Every so often, Santa Fe artist Kate Rivers rolls up her sleeves and organizes her studio. She sorts old stamps into one drawer and letters into another, separates tickets from wrappers, folds up maps and stacks old books.
Then the muse comes calling. Drawers are yanked, scissors unsheathed and tabletops covered in what appears to be a chaotic tangle of ephemera. “I look at it as painting,” she says. “It’s like a palette.”
Instead of mixing pigments, Kate stirs up her memories into spectacular nebulae, blends the stories of mysterious strangers and, in her June 14-27 show “Variations“, whips text into textures and folds together myriad literary legends. It’s all a meditation on the banal and the sacred, and how the latter is slipping away.
“When I was about 9 years old, I found a gold hoop earring and kept it,” the artist says. “I discovered it again years later and thought, ‘Why did I save that?'” Growing up in Ohio, Kate collected feathers, stones and other objects that she found beautiful. She was an avid sketcher and knew she wanted to be an artist, but for a young woman at the time, that path wasn’t clear.
“When I started, I thought all artists were men,” she says. “Georgia O’Keeffe, Mary Cassatt and Louise Nevelson were the only female artists I knew of.” Still, she never considered a different career, attending the Columbus College of Art and Design for her BFA and the University of South Carolina for her MFA.
In college Kate experimented with sculpture, painting and printmaking. By the time she was finishing graduate school she’d settled on mixed media works on paper, but her process was a conglomeration of all that had come before. She has a meditative, painterly method of composing her work, and the finished products exhibit the dramatic dimension of sculpture and the dense layering of her prints.
After graduating the artist took a series of teaching positions and began working on nest-like compositions woven from found objects she’d accrued from her daily life and frequent hunts at estate sales.
“Everyone’s story overlaps,” Kate says. She’ll gather and arrange old notes, receipts and other tidbits from specific times in her life, and then weave in fragments of a letter from a World War II private to his wife. “It’s the way all of our minds work anyway,” she says. “We sift through all of these different things every day in the newspaper, on Facebook. What I’m doing is pulling these pieces of information together.”
Even the most banal scraps of material—Kate loves using candy wrappers—hold a certain pull in this context, helping us compare the things we consider garbage with the objects we treasure. In Kate’s opinion, the distinction between them is swiftly vanishing.
“Things that have text on them are basically cut off and tossed,” she says. “That’s kind of our approach to it nowadays. Anything with text that we want to keep ends up stored in the hard drive of a computer.”
It was on this train of thought that Kate started composing works solely out of old books, a series that will debut at “Variations“. The stitched-together spines, covers and pages are at once abstract color compositions and windows into lush literary universes that are now often trapped behind the cold glass screens of e-readers. “You keep books on your shelf, but you almost never pick them up to read them,” Kate says. “What do you hold sacred and why?”
The artist drew inspiration for the new work from pre-Civil War quilts she saw while she was at school in South Carolina. African slaves typically only had two garments to wear, so they found old rags to make beautiful blankets.
“It’s this idea of using books and things that you have to really search for, kind of like these early quilt makers,” she says. “They didn’t really buy fabric, they pieced them together from different scraps they found. The shapes are dictated by the scraps.” For “Glory“, a tribute to Georgia O’Keeffe, Kate was on the lookout for purple volumes for months.
No matter what material Kate’s using (you’ll find nests and book works at the show, including a series of abstracted landscapes), the artist says her work is more about chronicling specific moments in time than nostalgia or a desire to turn back the clock.
“It’s like finding a lost earring, and then 20 years later you still have it. It’s like finding something from a different time period, and it still seems to sit in that place. It’s not all about ephemera,” she says. “I think we’re losing a sense of what’s sacred. These things connect us somehow to what we see as sacred.”
UPDATE: Click here to read our recap of the “Variations” opening.