Witches, Widows, Spinsters, & Lace: A Q&A with Katy Horan

Katy Horan, Spinster #3, 2011 | Gouache, tissue paper and graphite on paper, 20 x 20 inches. Courtesy the artist and Swarm Gallery, Oakland, CA.

If you've ever laid eyes on Austin-based artist Katy Horan's work (perhaps in the recent West edition, #90, of New American Paintings) you probably recall the ghostly, lace-laden women and women-creatures that are Horan's signature. These mysterious and striking figures combine Katy's interest in Victorian fashion, Renaissance portraiture and historical female archetypes, and I've always been curious to learn more about them.

Last summer I had the chance to meet Katy for coffee while she was in Brooklyn and just beginning a new body of work for her recent show at Swarm Gallery in Oakland, CA. Katy had a ton of work ahead of her and so we agreed to do this interview when she finished. I asked Katy, among other things, about her process of creating new work and the significance behind her female archetypes and their elaborate dresses. It turns out that, growing up, Katy wanted to be a fashion designer and studied costume design before transferring to art school. Given her obsession with historical dresses and their haunting, cultural significance, this makes perfect sense. Our conversation after the jump.    Kate Singleton, contributor

(detail) Spinster #3, 2011 | Gouache, tissue paper and graphite on paper, 20 x 20 inches. Courtesy the artist and Swarm Gallery, Oakland, CA.

KS: What was the starting point or inspiration for this new body of work?
KH: It is usually kind of random, and this time was possibly the most random of all! I use my work to research and combine varied interests that I have. For this work it was ghost stories, Victorian [attire] and photography, spinsters, Renaissance portraiture, and dresses, widows, and ghosts. I ended up with a huge pile of images of these subjects that I printed from the internet and copied from library books. I spent a lot of time in my studio going through them and looking for bits and pieces to use in my images. I like to combine varied references into singular characters, so the more subjects I am working with, the bigger the challenge.

Some artists bounce effortlessly from one body of work to another, yet others experience major growing pains. What was the transition like for you this time around?
It is always difficult for me. Life is pretty complicated and rarely allows the kind of time I need to get through creative blocks. These transitions always take longer than I would like. This time around, I was experimenting a lot with materials and textures, so there were a lot of very unattractive attempts that I had to be accepting of. I was also interested in a lot of different subject matters and had a lot of ideas, so it took some time to get focused and sort it all out.

Spectre, 2011 | Gouache, tissue paper and graphite on paper, 21.75 x 15 inches. Courtesy the artist and Swarm Gallery, Oakland, CA.

While working on this new series, was there a moment when you realized you were really on to something?
I don’t think there was one specific moment. More like many tiny moments over the course of 6 or so months…with a lot of experimentation in between. It didn’t really come together until I got closer to the deadline for my most recent show. At that point, I had run out of time to analyze everything. I just had to do the work. Pressure always helps me focus.

Your last body of work was very technically and physically demanding. Is that something you tried to leave behind or is your new work still so labor-intensive?
As much as I try, I don’t think I can ever really leave that behind. I am a pretty obsessive person, and working in this way puts it to good use. I did try to loosen up and allow the work to get “dirtier” by incorporating some collage and mixed media. That just created more layers of detail to complete… so it actually made it more labor intensive!

Keepsakes, 2011 | Gouache, tissue paper and graphite on paper. Courtesy the artist and Swarm Gallery, Oakland, CA.

Your work features women who embody, although in unusual appearance, age-old female archetypes: witches, widows, spinsters, and maids. Does your work carry a political message about how women are typecast?
Not directly, but I am aware that it could be read in that way, and that is fine by me. I definitely take issue with the value our society assigns to feminine youth and beauty, and I find it interesting that, historically, a woman’s station in society was often defined by her lack of a husband (as in the case of Victorian widows and spinsters). I’d rather explore their place in history and folklore in an objective way rather than offering any kind of critique.

I choose these archetypes mainly because there is something mysterious, beautiful, or comforting that draws me to them, so even though I definitely do have strong feelings about the typecasting of women (and it does influence my decisions in my work somewhat), I mainly work with these characters for more personal reasons.

Egg, 2009 | Gouache, tissue paper and graphite on paper, 7 x 9 inches. Courtesy the artist and Swarm Gallery, Oakland, CA.

The elaborate lace dresses in your paintings arguably play a larger role than the women themselves. How did your interest in fashion, especially of Victorian fashion, develop?
I spent my entire childhood wanting to be a fashion designer (and a vet). All I ever wanted to draw was women (and sometimes dogs) in dresses, but I never had an interest in actually making the clothes. Later on, I wanted to be a costume designer because I was really into theater and had developed an interest in historical clothing. I even went to college to study costume design, but realized that I was only interested in drawing the clothes, not making them. I then transferred to art school to study illustration.

My work has changed a lot since I graduated, but the clothes thing has remained a huge interest. At this point, historical costume is one of my main sources of reference and inspiration.

I like a lot of eras of dress. For a while, I was mainly looking at Elizabethan and Renaissance clothing, but Victorian garb is my main focus right now (although, I have always found it really beautiful). I am drawn to costuming that is heavily structured and ornamental, and the Victorians did this to an extreme while maintaining a darkness and morbidity that I find haunting. I have tried for a long time with my images to capture that haunted feeling.

Spinster #1, Gouache, tissue paper and graphite on paper. Courtesy the artist.

Kate Singleton is a Brooklyn-based blogger and art consultant. She runs ArtHound.net.


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