Leah Oates: How did you become an artist and what is your family background?
Kristen Copham: I have identified myself as an artist for as long as I can remember. I had strong drawing skills as a kid, so I benefited from early encouragement. I now find the title to be a little vague and commonplace, so sometimes in response to “whaddyado?” I say I’m an illustrator, an entrepreneur, an international playgirl, or a janitor. My family background is about as idyllic as it gets: close knit, working class, Midwestern, rural, fun, genuine, devoted, quasi-religious and to top it all off, lucky.
LO: What are the ideas in your work and what is your working process?
KC: First, I try to work at all. It’s easy to be busy, discouraged or frustrated with what I’m trying to express. And since it’s pretty entertaining to create work in my head and takes a lot of effort to do it in reality, discipline can be a challenge. But, I know that practice is crucial to successful expression. I keep a sketchbook in my purse most of the time. I draw in it some of the time, and I embark upon drawing sprees and then drawing famines. In the studio I paint because it’s easier and feels more natural. Painting is all about my process – organizing and mixing color and materials, and supporting the ideas both have to coalesce into one cohesive moment. By the time I do all that, the brush does the rest. Unlike a pen, a brush is fairly forgiving. I need the pen in order to quickly capture ideas or images that seem to come out of nowhere, and usually those are the ideas and images worth exploring further.
My specific ideas tend toward interpretation and representation of the natural world. This planet and the human experience fascinate me every single day. I’m working on merging the internal with the external world – practicing both seeing and feeling. I try to paint looking at both the outside world or “reality” and the inside world, my place of intuition. I like to paint people from life verses photographs, which flatten out expression and nuance. I’m not saying I can capture those things in a painting either, but the process of building the personality through layers of color and tone while watching how someone moves and interacts with the world seems more dynamic to me than capturing the shadows and light across a face in a fraction of a second. Doing the latter successfully takes way more talent than I have! Mostly I just have a color addiction.
LO: You’re a portrait painter, which is a tradition that has produced some of the best works of art ever created. What is it about the human face in painting that fascinates us and what are some of your favorite portrait paintings?
KC: In terms of portraits, some of my all-time favorites are Alice Neel’s portrait of Andy Warhol, affected and fresh; Lucien Freud’s raw, honest and unapologetic portrayal Queen Elizabeth; Sylvia Sleigh’s various paintings of her hairy, handsome Latino model with the humungous afro; Dana Schutz’s portraits of her fantasy last-man-on-earth “Frank”– especially the one where he is bright orange and floating on an ice chunk in an endless sea; Nicole Eisenman’s fabulous prints of faces; Elizabeth Peyton’s romanticized depiction of Kurt Cobain; and Frances Bacon’s disjointed portraits of his lover. Classically, I appreciate the rawness of Rembrandt’s moody self-portraits, and figuratively I’m a fan of El Greco’s movements and gestures as well as Jenny Saville’s big juicy nudes. Don’t get me going, I could go on and on … I love all of it!
The face expresses so much. It’s how we connect with each other. And faces are so varied and interesting, yet they are all fundamentally the same. Eyes, mouth, nose, ears, and hair (or not!) on a head. We all have a face, and we simultaneously express through it and receive information through it: through all the features of the face we see the world, we hear and listen, we speak, breathe and consume. It’s telling how we tend to find faces in abstract works, isn’t it? The face is the first thing we recognize as babies. I must add that the human body is equally incredible: how it moves in space and interacts with the world, its curves and lumps and lines, the way it can express feeling.
LO: How do you select the subjects that you paint?
KC: Often I let them select me, as with my 1000 faces project. Sometimes I’ll see a person who I just want to paint because they look so unique or their expression is especially intriguing. Occasionally I’ll ask a stranger to sit for me, but usually they just think I’m strange and don’t respond. For my “Male Artists Exposed” Series, I painted men who were artists, not models – in order to subvert the idea of the model as object, explore ideas of subject-hood, and because I thought it was fun being a woman artist painting nude men. I’ve also done a series of nude paintings of my friend David Gibson, a talented curator about town. He’s a big guy, which for me is exciting because the resulting works challenge our ideas about beauty and the human form.
Painting family, friends and lovers is a natural inclination. I want to study the faces of the people I love and record my vision of them. It’s a perceived form of making them immortal, I suppose. I never want them to die!
LO: You ran a gallery called LZ Project Space in the Lower East Side for several years. How was this experience and how was it to be part of the emerging gallery scene in LES?
KC: NY Studio Gallery started with my studio rental on the fifth floor of the Whitehall Building on 25th street in Chelsea. I consolidated my living and working space in 2007 and moved myself and NYSG to my building in the Lower East Side. Later we expanded to a small annex space in the back of the building and called it LZ Project Space. We hosted artists such as Arielle Falk, Emmy Mikelson, Ernest Concepcion, and many more amazingly talented voices. It is a tradition that continues to this day with Leah Oates’ sophisticated vision at Station Independent.
At the time we had a great line-up of dealers with exceptional exhibits on the block: Alix Sloan, who still deals at fairs and has shown out of the NYSG space, Collette Blanchard on Clinton Street, the non-profit Participant who is still a player. I feel honored to have been a small part of the emerging scene in the area. It continues to grow. Today longtime East Village art dealer Paul Bridgewater runs Smart Clothes Gallery out of the space.
LO: Why do you think art is important to people and to the world?
KC: Art captures the time, place, and feeling of a culture and on a grander scale, of the collective unconscious of the planet. We preserve art because people relate to it at a fundamental or archetypal level and in turn it relates back to the experience of being human. It speaks to something universal, which is why humanity has the urge to preserve art and look to it for answers. It offers a time-space thread of connection to our past and future, to shared and personal experiences. It’s the same reason people are often threatened by art. Why else would ancient relics be defaced, or coveted or stolen, or traded at breathtaking prices? As E. H. Gombrich points out in The Story of Art, why would you care if someone poked holes in the eyes of a picture of your mother? Because the image has power!
Another interesting thing about art is that it is both all around us and inside us. Making art is a way to give yourself a voice, give yourself that power. The emergence of graffiti-art all over the world is just one example of how young people use mark-making as an outlet.
LO: What advice would you give an artist who has just arrived in NYC and who is not sure where to begin?
KC: It depends on what you want to achieve. I can’t really give advice generally since everyone has different dreams. Do you want to make more work? Organize your life so that you can work. Do you want to sell your work? Figure out your niche, find your audience, create a selling plan. Maybe you use the Internet or throw open studio parties or connect to an interior designer. Do you want a dealer? Do your research and make a plan to find representation. Having representation outside New York can help, especially if your rep does art fairs and has a solid collector base for whose taste your work fits.
There’s nothing that feels worse than being an artist and not working. Even if other things are out of place – money, or love, or logistics, of life – find some way to make work, even if it’s simply jotting down ideas on napkins you carry in your pocket. If you have a serious practice or think you’re good enough to be represented, research your possible galleries and make a plan to have your work considered. Haha, I should take my own advice!
LO: What are your upcoming projects?
KC: That’s top-secret information! (smiles) But I can tell you a little bit … In my upstate studio I’m working on a series of mountain paintings based on the time I spent last year in Colorado and the Swiss Alps. In entrepreneur-land I am developing a cartoon character that teaches yoga to kids. Of course I still regularly paint portraits, either in Manhattan or on the road. Can I paint yours?
Lately I’ve been trying to synthesize aspects of the external world, specifically the natural world, with ideas of the internal world: living life, learning, making errors, being human and animal at once. I’m trying to mesh those ideas in the mountain paintings, which are both large and sparse – a challenge for a painter who typically covers every square inch of canvas with paint. I may need to bring the practice into plein air for a while. Now and again I’ll find myself fussing with collage, culling old sketchbooks, and looking at art in NY in order to find inspiration and make connections. I meditate and ask the universe for clarity, focus, and clues to discover that next big project that will consume my passion. Anyway, those are just a few of the grand and sometimes ridiculous ideas that I wake up and go to sleep with. I’m ashamed to say I have another three or four non-art related projects that regularly distract me as well, like fitness, food, writing, or real estate, to name a few. Unfortunately, I’m a busybody, and that’s never done my art any favors.