whose voices weren't being heard but needed to be heard. And we see during the pandemic that that's even more necessary.
Now I'm organizing an exhibition with a friend of mine, [Kalliopi Monoyios]. It was her idea. She's a scientific illustrator writer and artist, and we both have a degree in geology. We both love rocks. So she came to me with an idea that came out of the pandemic and the isolation: why don't we create an exhibition where people are discovering artworks in their neighborhoods, kind of like a display, something to lift spirits during these challenging times and to create a moment of connection and inspiration in nature.
L: In your biography, you state that you got your B.S. in Fine Art and Geology. Could you explain a bit what this program was like and what pushed you to explore both the arts and sciences?
K: Ever since I was a little girl, I loved rocks. I would spend my allowance money on adding to my rock collections. So, when I went to Skidmore College in New York I naturally fell in love with the incredible landscape, from the rock cuts revealing amazing layers of rock along the roads to hiking in the Adirondack Mountains to finding Herkimer diamonds (which are double terminated clear quartz crystals) in the North Woods behind campus. I have always been drawn to art as well, over the years it has given me so much inspiration, purpose, healing, and wisdom. In College I was able to nurture these interests equally since I double majored in Geology and Fine Art. These departments at Skidmore College were also equally supportive providing me with exciting opportunities, field trips exploring rocks around the region as well as an opportunity to study at Yale university in printmaking, painting, drawing, and photography.
L: Your practice has a focus on the destruction of fire as well as the rebirth of life after disaster strikes. What drew you to this subject matter?
K: In answering this question, I’m going to take us back to the early 1950’s when Detroit’s auto industry moved out of the city and caused adverse economic ripple effects. At one point abandoned lots made up more than half of total residential lots in large portions of the city.To me, the city looked like a tornado went through it. And on Devil’s Night, the night before Halloween, people would set buildings and dumpsters on fire. I experienced this in the 80’s and 90’s. The worst year was 1984, when firefighters responded to more than 800 blazes that covered the entire city in an eerie, smoky haze on Halloween morning. I’m happy to say that things have changed since then, and they are experiencing a revitalization and economic resurgence. These blazes made an impression on me. I also lived by a zoo. We could hear the peacocks and seals from my house. I would often take a walk along the zoo and my neighborhood’s fence and see a deer in its cage rubbing its antler against an empty dish. I made a pledge back then to help nature.
I was also influenced by a few travels, one with my father after I graduated from high school to Mt. St Helens. In 1980, the year I was born, a series of volcanic explosions and pyroclastic flows began at Mount St. Helens in Washington.It has often been considered the most disastrous volcanic eruption in U.S. history. When I went to Mt. St. Helen's I experienced the eerie gray landscape while witnessing a herd of deer and fireweed— a beautiful pink wildflower. It’s called fireweed because it is often first to grow in areas burned by fire. It was one of the first plants to appear after the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980. You can make tea from the leaves and it makes delicious honey, jelly, and syrup. Fireweed shoots are high in vitamins A and C, making for a tasty spring vegetable.
I also spent a summer working in Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon and witnessed a controlled burning of a sequoia tree. They produce small green cones near the crown of the trees. Without fire our insects the seeds remain trapped in the cones. Green cones can live with viable seeds up to 20 years. Fire dries out the seeds allowing them to crack open on the forest floor.
L: Could you describe what your process for creating a new work looks like?
K: I usually have a whole list of ideas already piled up in my mind since it takes so long to create one piece. The idea that I’m most excited about then generates a composition in my mind. I go out into the field, frequently the Hayman fire zone, and take a lot of photographs and use them to assemble a sketch of my composition. I’ll decide on a medium—watercolor, colored pencil, graphite, charcoal, and/or video—and dimensions that best represent my subjects. Then I’ll work on that piece for varying lengths of time. I generally work top to bottom, left to right to prevent smudging my charcoal and graphite. I freehand my subjects onto the paper and as soon as my line drawing is complete, I will dive in with all of the values or colors that I see, finishing the artwork as I go. This process allows me to see how each line informs the next like an intricate web.
L: I’m interested in the materiality of your work. From graphite drawings, watercolor, projections, etc., you use a wide range of materials to create. How do you decide what materials to work with, and what is their relationship to your practice?
K: Certain compositions work better with certain tools. If I decide on a colored design, then I will use colored pencil or watercolor and if the composition is achromatic, then I work with charcoal or graphite. I generate separate ideas to create projection work. I need to make sure that I select a subject that can be activated/animated with the movement of the fire projection.
L: I keep reflecting on the historic wildfires we've had in 2020 in Colorado, specifically. A question that comes up for me is how that has maybe inspired your work, and how your work speaks to these natural disasters. So when something like this happens, how do you respond and how does that become a part of your process of creation?
K: 2020 was the worst year on record for Colorado's wildfires. It was really scary. And my plan is to go and visit these sites in the spring and summer, when vegetation starts to come back, and flowers start to grow. My interest and plans are to document that regeneration.
Again, it's a devastating process. I have friends who had to evacuate. I had a friend who lost her childhood home. And we all experienced it also in the Metro area and in Denver and suburbs because of the air quality. It was dangerous at times to be outside breathing during a pandemic, which makes it doubly challenging. So that's why it's important for me to create pieces that raise awareness and then also to use the artwork too, to be able to donate. Fire is a reality that's a part of our life here in Colorado. It's not going away. It's here every year, some years it's not as bad, some years it's horrible. And we all have to find ways of coping with that loss that we have to experience on an annual basis. But out of that last, we can use survival as a way to propel us forward. And with that hope of regeneration as the forest starts to come back.
L: Could you speak a bit more in depth about your thoughts on the intertwining of the arts and sciences? Do you think it is important for these two disciplines to work together to further conversations around climate change?
K: I think it’s important for all disciplines to work together on climate change. The health of our planet’s species affects every single one of us and requires all types of expertise. The more we can come together on this matter, the better.
Each of us expresses ourselves in a unique way, mine is often thorough art. Art has the ability to inspire within seconds. Artists have been giving form to scientific theories, ideas, and discoveries for centuries. Both disciplines share a passion to discover, experiment, and explore abstract ideas.
L: In your artist statement, you write that your work offers “a visual language to assist in coping” with the ecological and social impact of a changing planet. Could you expand upon this idea?
In my studies of geology, we learned that the only constant in life is change, which is easy to understand when you research the geologic changes that have occurred over billions of years, and we also learned about cyanobacteria (bacteria that uses photosynthesis) producing so much oxygen that they created the first mass extinction event on Earth. With this knowledge I recognize that the change that we are creating in the sixth mass extinction event might not be stopped. And through the Holocene extinction, we have and will continue to experience loss. Wildfires are increasing in intensity; in fact, most wildfires are human caused. In this loss, we must find ways to cope in our transforming world. Seeing new life begin after a devastating event, reminds us that there is hope. We have the ability to heal, improve, nurture others, and adapt.
K: What projects are you currently working on (that you’re able to share), and what is currently inspiring your work?
I’m in an exhibit titled ”Space(s) Between” on view through July 24th at Galleries of Contemporary Art: Ent Center of the Arts at UCCS curated by DU Vicki Myhren Gallery Director Geoggrey Shamos, Independent Curator Don Fodness in collaboration with GOCA Director Daisy McGowan. This is a Multi-site and multi-project exhibition featuring contemporary artists exploring various understandings of how we experience the vastness of place and the iconic nature of the American West. Notions of the horizon as a convention through which we orient ourselves in relation to the landscape are central to the concept. I created a charcoal projection drawing for the exhibit. The drawing is titled “Glass Garden” and features a terrarium filled with a miniature landscape, water, with a fire projection. This animated drawing examines how we cultivate the land and our lives as we move forward in a rapidly changing world influenced by climate change.
I am also organizing an outdoor art exhibit titled LandMark with scientific writer, illustrator, and artist Kalliopi Monoyois. This exhibit features outdoor artwork in various city of Lakewood and Arvada parks. I’m creating hollowed out tree trunks with realistic miniature Colorado ecosystems inside. Translucent birds perch nearby on trees and shrubs. This installation explores the impact of wildfire on the environment, the desire to preserve a planet that is in constant flux, the ways in which we cultivate the land, and the cyclical nature of ends and beginnings.