I speak with Kate Newby about her practice and current projects in this Phone Tag interview. From landscape and everyday materials, Kate brings a sensitivity to her environment to create what she calls “situations.” The New York-based artist is originally from New Zealand. However, she has been in Texas on a residency, and so we recently Skyped about how her approach to objects is informed by her surroundings, how art became a profession, life in New York, and her need for the female voice.
Phone Tag is a generative interview format, where I ask each participating artist five questions (plus others as the discussion meanders). At the end, I ask him or her to introduce me to a working artist whose attitude and work they find interesting and inspiring, who I then interview with the same five questions.
Linnea West: “So, you’re in Texas now for a residency. Could you tell me a little bit about what you’re doing?”
Kate Newby: “I’m in San Antonio at Artpace. It’s my first time in Texas. It’s also my first time doing a residency since I did one on Fogo Island in 2013, so it has been quite some years since I’ve been in a residency situation. I’ve only been here a few weeks, but I think the time is going to fly. The residency is set up in a way where you work in a studio for two months, which then becomes your exhibition space for the following two months. There are three studios and three artists in residence. So there’s the pressure of an exhibition at the end but I came down here quite conscious that I didn’t want to think about that, that I wanted to be more involved in the processes.
One of the things I do is, I work in clay. I’ve worked in clay for quite some time. It’s gotten to a point where I’m bored with it. Being down here what I want to do is to get outside more. Digging clay. I want to experiment with firings. Barrel firings. Pit firings, and building my own kiln. And I kind of think I’m more interested in experiences than outcomes, and I think work will naturally arise out of that process.”
LW: “So you’re trying to give yourself two months to breathe and explore?”
KN: “Yeah, I want to breath and explore. I’m realizing that that it is actually more work. I’m getting up at 6 am to do firings and other stuff, but it is good. There are people here who can help. In New York, I feel very singular; it’s just me. It’s nice to have people around who say, ‘Can we help? What can we do? Do you need this?’ ‘Yeah, I need a half cord of firewood, please.’ ”
LW: “Yeah, that’s a great thing to be able to say. From what I know of your work, I do see that you work a lot with clay, but not traditional ceramic vessels and that you work with other material as well. Could briefly describe what you make?”
KN: “Sure. I think what I do is, I create situations. I think about things like atmosphere and weather, being outside. Things that I absorbed and paid attention to, and I want to reflect that back out in my work. So my work is never a singular object. In fact, it might be several hundred objects in the case of some of my studies of rocks, or it could be as simple as using a piece of rope, which is what I just did at the SculptureCenter. I used 600 feet of rope to go from a puddle I had made on the ground, out of concrete, to weave into a tree, to weave across the building, and to hang down the very front of the building. I like to call peoples’ attention to these discrete actions. They don’t give a lot away, but they try to belong to a site in a way that is not too foreign. The materials I use, concrete and clay and rope, are never totally removed from what I’m looking at when I am installing.”
LW: “How site-specific are these? Would you reinstall the work somewhere else using the exact components or is it unique to that site?”
KN: “It’s both. It’s totally specific and I’ll use the same components anywhere. But they would change and I would want them to change and I would want them to be responsive. I think about site-specificity versus site-responsiveness—No, I don’t think about any of it. I just think about, what am I looking at? And what do I respond to, and what do I think is curious? I try to trust my instincts more and more. Just see what is happening and make works that responds to that.”
LW: “Now that you’re in this new space in Texas, what does an ideal day in your studio look like?”
KN: “Hmmm, I know what an ideal of what that would be like… I don’t have a studio in New York; I have a small room in my apartment that kind of acts like an office and storage area. Now I have a huge studio that would be awesome to utilize, but I don’t quite know what to do with it.
I’m definitely a morning person, so I’m trying to get up at 6 am, which is actually a little too early for me, but ideally I would be up at 6, shower, eat, and be in the studio before anyone is around so I can get my head into it. My ideal day is to do everything. To have practical, hands-on work. It would be to finally do my taxes; it would be to do some deep reading and research. It would be to eat properly. But it’s never like that. I wake up, I have 30 good minutes, and then I’m just walking around with a bit of paper in my hand, just trying to fumble through the day.”
LW: “What about time for email, does that factor in?”
KN: “It’s funny because that’s something I do everything morning in New York, and here I don’t and I’m really behind on email. It’s chronic; it’s terrible. But I’m here now, and I just want to get out of the apartment. I just feel like I’m so excited to get to the studio and to get to work. And I’ve got all these time constraints because of firings and drying times. I’ve been very physical and doing all this other stuff, where in New York I do email all the time.”
LW: “That’s great. That sounds like freedom. When did you first think of yourself as an artist?”
KN: “It developed incrementally. I had this moment when I was 15 and I thought— ‘Oh, this is a way I can look at things and make sense of the world,’ and for the first time I intentionally became involved with art. It became my full focus when I was in high school and then I went to art school and then I went and traveled for several years. I wasn’t exhibiting—I wasn’t traveling as an artist. I was traveling just as a person. I was ironing sheets; I was waitress-ing; I was whatever. When I came back to New Zealand, I thought about it, and that’s probably the moment I became an artist, because that’s the moment I basically looked at art and thought, ‘What’s here, and what do I want out of it, and what do I want to do with this, if this is what I am going to do.’ Before then, art had been something that I carried around like a backpack. In my mid-twenties, it became something bigger and harder, and not so convenient. This is the minute that things became quite alive for me.”
LW: “Is it more important for an artist to be in a big city with a strong cultural scene, opportunities to show their work, lots of people, etc. or to be in a place maybe more like San Antonio or even quieter where you’re just focused on making?”
KN: “I think it’s both. I’m from New Zealand and I grew up at a beach and in a valley with a lot of trees. I grew up with a lot of solitude and I really need that. Strangely I get a lot of solitude in New York still. But what I do really need is the landscape. I need my work to be involved with the landscape. When I think about my work, I don’t think about it in terms of galleries; I think about it in terms of how can I take it back outside to where it came from, and how can I work these elements that are so crucial to my thinking back into the work.
So, that’s not answering your question, but I’ve done some really remote residencies, like Fogo Island, which is off the coast of Newfoundland in Canada. You can get more remote than that, but it’s very remote. Once I was in a town called Worpswede in rural Germany, which is this tiny little village. I was there for 5 months alone while I worked on an exhibition in Bremen. It’s weirdly exhausting, because you just have so much to do with yourself. But I think it’s both. I love going back to New York. I wouldn’t change that and I love leaving just as much.”
LW: “I’m interested in this idea of landscape that you mentioned, especially if you’re going to such different landscapes and then going to a place like New York. Are you think of an abstract, generalized idea of landscape or does New York City as a landscape feed into your imagination?”
KN: “It’s just whatever experience I’m having. In New York, it’s a huge influence on me in terms of how I work, because I’m pretty obsessed with sidewalks and the residue from people and the residue from wear and tear of us just being alive. I’m not looking at nature too much in New York City, but what I am looking at is this experience that we have every day. Even the tilt of the sidewalk or something, I find these kinds of things interesting. I don’t know why, I just do. These tiny, tiny things. The first time I made them I put them in this community garden in Brooklyn because it was kind of protected and they could be outside. They lasted for several months and they didn’t break and they made a sort of gentle sound. I like this idea that my work is a collaboration with weather and with elements and with these things that come in to complete the work. I’m only half making the work and then I’m putting it in a situation where these other things might come in and infiltrate it and work with it. So, when I say landscape, sometime it is a big general thing, like being on a ranch in Texas, but it doesn’t have to be.”
LW: “Who has influenced your practice?”
KN: “That’s a tricky questions. I don’t know. But I will say that less than a year ago I went on a trip from Los Angeles through Nevada up to Utah and I saw a lot of these land art pieces. I was blown away by this Nancy Holt piece called Sun Tunnels, which was phenomenal but also really challenging. She worked on it for four years and she was out there in the desert working on this thing. It’s a totally deep meditation. I come to a site and I could bang a work out in a day, that’s the way I work. It was interesting to think about what if you just made one thing but made it really, really well while keeping it simple. That was the thing, it was just really simple. She’s come to me at a really good moment—it’s making me question things a lot more. Especially in New York, where I feel like I’m exclusively making work that could fit in my backpack.
Roni Horn is really interesting. She also has a type of this deep awareness of what’s going on. I want to be careful about that, because the last few years for me have been very busy and I’ve had to perform for these deadlines. I just want to be aware, keeping an eye on my work in a way that the thoughtfulness, the considered rigor of both of their practices is something that I absorb and keep in mind.”
LW: “Is it a coincidence that they are both women, or is that something you think about as well?”
KN: “It’s something I think I need; I really want that. I listen to a lot of music, and more and more I want female voices around me. It’s because they make phenomenal work and it’s because I need more female voices around me.”
LW: “What’s next—you have two months in Texas and then you’ll be back in New York—what does your upcoming future look like?”
KN: “Someone mentioned to me years ago, ‘Kate, how are you going to keep working like this? Turn up somewhere, make a show, and move on. How are you going to keep doing that?’ My next year is already feeling a bit like this. But I’m doing things I really want to do. I’ll go to Stockholm for an exhibition at Index, which is great, which is phenomenal, and the project is the second extension of a project I did two years ago at the Arnolfini in Bristol, by the same curator Axel Wieder. He’s doing the second chapter of an exhibition called The Promise, and it’s all in the public space—that’s a dream come true—when you can gain permission to work in public space and have support to do this. You’re not making necessarily public sculpture, but you’re able to work outside with the support of an institution. How do you utilize that? I’ve just got a lot of questions. How do I keep doing things with integrity? That’s the stage I’m at. How do I maintain this, and how do I keep it honest? Funnily enough I have a second residency this year in Texas at the Chianti Foundation in Marfa. I think this will be an interesting opportunity to re-visit a lot of the ideas that I may open up while working here in San Antonio.”
LW: “But that’s a great place to be, because it’s a sign that what you’re doing is working, right?”
KN: “Yeah. I think so. I’m just aware that the work has to lead. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but this time here is good.”
LW: “Well, thank you. This has been great.”
KN: “Thank you for talking to me.”