Katie, is a collector of stories, a romantic and an archivist of a playful past that we can all remember. It was a sunny, humid morning when she welcomed us into her studio and greeted us with fresh fruit and iced coffee. We could sense right away that “home” is something important to Katie. As I sat and chatted with her, I felt both at ease and rejuvenated by the story of her creative process, and the things that inspire her. From tiny seashells to epic glaciers, read on for a look inside Katie Levinson's playful world…
Nativen: First off, can you talk a little bit about where you are from?
Katie: I was born in Korea and then I was adopted, so I came to New York when I was just three months old. Yes, I grew up on Long island - actually in Ronkonkoma. It was in the suburbs of Long Island and I do feel like it plays a role in my art. Most recently, I had been living in Chicago and just moved to the city for the first time.
Nativen: How do you think growing up in Long Island influenced your work specifically?
Katie: It's funny. I see a lot of kids drawn to my stuff and when I started creating a lot more, I was taken aback by some of the small nuances or themes that were, not immature exactly, but there was a juvenile quality to them. By that, I mean a lot of collecting and organizing and scaling things down. Thinking about it in retrospect, I see that having been a child in the suburbs and having only a limited amount of space to explore, like just your backyard, I would collect rocks, I would collect sticks, I would cut out pictures of magazines, but then I would sort them in very specific ways - the ways that I liked.
That’s the world I see. Maybe it's not so much about suburbia. Maybe children all over do the same thing whether you live on the farm or wherever. But in my context that's what I relate to from my childhood.
Nativen: It's lovely… it's kind of a romantic organization of sorts. There is like a cleanness and a preciseness to your work. When you think about it with that context in mind, it's actually a very romantic idea.
When did you realize that you wanted to pursue this art? Was there an epiphany or a moment in your life that really influenced it?
Katie: Years ago, if I met someone who said that they had wanted to be a teacher since they were a child and they always knew. I’d say, like, ‘man, that must be so great to exactly know your passion and to go after it’. But you know at some point I realized I actually always knew that I wanted to pursue art. But the path wasn't always so clear.
There was a period after high school that I really stepped back from it. But one of the things that got me back into art was having to take liberal arts courses (in college). I said, ‘cool, why shouldn't I?’ I took art history because I've always liked it and being immersed in it again, it's like, ‘ah – this is just so refreshing’. It was like I forgot how much I loved this.
Around that same time I randomly found a New Yorker article about how David Hockney had written this book about how renaissance, or even pre-renaissance artists used instruments to help them draw and paint realistically - like the camera obscura and things like that, which kind of turned my understanding of art on its head.
I had known what contemporary art was and what modern art was, but it just helped to really solidify where we are now in the art world, and that art expression today can be anything. It didn't need to be very realistic representation or what I used to consider artistic skill.
Nativen: Classical skill or classical tools or ...
Katie: Exactly, it just seems crazy to me. I mean, shouldn't art be something they teach you when you are in first grade? It's great to draw the apple so that it looks like the apple, but it doesn't have to. Your expression doesn’t have to be internalized or externalized in that way.
Nativen: What do you love most about living in New York and do think it’s integral to your work in any way?
Katie: I guess it's hard because it's still new. For me, it's not moving to New York, it's returning, even though it's my first time in the city. The city feels new but my mom still lives out on Long Island so that was a part of my moving back. Sometimes I’d be at Artists and Fleas (a weekly Brooklyn maker and vintage market) and they would ask some of the artists to make pieces called, ‘Why New York?’.
You can translate it however you want, but I had an idea that fit into that. I did four framed pieces and they were all labeled ‘History’. Those geodes over there (pointing to a nearby shelf), I actually cracked them open. So one piece was arranged geodes.
I did one where seabricks had been eroded by the water, from a place that was on the beach 10 minutes from my mom’s house, where I had worked two summers when I was younger. One of the others was made from pieces of branches near our house ... my parents moved after I graduated and so I was becoming very sentimental about letting go of that house that I grew up in.
They built the house and so I had to go back and visit. I knocked on the door and I asked the people who live there, 'do you mind me going through the backyard and cut off a piece of branch from a tree?’ My parents had a live Christmas tree that they had planted in the 1980’s and it's still there.
Nativen: It's nice to discover your evolution and to be re-introduced to your childhood space, that's so inspiring.
Now that you’ve been living in New York for a brief minute, do you have a favorite park or outdoor space?
Katie: When we were living in Chicago we were right by Lincoln Park, so we thought it was really important when we moved to New York to be by a park. We thought it would be a sacrifice not to be near open water or a park. We were hoping to get one or the other, so moving here we obviously were aware that it was close to the park and we thought that was great - Central Park. We had no idea how much use we would actually make of it. It sounds stupid but Central Park bing so close - we really made use of it, especially since summer started. When it was hot in here and the AC wasn't going on, a little later in the evening we’d take our dinner down there and eat dinner in the park and say to ourselves, ‘we're living in New York!’ Stars in our eyes.
Nativen: What do you think is the greatest resource to your work here in New York?
Katie: This is going to be corny but it’s my husband. The first time I displayed my sculptures was in Chicago at a renegade craft fair and it was as we were driving away… I don't even know if this is the right quote... but he said, ‘you know, Eleanor Roosevelt said that one person can't achieve success by themselves that it takes another’s support.’ I'm not sure I would have been able to do it by myself even though I strive very desperately to be the person who can do these things by themselves.
It was in July that I had a show up in Beacon and I had to do the installation. I had never done an installation before. The entire time leading up to it I wasn't nervous about all the work that I had to do. And I was very stoic about not asking him for help or anything. I was looking up online for instructions on how to install stuff.
There are so many aspects to it and maybe I could have done it in two days but I needed to go in at 7 o'clock in the morning and have it up by 2 o'clock in the afternoon. There is no way that I could have done that by myself.
Nativen: That's a sign of a good partnership. You feel like you have somebody who is in your corner. So this is like asking you to ‘pick your favorite child’ question, but do you have a favorite piece that you've made?
Katie: There is. There is one, it's called ‘Little Things’. They are really small, like millimeters small - absolutely tiny. They are fully formed shells that I arrange, and I attached a chain and a magnifying glass. Even though I'm still doing sculptural things in frames, it was the first time I started getting a little further away from that.
After ‘History’, the one I was telling you about, the frames actually have brass pull drawer handles on them so that they all slide into a wooden cabinet, which you can then pull out. So I'm starting to go down that path where I am still working within the frame but then incorporating more outside sculptural elements to it.
Nativen: It's very cool and it's a wonderful idea. Again, it sort of like capturing a romantic moment of your past in what you're creating. That's really nice. What point of your process brings you the most joy?
Katie: It's funny that you ask that because I am very candid, I think, about the process and about just being an artist and how hard it's been. I used to see this therapist - she was great. She was a Jungian therapist. But then she became more of an advisor to me. A couple of years ago I had had a great month where I was just creating and I was at ease. I was like cruising and making and doing and being really high about it, and then all of a sudden that momentum and inspiration just stopped for whatever reason. It went back to like clawing - trying to be productive - and making myself sit at my desk even when I didn't want to. So I went to her and I was talking about it and she laughed at me and she was like, 'Oh, I am sorry. You thought it was going to be easy?'
I guess I thought I was going to reach this plateau of like “creative enlightenment” or whatever and it would just be ... I'm just making art. This is just how it will be forever.
But to answer your question, when I'm finished with a piece and I know how hard it was sometimes to sit down and engage with the piece and interact with the piece, that would bring me the most joy and pride, knowing that the fruits of my labor are complete.
Nativen: That's a lot more rewarding in the scope of things… feeling like things are flowing out of you, which is beautiful, too. But also to know that you had a dynamic relationship with a piece and then to see it finished - it's just very gratifying.
What do you think is the greatest struggle for you in your process? I think you sort of touched on that, and the dynamics of that, but if you can re-articulate it.
Katie: I guess it's more commonly applied to writers but just sitting at the desk, forcing yourself even when you don't feel it. I'm trying to think of the percentage... but let’s say 25 percent is inspiration and obviously the other 75 percent is the working hard part, both, if not all of that can be hard to do. Sometimes I think that I'm a bit of masochist because some of the stuff that I do is so small and so precise, it can be back-breaking work hunched over something, cutting and… Those struggles of, ‘I have this idea of a project on this other plane that I then need to take from up here and translate down here’, but I know in that process that it's going to be hours of horrible work.
Nativen: Decision to precision.
Katie: Yeah. The hardest struggle is to motivate yourself to sit down and to discipline yourself.
Nativen: What’s one thing do you've always wanted to do but haven't done yet?
Katie: I would love to go to all of the Scandinavian countries because I love their design and settings. I think it translates a lot in my work, how much I admire that. Most of all I want to go to Iceland. We just booked our tickets for September so I haven't gone yet, but I am excited.
Nativen: That's so exciting. Do you think Iceland specifically might inspire or alter your work in anyway?
Katie: I do and it's funny because there are things that I started working on already that I see influences of. I kind of identify with Scandinavian countries because I love their clean, simplistic aesthetic. Especially in Iceland, I love their contemporary art and even their music but there is also a playfulness with it and a colorfulness that I really like, and the landscape as well.
I have a small sculpture… it's an iceberg… it's called ‘My Native Land’. People always ask me, ‘Oh, where are you from?’ (someone thought I was Inuit), and I have to tell them ‘no, it's just that out of the geographical landscapes, glaciers really resonate with me and so it's just kind of re-occurring theme in my work’. (Pointing) The three on the bottom are my most recent pieces.
This one on the end on the right hand is called ‘Fjord’ because it's formed when a glacier comes by and there are two plateaus on either side and water that runs between them. The other one is just called ‘Reccurring Theme - Glaciers’ because it's very archetypal of humans. And that last one relates to our talking about my childhood house.
What I'm doing now is a bunch of pieces that relate to items or things that I was inexplicably embarrassed of when I was a child. We had a yellow and green-striped shower curtain ... You know when you are a kid and you are just like ...
Nativen: Like you are weirdly mortified about ambiguous objects?
Katie: Yes. We had two white cars and I remember being really embarrassed that we had two white cars. Why, who cares? No one else thought anything about us having two white cars. It's just something I personally felt and it's the same thing with the shower curtain. Nobody came to my house and said, ‘Your shower curtain is ugly!’. But I was just very embarrassed.
Nativen: That's funny. It's interesting - the glacier thing, too. It makes a lot of sense because you know it is the original forging of landscapes in those places.
Katie: Yes, I think there’s something in the history of it… there is so much held inside. And also, it's a monolith. It's just so big and almost unfathomable - something that endures before us and after us.
Nativen: That's great. What are three words that sum up your work for you?
Katie: The first I go to is ‘clean’. I know it's not like there isn't self-awareness there. I know how stripped down things are.
I want to say I hope it's not too sentimental for other people because I think there is such a fine line with that, but for me it is ‘sentimental’. Even if something seems a little stoic it still rings for me, so, ‘sentimental’.
I'm trying to be more ‘playful’. It's funny, because people will come up to me and people will appreciate how clean it is and that’s the design aesthetic that I like. But also, I can go on the complete opposite side of the spectrum. I appreciate so much the baroque and the embellishment - especially color. I just love when pieces have color in them because sometimes it's white and I'll look at it and just feel like ‘no’, it's just doesn't fit with me. So, at what point do I try to break out of myself a little bit, and at what point do I listen to my intuition and stay true to my vision.
Nativen: Is there anything that you do with your work to specifically to connect with the community around you?
Katie: There are a few pieces that I'm working on now that I would like to connect with a couple of larger groups. One is the World Meteorological Organization. This sounds so silly, but I just watched “An Inconvenient Truth”. I had this idea a while ago to do a catalog for the different types, to make graphic representations of them. I’m working on that now.
One of the things that I would like to do is to help bring awareness of our surroundings. For example, I wanted to go into the surrounding New York area and regenerate native moss. It's really easy to do. And then have their Latin names and a little description displayed in some way just to bring awareness of natural and ephemeral surroundings.
Nativen: That's beautiful. I love that idea. What's the most helpful advice you've received or some advice you would give to someone who is looking to pursue their creative endeavor?
Katie: One thing I have heard and a hard lesson that I've learned is how much of your success is going to be due to resilience. Everyone has a different path, I think very much so in a creative field that resilience is key. I don't want to say above talent but it's a necessary characteristic if you want to do it.
Nativen: Yeah, that's an important thing to remember. Success is often born out of failure so you'll have to be willing to go through that to get to the other side. It’s sound advice.
Katie: The thing is, obviously, I'm still learning. I'm still new to this, but the stuff that I’ve learned I always am eager to share with people. If I have any small knowledge or something, I'd love to give that to someone and help them, because sometimes I think there isn't a transparency with creativity and with pursuing being creative… that there is this romantic veil that people think is very easy in a certain way, but how much work and resilience it takes, and how work, resilience and discipline are something that people don't necessarily associate with pursuing art. And they are so key and so fundamental.
Nativen: That's good solid advice. Do you have a hero or someone that's helped influence your work in a meaningful way?
Katie: Yes. One person who I love is Joseph Cornell. You can definitely see how that resonates in my work, too. My love for Joseph Cornell – it’s the same thing - that he lived with his mom and his brother in Queens… and for me it was in his nature – that, if nobody recognized his work, he would have kept making it. It was just in him that he needed to keep making it. And even though it is hard to sit down at the table and to sometimes be productive, I think you have to have that always in you. It's about letting yourself be the conduit.
Nativen: That's great. And last, but not least, what are the three things that you can't live without?
Katie: Cheese. [laughs] It was the first thing that came to my mind.
Nativen: That's awesome. You are not the first person who’s said that.
Katie: It's hard because I'm trying to be minimal, as a lifestyle, so I'm trying to think, ‘what are those things that I can just arbitrarily cannot have?’
Nativen: That's a good way to live your life if you don't feel attached to things.
Katie: But then my only answer is going to be cheese.
Interview by: Lily Hetzler
Photos by: Ethan Covey
This interview has been condensed & edited
all images copyright of Nativen