Feature: A life less ordinary

In extracting the romantic and strange from everyday life, Louisville artist Kathleen Lolley has garnered worldwide acclaim

Call it through the looking glass. Call it whimsical folk art. Or call it a surrealistic re-imagining of our grownup world, a place where woodland creatures and lost little girls stand as ciphers for our deepest fears and basest desires.

Call it Lolleyland.

Incorporating elements of folk, found art, surrealism, archetype and the natural world, Louisville-based artist Kathleen Lolley creates strange, often haunting works of metaphor, allegory and a kind of dark, magical fantasy. Without making an overt political statement, her paintings, sculptures, animations and mixed media subtly touch on questions of identity, imagination, human and sexual conflict, urban disconnect, strife, romance and myth.

A self-described “paint pusher,” the 32-year-old has pulled off the rather commendable trick of figuring out how to leave her hometown, gain prominence and (sometimes modest) financial success as an artist, and then quietly return to her roots and her work. During a relatively short span, Lolley has managed to build an impressive résumé of successes: showing work at galleries in Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo and beyond; attracting big-name collectors and celebrity fans; and providing artwork for the cover of My Morning Jacket’s acclaimed album Z, just to name a few.

Now the artist is back in Louisville — at least for a while — where she is continuing to pursue her craft in the place she considers home.

“I like Kentucky,” she tells LEO Weekly. “I draw insight and inspiration from its landscapes.” She describes spending a day at the John James Audubon State Park, calling it “a place of wonder and silent beauty. I saw about 15 different kinds of birds flutter outside of a cobblestone museum, nestled between a forest and a lake. The lake was frozen and covered in snow … it had the look of foggy milk.”

Such close observation of the natural world is clearly evident in her work, as richly detailed owls interact with crows and with one another; foxes scurry about their woodland lairs; rabbits stand in deep, winter-brown brush.

That these owls carry with them bottles filled with fireflies; the fox wears a bowler hat and topcoat and embraces a young woman in the forest; and forlorn-looking girls are lifted through the air on seedlings blown about by rabbits’ breath; these are the elements that distinctly mark them as residents of Lolleyland.

“When I was young, I used to take long walks in the forest on my grandfather’s farm,” she says. “I used to think up elaborate stories for all of the little woodland creatures. Each animal had a home life and career path (the raccoon was the go-getting business man …). I still walk through that forest every now and then, doing the same thing. Except the stories are more dark and complex.”

At first blush, Lolley’s work feels reminiscent of some other, more well-known artists — Maurice Sendak and his darkly shaded ruminations on childhood in “Where the Wild Things Are” comes to mind — but with a greater emphasis on surrealism and storytelling coupled with the mastery of numerous mediums.

“I occasionally get e-mails that say, hey, your work reminds me of Andy Kehoe (a famous Pittsburgh-based artist),” Lolley says. “Which is fine. The more of us the better, I say. There may be more cooks in the kitchen, but that just means there’s more to be inspired by.”

She counts artists Leonora Carrington and her rejection of female stereotypes, as well as Edward Gorey and his appeal to the macabre as influences; her father would present her with one of Gorey’s books each year on her birthday.

“The main theme in my painting right now (and the subject of her new solo show, opening April 9 at WHY Louisville on Bardstown Road in the Highlands) is conflict in folklore and nature between crows and owls. In character and temperament, they’re kind of natural enemies. There’s a lot of trickery and revenge going on — the crows deceive and mislead the owls, while the owls do things like steal away the sleeping crow in the middle of the night. I see that as a sort of a symbol for people, and in the ways that they treat one another.”

Ink drawings, acrylic on wood, wood sculpture, mixed media on found objects, and installations have all been used by Lolley to create her otherworldly figures.

“I want to stay on top of using new techniques,” she says. “New mediums should always be embraced.”

To a degree, a physical allergy to the toxicity of oil-based paints has forced her into working with a variety of different materials. “For centuries people used oils because it was all they had, but they’re really very poisonous and difficult to dispose of. I try to use (my aversion to them) to my advantage; it forces you to experiment.”

That experimentation and a willingness to straddle mediums and media have allowed Lolley to enjoy an eclectic sort of success. Born in Marshfield, Wis., she and her family moved to Kentucky while she was still an infant.

While pursuing a BFA in Experimental Animation from the California Institute of the Arts, Lolley worked with handcrafted stop-motion puppets similar to those recently seen in Wes Anderson’s film “The Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

A somewhat anachronistic technique, she still credits it with helping to hone her sense of visual storytelling, while the school itself introduced her to the world of comics and sequential art — both of which have informed her work ever since. “My official degree is in 3-D stop-motion animation,” she laughs. “I learned everything on 16-millimeter, and I have two animated films that are both shot on actual film stock. I learned a virtually useless technique, but it was just a wonderful experience.”

Upon graduation, Lolley remained in Los Angeles, working on a number of commercial animation projects, including the hugely popular children’s series “SpongeBob SquarePants.” For Lolley, success didn’t come easily or quickly. In fact, her career as a professional painter and full-time artist began in an almost off-handed sort of way.


“I was a very quiet child,” Lolley says, her soft voice and self-effacing manner reinforcing the image of a somewhat shy, artsy kid who finds solace and an avenue for personal expression in a world of her own creation. “I was so quiet my parents worried that I was mute.”

Her reluctance to communicate vocally did not, however, blunt her desire to connect with others visually. “Ever since I can remember, I’ve been creating art,” she says. “My mom would give me crayons and I’d draw all over everything. I’d make up stories about people, sketching them into my imaginary world and then handing the picture over to them.”

Painting was a sideline for Lolley well into adulthood, something she did for her own fulfillment, and she often gave the results for free to interested friends and relatives. While living in Los Angeles, Lolley stopped giving away her pieces and soon built up enough work for a gallery showing.

“I was working three jobs to make ends meet, and it was impossible. Somewhere around that time, I put on my first gallery showing (a rarity for a new artist), and every piece that I had, sold.”

Encouraged, she slowly phased out her day jobs and began to focus solely on painting and sculpting. It was around this time that a happy accident of geography and timing gave Lolley her next big break: She put on a show at a rare book shop in L.A., which just so happened to be located around the corner from the home of film actor Mark Ruffalo.

“His wife, Sunny Ruffalo, saw my work and said that she had a studio in West Hollywood, and she invited me to show there,” Lolley says. “She had a partner named Kathy Rose who’s this sort of eccentric, self-made L.A. businesswoman.” (In a slightly odd twist, Rose — a respected jewelry designer in her own right — recently gained a bit of fame as winner of the Bravo reality show “Launch My Line.”)

Although Lolley has since returned to Louisville, the West Hollywood gallery — called Roseark — has continued showing her work.

“Kathleen has a huge following of collectors with us,” Rose tells LEO via e-mail. “We recently had one of the largest paintings she’d ever created in the front room of the Roseark gallery. The piece was purchased by Swedish collectors Bjorn and Lisa Larsson. They have a great eye for art and really saw Kathleen’s heart beat on the canvas.”

The gallery owner goes on to write: “Kathleen is old-worldly, and you can see this in her art. The first time I saw her work, I was so moved. I saw worlds and cities, layers of dreams and memories. Some of the pieces I personally own are done on old, vintage music sheets and pages from the Bible and Torah. There are paintings of red birds printed all over with Hebrew words … worlds of animals with a look at their internal organs. To me, she’s showing life and death, the here and now. Her work speaks of all of that to me.”

When asked about her artistic achievement in Los Angeles and at home, Lolley simply says, “I was lucky. A lot of the opportunities that I’ve had in my life, they’re just luck. Or maybe I’m just in the right place at the right time.” Luck, of course, is really the intersection of preparation, talent and opportunity, something Lolley seems to sense, even if she’s reluctant to admit it: “I appreciate the chances that I’ve gotten, but I’m trying to steer my own ship a bit more these days.”

After spending six years building a reputation and a stable of celebrity patrons (Amy Adams owns some of Lolley’s work, and Luke Wilson once attended an opening), Lolley was ready for a change.


The move back to Kentucky in late 2004 was meant to precipitate a simplification of sorts — an opportunity for Lolley to recharge her creative batteries and return to the basics of painting and sculpture. And so, working out of the front room of her Germantown home, Lolley continues to preside over, well, Lolleyland.

Operating primarily through her website (www.lolleyland.com), she manages her art, blog, gallery and information on upcoming shows and events. In addition to original paintings, Lolley sells prints, cards, handmade wooden eggs, ornaments and pillows. It’s a mixed bag that, when taken together, adds up to a sort of alternate Lolley-based reality.

“She creates an entire mystical universe with her work,” says WHY Louisville owner Will Russell. “It’s a vividly drawn place, and you find yourself getting pulled in by its personality and detail.” Russell should know — he owns a Lolley sculpture, a giant 3-D owl he describes as “rich, distinct and intriguing.”

Despite a desire to simplify her life, hence Lolley’s return to the bluegrass, this spring is shaping up to be a busy time for the artist. Less than a week after opening her “Owl vs. Crow” show in Louisville, Lolley will return to Los Angeles to begin work on another animation project: She’s been tapped by a California children’s hospital to lend her illustrations to a big-budget commercial that begins production later this month.

“It’s a sort of animated children’s pop-up book,” she says. “It’s going to be a mix of 2-D drawings in a 3-D space. The camera is going to zoom into the book, which will then open up and take the viewer through the story.”

The project will bring her into close contact with some of the animation world’s heaviest hitters. Many of her co-workers are coming to the project as veterans of high-profile Hollywood films like “Lemony Snicket” and the Oscar-nominated “Coraline.” “It’s an honor and a real thrill to work with such talented people,” she says.

Later this year, Lolley also is set to release a collaborative children’s alphabet book, “L is for Louisville.” The book is a follow-up to the successful “Louisville Counts!” book released last year by Holland Brown Books.

In Louisville, Lolley is respected as a talented artist, particularly in the art community, but she has undoubtedly garnered far greater recognition outside of her hometown. Her work has appeared in the pages of Elle magazine, Japanese Vogue and The Oxford American. Urban Outfitters has licensed a handful of her images. Big-name collectors and celebrities have sought out her work.

And then, of course, there’s the fact that My Morning Jacket chose one of her drawings for the cover of their breakthrough album Z.

“I was very honored (My Morning Jacket frontman) Jim James asked me to do that,” says Lolley. “He’s been very supportive, and it helped me to get my name out there in ways that I would never have expected. Usually I don’t remember an album cover unless it’s some sort of iconic image, like Abbey Road.”

In this case, the image My Morning Jacket chose depicts a sort of owl dissection, with a cityscape and highway emerging from the bird’s torso, as three owl surgeons stand over the body. But that wasn’t the image James originally selected. “I got a call telling me he was considering using one of the drawings for the cover and it …” Lolley stops short. “I asked if he realized what was happening in (the piece he’d originally selected). I told them, ‘An owl is kind of being shot in the vagina here.’”

Needless to say, James and the band selected an alternate drawing while the original piece ultimately found a more appropriate home on the wall of a — wait for it — gynecologist.

It’s something Lolley, who incorporates so much surrealism and subjective metaphor into her art, has gotten used to — and even welcomes.

“I think of each piece as its own self-contained story,” she says. “I put a piece of myself and a piece of what’s going on in my life into everything that I do. I take folklore that speaks to me and I reinterpret it, but I try not to edit myself because somebody usually finds something to connect with.”

And if that connection isn’t what she intended? “That’s what I enjoy about art openings. When strangers come up and tell me what they see in it, and they’re getting something totally different than what I put into it, then it’s a revelation. I like getting feedback. I like listening to people’s stories.”


Owl vs. Crow
WHY Louisville • 1583 Bardstown Road • 456-5400 • www.whylouisville.com

WHY Louisville will kick off this solo show by Louisville artist Kathleen Lolley with an opening reception from 6-9 p.m. Friday, April 9. The exhibit continues through May 9.

“One of the things we try to do at WHY Louisville is showcase what we think is exciting about this city,” says owner Will Russell. “Kathleen’s art is a great example of something Louisville can be proud of.”