May Featured Artist: Becca Kallem

It’s good to interview others in our field of study or occupation.  It’s good to be jealous of education, opportunities, experiences, and work ethic.  It’s a powerfully positive motivator.

Rather than asking yourself, why am I doing this?  Maybe it’s best to ask other’s why they do what they do?

I didn’t ask Becca why she makes art (because I had too many other things to ask), but she made me remember why I crave art like nourishment. It’s damn good to explore and learn.  Nuff said.

Becca Kallem

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 You taught Art and English in Spain on a Fulbright scholarship after studying Art and Spanish in college.  Can you tell us a little about your experience learning and teaching language alongside of Art.  How did you use one or both to teach the other?  What are some lessons you learned working in a foreign country which have helped you to teach art in the U.S.?

I mostly taught English, working with four- and five year-olds. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but my creativity stood me in good stead. We sang, read stories, painted, and played. Studying and teaching language got me to think about how much we do or don’t understand each other, and about the powers and limits of language. It also shaped my awareness of how my brain works, and about learning in general. On the one hand, it is a complement to the nonverbal place I go when I paint and make. But it’s also blurred for me any distinction between tactile things and abstracted thought. There is so much of each in the other: watch kids use building blocks as they build their mental understanding of the world. These days, I teach art to pre-K through 5th grades at an elementary school. It’s wonderful to see them grow from year to year. My students who speak Spanish as a first language learn English so quickly. It’s cliché, but we all need self-expression, whether in writing, speaking, painting, etc.

Because I am a great admirer of your work and have been stalking your portfolio since you started with the Project, I can’t help but notice a progressive deviation from more figurative work to a focus on symbols.  What sparked this deviation?  Why the symbols +, x, and letters particularly?

At one point, I needed a break from figurative imagery. Like my painting language wasn’t working anymore! I pared down my work into a question for myself: solving for x (or +), how is painting meaningful to me? Is the act important, even when I strip it of my skill for representation? Also, since my work tends towards being personal in a hermetic sort of way, using symbols and letters let me be deliberately obscure and private. I was able to put more into my work emotionally, albeit in a coded way.

 I had a great chance to show my work at Hillyer Art Space this March, and I titled it Signs and Symbols, after a short story by Vladimir Nabokov. The text presents itself as having all of these symbols and ciphers, like a riddle to be solved. But then you are also thwarted in reading it this way. Nope, the story says, gotcha, life is just life and that is it, no secret code. Or maybe there is… Anyway, that aspect of the story seemed like great shorthand for what I’d been thinking about in the studio: about communication, and the rich space between a speaker and a listener or a painter and a viewer. Back to language, I love that interpretation is imprecise and slippery, that there are always multiple meanings. But this isn’t to say that intimate understanding is impossible. As an artist, I think someone can deeply comprehend something without understanding it literally or in the same way the maker meant it. I’m not going to say exactly what I was thinking when I painted an X, or a plus sign, or an L. I’d rather have someone guess or make up their own answer, if they care enough to do so.

 I will say that the X’s are a nod to creation and destruction in the painting process: I paint over or x-out one layer to arrive elsewhere. The X’s mask and hide, but they also reveal something new, stake a claim, define a fixed identity. So they are also about how we present ourselves to the world, what we reveal or hide, and how we are “read” by others. I was painting them with very crisp geometry against a blurrier ground to mirror my personal anxieties in approaching life with both clarity and ambiguity. That they turned into pluses and now I’m using figurative imagery again, well, go figure.

Your “work in progress” pages on your website are quite intriguing.    “Latour” feels like a fusion of your textured drawings and symbols series, but “Melville” is a complete mystery.  Can you tell us a little about your new work?

I may have jumped the gun by making these sections on my site! Each represents a potential direction, ideas that may take shape or lead elsewhere. In any case, that’s Melville as in the author Herman Melville. I love how the book Moby Dick is this sprawling amalgamation of diverse stuff, but some how it comes together. My brain (and studio) is full of stuff that I only wish I could marshal into a meaningful, cohesive body of work. I’ve been making little rope sculptures and murky, unclear water/sky paintings, and drawings of eyeballs strung on string that all take (my readings of) Moby Dick as a starting point.

 When I went to the opera Moby Dick at the Kennedy Center recently, I recalled my high school impression of that novel: literature with a capital L, a behemoth and wild. As with the Nabokov story, I am interested in the ambiguous, interpretive space that a text makes between the writer and the reader. That’s why art is art: it is ineffable to a degree, both demanding and confounding attempts at interpretation. At one point, Melville describes the whale as having wound-marks on its head that look like some indecipherable alphabet. The human characters all attempt to decode the whale’s meaning according to their varied personal narratives and beliefs. People try to make sense of things with the tools they have; it’s all we can do. Is it even possible to not impose our view of things on the world? But sometimes, maybe, we should try to hold back. Or at least we should recognize our personal viewpoints and cognitive machinery as the limited, subjective, and partial things that they are. What about the whale’s point of view? Isn’t it amazing and meaningful enough that a whale is “just” a whale? Sometimes it is okay to just be, to just draw, to just have a painting that exists, to let a thing be a thing.

Anyway, the paintings and sculptures and eyes I’ve been working on relate to this, but in ways I am still figuring out! There’s an eye on a string hanging off a painting – the string is the eye’s (futile?) longing to understand what it perceives. The cloud/water paintings are my return to representational painting by depicting the vastness of the novel’s maritime setting in a very ‘open’ way. I love the way that sky paintings by J.M.W. Turner or photos of water’s surface, by, say, Roni Horn, present the visible, phenomenal, physical world as sublime and concrete at the same time. As a painter, I also love the parts of the bible that talk about the world as a flat surface: heaven rolled up like a manuscript, God moving over the face of the waters…

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Studio shots of work in Progress.

Have you made any discoveries in your practice as a result of becoming a member of Project Dispatch and making work for subscriptions?

Project Dispatch has helped me gain confidence in ‘putting my work out there.’ It’s extremely gratifying and affirming to know that something you make has a guaranteed audience/recipient.

 If you could pick three artists from the Project to subscribe to, who would they be?

Oh, this is an easy one! Corwin Lamm, Christopher Chen, and Kendall Nordin.

Visit Becca’s website (BeccaKallem.com) for more information.  Visit ProjectDispatch.com to subscribe to Becca.

Order a subscription to Becca Kallem throughout the month of May and receive a 10% discount!

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