Selective Focus: Kathryne Ford’s Paintings, Prints and Visual Art

Photo by Nia Sayler.

Duluthians who love the local music scene may have stumbled across Kathryne Ford dancing with her acrylics while live painting. Ford performs most Tuesdays at the Rathskeller with jazz group the Hot Club of Duluth. A collection of Ford’s work called “See the Bloom” is on display at Wussow’s Concert Cafe through the end of October. Below is a recent interview and some snapshots of her artwork.

What are your primary artistic mediums? Do you work with any others, too?

Watercolor and acrylic paint, but I love to play in all mediums. There is so much that can be done with crochet, ceramic, and wire. I especially love putting a colorful whimsical twist on everyday items like collaging vintage phones and creating living room lamps covered in fabric flowers.

What draws you the most to those mediums?

I hang onto the idea that anything I imagine can be made or physically represented somehow. These mediums allow me to most comfortably flow in and out of my imagination with a fun combination of problem solving and familiarity. But even when I am able to work in the small hidden details and stories into my paintings, I can never capture the depths that those images exist in my mind. To me that is so exciting and motivating and keeps me reaching and pushing myself.

How long have you lived in Duluth? What do you appreciate about this region?

I have lived in Duluth since I was 5 years old. Something I have been appreciating more and more about the Northland is the duality of our seasons and the intense effects it has on the cycles of the land and people here. There are not many places that you can skate on a frozen lake under the northern lights while the ice sings, and lay in the sands blanketed in a warm breeze in the same spot just a few months apart. The storms and long nights have the potential to bring us together to help each other get unburied and unstuck from the snow, both literally and emotionally. And because of these long winters, the warm days of spring have such a huge effect on everyone. It’s like there is an extra air of friendliness and gratefulness all over town.

What are some of your hopes for the Duluth arts community?

I hope to see the arts community come together in more ways to help create standards for compensation for what we do so art can be more livable. Several live artists and I have been talking about forming a union for live painters and artists of other mediums to help us be on the same page and support each other in navigating this exciting territory where performance and fine arts collide. I’m so excited by the mentorship and knowledge sharing that occurs in our arts community and I would love to see more of that. From one perspective, we are in competition with each other and that can foster tension and gatekeeping. But really we are all so unique and have so much potential and originality to offer. By helping each other thrive, discover and create opportunities, we create a more friendly collaborative landscape that I hope will continue to grow and engulf Duluth with all of our vibrancy and wackiness.

What are some of the central themes that your art revolves around? Are there many common subjects or threads interwoven in your existing work as a whole?

My art is consistently influenced by nature and our connections to it. I paint flowers, leaves and vines on mirrors so that when someone looks into their reflection, they see themselves side by side with the nature that we are a part of, rather than being a separated observer of it. I often look up at the clouds and imagine what it would be like to explore their immense and temporary landscapes, and admire the tiny details in the shells of insects and the countless colors in a blade of grass. So these subjects often appear in my art. Outer space is another common theme in my art. I find the act of painting space inspirational in itself. Not only does it remind me that my life (and my problems) are infinitely small and brief, but it also makes me feel like an impossible telescope. If I can paint stars, nebulas, and galaxies within the realm of what’s possible, and if space is infinite, filled with infinite possibilities, then what I paint very likely exists out there somewhere. Maybe so far away or in so far the past or future that humanity will never see it. On my cosmic canvases, my imagination becomes my discovery.

The “flaws” in my vision largely inspire the details of my paintings as well. The moon, a frequent subject in my work, often appears surrounded by a vibrant rainbow spectrum of light. This is actually how I see all the lights, due to a combination of night blindness and cataracts I was born with. To me, all lights are surrounded by a vibrant and unique spectrum of the colors that make up their light accompanied by a brilliant symphony of starbursts and rainbow fractals. The moon has always had the most beautiful and inspiring combination of these.

I also spend a lot of time creating live work in front of audiences while musicians perform. The audience melts away and my perspective of my paints, colors, and the feelings and sounds of the music becomes completely abstract. This is an especially thrilling and unique experience for me because of the profound influence that the music has on my work. When I paint with a band for the first time, I have no idea how their sounds will influence my lines and colors and derail my plans. Often I will make a decision about where I am going to go next when making a live painting, and with the start of a new melody or beat, just start doing something completely different as the music moves through me. As I paint with some bands more regularly like Boss Mama, New Salty Dog, and The Hot Club of Duluth, I have noticed themes and styles specific to each band appear through my work. With Boss Mama, there is often mountains and goddess imagery, with the Hot Club, a jazz group, my work is more abstract and emotional, and with New Salty Dog my paintings are playful, surrealist and psychedelic with sneaky references to their song lyrics woven into them.

What is one of the projects you’ve loved working on the most?

I found so much joy in the collaborative crowd paintings I created with Ayana Greene during this summer’s New Salty Dog concerts at Bent Paddle. It was so inspiring to see the creativity and cooperation of all ages working side by side and to have my own views of imagination be humbled by the boundless ideas drawn and painted by the children. It was so exciting and heartwarming to create a space every week where people could come out of their shell and open up creatively as an artist even when they didn’t see themselves as one. Lots of times little stories, psychology and social dynamics from all stages of life would play out on our canvases and being a witness to that in real time was always such a one-of-a-kind experience. The setting of each painting was also a zoomed-in view of the last, so it felt like we were exploring an infinite goofy world of possibilities, and since it was dictated by the participation of others, it was always impossible to predict where it would go next. It was also one of my first times using art to directly give back to the community. I have always been active in the community through different avenues of volunteerism and fundraising and often used art to help me with that. But this was my first time completely intertwining the two. At the end of the summer, we held a silent auction selling off the paintings with all of the proceeds going to Valley Youth Centers of Duluth — a local resource for children in West Duluth. Through that we raised a little over a grand and a half for the kids there, and also formed a new partnership to create art with the children who attend the afterschool program.

I loved the prints that you prepared live at an Embassy event! And that one of them was a menstrual cup. What motivated you to feature that subject in one of your pieces?

Thank you! Creating block prints live was such a joy and I would like to find more ways to do that in the future. Empowerment of people with uteruses is something that is very central to me and my art. That diva cup print came from a place of frustration, from growing up in an education environment where having a period was something to be hidden, and was difficult to get education and support for. Diva cups were something I never learned about until my early adulthood, and I wish that information about things like that, and other aspects of reproductive health was more talked about and normalized. Because of this, I sometimes make art that takes reproductive health, femininity, and nudity, and throws it in the viewer’s face. I try to do it in a way that makes it so plain and obvious that it can’t be hidden or sexualized.

Have any mentors, places you’ve studied, or specific artists greatly influenced your work?

I’m lucky to have had many teachers and mentors who influenced me already. The first who comes to mind is Susan Ranfranz. She was one of my high school art teachers, and she worked tirelessly to uplift the young artists in her classes, and encourage exploration and experimentation. I often would ask her if I could spend class time straying from the lesson plans and go on my own creative tangents building, painting, and learning with materials I didn’t have access to at home. And I don’t think she ever said no, she would always answer with, “Ok. Here’s how.” One specific memory comes to mind of the first assignment in her Art Across Mediums class. The assignment was to make a pinch pot, and I was frustrated and bored with the idea of making another one of these. I was probably being a bit of an egoistic teen, but I desperately craved something new and challenging. I wanted to grow from doing things that I had no idea how to start, so I walked up to her and asked if, rather than a pinch pot, I could create a large three-dimensional human hand. To my surprise, she said “OK, here’s how to make a finger,” and set the precedent for my time in her many classes over the next four years.

Another recent mentor is Dusty Klien. He is another live painter in the local and festival music scene. He is always eager to offer his advice and strategies for how he navigates his creative space and professional relationships which is something I have always appreciated. One particular lesson he taught me was how to assertively take up space. At the beginning of my live painting journey, I was afraid of being a burden and consequently kept the footprint of my set up as narrow and small as possible. This led to me being overcrowded and chaotically bumped into at times, and the first time I saw Dusty’s set up, the lightbulb turned on: “I can, and SHOULD, claim space and place boundaries to make myself feel safe and comfortable.” This led to me working on becoming more assertive and confident when negotiating about my art in general, which is something that will continue to serve me in the years to come. Our collaborations and mentorship are a great example of how artists with very different styles and creative perspectives can work together to be badass.

Are there any ways you’re hoping to include your art into existing spaces in Duluth? Are you hoping to complete any commissions, specific types of collaborations, or center your energy around any specific projects?

I’m currently in the planning phases of a local mural that will be announced soon. I’m excited to be growing my footprint in larger and larger spaces around town and hope to create creative experiences that people can dwell in and let their imaginations run wild. I hope to find space in the coming year to create more immersive installations that make people feel as if they might be in a dream. After spending lots of time creating art in a fast, performance type of environment, I am excited to begin working more on meticulous, time consuming detailed studio based work. I’m looking to move my mind and creative muscles in that contrasting direction and hopefully become a little more centered and well rounded.

Is there anything else you’d like to share that I haven’t asked about?

For me art isn’t a hobby or a job. It’s like breathing. It’s always been an integral part of how I process and move in the world around me. Exploring and growing that part of who I am is like growing a branch on the tree of me. It’s not the only passion I have though, another major facet of who I am is a healer of sorts. I have grown up looking for ways to heal my community and those around me, whether that’s through local soup kitchens, protests, supply drives or outreach. For the past several years I’ve been a hospital advocate for survivors through the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault, and have recently stepped into my new role as an intensive inpatient rehab nurse, helping people heal after traumatic injuries and accidents. I’m always looking for ways to learn how to do this better, and in December I will return to the Philippines to travel with a local retired nurse into isolated island and mountain communities that ask her to bring medical aid. We will speak Tagalog, and practice medicine according to their local needs, culture, and customs. I’m so excited and grateful for whatever that experience will bring. Sometimes these healing and creative branches interweave but they will always be the central duality that motivates my interests and guides my actions.

More work by Kathryne can be found on her portfolio website, or on her Instagram, @blend_the_sunshine. Her artwork is on display at Wussow’s Concert Cafe through the end of October.

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