Artists on Coping: Katherine Jackson

During the Coronavirus pandemic, Art Spiel is reaching out to artists to learn how they are coping.

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Small Oils (Little Oil 79,80,81), glass, lightbox, 2019-20

Katherine Jackson has been bringing glass and light together for many years, often deriving them from drawing. Recently, in a series called Little Oil, (alluding to Big Oil), and/or Small Oils, as in oil painting, she has cast solid glass versions of vintage oil cans and set them on lightboxes. Recent shows include Park Place Gallery, 1 Gap Gallery, Odetta (Chelsea), and Odetta Harlem. She will participate in the sculpture show of the Venice Architectural Biennale (August 29, 2020 – February 16, 2021); Kunstraum LLC.

AS: How are you coping?

KJ: Primarily by following familiar rituals: waking up, stretches, shower, breakfast and coffee, feeding my cat, and getting to work in my live/work space in Brooklyn. “Work” meaning drawings, which often formed the basis of my sculpture. My focus shifted recently to Urban Glass, and returning to drawing has been deeply stabilizing. Extra time lets me think about my glass work more slowly–how to arrange the pieces, what kind of display works for a given project.

I try not to get angry at our Nero fiddling in Washington while New York burns, and he makes political hay from lies and dallying. I also cope through meditation, Qi Gong, yoga, and working out. Virus-induced anxiety is another virus, as is the news media that keeps harping on how those of advanced years (like me) are at high risk and, even without specific health conditions, might die from this disease. I’m doing everything I can to keep from getting sick and from succumbing to debilitating anxiety. I’m also trying to learn from this moment how to stay focused, maintain perspective, even how to confront my own mortality. This crisis deprives me of the luxury of denial. Despite distractions, I’m trying to stay as present as possible. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.”

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Little Oil Vitrine #1(Gallery shot), glass, lightboxes, steel, plexi, 2019

AS: Has your routine changed?

KJ: I am no longer casting at Urban Glass where my routine was far less contemplative than at home. I had just started casting a 28” high giant oil can, which is now encased in white mold-making material, to be liberated no time soon, if ever. I stick to familiar rituals and my old policy of working most of the day, though focus is more difficult with the OCD-like washing of groceries, sneaking peeks at the news, peering out the window at my empty street, or just frittering time away doing I don’t know what. Yet despite moments of distractedness, I manage to return, with relief, to my work, and to engage in some kind of holistic practice at the end of the day. Some nights I watch films selected by my movie buff son, many foreign, many going back to the 1940s and 50s. Though this often involves staying up late, the films provide a conduit back out into the wider world. And what better time, than at the end of a long, difficult day, to encounter so rich an array of engrossing human stories?

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Small Oils #s 79-86, glass, lightboxes, steel, plexiglass, 2020 (Trying out arrangements of new work at home)

AS: Can you describe some of your feelings about all this?

KJ: Anger at our government, anguish for those less fortunate. Gratitude for the deeply sustaining spirit of family, friends, and those risking their lives to save lives, keep us safe, fed, and cared for if sick. I feel lucky that I love the space where I’m confined and can work, and gratitude that I’m an artist and can find stability through work and the sustaining power of imagination, which needs more than ever to be asserted as crucial to human survival.

I also fear that this will go on interminably, supplies will run out, and I’ll go crazy, though watching movies from the past has given me perspective on today’s ordeal. Many of these come from countries that not long before had experienced the rise of fascism, World War II, and post-war economic duress.

But that knowledge was buried as the American Bubble enveloped me as it has enveloped many others. I hope this radical break will awaken us to the fragility of our social structures, how everyone, rich and poor, can be infected by whatever virus breaks through the illusion that we are “safe.” We are never “safe.” But we are all in this together, and hopefully will carry this awareness with us once the crisis fades.

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Little Oil 10, Uranium & lead glass, lightbox, 2019

AS: What matters most right now?

KJ: First and foremost the health and safety of my son and brother, friends, and cat. Art matters! There’s a book by photographer Robert Adams called Art Can Help. It can provide a beacon of hope in dark times. The care and commitment past artists put into their work, even in the darkest hours, speaks of their faith that something of value endures. Often in front of a painting or reading a book, I’ve felt how great that someone bothered to notice some tiny, perfectly rendered gesture, color, or shade of feeling, and never more than right now.

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Little Oil, Group 2, glass, lightbox 2017-9

AS: Any thoughts about the road ahead?

KJ: How we live on and with the earth matters. “The earth has given us its diagnosis,” is a quote I love. I hope this ordeal will lead to a shift from our destructive, unsustainable ways. This is the beginning, our chance!

I hope whatever I’ve learned from this calamity will translate into my life and, however mysteriously, my art. That some sense of pressure and crisis will continue to impact my work, and I can make a small contribution to human consciousness about what does and does not matter. I’m thinking, for example, of presenting future glass oil cans as if they were unearthed in an archeological dig, vestiges of a past civilization.

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Little Oil 14, glass, lightbox, 2019
Catherine Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer based in New York. She wrote the introductions to Meryl Meisler’s two books, and is currently working on an oral history about recent changes in photography.