Painting as feeling exploration

Most kids outgrow finger painting. At some point they hang up their smock in favor or more sophisticated methods of communication. I was not one of those kids.

In ninth grade I was still craving the visceral sensation of pushing paint around and of witnessing a new color appear from the blending of two others. And being the very ambitious person I remain today, I asked my parents for a set of oil paints for Christmas.

I didn’t get the oils but they gave me so much more. My parents carved out a corner of our basement, the one at the edge of the slope with a small window, and declared it my studio. My very own studio! A place I didn’t have to share with my siblings. Now, don’t get the wrong idea. Said “studio” was still in a basement and next to the clothes dryer which was perpetually on. And in fact, laundry was one of my chores. So early on I learned the impossible balance of domestic work and artistic production.

My first painting in that studio, begrudgingly executed in teenage exacerbation in acrylic, was an abstraction of my boyfriend playing guitar. In a nod to street artists of the time, or maybe because acrylic didn’t deserve real canvas, I used cardboard as the substrate. This masterpiece whipped off in 45 minutes relied heavily on the red, oranges and blues I’d observed in a Rauchenberg, with an attempt at the fluid gestures of De Kooning, and a few strong diagonal dark strokes coming off the guitar that, to this day, still insist on dominating my work. (Instagram confirms.) It was a pretty terrible painting but it did allow me to express, at least to myself, the joy I had in my heart for this boy and his music.

You see, as a really shy, sensitive kid, I felt it all – sometimes crying myself to sleep for the kids starving in Africa – but I had trouble processing what I was feeling. I learned to compartmentalize overwhelming feelings. Call it a coping mechanism. Call it learned behavior from a family of creatives brought up in times when you didn’t dare call yourself an artist; or a faggot, or an immigrant.

So enter paint. Paint helped me make sense of the hypocrisy of a religion that called to me but excluded me as a female. It helped me deconstruct the alcoholism in my family. Paint helped me find my voice in relationships that felt one-sided. It even came back in grad school after mentor Barbara Galucci released me by declaring, “you’re a sculptor.” Yes, even after finally being given an identity that fit, (a sculptor!), it was still back to painting I turned when the message of my sculptures was incoherent. (The resulting picture of a woman standing in a broken home pretty clearly let it be known that I was processing my failed marriage.)

Today, I live a life that doesn’t guarantee me much time for painting, or at least the kind of hours-long endurance painting I prefer. I meditate daily. I write. Both help me process feelings in a safe environment. Meanwhile, running helps me release the yang energy created as I manage a start-up non-profit. But sometimes these very healthy practices aren’t enough. Sometimes, and especially while seeing a particularly exciting painting show, I get an overwhelming sensation. My body screams, I NEED TO PAINT!

That sensation is a warning sign. It means I’m off balance. It means there’s something I’m not addressing. So today, the first day of a week-long vacation, seems like a good time to be a little self-indulgent. I’m pulling out the watercolor pencils and paper to check in with myself.

I will try to resist painting a portrait of my hunky husband surfing...

Sample “check in” from a Thanksgiving vacation. Thinking a lot back then about temporary shelters.

Sample “check in” from a Thanksgiving vacation. Thinking a lot back then about temporary shelters.

More Additive than Subtractive

Profile excerpt by Leah Triplett Harrington:

In college, she studied painting. She had wanted to be a writer. Her father was a writer. But in college, she transitioned from drawing fictions on a page to painting pictures onto canvases. She was committed to painting when she took a 3D course. She labored over soapstone sculptures, carving away at the surface. “You’re more of an additive than a subtractive,” her professor said.

She is Kate Gilbert, who, after twenty years in Boston, has ricocheted through every facet of the art community here. Currently a curator and director of Now and There, the public art non-profit who brought JR’s Inside Out Project to Boston last fall, Gilbert is an artist whose studio practice includes video, installation, performance, sculpture, and persistently, painting. Her practice and curatorial work are united in Gilbert’s enduring appreciation and fascination with art’s power when placed in public. 

Read more at Big Red & Shiny

More Additive than Subtractive: Kate Gilbert by Leah Triplett Harrington was published April 26, 2016 for Big Red & Shiny online magazine.

More Additive than Subtractive: Kate Gilbert by Leah Triplett Harrington was published April 26, 2016 for Big Red & Shiny online magazine.