Running Towards

Pieces of art are often seen as precious, sacrosanct entities — beautiful creations, to be displayed in bright white galleries, and admired quietly from a distance. To Ky Anderson, however, they are living things, that can be discarded and die just as easily as they can be preserved forever. And they can come from anywhere: art can be made by a child just as soon as it can a professional artist.

The New York City-based artist talks to me about leading a simple life, exploring the spaces between the words, and leaving a legacy with her art.

Making art was really central to your family, it seems — there were a lot of artists weaving in and out of your life growing up. How do you think that’s influenced your outlook on art?

Yeah, making art really was commonplace for me growing up — I was constantly surrounded by artists. My grandfather was a painter, my grandmother is a writer, and my parents are both artists. Their friends, too, all great artists, so growing up, making art was a major aspect of everyday life. I didn’t know a different kind of life, but at the same time, I was very inspired by it all.

As a child, it left a lasting impression on me of what being an adult was like. All around me were people who, when they weren’t working, eating, or sleeping, were making art. That’s what you did and were supposed to do with your time, so naturally, at a really young age, that’s what I did too.

And so going to art school, becoming an artist — that must have been the obvious path for you.

It’s interesting — I always made art, but I didn’t think I would study art in college. For my entire childhood and up through high school, I always had a work table in my bedroom where I would paint, sew and make whatever came to mind, but I’d never really considered art school. I was very good at math in high school, so I thought that’s what I would study. I think I took making art for granted.

My mother was the one who saw things more clearly. When it came time to apply for college, she went straight to the art school applications. I never thought or said, “No, wait, I want to study math.” I just thought, “Oh, art school — of course.” She just assumed that was what I was going to do, and she was right — art school was great.

Do you ever regret not pursuing a career in math?

Um… no. I love what I do. I’m sure I would have enjoyed a career as a mathematician or scientist as well but I probably still would have had an active studio practice at the same time.

And yet, in your mid-to-late twenties, painting took something of a backseat in your life, right?

It did — I moved to New York a year after college, when I was twenty-two. I got wrapped up in figuring out how to make a living. I opened up a bar when I was twenty-five, which gradually evolved into a restaurant, and that became all-consuming. I was still painting all the while, but not really pursuing showing my work.

Around eight years ago, I started getting back into the rhythm of painting every day. I slowly left the restaurant, lowering my ownership at first, before leaving fully about five years ago. It was what I needed to do as an artist, but also personally. It took me a while to regain confidence in my work, and leaving the restaurant was crucial in that happening. I’m more confident in what I’m doing now. I’m older, I’m more mature, I’m more focused — I’m able to put much more into my work now.

During this period, when you weren’t really making art, did you still consider yourself an artist? Was that still a part of your identity?

Oh, definitely. Getting back into the studio was always in my mind, and it was eating at me every day that I wasn’t painting. The art I was making when I was running the restaurant wasn’t great — I wasn’t able to truly focus on it. Also, I can get into a mildly irritable mood if I don’t get into the studio and work, so during that time, I was somewhat dissatisfied and aware that I was not doing what I was supposed to be doing.

I’m interested in your painting process — you work on many artworks at the same time, using the same colour palette across all of them.

My studio is about 300 sq ft — it’s not gigantic — every bit of it taken over by a work-in-progress. If I had a larger studio, it would be the same — totally full of works-in-progress. Each piece feeds the next. I’ll often go through and paint the same shape or colour on every painting.

I also paint quickly and in many layers, so working on many paintings at once gives things time to dry — if I didn’t give them that time, they would all turn to mud.

Your process really seems to blur the lines between artworks — do you consider each piece as a discrete, singular work, or all of the pieces created during one time as parts of a larger whole?

I want each piece to be able to stand alone, but I do see most of them as part of one long series. There is a story flowing through everything I’m working on at any one time. When a piece begins to have its own identity, I know that it’s finished and it can walk away from the group.

I have a crit group I meet with once a month — we go to a different studio each time. About a year ago, they all came to my studio. There were about twenty-five people in the room, we sat down and the first thing someone said was “Well… I don’t think your imagery has changed very much.” And they were probably right. I really beat the meaning out of my imagery — I’ll use an image over and over again as I’m working out what it means to me.

I work quickly, and because I make a lot of work, repetition has become part of the process. And I’m okay with that — I decided a long time to just own it.

Frank Chimero has a wonderful line, talking about jazz: “Jazz is more verb than noun.” The doing of it is the final piece. Would you say that is true also of your art?

I like that. In my work, the process is something that I need — I feel I benefit from it most of all. One of the reasons I use thin layers of paint is to show the process and the history of my decisions, so I suppose the viewer can see the verb within the layers. Abstract painting (although I don’t really consider myself an abstract painter) is similar to jazz and poetry. It’s an abstraction and individual translation of the world around us. Music, colours, words — it’s a guttural response.

That’s what so much of art is — it maps the thoughts and experiences that words cannot. The spaces between the words.

Exactly — it took me a long time to understand this. In my twenties, I used to use more representational imagery in my work — I felt like it needed that kind of imagery in the work to have a connection. As the representational started to fade out of my work, I began to understand that my shapes and colours had just as much meaning. This let me begin to understand that space between the words, and replace it with colours and shapes, but still have my work tell a real story. Sometimes the stories in my work are very simple and sometimes they are so complex they are hard to put into words.

I’m working on a series of paintings called The Rock Piler. It’s about someone I know who piles rocks — they gather them and they pile them. At first, I thought this person was crazy — I didn’t understand why or what they were doing. Then, while working in my studio, I realised I was behaving in a way that most would also consider obsessive, but in my life, it’s completely normal. Painting the same thing over and over again in my work. This series is about the compulsion of a repetitive activity and a realisation that I am no different than The Rock Piler.

To ask a blunt question: Do you like your work?

[Laughs] Sometimes, but mostly I just think about what I should have done differently. It’s hard to let pieces go, not because I want to keep them, but more because once I let them go, I can never fix them. Sometimes it can take years to figure out just what’s wrong with a piece. It’s unsettling to see work out there that’s not quite right. I try to work out these problems in new work and let the old work be, but it’s not easy. It’s what keeps me painting the next painting. Honestly, the pieces I like the most are rarely the pieces that other people like.

So then, do you cater the art towards what others like, or what you like?

I paint what I paint. I can’t paint what I think someone would like. I don’t care what anybody thinks about my work. I want to evolve and change, and paint whatever I want.

I recently had a collector who wanted works similar to what I was making in 2009. They wanted works on paper, which is easy, so I thought “Sure, I can mimic 2009, no problem.” I had fun making the work — it was nice to step back and try to remember what I was thinking about then. I gave them to my gallery and the collector ended up buying something completely different. My gallery liked the work and kept them in their flat files to try to sell. We all thought for sure those pieces would sell, but they just collected dust. It just doesn’t work if I try to make work that I think will sell. It’s almost as if you can feel the dishonesty. It’s the same if I take a small work on paper that I really like and try to blow it up large. It never works. It feels like an imitation of my work.

When are you at your absolute happiest?

This is probably fairly clichéd, but I’m happiest when I’m painting. Especially after many hours — the happiness grows the longer I paint. That time has always made me happy — when I’m alone in my studio working. Right now, I’m really focused on painting. I feel very lucky that I’m able to do this.

The rest of my life I’ve worked to keep simple. This simplicity brings me happiness. I have an amazing husband and we don’t have any children or pets — we just have one another to take care of. I love the freedom that this gives us. Since we decided to go in this direction with our lives, we’re really embracing it, just taking care of each other and working on our creative outlets. We do have a lot of houseplants. That’s my only responsibility: watering the plants.

I’ve been reading a lot of the poet Jack Gilbert lately — another artist who strived to lead a very simple life. The more I read of his work, the more it seems clear that he is running away from something. Would you say that’s true of you as well?

No, I don’t feel like I’m running away from anything. I’m running towards the creative life I’ve chosen. However, I did choose to move to New York City, so there might be a bit of running away inherent in that decision. In New York, everything is right in front of you for the taking, tasting, experiencing. But at the same time, it allows you all of it while being anonymous and invisible. This might be my favourite aspect of living here.

I grew up in a very tight-knit community, where everybody knew what you were doing all the time. When I moved to New York, I had my first taste of invisibility. I don’t need it as much as I used to, but I do enjoy it once in a while.

Having grown up in the Irish countryside, I know precisely what you mean — that constant attention of neighbours.

I adore the entire community I grew up in, but like most tight-knit communities it can be a hard place for a twenty-year-old to grow and change. But interestingly, I didn’t make the realisation that I needed to be invisible until I had already moved to New York. I came to NY to visit friends living in Brooklyn and by the end of the week, I was hooked. I basically went home, got my things and moved. It was the experience of being anonymous for the first time that made me realise it was what I needed.

I’ve now lived in New York for twenty years, and when I moved I didn’t know how long I would stay here, or if I’d move back to my hometown at some point. I found — and I still find — that New York is a city that has allowed me to freely grow, change and evolve.

There’s a quote from E.B. White: “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world.” — what do you feel more compelled to do: change the world or enjoy it?

I guess I’m more drawn to the enjoyment side — I don’t feel as if me making art is improving the world. There are definitely some artists — those doing political work, or working with the specific intent of improving something — who are improving the world, but I know I’m not one of them.

I remember when George W. Bush’s presidency ended, and he took up painting as a hobby. He’s making these terrible paintings, and when I first saw he was painting, I had sort of a crisis. At first, I thought “Oh God, this person should be starting foundations — doing something real — instead of painting all day!” And then I realised that all I was doing was painting all day. I’m not improving the world — I may make some people happy with my work though, so that’s good.

And if nothing else, you’re certainly improving yourself.

And I’m living my life in a way that I hope doesn’t cause too much damage to the world.

Which is improving the world more than most people are, I’m sure. What drives you? What keeps you making art?

I feel like my early childhood experiences wired my brain to need to make art. I started making art at a young age, and kept doing so as I grew up, and I’m still doing it now, so now I’m wired to keep working. It’s become a physical need just like those people who work out everyday at the gym. When I’m feeding that part — when I’m working in studio — it’s like my muscles are happy.

Does faith, or religion, spirituality, or simply the idea of mystery, play a part in your life?

No, it doesn’t play a part in my life in any conventional sense — I am not religious in any way — but I do think there are some similarities between religious activity and making art. The act of making to me feels similar to another’s act of prayer, or dedication to what they believe in, or meditation. I feel like there’s something similar in the actions. If you take a deeply spiritual person — a monk, say — they’ve dedicated their life to focusing on something very specific. Similarly, I’ve dedicated myself to making this art, to working with this imagery, to exploring these ideas. When you’re in the act of painting, it’s really unlike most other things — you’re reaching into a certain part of your brain and trying to pull out whatever’s there. I imagine prayer to be similar. Beyond the action to me there is another connection: the final “product”. Abstract art can be hard to understand for some, just in the same way religion is hard to understand for me.

I was raised completely without mention of religion, but I spent my first year of high school in a Catholic school, because the public schools in the area were terrible. I was expelled after a year, for many reasons — I just didn’t fit in and my grades were pretty bad. The first time the religion teacher gave me detention, I was in total shock. I wasn’t behaving badly — I was asking too many questions and this really frustrated her. My questions were all way too literal. To me, none of The Bible made any sense and so I asked questions — very simple questions. She mistook my naiveté for sarcasm.

Growing up in a very Catholic Ireland, the lack of questioning was always something that confused me…

It took me a while to realise that I couldn’t and shouldn’t ask questions, and the nuns couldn’t answer them anyways. I think my parents had to sit me down and tell me that I wasn’t allowed to ask those sorts of questions and why. I didn’t really understand — to me, it was a class like any other class. In math class, I could freely ask questions.

One of my favourite pieces in your art collection, which you share online, is the snowman drawing by your brother when he was very young — the composition is so assured, and, as you note, the shadow work is fantastic. We could wrestle with the definition of art for days, but just with that specific piece, what was it that made you decide it was “art,” rather than another childhood drawing?

It’s a great little piece, and it’s the shadow of the snowman that makes me like it so much. I appreciate it in the same way that I appreciate the more accomplished art I own. It’s not really that different than any other childhood drawing though — there’s always something amazing in children’s artwork. I want my art collection to be inclusive of all things created, no matter the age of the person. Art should not be precious and your collection can and should be random.

That’s such a beautiful way of seeing art, and an uncommon one, I feel. So often, we see art as this precious thing to be hung on big white walls in galleries.

For me, the act of making art is not clean and tidy like a gallery and I don’t treat my work all that kindly as I’m working. Things get stepped on and torn and repaired. I don’t consider my work to be precious. Maybe it has a moment when it’s in a nice gallery and it looks precious. But in reality, it’s just a short moment in the life of the piece. I don’t see art as precious.

So, finally, what kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?

When I was in high school and I used to spend hours digging around thrift stores, partly as an exploration of the past and partly to find weird things and drag them home. I grew to love some of those things I found and still have and use them today. Even though they were somebody else’s for so long, I’ve grown to appreciate them as if they were mine. All these things we own and make have cycles. As far as a legacy goes, at the end of the day, I’m creating objects no different to household goods. If these things can live a slightly longer life, and get passed around, then that’s excellent. It’d be great if people appreciate my work, but if not, whatever — it’ll go in the dumpster.

Interview Date: 24th February 2016
Images: Internet Archive

Also from this issue:


Foreword

by Conor O’Driscoll

Engaging the Senses

with Samin Nosrat

The Whole of It

with Wilson Miner

Unearthing Questions

with Susan Carey

Always Poetry, Always Play

with Kath Bloom