June 19, 2023

Artist to Watch


Kate Barbee in her studio. Image courtesy of the artist.

NB: What are some of your earliest memories of making art and how does it relate to what you’re making now?  

KB: Well, my grandma always made these stained glass fixtures for the windows in her home, and I believe it left an impression on how I lay down shapes and colors in my paintings today. Even my use of wax and linseed oil I feel are reflective to the transparency of the stained glass. I feel like the lines I add into my work today are like the grout we would use to fill in the gaps of the glass shards.

I began painting at a young age and I was very interested in abstract shapes. I felt proud and excited about discovering something that was outside of the world we lived in, and I enjoyed the cathartic trance I would go into whenever creating an imaginary world of broken up colors and shapes. Shortly after I became a little more interested in fashion illustration and would draw dresses and outfits on figures as a way to almost live vicariously through my designs. I couldn’t wear these clothes because I didn’t have access to them and as a child I felt as if by creating it on paper I could own something beautiful. I think everybody makes art to escape from their own world, and for me the fashion design and abstraction really helped me delve deeper into my imagination as a child. 

Kate Barbee, High Flying Bird, 2023. Oil paint, cold wax, painted patches, embroidery string, yarn, oil pastels, acrylic paint, sand, and screen printed patches. 72 x 68 in.

NB: So we can definitely see the stained glass windows, the stitching together, and the fashion design. Can you tell us about your process using mixed media? How did you incorporate the use of beads and stitching on your canvas?  

KB: It all started when I was in high school, in this little punk scene in Dallas. I always sewed my jean jackets with band patches and pressed little silver studs into all my clothing because I felt this was my way to stay relevant. The stitches on my paintings now reflect the rawness of the stitching on my clothing in the past. Back then I was in Austin after graduating from college, and I was raising money selling jean jackets to move to Los Angeles. I bought a whole bunch of jackets from thrift stores and used the wood cut prints I made in school and trashed paintings to sew onto the back of them.

Once in LA I started adding patches on the paintings. I liked the idea of a living painting with loose fabric hanging from the painting and blowing around whenever someone would walk by, or when a breeze from an open window would bring it to life. Then I realized it was not sustainable and the pieces were going to fall off or fold/crinkle at a certain point, so I started fully sewing them down and I was very much touched with how familiar this process was with my history of sewing onto clothing. 

At times when I’m working on the bigger paintings, I feel like I’ve created a social quilting circle because my friends have had to help me sew the pieces on. When someone is helping me sew onto the works it becomes a passing of energy where we’re passing the sewing needle back and forth, telling stories. Since I can’t go around the canvas and do this by myself it becomes a special process and I think about my family members in the past sharing this same experience when creating quilts with and for their loved ones. 

Kate Barbee, Dancer 3, Before and After Paris, 2022. Oil paint, cold wax, painted patches, embroidery string, yarn, oil pastel, and acrylic paint. 72 x 72 in. 

NB: So what is the process like to build your fractured and intertwined compositions and these nonlinear narratives? Where do you start?  

KB: I start with a few lines and I’m very impulsive. I see a blank canvas and I immediately attack it. Sometimes that leads me into a dark complicated place with the painting, because there’s no thought put into it. Yet in my practice I work with oil paint, and I think oil is not that forgiving. So I’ve learned to also approach a painting and sort of forgive myself when I make these mistakes. I will usually paint something impulsively and then I will impulsively cover it back up with a different shade of paint and at times it drives me crazy. As time goes on, I turn the painting around, I rotate it and see shapes coming out of it. At some point I would stretch my canvases on the floor and with whatever dirt was picked up, I would find a figure connecting the dots and tracing it out. I’m interested in seeing if I will ever have a calm moment in my painting process, but so far I have been enjoying this way of creating.

Kate Barbee, Whitmore, a Portrait of Bridget, 2021. Oil paint, cold wax, painted patches, embroidery string, yarn, oil pastels, and acrylic paint. 60 x 50in.

NB: I love it. So can you expand on your use of interior and exterior or inside and outside spaces? How does this relate to other themes you explore through your work?  

KB: So I tend to ponder on this daily and I’ve figured that I sort of work with three types of locations: One is the place within myself that is fleeting and is an emotional place, the place that I create from my imagination to escape to. Then there is a physical space that is also fleeting because it is temporary and won’t be there forever. For example, I made a painting of my friend in her garden, which is planned to be sold to developers who will most likely destroy it and build something new. The garden is set on top of a hill, lush green and with a wooden bungalow with large windows in the middle. The space is like a Monet painting and although there’s sadness to painting a space and a moment that will eventually be gone, l also I feel there’s a justice with capturing this moment in time. 

The third space I work with is also a physical location, and generally it’s a location that I have photographed when I’m walking or in a car. I usually take photos of storefronts and signs that I find interesting, then I screen print them onto fabric and sew them as patches onto the paintings. So far I have only done this with photos I’ve taken in Paris and Los Angeles, but the world is always changing and I am always growing. I believe that it is important for me to capture these stamps in time. Of moments, feelings, energies, and locations.

Kate Barbee, In the Studio Pt. 2, 2022. Oil paint, cold wax, painted patches, embroidery string, yarn, oil pastels, and acrylic paint. 68  x 77 in.

NB: Incredible. Do you have any upcoming projects or exhibitions you would like to share?  

KB: Yes, I’m going to be in a group show at Albertz Benda, showing work next to the late Ken Kiff’s work and many other great artists. I’m also working on my presentation for Sotheby’s Institute and a show at Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles in 2025. I am very much looking forward to continuing my career now in New York, and excited to see how I will grow out here. Thank you so much for coming by my studio!