From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Kat Beyer

I paint what I cannot write.

Kat BeyerA few years ago when I attended my first WisCon, I met Kat Beyer through an odd bit of coincidence. It was her first WisCon as well, she did not know very many people, and consequently we spent a lot of time in the same group throughout the weekend. The first thing I noticed about her was an attitude that I can only describe as Infectively Enthusiastic.

Since then I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Kat every year at WisCon. When the art show opens, I always seek out her pieces first. Every painting is so very her, though they all speak with different voices. That attitude which first drew me into her orbit infuses everything.

I asked Kat to tell me a little about herself, her process, and some select pieces from her gallery.


I don’t actually have that much formal art training — my mother is an artist, and let me sketch in her notebooks as soon as I could hold a crayon. I grew up in a household that always had art supplies handy, and I loved art classes from the first at school. I once decorated our living room with 64 colors of Crayola.

When I was little my parents used to let us choose a book at this wonderful bookstore in San Francisco. I can’t remember whether my brother or I chose Everyone Knows What a Dragon Looks Like by Jay Williams, illustrated by Mercer Mayer. Mayer’s incredible paintings blew my mind; they still do. It’s probably my biggest influence, along with Hokusai and Maurice Sendak.

Well Read by MoonlightI tried to take a degree in art, but at 18 I was a little too young to handle the emotional and psychological burden of an artist’s life. We are called to it, many of us, and that can be a pretty terrifying thing. So I took a degree in medieval history in Scotland instead. But I never stopped drawing or writing.

I’ve worked in all kinds of media my whole life, including clay, bronze, copperplate etching, and silk painting, as well as the more traditional drawing and painting materials. I’ve also worked with digital media but I’m just not excited by it. I like working with my hands, touching the paper, holding the pen, dipping the brush in the water. I don’t get the same sensual experience from a Wacom tablet, but someone else might.

I gravitated to oil in my 20s and worked on life-size portraits. I still love oil. I love the way it reflects light. I love working with it, moving it around, working back into wet areas, layering and layering. With oil you have to know what you’re doing or the painting can literally flake off in front of your eyes.

I work with watercolor now because, when I became disabled, I could no longer afford to have a separate studio and I wasn’t working in spaces that were well ventilated. Certain materials you use with oils give off some nasty gases, and even though I had tried some of the alternatives I didn’t trust these new materials to last.

Watercolor is a relatively nontoxic medium and I didn’t make a huge mess working at home. Oil takes forever to dry, and for the whole decade I worked with it I would always end up with a smear of French Ultramarine in some really weird place days later. Why always French Ultramarine? I don’t know. For some people it’s Viridian or Alizarin Crimson.

I am completely addicted to yellows and oranges, I love greens, especially very clear greens like the green of spring leaves, and reds and roses. Yellow ocher is my “blank space” color. But pretty much I’m in love with the whole palette. Not as much a fan of muddy colors, like olive drab… but the wonderful thing about mixtures of pigments, even muddy ones, is that often when you draw your brush along, they will separate a little and you’ll end up with a bit of Prussian blue maybe, edged with violet and looking more like cerulean blue in the lighter areas.

Watercolor, which looks so innocent and easy, is probably the hardest medium. It still kicks my butt. There’s just so much that can go wrong, and all of it does. It demands a great deal of a painter: one has to be loose and soft while at the same time totally exacting. I’ve only been working steadily in watercolor for six years, though, so of course I’m just barely beginning to understand it.

That’s one of the most important things about art and writing, something that I think few people really think about—that you need years and years to achieve any kind of true skill, and years and years more for mastery. You have to have patience and a slightly insane amount of persistence.

My disability has definitely affected the way that I work, as well as my creative flow while working. I made an important discovery when I became injured: I found out that I had no discipline. Not for anything. I thought I did, since somehow I had managed to be an honor roll student, take a master’s degree in medieval history at a tough university, and work for five years in a ridiculously hard-working industry. So I had discipline when others expected something of me. But now, on my own, I spent the first few months pretty much just sitting around, watching my life pass me by.

SeshatI realized I had to do something. I had to develop strong self-discipline or I would never make it—never recover, never finish a painting, never finish the novel I was working on. Somehow I was having these very full days, even though I didn’t have a job. I just wasn’t finding the time to work with my speech software or try to draw.

So, I was in the physical therapy office for my first appointment (having finally found a good doctor, who prescribed time for me at this excellent clinic) and my therapist handed me a sheet full of exercises. I stopped her, smiled, and said something like, “I’ll never do all those. I know myself. So could we start with just one, something really short and easy, and if I haven’t done it every single day by the next time I see you all have a lot of explaining to do.” She understood exactly what I meant, and it turns out she was actually pretty impressed, since most people take the sheet and then don’t do them.

I started to apply the same principle to my work. My physical therapist suggested a timer. I also set tiny goals. I told myself that for the first few weeks all I had to do was five minutes of writing a day and five minutes of drawing. In fact, at the very start, I told myself one minute each. I figured if I couldn’t do that, plus my one little physical therapy exercise, I would have a lot of explaining to do.

At the same time I was trying to develop self-discipline, I also had to figure out how to maintain creative flow. If you can only draw for 15 minutes a day on a really bad, flared up day, how you keep up the excitement of a piece? How do you keep it fluid and alive? Same thing with prose.

When I was a kid and in high school and college, whenever I finally made it into the studio I would just work for hours. Picasso used to say that he left his body outside the door, like a Sufi, and it was like that for me. I was afraid I would get lost like that again, which is just a sublime experience—but not something I could do. I can no longer leave my body outside the door or I risk permanently injuring it again.

I really had to learn how to maintain the flow and not hurt myself over time. But I recognized that I had no choice but to learn how to do it, if I wanted to live as an artist, and recover.

Now I do an hour of physical therapy almost every weekday, plus I have a very regular schedule in the studio, with lots of breaks and pauses planned in. I went from one minute of drawing or writing to being able to work for much longer periods of time—on a really good day I can draw for an hour and a half total, and sit at the computer writing for roughly the same amount of time total, plus business time, etc. This might not seem like a lot to some people but, believe me, I squeeze everything I can out of the time my body allows me.

I’m very interested in rhythm and patterns, though this may not be obvious in my work. When I write I’m acutely aware of the sound of the words, the rhythm of the plot (or, in nonfiction, the argument), the repetition and variation of events or descriptions. When I draw, either from life or from my imagination, I’m thinking about the rhythm of form, color, contrast, line.

I feel much more up in my head while I’m writing. And even that isn’t entirely true: I both write and draw—I want to say—instinctively, probably because I have done both consistently from an early age. I will read something back to myself and say, “it just doesn’t sound right,” and tinker with it until it does, but very often I couldn’t tell you why it doesn’t sound right.

The same goes for my art: I feel my way along, most of the time. Yes, I have studied color theory, anatomy, perspective, composition and so on for a long time, and yes I have shelves of reference books. Yet still I will just jump in, with a rough sketch or maybe a color study, and make it up. Towards the end many of my paintings start to feel like puzzles, where I’m fitting the last two or three mysterious pieces in—perhaps a difficult color choice for an area that still needs to be painted, or an element or texture that is still needed to tie the whole thing together.

Sometimes I think it’s a terrifically irresponsible way to work.

I’m most critical of the paintings that don’t quite feel true. As if I’ve painted something that isn’t honest. I also get annoyed if I’ve fudged something because I’m tired or my hand hurts. Maybe I’ve fallen back on a habitual gesture. I have a typical way of drawing faces that hasn’t actually changed much in 20 years.

I’m also very critical of the light in all of them, especially the light on water. I’m starting to do an in-depth study of both light and water, and I hope to end up with a reference book for other artists. Partly to help with this, I am inching my way through a college physics textbook. It’s very accessible, but I think I’m averaging about a page a year.

Gallery

Ship's Cats

Ship’s Cats is the strongest painting I’ve ever done. It’s amazing to me that it’s only about 8 1/4″ tall and 5″ wide. I’m particularly proud of the strong composition, contrast and subtle use of color. It captures a certain mood perfectly. It doesn’t surprise me that a lot of people connect with it right away.


Hamlet Expedition

The Hamlet Expedition is a direct descendant of the hundreds of doodles I did down the edges of my class notes in high school and college. We did Hamlet at the end of high school and one of the greatest teachers I ever had, Nancy Flowers, illuminated the play for us. While I was painting I thought about how sometimes a classic can seem like a Himalayan trek. First you have to absorb the action on the surface and then you have to listen to all the reverberations beneath, and even then you’re going to miss a few because you’re in the wrong century or culture or age group or whatever. But it’s still worth packing your oxygen cans and checking your ropes and going up.


Laude novella

Laude novella was inspired by the song of the same title, which I studied and sang under the watchful eye of Alison Altstatt, a very great teacher of Gregorian and Marian chant. She taught us this particular song at Burning Man 2001, as part of a large performance piece by the Burning Man Opera Diaspora. When we would walk through the streets rehearsing, people would turn around and follow us in tears, it’s that powerful. The song honors the Virgin Mary, but people sang it on pilgrimages to pre-Christian images in the Italian Hills.

I come from a culture and live in a time where women are not particularly well honored, even though lots of people are thinking about this right now. This song raises the hair on the back of my neck and wakes up both old memories and new strength.


Aphrodite

Aphrodite (pouring a libation of chocolate) was a Valentine’s Day drawing, but nobody has ever used it as that. I hid little symbols everywhere, so if you were paying attention you could see this was a heck of a goddess. Of course the ocean, her birthplace, is in the background. She’s wearing a red belt with little diamonds on it, and red strings with little weights hanging off of it. This is a reference to the earliest piece of clothing archaeologists have found. Apparently before we wore anything else, we wore little string miniskirts that didn’t cover a thing. The evidence suggests that only women wore these, and only after they were of fertile age—kind of a big, crass hint, very powerful. Women in many cultures on the Eurasian continent still wear belts descended from this first skirt, when they’re wearing their traditional clothes.

She’s also wearing pants with green feathers that could be leaves, and that something in my head told me to put on her, so if somebody recognizes this as goddess symbolism I would appreciate an e-mail, since it would be nice to know what my subconscious was babbling about. The grains of wheat make more sense to me, since practically every goddess has got to have something to do with the harvest.

I made her a brown gal because there aren’t enough pictures of brown goddesses just yet. I suppose people will ask why a white girl like me paints people of all races and mixes up cultures and symbols as I do. Let them ask. Racism is a tool to keep us apart, a way to keep us busy with insignificant things. One way I can try to cross the gulf in my own culture is to paint what I feel drawn to paint.


Treasure Map

Treasure Map was originally drawn as a party invitation for a friend’s son’s pirate party. You may not have noticed, but I forgot to add “X”—so where is the treasure?

I’ve drawn maps and imagined countries ever since I was a little kid. My parents hung a big world map over my bed, and I used to stand on my bed in my footie pajamas and plan trips. I still love maps of real and unreal places, like Middle Earth or fabulous Earthsea. I think Google Earth is one of the great human inventions.
My friend Rob asked me why the natives appease the volcano with potatoes, and I answered, “Because after thousands of years of virgins, don’t you kind of want fries with that?”


Butterfly Tribe

Butterfly Tribe was drawn for author and editor Mary Anne Mohanraj. She asked for a card to celebrate the birth of her child. I’ve watched a number of my friends become mothers over the last few years and each one has been transformed by the experience, and each in a different way. I cut out a little paper butterfly and tipped it this way and that to get the proper angles for a flock of butterflies in flight. I loved the idea of the child being brought in by such a delicate delivery service.

For most paintings, I research little things—for this one, I was looking to see if there was a scarlet butterfly on Sri Lanka, as Mary Anne is Sri Lankan. There are hundreds of species on Sri Lanka, but I didn’t see any true scarlets, although there are elsewhere. Red is the color I associate with motherhood, partly because of birth itself, and partly because red is such a warm, motherlike color to me.


To see more of Kat Beyer’s art and to buy prints, cards, and bookmarks, visit Katspaw.com.

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