Brooklyn based artist and sculptor, Kate Clark graciously took time to answer questions about her wildly intriguing animal-human hybrid sculptures. The human animal is never more fully realized than when it stares back at us. Clark’s taxidermy works of art demand we face our truest nature, what it means to be an animal and how the connection between human and animal may seem distant but it is certainly always present.
Her work has been exhibited in numerous museums including: Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, The Islip Art Museum, and The Bellevue Arts Museum, the Mobile Museum of Art, MOFA: Florida State University. Clark’s sculptures are also publicly collected internationally and is in public collections such as the JP Morgan Chase Art Collection, the 21c Collection, the David Roberts Art Foundation in London, and the C-Collection in Switzerland.
Clark’s sculptures have been featured in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, New York Magazine, Art21:Blog, The Village Voice, PAPERmag, The Atlantic, NYArts, Huffington Post, Hi Fructose, the BBC World News Brazil, Hey! Magazine, Time Out, ID Paris, Cool Hunting, Wallpaper, VICE, Sculpture Review and many other publications. Kate’s work is the cover image for Art ltd. magazine, November/December 2014. Kate was filmed by National Geographic in her studio over a 2 month period for a short documentary about her work.
For more information on Kate Clark, her sculptures and current exhibits, please visit her website. Be sure and check out the slideshow to see more of Clark’s work.
Francis Xavier: When and how did your journey as a sculptor begin and what led you in the direction of using animal hides as your preferred medium?
Kate Clark: During graduate school I was reading about the evolution of the human face — how the specific changes, i.e. a hairless face, whites of the eyes, eyebrows, muzzle pulled back, etc, together allow for an enormous range of easily ‘readable’ expressions. Our ability to read even the subtlest expression in a flash, helped humans create a civilized culture based on trusting and understanding the others in our society.
I bought a small raccoon shoulder mount and started experimenting with the animal hide. It took a lot of experimentation but eventually I was able to create a balance between an animal’s facial features and human facial features, allowing the animal’s transformed face to communicate complex (what we consider ‘human’) expression and emotion. Once I was able to make a believable human face, the discussion switched from a scientific one to both a conceptual and emotional one.
I think a viewer senses a material’s quality, natural or artificial, and I see that this material, real hide, causes a visceral reaction when a viewer first approaches the work. I sometimes find it hard to believe myself -that I use animal hide, but using the animal’s actual skin and transforming it, rather than putting two artificial things together, is the most important concept behind the work.
The leather I use as skin for the human face is the skin that covered the animal’s face. I attempt to match up sections of skin, for example, using the animal’s eyelids and lashes around the human-looking eyes. I shave the fur so that the viewer might relate to the oily, porous features that we recognize in our skin. In making the transformation from animal to human as smooth as possible, and then having the animal’s face reflect ours, not only in form and expression, but also, undeniably, in it’s similar skin qualities. I am visually saying that although we have an enlightened existence, we are of wild origin, coexisting members of the animal kingdom.
FX: Your sculptures blend many elements from the mythic to the deeply personal; does blending your vision with inspiration ever compete with the initial idea for a piece? How do you keep sight of the initial idea?
KC: My work is discussed in the context of environmentalism, mythology, spiritualism, futuristic biology, etc. What I love about the range is that it enables the work to be considered in a current and contemporary way that leads to the broader discussion of cultural evolution. The fact that we haven’t physically evolved as humans from the time before Greek mythology until now, and probably won’t evolve physically as we move into the future, is an amazing fact – considering the leaps and bounds that we have evolved culturally. Even though we are the same physical people, we are masters at adapting to these cultural changes. But there is a tipping point – people may want to reevaluate if they feel comfortable/natural adapting to the constant cultural advances, and instead choose to rekindle a relationship with nature.
FX: When do you know a piece is done, and do you ever wish you could change something once its “finished?” How do you let a piece go?
KC: When making the pieces I stop when I reach a point that will present the sculptures as balanced- ie: balanced between presenting fact vs. fiction, beauty vs. aberration, visibly constructed vs. believably lifelike. Through the years of working with animals, I’ve come to the conclusion that I want each piece to look dignified. Many viewers have suggested that I take them in a monster-y direction, but I think that would make them easier to dismiss. Instead, I make sure the animal stands or sits in a powerful position, while their faces appear comfortable and casual in their transformation. This adds complexity within the viewer/sculpture relationship—the character in the sculpture is comfortable while the viewer is uncomfortable– until he or she spends the time to find beauty or meaning in the work.
FX: Favorite piece?
KC: Usually the one I’m working on.
FX: What challenges does working with animal hides present when combining with other materials? Are the animal hides the main focus and do you have to temper the other materials from overshadowing their natural beauty?
KC: The final surface of the entire piece is the animal’s hide. The hides I choose are slightly damaged or slightly dry- unwanted by taxidermists who do not want to repair them, especially if the face is the damaged area. I choose to use these hides instead of fresh perfect ones as part of the concept of my work. It’s worthwhile for me to make the repairs and I let them show along with the other transformations I’ve made. Even with slightly damaged areas, the hides are remarkably beautiful in their coloring, details, etc.- unlike anything I could make by hand.
FX: What challenges does a sculptor face in 2016 compared to when you started?
KC: One thing that’s been a new challenge for me is when images or videos of my work go ‘viral’. The visibility is great but some of the reactions show that a good percentage of the viewers are not taking any time to look at the work and figure out what I’m presenting. They seem to react impulsively and very often they react to other people’s reactions. I’m sure I’m not the only artist who is suffering from this.
FX: What type of art/art movement inspires you?
KC: I love to see artwork that is truly original and bold and particularly work that uses materials in an interesting way.
FX: Do you ever suffer from a creative block? If so, do you find stepping away from what you are working on helps? Or do you just plow through it?
KC: I am a workaholic. I don’t get to step away often enough, but when I do, I do find that my cleared mind offers resolutions. Yesterday I was on the plane to New Orleans to attend my exhibition and within minutes of sitting down I resolved the base of my current piece- something I’ve been struggling with for a while.
FX: Your sculptures are stunning and unsettling are you ever scared of your work and what has blending the human with the animal taught you about yourself as a human, and has the reaction of people given you any surprising insights?
KC: Being pregnant with my daughters showed me what it was to have uncontrollable primal emotions and reactions. That was incredibly insightful. The reaction of my viewers has confirmed that humans find animals irresistible and they recognize that there is nothing else that we can relevantly compare ourselves to.
FX: Why do you create art? Any thoughts on the “tortured artist” stereotype?
KC: Yes, it’s true. I have a lot of happiness in my life but I am compelled to make my artwork and I am unsettled unless I’m able to do it.