Friday, February 20, 2009

Katie Gilmartin

I met Katie Gilmartin at a show in December, where I peppered her with questions about how she executed her mixed viscosity and lino-cut prints. Armed with the story of her signature technique, I followed up for the rest of her story.

Always the studious type while growing up in Long Island, Katie Gilmartin's bookish tendencies were matched by her creative pursuits early in school. Indeed, a book-making project assigned by her favorite art teacher foreshadowed a lifelong relationship with books, words and the creative process, but the story would take time to unfold:

"I did actually more art as a kid than I did in my early adult life. Once I went to college I had this crazy idea that I had to get serious and buckle down and dispense with all such frivolousness"

Majoring in English Literature at Oberlin College, Gilmartin now regrets somewhat not getting involved with the reputable art program there. She went on to graduate school at Yale, first for literature and then switching to American Studies

"American studies enabled me to branch out a little bit. Whereas literature is pretty much you're studying texts, American Studies gave room for studying all kinds of things including more pop culture things, including doing oral history interviews, at looking more at art. So I started to get more interested in those things, but still I was on my route to a career"

Gilmartin focused her research on Lesbian History, collecting oral histories of women in the Rocky Mountain region about their experiences in the 1940s-60s. It was in this research that she was introduced to pulp novels and their importance.

"The 40s, the 50s, the 60s really interest me a lot. As a historian, that was the period I studied [...] Really interesting things were going on with gender roles at that time. Gender roles actually got more conservative then they had been in the 20s and 30s. And yet today [...] most people look back at that time and think that that's normal, that that's how gender roles have always been, when in fact that was a certain rather conservative [movement]"

With this polarization of gender roles, Gilmartin also observes a counter-weight in the portrayal of feminine sexuality. Perhaps not by coincidence, Gilmartin sees the roles and portrayals rebalanced in contemporary society: 

"I think there was an incredible power to women's sexuality in that period. I think it was in part because women didn't have access to power in a whole lot of other ways, but it seems like there's a lot of imagery of women from the time, and literature as well, of women using their erotic power - using the power of their bodies - in ways that I'm not sure happens in the same way anymore"

After getting her doctorate, Gilmartin went on to teach Women's Studies, American Studies and Community Studies at UC Santa Cruz for ten years. Although she enjoyed teaching, her academic role was unsatisfying:

"I was miserable! So, I started taking printmaking classes [...] It was kind of a shot in the dark and it ended up really working for me"

First studying with Debora Iyall at InkClan (now SOMArts), Gilmartin was initially attracted to printmaking by the aesthetic of WPA and Soviet-era relief-type posters and prints. However, after living in the cerebral world of academia, the physical application of printmaking was also attractive:

"Part of the reason I was attracted to [printmaking] as well is that it's really a craft. It's not just you and the paint. You learn your equipment and its a very physical medium: you carve your image with your hands"

As Gilmartin became more involved in printmaking, she began using educational skills to teach classes. Compared to the power struggle inherent in academic teaching, Gilmartin took immense satisfaction in teaching printmaking and she continues to teach today: 

"I really enjoy teaching in a context where we're both just there because we want to be [there]. The students are there because they really want to learn, not because they need to please me to get a grade"

Contrasting her happiness making and teaching printmaking with her academic role, Gilmartin's priorities began shifting:

"Part of what I was learning at that point of my life - it took me a long time to learn it, but it was a really big lesson for me - was that I end up happier if I follow what gives me pleasure. Sometimes I can't figure out why, but if it gives me pleasure I try to trust that and follow that."

Extracting herself from academia, however, was a long slow process:

"I gradually had less teaching to do and gradually did more and more printmaking. And then when I started teaching it became clear that between teaching, printmaking and doing my art I could actually make a modest living. And that finally gave me the courage to quit academia, but it took a while"

Despite having leapt from the ivory tower, Gilmartin's core academic interests continue to influence her work in many ways. On an visual level, she looks back to the same time period that she focused her research on:

"I get a lot of my inspiration from historical images, in part because contemporary society's aesthetic around female bodies is so focused on thinness [...] Thirty or forty or fifty years ago, there was much more of a celebration of a variety of women's bodies, but in particular fuller women's bodies. Which both represents me and also an aesthetic that I enjoy [...] When I was looking for images of women that I like to look at, a lot of that brought me back to that era"

Her "Pulps" series not only reflects a genre that she discovered doing her graduate studies, but it also satisfies her affinity for words. But instead of a library, Gilmartin frequents the pulp section of KAYO Books for samples of the over-the-top verbiage that defines the genre:

"I really enjoy working with words [...] The way I usually work is I come up with the text first and then the image kind of comes from that [...] I certainly use bits and pieces of actual pulps. Terms like, 'lusting hunks of women flesh,' I could not have come up with on my own! But a lot of what I actually do is editing them down [...] and really try to refine it down to convey the most impact in the fewest words"

Exploring many of the same gender and sexuality topics of her academic past, Gilmartin is now free to use humor and expression to engage and enlighten her audience:

"I think that there's a way in which poking fun or creating a satire of something helps people see it from a slight distance and maybe be able to laugh at it a little bit"

See Katie Gilmartin's work in "Hot! Hot!! Hot!!! Erotic Art" at the City Art Cooperative Gallery through February, where she will also participate in shows in March and June.

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