A multimedia visual artist, Kathleen Lolley transports the viewer into fantasy worlds that blur the line between human, plant and animal. Selected as one of Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest’s 2019 artists-in-residence, she will use her art and passion for exploration to help promote its mission of “connecting people with nature.” Lolley spoke with us at Bernheim in the first week of her residency about art and nature beside Mac’s Lake.
LEO: You’ve categorized your work as ‘folk surrealism.’ Can you unpack this label for me?
Kathleen Lolley: Folk or botanical surrealism. That’s just me categorizing the subject matter, and the way that I play with the subject matter is surrealism. It’s not that complicated and that’s what I’ve been striving for. I might have some complex themes, but I hope that it’s executed in a tangible way. That’s why I would use ‘folk,’ because surrealism implies dream-like to me, but folk implies accessible and more down-to-earth. I like bringing those two ideas together.
When did you start incorporating found objects and natural objects in your work, and how did that come to be a thing?
As a child, collage is something I did. Very instantly satisfying because you can just play and find scenes that are pleasing without having to draw them. It’s kind of a carefree part of the process of making art. I like to collect things from nature because I like to study them and draw them later in my studio. I like the symbolism of growth, and I like the symbolism of transformation. All of nature is transforming — things are being born, they’re living, they’re out there, and then they’re dying, return to the earth, and then become something else. I’m really fascinated with that cycle. And the dark and the light, because nature’s very beautiful to look at, but it’s also very harsh. Just from being out here on this residency, I’ve seen a lot of death, like hornets stinging dragonflies and them dying very painfully, and then birds eating — you look at a bird and you think, ‘Oh, it’s so beautiful,’ and then you see it murder a butterfly. There’s another side to all of this.
Kathleen pauses to observe what may be either a large fish or a small log floating just under the lake’s surface and muses on how it might be either.
I like that, too, because your mind just plays and wanders and makes up stories — at least mine does. I can make up a story about a lonely turtle or firefly orgies. More like frog orgies, because they’re pretty rowdy.
Your older work often depicts nonhuman animals blending with plants, but more recently you’ve focused on humans blending with plants. Can you speak to that shift?
I think it’s just me becoming more comfortable with certain aspects of my own psyche. I put more female [imagery] in my work because it’s a reflection of my experience. As I grow, my art grows, and I was more interested in reflecting a little bit more about my life in it. The other work is more fantasy-driven.
So, it’s not so much about the human as it is about the feminine?
I think so, because that’s a part of me being human. But there are male symbols in my work for sure. Something I’m learning about while I’ve been out here is mushrooms and the sex organs of plants and a lot of the pretty ones are male. So, there are male things in my work. A lot of the colorful birds I like to paint are male.
What is the line between the human and nature, if there is a line?
From what I can tell, humans have subconsciousness. I know that dogs dream, so they might, but who knows if animals do, or if they’re just purely instinctual. So I think that’s a difference.
So, what is nature? Do you have a definition?
I grew up in Kentucky, going camping, and also Pennsylvania surrounded by nature. It’s a place that’s very peaceful and away from the complications of modern, boxed, closed-in living. Nature is like art — I look at it and see something different every time. That’s why I like Bernheim’s mission, because it’s important to preserve spaces like this. Nowadays, if it’s not developed it’s not worth anything when it comes to the modern mechanisms that make use of the land. They’re just developing it and turning it into concrete or putting in pipelines. And development is important, but it’s not mindful of what it’s doing to the whole planet.
Kathleen gestures toward the lake.
But look, if you look out there now you can see all the sparkles of the sun, it looks like glitter… In a way, I’ve been [wondering], how can I recreate that feeling, and hopefully through my interests and my art other people will be interested in preserving and conserving and sustaining.
You have stated Leonora Carrington, Mark Ryden and Frida Kahlo as among your most prominent inspirations. Do you see yourself as in conversation with these artists, or is your work something altogether different?
I think it’s different. I don’t know if I would say I’m having a conversation with them. I love their techniques, but Frida Kahlo and Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington are female artists whose life story and inner world I am very inspired by. Not only is reading their biographies on paper fascinating, but there’s something there that pulls me toward their translations of their inner worlds that I hope that I can also pull out of myself.
Aside from creating visual art objects, you are also an illustrator, animator, teacher and entrepreneur. How do you balance or prioritize your various pursuits and interests?
I’m still figuring that out. I’m thinking that I might need to simplify. But I’ve always been interested in processes. I have a very active mind, so having a lot of projects goes with my personal nature. One project is like a seed, and once you start one project you’ll start getting ideas for another, and it sprouts up like a weed, and you have all these ideas, and then it’s hard to prioritize. It’s good to have a lot of ideas, but sometimes I think I am becoming more linear where I have to focus on one thing at a time. So my art changes and the way I do, it changes as I get older and as I grow up. I guess right now I’m also searching for a new process on how to process the information and the subject matters that I want to pursue.
What new processes are you exploring during the residency?
I’m still working it out. I think that’s what the beginning part of this residency is about for me. The two weeks I’m spending here right now at the beginning of summer is me unpacking my life and what it has become, and then just kind of inviting a new process in. I’m letting it flow straight from the source, you know, nature, straight into my subconscious, my filter. And then later in the summer I’m gonna come back, and that’s when I’m gonna start the actual making of things and turning the ideas into actual physical objects. Right now I’m just taking it in, I’m observing and absorbing.
Kathleen becomes distracted by what looks like a dead dragonfly and another bug’s exoskeleton. She begins taking pictures and musing:
How are these bugs related to each other? That’s what I want to know. Did they fall in love, like a cricket and a dragonfly and decide to shed their skins together? … They’re just empty shells. There’s something beautiful about that. They shed their skin together on one blade of grass … I want to take it, but I want to make sure they’re finished. They’re not dead, that’s their skin. See, they burst open… Oh, look, it is alive. Maybe this dragonfly is new and it came out of that shell. You know what, it emerged from its cocoon, that’s what it is. It’s so new.
What attracted you to the Bernheim residency?
The chance to be closer to the area. Immersing myself in the environment. Waking up and being close to the subjects that I’m so interested in, like the life cycles of flora and fauna. I’m interested in the science and mythology of plants and animals. I want to capture that mysticism and curiosity in my work. I also find it very therapeutic to be out here.
The mission of Bernheim is ‘connecting people with nature’ and your art has always been influenced by the natural world. Can you speak to that and your role in promoting Bernheim’s mission?
It’s very important that Bernheim encourages art as a means to have people interact with the land. I think people have to get out here to really appreciate it and see what is important, and also to be very playful and play in nature. It’s good for the soul. It’s a great way to learn.
What can you learn?
Well, the more you learn about the environment, the more you learn about your own life, and it’s not just book knowledge — it’s kind of spiritual or therapeutic.
Artists-in-residence are required to produce work for Bernheim’s usage and also to host workshops and engage with visitors. What are your intentions in this regard?
A lot of times when I talk to people, they’re really interested in my process, and I thought I would either do a shadow box tutorial or an animation tutorial — maybe both — because that’s what people are interested in. But right now I’m gathering materials — just bark and leaves and things. I’m pressing them in order to use them for my artwork but also invite workshop participants to make their own nature mandala or animate how a leaf moves — just kind of inviting them in a little bit.
What do you hope that visitors to Bernheim, interacting with you or what you’re doing here, will take away?
I just hope they’re inspired a little bit. I think about other artist talks or workshops that I’ve attended and the good ones leave you feeling hopeful, inspired and ready to go home and make something yourself. Or a curiosity — like this, right now, what we’re doing; we’re just sitting here and there’s this life happening, this metamorphosis right here. I don’t know the life cycle of a dragonfly, but now I want to go find out. Another great thing about Bernheim is they have volunteers and knowledgeable staff, and there’s somebody probably there today that could tell you all about what’s happening here and get you excited about it, too. Their employees and volunteers are very dedicated and their excitement about the subject matter is infectious. But this [dragonfly] is so fascinating, look how new it is. I could watch this all day.
What do you hope to take away from your residency?
I hope I can take away the processes I’ve learned, or am learning, and I hope I can take away the sense of peace I feel when I’m here. And it is kind of a stepping stone to the next phase in my artwork and life, so I am transforming like this dragonfly. I’m gonna leave my old skin behind. •
To learn more about Kathleen Lolley’s work, visit: kathleenlolley.com
This interview was first published June 15 on ruckuslouisvlle.com. Ruckus is an independent writing and review collaborative that seeks to promote artists, curators and institutions that are committed to visual excellence by way of critical dialogue in Louisville and the region. Read more at: ruckuslouisville.com