SIDE BY SIDE: THE ART + WRITING OF KATE RUSSO

interview NANCY GORDON

Writer and artist Kate Russo.
"Paintings by Men" (Walter) with source painting
by Walter Sickert, Woman Washing Her Hair, 1906.
"Paintings by Men" series.
"Paintings by Women" (Frida) with source painting by Frida Kahlo,
Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940
"Paintings by Women" series.
Curtains #1
Novella #6
Painting desk with Men Contemplate Women Reading and prepatory sketch.
Parquet Floor 1
Tile Floor #2 detail.

Where did you grow up?

I moved around a lot growing up. My dad was a college professor at the time, so we bounced around from college town to college town whenever he got a better job. I was born in Altoona, PA; then we went to New Haven, CT; then to Carbondale, IL; then finally to Maine when I was 9. I feel like I grew up in Maine, but I know a lot of true Mainers would contest that.

College?

I went to Colby College for my BA. I majored in studio art and art history. I got my MFA in painting from the Slade School of Fine Art at University College London—a mouthful, I know!

Your two passions, art and writing. Which came first?

Honestly, I think they probably came around the same time. Art was the first one that I chose to take seriously, maybe because it presented me with more of a challenge. I’d been told from a young age that I was a good writer, but I really wanted to be a good painter and drawer. I wasn’t. I had to work at it. This is not to say that writing isn’t hard. It’s really damn hard and has only gotten harder since I started doing it professionally, but there is something about storytelling that’s always felt more natural to me than holding a paintbrush.

Did you always know you would pursue both art and writing?

No. For a long time I very much believed I would only pursue art. There was already a writer in the family: my dad. And as I got older, he’d become successful enough to stop teaching and write full-time. I knew I wanted to be as good at art as he was (is) at writing. Even at a young age, people would say to me things like, “It’s not surprising that you write well because of who your father is.” I always took it to heart. It made me feel like my writing talent wasn’t my own, but a hand-me-down. It took me a long time to get over that. I spent a lot of my 20s and early 30s actively trying not to write because the pressure felt too great and because I didn’t think I’d earned the talent people said I had.

Conveniently, or maybe entirely by my own orchestration, I was becoming a better, more confident painter, so I was able to hold off on the writing for a while. I wrote short stories in secret for a long time. When I was at Colby, I was one of the editors for our weekly paper. Somehow, I was always finding ways to write. I didn’t start writing every day until I was 35 and I’m not sure you’re really a writer until you’re doing that.

What do you consider to be the similarities between writing and painting?

Both practices require so much observation and attention to detail. There’s just a lot of looking. When I’m painting, I spend a lot of time either looking at what I’m painting or at the painting itself. People think about art-making as the act of physically making it, but there’s so much observation involved in and out of the studio. My painting professor at Colby, Bevin Engman, told me “You know you’re a painter when you notice that two stoplights are different shades of red.” Writing is just the same. You have to constantly be listening, seeing, smelling. If you’re not, none of that information will end up on the page. In my novel Super Host, I got to write about two artists, which meant I got to really think about and describe what it’s like to sit down at a palette and mix paint. It was a wonderful marriage of my two worlds.

The differences between writing and painting?

The differences are more personal. As a painter, I’m highly organized. Everything is planned out ahead of time and highly conceptual. As I writer, I tend to be the opposite. I sit down in front of the computer and really let my imagination take the reins.

ON WRITING


Your first novel, Super Host, has recently been published by Putnam Books and was a New York Times Editor’s Pick, with your second novel in the works. Any advice for writing that has stayed with you?

I’ve alluded to one already, but it bears repeating: Write every day. Honestly, it’s the same for painters. This is the advice I’ve gotten from every artist and writer I’ve ever known. Whatever creative thing you do, do it every day. Creativity isn’t the sudden burst of inspiration. It’s repetition. Those bursts of inspiration are great when they happen, but they don’t happen very often if you don’t put in the work. I write or paint every day, whether I want to or not. I strive to do both every day, but that doesn’t always happen.

Particular to writing, I have one main mantra that helps me stay on track: Be brave and be kind. Meaning don’t be afraid of your subject, dig deep, and approach everything and everyone with empathy, even characters you despise. This is also basically my mantra for life.

I also try to live by “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Teddy Roosevelt, I believe. But honestly, I suck at it.

How did the idea for Super Host come to you? And to what does the title refer?

I was a Super Host! The title refers to the status of the Airbnb host. Hosts with good reviews are considered superhosts. When renting out my family’s home in Camden for a couple of summers I was a superhost. I started writing the novel after that first summer renting on Airbnb.

I was thinking about artists and the odd jobs we all have to take in order to keep doing what we love. I started thinking about what it would be like to be doing this kind of “gig” work much later in life and that’s when I started to imagine the book’s main character, Bennett, an artist who has to rent his house on a short-term-rental site when his paintings stop selling. The book jumps between the perspectives of Bennett and the guests who rent his home (three of them: Alicia, Emma and Kirstie). The three women all come to the house for different reasons and are at different stages in their lives: 20s, 30s and 50s.

Is there much of you in the book?

This is difficult question to answer. Obviously I’m not a 55-year-old man, but still Bennett and I are a lot alike otherwise. He’s an artist like me and he’s prone to loneliness, as I am. He has a precarious relationship to solitude. On the one hand he’s used to it. All serious artists are, but when his wife leaves him, he knows that solitude is slipping into serious loneliness. A lot of the novel explores how difficult it is to re-enter the world when you’ve been out of it for so long. Alicia, Emma and Kirstie’s stories follow similar trajectories. All the characters in the book are dealing with too much solitude. I wrote this book long before COVID but I think the themes of loneliness and re-entering the world really resonate with where we are today.

The book also takes place in London, which is my favorite city in the world. I lived there for five years and married a Brit so I still spend a lot of time there. There’s a lot of my London life in this book.

Tell us about the main character(s) and how they relate to each other.

While he’s renting the house, Bennett is living in his artist studio in the back garden. He’s able to keep an eye on his guests in the house and they’re able to keep an eye on him. In this way, Bennett forms infatuations, dislikes and friendships with his guests and them with him. This was the fun part. I love writing from different perspectives because it’s fun to dig into what characters think about each other. Alicia, Emma and Kirstie all have very different reactions to Bennett’s proximity. And, of course, Bennett forms opinions about his guests. This is the basis for so much misunderstanding in the world. We assume things about each other. And of course, these misunderstanding are always a great way to use comedy in writing.

Genre?

Literary fiction, comedy.

What are the first two sentences of Super Host?

“In the hierarchy of linen stains, blood is at the top. Everyone thinks semen is the worst, but they’re wrong.”

You’re either disgusted or intrigued at this point!

Your second book, as yet untitled, is about what?

I don’t want to say too much at this point except that it takes place here in Maine. I wrote much of it in lockdown and I think if I had known how long I was going to go without traveling, I might have written another book that took place in London, just so my brain could travel even if my body couldn’t!

How long between finishing Super Host and beginning the new book?

Hmmm. Not long. I took a few months in between and wrote a couple short stories, but not long at all. The publication of Super Host was postponed by eight months due to the pandemic, so my sense of time for the last couple years is wobbly. I bet everyone is confused what year it is. Basically, when the pandemic hit, I was writing all the time. That’s just how I coped.

Your greatest joys from the books?

The best part of writing is the not knowing. When I sit down at the computer, I don’t know where the characters are going to lead me. It’s an adventure. And I love to make myself laugh.

ON ART

Any advice for your art career that has stayed you?

Very much the same as writing: Do it every day. It takes practice. A lot of it is mundane and lonely. You have to be really comfortable with your own company. It wasn’t so easy for me in the beginning. I didn’t like being by myself. Now I love it. And be patient. It requires so much patience. When I was a kid I used to hit baseballs with my dad in the backyard. He was forever saying to me “keep your eye on the ball.” It’s always felt a good metaphor for creative pursuits as well. And like baseball, artists have to get used to striking out 75% of the time!

Why have you chosen to work with grids?

I honestly can’t remember making the choice. It feels like they’ve always been there. I think it’s important for artists to set themselves parameters. The art is what happens in those parameters. I use the grid for everything I do: drawing, painting, stitching. Within that template, there are endless options. I can’t imagine ever getting bored with it.

You have years of experience with color matching and color theory. How do these play into your work?

When I’m painting, it’s my chief concern. I love art history, I love looking at paintings, so for the last five years or so I’ve been studying the palettes of other painters throughout art history and trying to match the palettes of my favorite paintings in my own work. I think every artist has what I call their natural palette where they are most comfortable. Mine is warmer, neutral mid-tones. Historically, paintings were a lot darker. Palettes have gotten light over time. Take a look at a Hieronymus Bosch or a Caravaggio or Gentileschi. So much darker. Until I started working with other artist palettes, I had no idea just how little of the full color spectrum I was using.


[My series] “Paintings by Women” (above left) and “Paintings by Men” (right) opened up a whole new world of exploration for me. Now, I’m working on a series called “Other People’s Palettes.” It includes 15 paintings. Each painting explores a popular motif in art history, each one having something to do with the male gaze. For example, I’ve done a painting called Men Spying on Women Bathing. This painting consists of 20 different ovals, each oval is based on the palette of the famous painting by a male artist throughout 500 years of Western art history where he is painting a woman bathing. I know this idea can seem highly conceptual, but I don’t think it’s necessary at all for viewers to know what specific paintings I’m referencing in my own work, just that I’m referencing art history in general. I think my paintings can be enjoyed without any in-depth knowledge of art history, but art history is my jumping off point.

Men Spying on Women Bathing

Many of your series use ovals as the focus. What do the ovals represent?

The oval is a nod to portraiture. Because I “borrow” the palettes of other painters to make my paintings, I consider my paintings to be portraits of the artist whose palette I’m borrowing. In my series “Paintings by Men” and” Paintings by Women,” this is most evident by the names of each painting (the first name of the artist.)

The paintings in your “Paintings by Women” and “Paintings by Men” series have such intriguing and famous names. Tell us how they came to be.

Well, “Paintings by Men” came first. I hadn’t actually intended it to be gender specific. I knew I wanted to do a series of paintings where I used the palettes of famous artists, but when I sat down to make the list of possible artists I would use, I realized that it was only about 20% women. This shouldn’t have surprised me—we all know how starkly masculine art history is—but still, it pissed me off.

One of my rules is that if I am going to use an artist’s palette, they can no longer be alive, so that made the challenge of finding female artists more difficult. I could think of plenty of female artists I admired, but most of them are still alive. While I was painting the men, I dove back into my art history books and compiled a list of 20 female artists who spanned roughly the same 400-year of history as the men, starting with Artemisia Gentileschi and ending with Agnes Martin. Each panel is named after the artist’s first name. Both series are intended to grow, but I’m one of those people that has a million projects going at once, so it’s been hard to get back to those.

The grid paintings are so kinetic. Is this intentional?

One hundred percent. The most important thing to understand about color is that it’s relative. It changes based on its environment. Josef Albers illustrated this best with his Interactions of Color. If you put a brown next to red, the brown will appear green. If you put the same brown next to green, it will appear red. I play with these relationships when I paint. Especially because I’m using a grid, each square is in conversation with eight other squares, so that’s why it can sometimes feel like the squares are dancing. (Square dancing!!) In a way, they are. I like that.

For your stitching works series on grid paper ... Where did you find paper that would stand up to stitching?


Parquet Floor detail.

I’ve done plenty of stitching in fabric over the years, but I wanted the end result to feel more like drawing than traditional needlework. When I’m stitching, I consider myself be drawing with thread. The thread is just a different type of line. I think stitching into paper achieves this. I came across the Japanese paper, from a brand called Postalco. The squares are the perfect size for a needle and thread to pass through and, unlike other papers, it doesn’t tear when you stab it with the needle.

You mentioned that the act of stitching frees your brain. How do you use the freedom?

The thing about stitching is you have to be organized. For me, I plan out a pattern in pencil, then I pilot the holes into the paper with a needle, then I stitch. Usually, by the time I get to the stitching, most of the hard brain work is done. That means I can devote my thinking to something else. Usually, I start thinking about writing again. I’ll devise scenes in my head, write dialogue or try to figure out something that stumped me earlier in the day.

There’s a wonderful book called The Subversive Stitch by Rozsika Parker, where she argues that while we think of needlework as a very submissive act, it was actually very subversive for many women because it allowed them time for thinking, planning and plotting. I just love that.

Of all of the series, which is your favorite and why?


From the "Curtains" series, Curtains #2

It’s really hard to pick. I work on so many series at once because they all satisfy me in different ways. They all ask different questions of me. “Other People’s Palettes” is the most ambitious series I’ve ever done, but some days I think I’m most myself with a needle and thread in my hand. I love the “Curtains” series because I think it brings together a lot of things I love: stitching, color and storytelling. I imagine each piece is a stage, just as the curtains are going up, so they are full of the anticipation you get right before the lights go down and the play begins.

What do you hope to give people through your art?

The short answer: entertainment. Artists are entertainers, even if we’re not “performing.” Once it’s out there, I no longer control it. So, I try to have as much fun with it as I can in the studio, when it’s still all mine.

. . .

katerusso.com

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