March 13, 2003
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The Herndon Gallery is showing new work by Katherine Kadish through the end of March. It is Kadish’s first local exhibit since the mid-1980s.

Loving the surprise of making art

As a girl growing up in Pittsburgh, Katherine Kadish saw many women’s lives around her, but none was the sort of life she wished for herself.

“I didn’t want to be a housewife or have children,” she said in a recent interview. “I thought books and art were important. I wanted an exciting life.”

You could say that Kadish, a widely traveled, frequently exhibited artist, has fashioned such a life for herself. Yet memories from her childhood, especially a sense of present constriction contrasted by future independence, often find their way into her artwork, she said.

“There’s a lot of yearning in my work,” she said. “It’s often about confinement versus liberation.”

Those themes play themselves out in “Patterns and Tracings,” Kadish’s exhibit of new multimedia work currently on display at the Herndon Gallery on the Antioch College campus. The exhibit, which opened Feb. 14 and runs through March 27, also includes poetry by Michigan poet Jackie Bartley.

Kadish, who moved to the area in 1984, hasn’t shown her work locally since the mid-1980s, although she has exhibited throughout the country in many group and solo shows.

Kadish’s latest exploration of liberation covers the north wall of the gallery in “Tracings,” a group of larger-than-life deep blue figures that seem to cavort in space. Made of light plywood, the figures, which Kadish traced from human models, swim and dance and jump across the large white expanse of the wall.

Across the room, viewers see human figures of a less mobile sort. Suspended next to doorways or surrounded by dark frames, headless and limbless painted torsos create a mystical and eerie presence. For Kadish, this work explores human vulnerability and confinement at the same time that, ironically, it offers her, as an artist, a new beginning. After more than 30 years of painting and making monotypes, she recently began creating art with found objects, in this case, doors and torsos and dressmaker’s dummies.

“I’ve always been fascinated by three-dimensional work but felt I wasn’t a sculptor,” she said. “Finding these torsos is the way I entered into three dimensions.”

While the torsos convey a sense of woundedness and vulnerability, Kadish created them through a process of joy and discovery.

“I love the surprise of it,” she said of her creative process. “I feel that I’m having more fun than ever. In the beginning years I was so fearful, so afraid that I wasn’t good enough.”

Each piece of the exhibit illustrates the serendipity of Kadish’s artistic process, one that involves exploration and trial and error. “Messenger” began with the found object of a child mannequin that Kadish bought in a junk store years before she knew what to do with it. Stored in her barn, the torso began cracking, which prompted Kadish to paint it a weathered green, then present it against a panel painted to look like an old Italian wall. The piece shows a genderless, ageless being who seems to come to the modern world from an ancient past.

In “Escape,” Kadish began with an old door she recovered from her barn, to which she added several layers of paint along with dressmaker patterns, which she uses repeatedly in her figures. She’s intrigued with patterns, she said, because they seem like a “map of the body” and because they resonate with her childhood, in which her mother loved to sew.

“It started out a much different thing,” she said of the piece. After she painted the door and added the patterns, Kadish said, “it didn’t work. It felt too artificial. I find that things often pass through an artificial stage, which changes if I pay enough attention.”

The piece felt complete when Kadish suspended a torso, painted a deep, bloodlike red, beside the painted door.

Serendipity also played a part in “Sebastian,” a piece in which a bloodied torso in a frame, modeled after St. Sebastian, is pierced with stick-like arrows. The torso’s layered texture evolved from the unexpected effects of paper drying on the torso, effects Kadish decided to keep.

“I’m interested in the play between the surface and what’s beneath, a suggestion of layers developing over time,” she said.

Kadish works on six or seven pieces at a time in her studio in an old schoolhouse in Clifton. She likes having concurrent projects because “at any given time I might have an idea for one or two,” she said. “I like going back and forth.”

Exploring color is a critical part of her creative process, she said.

“I pay a lot of attention to the mixing of color,” she said. “I need to feel excited about how the colors are relating to each other. If I don’t have an interesting relationship going on on the palette, it won’t be a good day.”

Kadish has had a lot of good days since she began painting more than 30 years ago. She received an undergraduate degree in painting and design from Carnegie Mellon University, then a master’s in art history from the University of Chicago. She taught art and lived and traveled in Europe and Egypt, while she painted and created monotypes.

Kadish moved to Yellow Springs in 1984, after she married Robert Fogarty, a history professor at Antioch College. Since that time, she and her husband have continued to travel, spending time in China in the mid-1980s. While in China, she observed expert calligraphers who influenced her monotypes, including several works included in the Herndon exhibit.

The calligraphers worked quickly, and Kadish felt inspired by their trust in their instinctive process.

“Something resonated in me like crazy,” she said. “It gave me permission to use an ability I’d always had but rarely used, the ability to draw quickly. I just needed to pluck up my nerve and try.”

Kadish did pluck up her nerve, following her instincts to a new way of creating artwork. And while the pieces in the exhibits, from abstract, lyrical monotypes to jarring, bloodied torsos to ethereal human figures in flight, may seem hugely different from each other, they have in common a trust in her intuitive creative process.

In all art, “there’s always a balance between the cerebral part and the intuitive part,” she said. “In my work it’s the intuitive that takes the lead.”

Katherine Kadish has had an exciting life, after all, but that life didn’t come easily. She had to first imagine a life unlike any she’d seen.

“I tell my students, if you turn your face in a certain direction, things will happen,” she said. “Books will fly to you, things will align themselves with that path. But you have to have the nerve to begin.”

—Diane Chiddister