Art & Ecology in the Anthropocene | Cecelia Blum ’24 Interviews Artist Kate MacDowell

Kate MacDowell, “Feral,” hand build porcelain and glaze, 2019













As English-teacher-turned-ceramicist Kate MacDowell knows, there are many ways to tell a story. MacDowell synthesizes her taste for poetic allegory and her fascination with scientific case studies to create pieces that tell the story of human impact on the natural world. In this interview, MacDowell describes her artistic influences, her Pompeiian preservation of natural minutia, and feeling homesick amidst a dying world.

Cecelia Blum: You studied English for many years, and even spent time as a teacher. I’m curious about your journey from studying literature to being an artist. Specifically, how does your interest in storytelling influence your artistic practice?

Kate MacDowell: As an English major and teacher, I was in love with the written word. The first sculptural pieces I made started as a response to a poem that had stayed with me over the years, often a poem I had taught to students, such as ‘Birdsong’ by Rumi, ‘Tyger, tyger’ by William Blake, and ‘To his Coy Mistress’ by Andrew Marvel. I think it made it easier to make the leap from the figurative language and symbolism of poetry to metaphors and symbols in three dimensional imagery.  My very first piece even had text imprinted into it.  Since that time I’ve moved away from any kind of direct translation but I still make narrative work which can be interpreted as telling a form of visual story. Often my initial ideas for a piece start with a mental image or just a title, and the title may involve idioms, figures of speech, and plays on words. I also borrow from Greek/Roman myths a fair amount and those are part of the foundational stories of Western Literature. In those cases I’m responding both to the myth and to previous artistic interpretations of the myth (for example Baroque marble sculptures) and bringing them into a contemporary environmental context.

CB: How do you think your artwork interacts with that of your contemporaries? Do you view your work as belonging to any larger artistic movements?

KM: In terms of medium and technique it can be grouped with contemporary narrative ceramic work and also has stylistic elements which appeal to the pop-surrealism and lowbrow art communities.  Thematically I am interested in the kinds of environmental ideas explored in Anthropocene art which embraces all mediums.  So it doesn’t fit neatly in just one category, but I’m grateful it is of interest to many different kinds of viewers.

CB: Tell me about your experience being an artist in residence at Sitka Center for Art and Ecology (Otis, OR) in 2018. What were your biggest takeaways from this experience and how do you feel it impacted your creative practice and your career?

KM: Overall it was just joyful. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed the process of creating work as much, although I’ve loved every residency I’ve attended. It was a beautiful isolated location in the forests of the Oregon coast next to an estuary where we kayaked.  There was a herd of 80 elk who would wander through the studios and cabins and a lot of otter and seal activity a short walk away. One of the great things about it was that both scientists and artists were in residence, and the artists included all mediums: writers, musicians, and filmmakers for example as well as visual artists.  We were united by an interest in ecology, and particularly the ecology of the fragile coastal location we inhabited. One of my biggest takeaways was in understanding the commonalities of the creative process, and through the conversations we had together how similar the frustrations and breakthroughs of artists and scientists were.  Also how vital the visual arts (photography and illustration, for example) were to the scientists in communicating their discoveries and getting them published and seen by the larger world.  In fact they recommended to science students serious about field-work that they keep a sketchbook or train in photography.

I worked on a couple of projects including a larger piece about the historical fur trade in the Pacific Northwest that is still in progress. But the biggest impact I think was a return to close observation of natural objects, like keeping a daily sketchbook (except in clay).  I wanted to spotlight seemingly trivial and overlooked small bits of our environment and give them a monumental importance just by translating them to porcelain. I took photographs of 6 inch squares of the ground around Sitka and then recreated them painstakingly in three dimensions, trying for as much accuracy as possible.  That meant studying every grass blade, twig and pebble. I’ve always thought artistic practice is as much or more about the eye than the hand, and I learned to see more deeply and closely than I had before as a result of these pieces.

CB:What would you say are your biggest sources of artistic inspiration? This could be anything or anyone. It could be a lifelong inspiration or just something that’s been on your mind this week.

KM:It really varies, but I return again and again to scientific case studies, the specific ‘stories’ of species collapse and endangerment due to our environmental impacts.  So for example it could be a brief news article about wildfires in the American west, and the impact on Columbia basin rabbit burrows that aren’t deep enough to evade the heat; or a story about an owl that landed in the cockpit of a fire-fighting helicopter to escape the smoke.  It might be reading about how hormone-mimicking chemicals are causing sex-changes in fish and alligators; or how frogs weakened by a virus are being born with deformities like extra legs.

CB: I absolutely adore your piece Feral, and I find it very emotionally striking. What can you tell me about the inspiration behind the creation, and naming, of the piece? How do you think the word ‘feral’ is important to understanding the piece?

KM: This was created for a group show at Mindy Solomon Gallery (Miami, FL) entitled ‘Subversive Suburbia’.  I chose to look at the ecological impacts of invasive species in Florida.  I made work exploring animals moving from the suburbs to the wilderness (feral cats preying on endangered Florida Scrub Jays) and from the wilderness to the suburbs (iguanas originally from South America destroying sea walls and shrubbery).  In both cases I made the front paws of the animals human hands, because it was only through our initial introduction of these species to new environments that they became so destructive.  I see this damage as an extension of our own actions.  ‘Feral’ is an interesting word because it’s used for a domestic animal that is born and raised in the wild, usually due to its ancestors escaping or being abandoned.  The implication is that the animal is now wild and may be hostile towards people, but it’s far far more likely that it will be a danger to its new environment.

CB: You’ve written about how the landscape and culture of the places you’ve lived have impacted your artistic practice. How do you feel living in Portland has influenced the work you create or your creative methodology?

KM: I moved to Portland in the mid-90’s and then again in the early 2000’s which was when I first began to work with clay.  At the time jobs were scarce but studio space and shared housing was affordable, and it was easy to gain access to an artistic community and cheap ceramics classes through community colleges and the Oregon College of Arts and Crafts non-credit offerings. Especially in the last few years a lot of that supportive craft community and the places it gathered is now gone. OCAC shut down as did our craft museum, and some of the alternate places that became social and artistic hubs for ceramic artists have now closed as well. There is a 2022 movie by Kelly Reichardt called Showing Up about a ceramic artist that captures a lot of the feel of the old Portland, and is filmed in the OCAC buildings.  Cynthia Lahti, a friend, made the sculptures of the protagonist in the film.  I have almost always worked with galleries outside Portland, but in terms of community with fellow ceramicists, for many years it was a good place to learn and grow my craft.

CB: Your art touches on topics that can often feel very bleak, such as reckoning with human impact on the environment. How do you counteract that bleakness in your own life, for the sake of your own mental health? Do you think that making the work that you do helps you feel more optimistic about the future of our environment, or does it create a sense of dread?

KM: I don’t think it makes me feel more optimistic about the future of our environment although I sometimes have made work about environmental success stories such as the reintroduction of the California Condor to its former territories through hand-raised eggs. Occasionally images of work I have made are used in editorial illustrations for articles about climate change and other ecological issues.  I feel happy that my work is being used in that way, that it can be a vital part of communicating scientific truths like the scientists at Sitka taught me.  In terms of my mental health I try to spend as much time hiking in the wild as I can, and I grow large gardens of vegetables and flowers from seed every year.  Immersing myself in the natural cycle of days and seasons and the resilience of plants reminds me that survival and rebirth are as much a part of this natural world as dwindling and death.

CB: What is on the horizon for you as an artist? Do you see yourself continuing to work in hand-sculpted porcelain, or potentially moving into other materials? Do you think the theme of environmentalism will continue to be foundational for you as an artist, or are there other topics you’d like to explore through your work?

KM: I’m kind of in a transitional place right now so I can’t say for sure which direction I will head next and whether porcelain will be part of that or whether I will explore different mediums. I’ve actually found it very difficult to make work through the pandemic (endless kudos to the artists who have tapped rich new inspirational veins and embarked on ambitious projects during this period, I wish it was me). I think environmental issues, plants, and animals are likely to be central to my work however it evolves as they hold endless fascination for me.  I’ve often described my work as being inspired by the feeling of solastalgia.  This word was coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht and he describes it as “the homesickness you have when you are still at home” or a form of emotional or existential distress caused by environmental change to your own environment. I think between extreme heat, flooding, smoke from fires and other climate catastrophes that have directly impacted where we live in the last few years, this feeling will become more and more widespread.  One of the ways I can help make peace with it is through art.