Port Townsend—Just Down the Road from Illinois: A Conversation with Kim Kopp

"'Everything is biographical', Lucian Freud says.  What we make, why it is made, how we draw a dog, who it is we are drawn to, why we cannot forget.  Everything is collage, even genetics.  Here is a hidden presence of others in us, even those we have known briefly.  We contain them for the rest of our lives at every border that we cross."  – From Divisadero, novel by Michael Ondaatje


Counsel Langley:  You state a “desire for simplicity,” yet you use a long list of materials.  How does this reconcile?  What sort of simplicity—mental, visual—are you seeking? 
Kim Kopp:  That’s a very good question.  A number of years ago I was meeting with a group of artists in Port Townsend every week—we just discussed, talked, whatever.  And, it occurred to me one day that simplicity is so incredibly complex.  Something about the complex nature of simplicity made being simple one of the most difficult things for me because I come from a long line of pack rats.  I love materials.  I pull in from all kinds of places.  Life is complex.  Our daily existence is complex and requires a lot.  And to simplify is a desire, it’s a goal, it’s the unattainable.  So, I pursue it, I’m constantly unsuccessful, but oh well.  It keeps me going it keeps me working.

CL:  With the Calender Project you convey a sense of time and our relationship to it.  Where does your need/desire to address and track time come from?

KK:  Time has always been very interesting to me because I observe all the time—shadows coming and going, the sun moving across the sky, how the light changes over days.  Particularly in 1995, here in Port Townsend, I’d been here a couple of years.  I lived by the Chinese Gardens and every day I would go away and come back and I was struck with the water in the pond, the water in the strait, and the sky.  And, then that is interspersed with the land in between the pond and the strait.  Some days you get to see the islands, some day you don’t.   So I did a study of that. 
Just every morning I would go and stand there and look at it and look at it and look at it from one point of view.  I’d notice the texture of the water, the color of the water.  Then I would run to my studio and do a three inch by three inch painting of what I remembered of what I saw.   I think that was the first real manifestation of time in the way I’ve come to do it now.

CL:  I did a similar observation of early mornings in the months after my first child was born.  Every morning I’d walk with her to the end of the same pier and I’d stand in the same spot and snap a shot with my camera.  There was something comforting in collecting these, it makes visible the effect small changes in circumstance have on appearance.  You find out that you could spend the rest of your life just studying that.
KK:  Exactly.  So much is in it, yet it is a very simple thing.  It goes back to the complex nature of simplicity.  It is not an easy thing to understand.  I think Chinese philosophers spend entire lives trying to figure out the same thing.  What I am trying to figure out is nothing new.
CL:  Sure, it is a fundamental curiosity, feels like looking in a mirror, like you are going to learn something about your nature by understanding the nature of that scene over time.
KK:  Right, let me show you what I did do [pulls out a leather bound volume of thick artist’s paper].  That pond, it really sticks with me.  I did study it for a year, not every day, but once a week.  I bought this very cool sketchbook from David Burroughs.  The sketchbook was expensive, bound in a 16th century way, an absolutely lovely book with really good paper and it turned out that it had fifty-two leaves.  So after having the book for, I don’t know, months, I finally counted the pages and I thought ‘Oh, it has fifty-two to leaves, it’s supposed to be a year long project!’
    I didn’t invent the idea of time, but humans invented how we keep track of it.  I just plugged in to what was already there.  So, I did this same view once a week for a year inside this book.  I started on the Fall equinox and went round the year that way.  It comes out once in a while, Libby Palmer borrows it for her Marine Science Center workshops.

CL:  You’ve designed books and done bookbinding.  Does that influence the way you present your work?
KK:  It does.  I’ve always loved books and paper.  Books in their nature create layers, create a sense of time.  It can be experience in a linear way or flipped through at random, moving from back to front.

CL:  Something we share is a relationship to boats.  My dad is a shipwright—I grew up using his draftsman’s tools and being on the water.  You studied at the boats and boatbuilding, can you speak to how that impacts your work?
KK:  When I came to the Northwest it was to go to the Northwest School of Boat Building.  The reason I did that, to back up a little, is that in 1992 I had just finished my Master’s degree at the University of Chicago.  Part of the requirement, in addition to doing a thesis exhibition, you have to do a written thesis and you need to take at least three courses out in the general curriculum, away from the Art department.  They can be anything, any professor who would let you into their class, whatever interest you have, go for it.  Well, I went to the Anthropology department.  I had some connections to a Native American culture on the west coast and that sparked an interest in how cultures around the globe relate to boats.  I learned that parts of boats, especially in primitive cultures, are named for parts of the human body.  My work, when I began art school was very figurative.  I started making connections between primitive cultures, their boats and our bodies. 
     At the time I was making a nine-foot tall sculpture of a woman and in order to work on I had it lying down.  So, I left, to get my coffee, and walked back in and saw a canoe.  It was just like ‘Oh!  I see where this is going.’  From that moment forward my work has moved into abstraction.
CL:  And you haven’t turned back.
KK:  No, but I have wavered, because I have a love of the figure.  I studied the figure with some really great people and there is just nothing that is so wonderful as well done figure.  I still have a love of that.  What tipped the scale for me was the intellectual connection—this whole idea of boat/body metaphor—I could trot around the globe and find references to this. So, I did through the Anthropology department. 
    So, I get all done with graduate school and, you know, it’s that big swan dive into the abyss—what do you do after you life has changed in this really dramatic way?  You no longer fit in the mold you were in.   I saw a little ad in the back of a magazine for the boat school.  I was at home and I was idle that day and thought ‘Well, I’m just going to call them as ask about this,’ they said, ‘Gee, pop in if you’re in the neighborhood.’  I got off the phone and looked at a map and here’s the boat school in Port Townsend, Seattle closest big city and I’m looking at Interstate 90 which I could’ve thrown a rock from my house and hit.  I thought ‘Well, it is just down the road,’ and I needed a road trip.  I threw my dog in the car and had a cousin of mine meet me in Port Townsend for the Wooden Boat Festival
    I went the boat school and was given a tour by Dan Packard, he’s not teaching there now, but he was teaching there then while on sabbatical from his position as Chair of the Sculpture department at the University of South Dakota.  He and I went off for two hours talking about boats and figure and the relationship and art.  Boats are beautiful, my god, in the water they’re something, out of the water there’s so much potential, there’s so much going on with a boat.  I got bit at that moment.  Living outside of Chicago, flatlands of the world, in a big urban area, wondering how could I work on my work and live, support myself, all that.  I decided to go to boat school.  It seemed perfectly logical
     I went with the intention not of working on boats.  I wanted to enhance my sculpture skills, my wood working skills and knowledge and really make a transformation in my work.  That brought me to boats, which again influences my imagery.

CL: How has your education served you?
KK:  Oh, I wrestle with that all the time. There’s no going back again.  Once you have grown out of a form or a mold or a shape, as elastic as we like to think we are, there really isn’t any going back—you can’t unknow what you know.  For me education was the way I could put value on being an artist.  Growing up in a large urban area where in a town of 50,000 I didn’t know any other artists.  My first adventure into college right out of high school was a real reality check.  I went to a huge university.  I felt like a number.  In the Art department one of the teachers was telling us about how he was turning forty that year, you know I was 19, and he was just starting to get his work out in the world.  And, so he had a job as a professor in order to do that.  I realized very quickly that I have a practical side.  That I’m going to have to work, how am I going to eat until I’m forty?  And then of course what I’ve learned since that being out in the world as an artist is not a guarantee of a living.
    I think for me going to school, when I went back, I quit school after that year—got a lovely waitress job, eventually wandered back into school through interior architecture.  Which impacts my work also.  I love drafting tools, like you.  Went into the Art Institute of Chicago through that door and then I took a painting class to enhance my rendering skills.  They lost me.
     So that was kind of a convoluted path, but for me going to school became a way to do artwork, to find myself in that world.  If I had been left outside of that I don’t know that I would have pursued being an artist.
    It also helped me to me to communicate about my work.  I’m a not a writer, I struggle with that.  It gave me a sense of being in a community where I could talk about my ideas.  It was good soil to use a gardening analogy.  It was good soil for me to grow in.

CL:  What would you say to someone considering an arts education?
KK:  Well, I’d have to give that a lot of thought.  Or, maybe none at all.  I think of the professor that said “Gee, I’m just turning forty and am just starting to get recognized for my work.” I was ripe at that moment to hear that.  I regret at times, if I have regrets, having quit after that year.  I think it might have been good had I stayed, found a way to stay or I had not been so shy as to go up to someone and say ‘ya know I’m a little scared.  I don’t know how to move it this world.’ And found someone who’d mentor me.  So maybe that’s what I’d say.  Look inside yourself and see what it is you need and want from it and know they are not necessarily the same thing.
    I think it might be to look inside and find out what you need.  Then look back inside and find out what you want.  Then go to the right place and speak up.  Leave you ego a little bit outside—being an artist humbling and school is very safe ground.  But, even in school it is humbling.  You are in competition with you teachers.  You are unzipping yourself.  Always try to speak truth.  And if you don’t know say so, someone will help. 
    I needed a mentor.  I needed someone who could just every once in a while tap me on the shoulder and said, “Keep goin’, keep goin’.”  And I did find that later. I actually didn’t voluntarily go back into the arts.  I had someone who saw it me and tricked me into it.  I am grateful to that person!
    I think that the thing with art is that you don’t need the degrees and you can patchwork together the experience, but you have to be really self-motivated in order to do that.  I know a lot of self-taught artists that are just fabulous that have hard attitudes about people who’ve had education.  But once again it comes down to the individual.  I needed because I worked full-time and it was a way for me to find the time.

CL:  So I’d love to know, you’ve got Pathways and Echoes running at Fetherston Gallery in Seattle right now, what’s up next for you?

KK:  Next! Gosh.  I have been invited by Barbara Shaiman to be part of the SAM Gallery.  I’m going to be a part of their summer introduction.  So that’s my next thing.  It is going to be paintings.  She loves the calender project but in her context it doesn’t work.  So she has been waiting to see what I do working bigger.  In graduate school and shortly after I was working six by eight feet, so bigger is not a problem.  But like a fish I grow to the size of the tank—calendar project I had an attic studio, that’s how that started.  Now I have space, I’ll work bigger.  I’m really excited!
CL:  Congratulations!
KK:  Beyond that that’s where my little art administrator needs to get her butt in gear to find the next thing.  I’d like to get representation outside of this region.  I have to start looking for that.  That is the hardest part of being an artist for me, getting my art out into the world.  Fetherston is being helpful with that.   They have some ideas, but it is a hard time for art.
CL:  Why do you think so?
KK:  Economics.  I think it is a great time for art making, very rich for the making, but being in the world in any sort of economic way it is rough.  I think that is something that is not taught well in school, that it is a business.  There is little in the way of support.  Artist Trust!  Put a plug in for them!  Fabulous organization. There’s another great reason for being in Washington State.

CL:  What about themes, what will we be seeing coming up in your imagery?
KK:  I’m not really sure.  I’ve been thinking about holding, the word holding and I have been considering moving into oils again.  I took a diversion, when I had a Centrum residency, into printmaking.  This influenced the work that is at Fetherston.  And, I moved away from oils, in part because the studio was in my house and there were toxic issues.  Now I am working in my mind with oils and collecting. In addition, to the word holding I have been dealing a lot with the idea of ‘falling.’  So oils, holding and falling.










[PICTURED, from top: starcircle, graphite, dry pigments, wax on japanese papers over panel, 10 x 10"
the calendar project: march (from year 2005)
, graphite, dry pigment, acrylic, ink, found objects, correction tape, wax on japanese papers over 31 panels, 55 x 55"

march view from 52 week pond observation, photo by Counsel Langley
window to night sky
, graphite, dry pigment, acrylic, ink and was on japanese papers over panel, 25 x 25"

five views of Kim Kopp's studio, Port Townsend, WA, photos by Counsel Langley