Interview Between Kate Sable and Amy Boone-McCreesh

June, 2021

A: Where are you from?

K: I grew up in Southwestern Virginia, in a small town called Narrows. My parents were transplants to the area; my Mom is from Stony Brook, New York and my Dad is from the DC area.  They met at a small private college nearby, and never left the area. It’s a picturesque place, but a little isolated.

It was my fire, not yours, 2021, Oil on canvas

How long have you been in your current studio?

I’ve been here about four years, and I’ve had a studio in Reston since I left DC in 2010.  I did my graduate studies at American University and moved to Reston after completing my MFA. This is my second in-home studio in Reston.

What would you say your work is about? What are you trying to do?

I am a process-led Abstract painter, although what I’m trying to accomplish out of my painting efforts aren’t necessarily always dependent on what the image becomes, because I’m less of an image maker and more of an explorer and analyzer of the material. I spend the majority of my time trying to figure out what I want the painting to become, mapping out various motivations or interests, and letting them turn into actual paintings by way of the process.

I think a lot about the formal nature of being a maker of paintings, but my work is still very much rooted in the things that motivate me to make work, in that I’m constantly recording that motivation onto a surface. So to me, the paintings themselves often feel like little maps of the day. I’m very interested in color, shape, and materiality, and I quite enjoy when a viewer finds universal things to pull out of one of my paintings, but that’s not really where my interests lie. I used to struggle with the fact that I’m not hyper-focused on a solid underlying theme, but I have so many things I’d like to do in a single painting, that my desire to create in an immediate, emotive way outweighs any interest I have in creating a truly thematic body of work. With that said, I do think a lot about touch and physicality and how those concepts relate to each other and to my chosen medium, so they often come up in my paintings.  

There’s always a part of me that wants to keep remaking the work I’ve invested so much energy in understanding, but I end up accidentally making a painting that’s different albeit exciting, vulnerable and uncomfortable. The question is always if I should embrace that or push it away, and I always seem to lean towards embracing that new arena. 

I get both excited and bummed when I’ve hit that point.  I’m in one of those moments right now because I’ve reached a place where I know the steps to make my work, and I know what the paintings are about, and I know how to keep making them. I answered a lot of the questions I’d been asking, and the work from my last show mostly make sense to me on a personal level, but I went and made a painting almost directly after that show went up that had nothing to do with all of those ideas.  I guess it’s like, I answered a series of questions and now it’s led me down another spiral and I’ve set myself up to be uncomfortable again. 

Your painting vocabulary feels rooted in patterns and repetition, but also seems very fresh and intuitive. How long do you typically work on each piece and how much is planned vs reacting to decision making?

I love that you have that reading of the paintings. The aspect of it feeling so immediate and done so quickly is interesting and very desirable to me, because mostly, they’re definitely not quick paintings! But I really love when a painting has that feeling. 

At an early age, I very much wanted to be a painter. I didn’t have a clue what that meant, I just felt that it was what I was going to do. So in undergrad I took that first Intro to Painting class and watched my professor mix paint. There was no question about the fact that I’d be doing that for the rest of my life. However, it took a very long time for me to get to a place where my need to use the material as a tool to understand everything around me, in terms of personal narrative, emotional labor, connectivity began to be effective, or efficient in any way.  

I might posture to say that painting has always been a meditation for me, even if we go back to thinking about undergrad still life or figurative paintings. There has always been something about that material that does something for me that nothing else could. Words always fail me; I’m simply terrible with words. And, from the other direction, nothing quite satisfies me as much as looking at a painting. So from very early on, that whole language was very impactful.

I’m very traditional in the way that I think about my materials. I don’t think about experimentation so much as I’m thinking about exploring the material that I’ve committed myself to, down to the fact that I’m still incredibly interested in the surface being either square or rectangular.  A side note: I actually am making my first landscape-oriented painting in almost 10 years. I have been so committed to a vertical orientation because I like how it physically relates to my standing body. But it’s silly that I become so steadfast and stubborn on certain things; I think I subconsciously get a kick out of forcing myself to work within this controlled painting world. So I got defiant, and made a landscape painting. 

But, to circle back to the idea of the work feeling fresh– I mostly want the paintings to be haphazard or present in a vulnerable way, and I hope that they’ve captured something in an immediate way, so that the viewer may feel some fraction of the same energy that I’ve put into it. At the same time, I am thinking about all of these formal constraints, but I need to be disruptive within it.

The aspect of taking a motivation or impulse, and putting that idea out there (undecidedly bad or good) and see where it goes is where the intuition part comes in strong for me, as I tend to trust my gut but there’s always a point in the painting at which I need to break it, create a problem  and really screw it up, and then go in and fix it. I think there’s an odd need to force my idea of what work ethic is, and that’s inevitably become part of my process. 

While the work is admittedly formal, it’s still very much intertwined with that psychology. There’s this sort of metaphysical approach to painting that I care deeply about–and I think at the end of the day, I care more about that than color, or shape, or image-making. Finding that one magic moment that touches on both sides of that spectrum is difficult, and very special, so mapping the process of trying to find that one magical thing will have to do for me.

Everytime I make something and it easily meets a resolve, I’m like, “I’m a terrible person; that was lazy; who do you think you are?”  I’m really hard on myself.  I think about it like baseball, where there are so many more failures than successes when everything all lines up. It’s amazing how much a player has to fail before that beautiful, buttery play works out. It’s gorgeous to watch, and I can always feel the heart of the sport in that moment.  More failure than win, and for me, it’s the same way with painting, the amount of times you need to fail–you have to be comfortable with it. 

In terms of time spent on a painting, I tend to work in seasonal cycles, where I have 6 – 8 paintings going at once, some small and others large, because I need to be able to come to the studio and have the choice to either square up and finish a piece, or be able to work on a fresh painting, experimenting with a new ideas, or taking weird risks. Collectively, the bigger paintings can take three months to a year while the smaller ones can resolve in a few weeks, but they can  also take longer. Scale doesn’t really seem to make a difference.

How does your studio practice fit in with your life? Do you have times of day or chunks of time that make sense for you?

I have to talk about it in terms of the pandemic, because Covid-19 was extremely disruptive to my studio practice and my life in general.  2020 would have been the academic school year in which all three of my young children would be in Elementary School, as my youngest was entering Kindergarten.  Instead, I became a full time stay at home mom, who managed three kids’ daily education. Prior to the pandemic, I was able to keep a strict schedule where I would paint when the kids were in school or if I had secured childcare, but now, it’s just incredibly difficult to carve studio time into the day. I miss the time when I was able to close the door and have it be my space and time. 

As a parent, there are always going to be interruptions, but it’s been hard to focus lately, especially because I’ve mostly been working nights.  Before I was a mother, I was a night owl. In a way, the pandemic has brought me back to those old habits of working late, but on the flip side, I now have to get up early and take care of three small children, despite the lack of sleep. Instagram was a comfort in those early months of the pandemic, it helped me note my day, and I enjoyed seeing snapshots of other artists still working; I needed that connection, especially since we lost real space connectivity. Those were lonely times.

Hopefully, when my kids go back to school in the Fall, I will go back to having a very strict schedule with more dedicated studio time. I function better with a specific schedule, because I  easily become resentful when I have to make a choice that takes away from studio time. The artist/mother decisions used to feel so heavy: do I go to the Little League game this Saturday, and not work in my studio? Or do I work in the studio on Saturday and be a shitty mother and not go to the Little League Game?  The set schedule allows me to fairly divide my responsibilities with less underlying guilt and emotional labor.  The only thing I don’t schedule is sleep, but I really need to!  Sleep hours tend to be allotted to catching up on other things; I guess I’ll sleep when I’m dead. 

Any hobbies outside of the studio? Anything that really helped you through the pandemic?

I was easily distracted and uninterested in making paintings during the beginning of the pandemic, but I also felt guilty for still having some access to my studio and not wanting to paint.  In 2011, I took a break from painting right after I had my first kid, so I sometimes am unreasonably hard on myself about keeping a tight schedule. But, painting seemed so frivolous, and I just couldn’t care about putting pink next to yellow when things were so upside down during the pandemic! I was fortunate to be able to recognize that and just give myself the time needed to navigate the variety of ups and downs.  Ten years younger, and childless, I would have forced myself to think of the time as a residency that I needed to take advantage of, but, instead I learned to cope with the oscillating feelings of worry and numbness. I leaned a lot on physical activity, with plenty of exercise to channel the unexpected energy that would randomly show up at odd hours. I updated my home gym as a quarantine project, and there were plenty of days where I’d work out multiple times a day, at very odd hours. I think exercising and being in the studio both tap into a certain part of me–a mental space where I can ride beside all of the other things in my mind, controlling all the noise in order to think straight, whether I’m isolating a certain muscle or making a specific painting move. And since painting is so physical for me, it taps into an intuitive headspace, much like the gym does. 

I did a lot of gardening and cooking as well, because it was the only thing that felt like hope. Watching a tiny seed grow into a real thing felt like the only feeling of promise that my kids were going to be okay. Watching daily changes in a plant reminded me that eventually I was going to feel like a person again. I would make a meal out of the things I grew, and we would eat it, and I’d feel alive for a second. I made massive amounts of pasta.

Oh! I also made a playlist– it started as a silly goal, but I decided I wanted to create a playlist that included every significant song that I’ve associated with the really impactful moments in my life. It sort of started as a cliche, but it turned into being a sort of emotionally heavy project.  

All of those things helped me get back to finding the person in me. As things started opening up again, I’ve always worried that people would just go back to being insensitive, and not noticing the little things.  I’ve definitely always been an observer, and I hope others hold onto what they’ve perhaps found during the pandemic. 

Anything you’d like to recommend or anything that has helped your during the pandemic?

I just finished a few great books: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, and Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens.  Highly recommend both of them!  Also, my super cliche but rad spotify playlist link is:

Kate in her studio, June, 2021
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