Briefly describe the work you do.
My concepts, and sometimes my methods and aesthetic, can vary from one body of work to the next. Generally, however, my concepts deal with the Self—my self, and the archetypal self. My current body of work is about the human animal– a meditation on the modern human—and the things we’ve given up, and the things we’ve gained from being members of a civilized society. Our trappings are absurd, in some cases, but I refrain from judgment, and instead rely on surreal humor to have this discussion with the viewer. I’m a fabricator/maker, and my materials and methods vary from casting to sculpting clay, from wood working to assembling found objects, from sewing to collage.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
I was raised in a family who worked with their hands. I’m especially influenced by my grandparents, who valued the industry and practicality of craft. My grandmother taught me how to sew, quilt, and crochet. My grandfather worked with wood, leather, and also quilted. Because of this, I pay special attention to craftsmanship. Something well-made is important to me. When helping my grandmother quilt, sometimes she’d fall very silent, and we’d both work, absorbed in flow of the repetition of stitches. This is state I seek when I work. It’s a form of meditation, and I find is most often in repetitive, and sometimes tedious, processes.
The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
I work almost every day. I also teach. I love teaching, but alas, this doesn’t always leave me with long swaths of time to devote to “being in the studio.” I tend to work whenever the opportunity arises, throughout the day. That means, I keep some work close, and leave the messy stuff (like clay) for the studio space, which is located away from my home. Projects which involve sewing or tediousness are often done in the comfort of my living room. Unfortunately, the byproduct of this is sometimes clutter, but it ensures I’m able to get as much work done as possible.
What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
I am very introverted, and used to be very shy. Never in a million years, did I think I would be an artist who also teaches. I fell into teaching when a friend asked me to head up an alternative metal-casting jewelry class within the community, right out of undergrad. I thought I was terrible at it, and my voice shook every day we met. My students were older, could see my discomfort and were patient with me. They also loved the course, and wanted more. Teaching was in the back of my head when I started grad school, but it wasn’t something I set out to do. To my amazement, I found that crafting a lesson plan to teach students about the fundamentals of art, was something I was good at and enjoyed. It never ceases to amaze me that I stand in front of classrooms full of students and teach them how to be artists.
When do you find is the best time of day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day, every week or do you just work whenever you can?
As I stated above, I keep projects nearby so I can constantly have something to work on. I do work almost every day, though life sometimes does get in the way. When I can devote the entire day to working, I will start in the morning as soon as I can, as I’m usually pretty excited to get going.
How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?
Five years ago, I finished my masters program. As a student, you have so much feedback which makes the work, oftentimes, stronger. It’s a bit shocking to find yourself in such complete silence when you’ve left school. I’ve struggled with determining on my own, when something works or doesn’t. It’s difficult to always remain objective, and self-doubt can be paralyzing. My work has seen a lot of ups and downs during this time, and I think I’ve occasionally struggled within bodies of work. While, as whole, my art varies in aesthetic from body to body of work (and I’m comfortable with this), I’ve had some issues with remaining cohesive within a particular body. This is symptom of being on my own, I believe, but also in coming into my own and finding my voice. I haven’t always embraced the surreal nature of my work, and I’ve had a reserved and timid approach to getting too “weird”. My grad school and immediate post-grad school work was very controlled and measured. I’ve found myself, lately, on a lot of unfamiliar ground; and sometimes my work can make me very uncomfortable, but I push through it. Overall, I believe I’m growing as an artist and I like where I’m headed. The constant in my work has been the exploration of self.
Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?
My grandparents, as I mentioned, are very influential to me. There are teachers, as well, from my past that have had a big impact on me and my work. I think I’m lucky to have had really great teachers who have provided me with a somewhat formal/traditional education, so I feel I have a very strong foundation to build on. I’m also inspired by my husband, composer Tom Dempster. I felt as though I always had a good work ethic, until I saw the amount of time he devotes to writing his music. We’ve been married for a little over a year, and following his example, I’ve stepped up my game and my approach, and subsequently my work has grown in a way I never foresaw.
As a young person and artist, I was often labeled as weird. And being a shy, introverted kid, well, sometimes that label, though worn as a badge now, wasn’t always so easy to shoulder. Especially, when you’re struggling with such profound loneliness and a desire to belong. It’s taken me a long time to fully accept my oddness, and perhaps I’m still in the process of this. Kiki Smith is an artist I continually revisit, when I feel my nerve begin to wane, when I wonder if something is just too strange. In Smith’s work, I find inspiration, a buoy, and fellowship in weirdness.
If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?
I do have an occupation outside of being an artist. I’m a teacher! And I enjoy it. My pipedream is to open a school of fine craft in my area, which is not an area that has previously put a lot of importance on the arts. I’d like to change that.
Kara M Gunter was born in 1976 in Lexington, SC. She earned a BFA in sculpture with an emphasis in small metal works and jewelry in 2000 from Winthrop University in Rock Hill, SC, and continued her education at the University of South Carolina in Columbia earning a MFA in 3-dimensional studies and ceramics in 2009.
Kara has taught at Lander University, South Carolina State University and currently teaches at the University of South Carolina. She has taught extensively in the community at the Columbia Museum of Art and through residencies at area schools. Kara writes and acts as assistant visual arts editor for Jasper—The Word on Columbia Arts, a Columbia, SC arts magazine.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.