Q&A With Kathleen Kane-Murrell

Q&A With Kathleen Kane-Murrell

Kathleen Kane-Murrell’s ethereal, butterfly laden artwork speaks to the fascinating (yet fragile) connections in our world. And because the artwork in her solo show was made almost entirely during lockdown, it serves to emphasize the human, social, and environmental disconnect caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Kane-Murrell reflects on her themes, process, and the beginnings of her signature butterfly motif, as well as how she persevered through the pandemic as both an artist and teacher.

Sparks: What themes do you explore in your work? What do you most want to share with your viewers?

Kane-Murrell: Themes are an interesting question, because in the strictest definition, a theme is a message I wish to convey. But I am not really thinking about the viewer, when I am making art. For me theme is where my brain goes in the artistic process—regardless how much I want to reign it in, change direction or be other than who I am… So, theme for me comes down to parsing through the same questions I have always had. What does it mean to be human and particularly to be female. What is the place of humans on this planet and why is there a consistent imbalance of power socially, politically, and culturally.

Sparks: What is your process like for making art?

Kane-Murrell: In my process, I am drawn to things that are discarded and overlooked. One of the first things I started using was classroom “detritus”, which means trash. I remember this specific moment where I looked into the trash can in classrooms and saw this little stack of end cuts of paper, and I thought “Ugh! I can’t throw those away!” and dug them out of the trash, determined to give them a second life. If you come to see the show, you will see little bits of paper, fabric, strings, all kinds of interesting things you don’t know are material I happened to dig out of somewhere. So that layered, textured surface is a really important part of the art that I create.

Kathleen Kane-Murrell – Finding the Way (Detail)

Sparks: Tell us the story about the first reverse painted butterfly piece that you made.

Kane-Murrell: I was creating work for a museum show at the beginning of Covid isolation. The show title was “NOW”. I had latitude in creating anything I wanted within a size limitation. There was so much going on at that time—politically, socially, and psychologically. Most of us were in isolation. In a time of loss and fear could I touch beauty while addressing these issues…I had just read a book, Overstory by Richard Powers. It is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel about trees and their interconnectedness in nature. Ginkgo trees are ancient, and they survive despite human actions on the planet. I saw ginkgo trees in Japan that had intensely bright yellow leaves due to climate change. It stayed with me. I read a Barbara Kingsolver review of Overstory, which led me to her novel, Flight Behavior. The work I created for “NOW” followed the theme of human presence on our planet and climate change. The monarch and the ginkgo leaves are both a trope for the conversation I was having with myself about climate change, Covid and the future of humans on the planet. I could not think there was anything more pressing NOW, than the state of our planet. This work it is about fragility and resonance, and survival despite dire circumstances.

Mumuration, Morning painting by Kathleen Kane Murrell 
Kathleen Kane-Murrell – Murmuration, Morning

Sparks: What is the most important advice you would want to share with young, aspiring artists?

Kane-Murrell: Make the work; try and try again. Work that stays inside of our heads does not count. Art making is a process—not an end point. Show up. Leave room for the x factor of mistakes, unpredictability, and failure—they show the way, no matter how painful or disastrous at the time. Keep trying. Even if you have had formal art training, it is still important to be self-taught. Listen and learn from everyone and everything. Lectures, books, museums…use every experience in life to inspire your work. Keep centered. No one is allowed to tell you what is right for you. The answers really do not come from outside but from inside. Listen to yourself.

Sparks: Do you listen to any specific types of music while creating?

Kane-Murrell: I listen to all sorts of music, podcasts, audible books and at times complete silence. I am intently interested in the creative process. It is a beautiful thing we humans do.

Kathleen Kane-Murrell – Cloud Forest

Sparks: Who/what are your influences?

Kane-Murrell: As a professional trainer, I understand the process of learning new skills. Not everyone learns in the same way and as educators, it is crucial to approach learning with this understanding. I found one of the best ways to approach art making was through art history. Understanding themes in historical context bridges understanding of the past and connects us today – not just to the materials but to the concepts of the work. Art classes helped me build a language. Art history helped me create work relevant to my time.

I often think about artist Joan Miro and his “Constellation” series during World War II. Art allowed him to transcend a time and place of isolation. My heart broke at the beginning of Covid isolation because thousands of kids who experienced art on a regular basis, were abruptly sent home. Educators struggled with how to teach on-line and engage students remotely. One of my schools provided art materials and online art lessons for 700 children during isolation. I was proud to develop a process that allowed art classes to continue and grateful to work with volunteers who facilitated and supported this. Art mattered. Many of us moved into the immediate post Covid experience without fully understanding or acknowledging the enormity of the world-wide experience. Grief for what was lost can be delayed, but it is like any other human emotion in that it cannot be ignored.

I do not limit the artists I study nor the artists I introduce in the classroom. When I first started teaching, the availability of information about female artists was sparse. Gratefully this is no longer the case.

Some of my artist influences:
Mark Bradford connected me to processes and materials I had not thought to use.
Wayne Thiebaud reinforced the power and value of teaching.
Alma Thomas showed me that any studio space…even a kitchen can give enough room to create.
John Baldessari gave me the language to speak about art processes.
Helen Frankenthaler reminded me that too much awareness and response to the audience does not serve the work.
Corita Kent taught me the power of words and work.
Marilyn Minter has demonstrated longevity and the way to stay true to voice.

Solo Exhibition Install painting by Kathleen KaneMurrell