Art, Faith, and 'The Spaces In-Between': An Interview with Kat English
If you’ve been following Art of Faith from the beginning, Kat English’s work may look familiar, as her painting Electric Storm was featured in our first post. I met Kat earlier this year; we happened to sit one seat apart in our senior arts and ethics class. Since syllabus week secures your seat until finals, Kat and I became acquainted quickly. I’ve since come to know her as a distinctive thinker, writer and voice for the creative church. You’ll get to hear more from Kat in the future – until then, let’s get to know her a little!
Tyler: How old were you when you discovered your passion for art?
Kat: I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love making things. Some of my earliest memories revolve around a giant blue easel that my parents bought for me when I was very young. I have always wanted to be an artist in one capacity or another; the type and media of the art I enjoy most has fluctuated over time but I feel very incomplete over periods of time that I am not making work.
Did your personality play a role in your artistic development?
I was extremely shy as a kid, a lot of kids in my elementary classes knew essentially nothing about me except I was ‘the one that draws.’ It was my path of connection to people, both a social thing and a personal thing. I think that has been true throughout my life; I am often pretty private about my work and my thoughts until whatever piece I’m working on is finished, but ultimately I love finding a home for it with a person who connects to it.
How did your style emerge?
I’ve always been interested in natural forms; I’m fascinated by the synchrony between these and love to use imagery as metaphor. Traditionally I’ve worked very illustratively, with immediately recognizable forms and scenarios; it has only been recently that I’ve started experimenting with less literal forms, which I hope give way to more open-ended idea responses.
Some of your work beautifully captures both these natural and abstract elements together. What inspires you?
I’ve recently been exploring ‘the spaces between,’ or transitory phases, in my work; something like ‘the prelude as the main event.’ I’m really interested in the energy that is present right before a necessary change or climax, like the cold front before a storm or the half-dreaming consciousness before sleep. These are neither ‘here nor there,’ not the part of the event you think of when the event in question is mentioned, but often sometimes the most powerful moment, before the energy is dispelled in the actual event.
You were recently commissioned for a stained glass installation for Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena, California. This was a new type of project for you – what was the process like?
The Lake Avenue commission has been one of the most surprising and humbling projects I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of. A call for art went out last spring indicating the church was looking for digital proposals. I'd only had limited experience designing on a computer, but I was so enamored with the fact that a local church was embarking on such a large-scale art ministry that I submitted a mockup. To my surprise, I was eventually chosen as the designer, and we went though dozens of variations of designs, eventually landing on the one visible today. The leadership at Lake Ave was so gracious, and their love and passion for their children’s programs seeped through everything they did. It was such an opportunity to get to work with them, and to have had the chance to be a part of something I’m passionate about within the community of the church.
Historically, the church has a rich history of art-making and commissioning, and there are many who long for this tradition to return. As much art as it produced, this tradition also wasn’t without flaws. In your opinion, the church seems to continue applying an overly simplistic or misguided philosophy of art.
I think that the church tends to make a mistake in that most of its traditionally featured artwork falls on one of two extremes. There are either the saccharine, idealized manifestations of smiling white sheep in a pasture guarded by a carefree shepherd, or Christ in torment on the cross. There is little room for emotional growth through these two options, and neither are entirely relatable. The generic American church population is on the whole quite a bit too privileged to understand the physical torment of Christ, (although in appropriate context it is certainly a powerful reminder) and conversely it is unlikely that anyone is really happy enough to relate to the vacant shepherd.
I think it is easy to paint a painful, sad painting if you are sad and in pain, but it can be even more powerful if you take that pain and turn it into something beautiful. That is not to say that all art should be ‘happy,’ in fact I think most of the best art isn’t. But perhaps taking your personal lenses, whatever they may be, and applying them to a situation rather than dismantling it, seems like a much more interesting way to see the world.
You grew up in the church. How do you remember your experience as an artist in that environment?
It was my general impression growing up in the church that the inclusion of ‘art’ in worship extended only as far as the crafts section of the Sunday School departments for the younger kids. It was interesting as a kid to see other children ‘grow out of’ art, like their creative tanks had finally been filled up and they could finally move onto ‘adult’ things. Not to say that adults would necessarily benefit from coloring in idealized Biblical scenes, but I remember my disappointment in discovering that adults didn’t seem to do much of anything artistic.
What is your experience like today?
In the past few years, I have seen the church I grew up in greatly expand on its artistic expression, including dance, spoken word, and dramatization in sermons. I was so encouraged and impressed by this the last time I visited, and yet I could see a great amount of discomfort within the congregation. In fact, unless I had come on an off-day, the crowd was quite a bit smaller than when I attended as a child.
What can we artists do to encourage more creativity in the church?
I think my past experiences make me check my attitude towards the church. It is easy to accuse the church of being ‘behind the times,’ ‘suppressive,’ or ‘unengaged in the culture,’ until we remember that the true church is not the leaders of the church, but the congregation. We expect our pastors and leaders to be experts on everything, to guide us through a fulfilling (but not overpowering) church experience that hits all the right spots. And they can do their best, but without any input or participation from the body of the church there is only so much they can do. I would say, more than anything, that it’s the artists of the church who need to stand up, shoulder leadership, and guide the rest of the body toward an appreciation of the arts as a powerful vehicle to finding and appreciating God.
The works in this interview are from Kat English's thesis exhibition, titled, "And Along The Way I Found", hosted at Duke Gallery, Azusa Pacific University from March 23 - April 8, 2016. All images © Kat English.