Keep Your Hands Busy: Interview with Katina Huston

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Katina Huston, double dynamo, 2012, Ink on mylar, 72” x 36”. Courtesy of the artist.

“If I didn’t play a lot I think it would be difficult to allow weird impulses to assert themselves. Hang shit from the ceiling? That doesn’t just happen.” – Katina Huston

This week MD chats with artist Katina Huston about how to turn experiences into art.  Having had dozens of jobs, learned techniques from glass cutting to large scale flower arrangements, and participated in ten solo shows in the last six years with projects in Japan, Sweden, and Italy, she is a true masterdabbler. While learning several computer languages, she was trained in the History of Fine Art at New York University by an amazing group of scholars. Her drawings are collected by the San Francisco Fine Art Museum, the Yale University Art Gallery and Steve Wynn’s collection to name just a few. In other words, she’s a busy woman. 

How many jobs have you had?

I don’t actually know. Lots. sandwich maker, bicycle messenger, janitor, art critic, busboy, college professor, innkeeper, whistleblower. The number is less important than being in the world. Art is my primary occupation. 

When did you realize you were an artist?

As soon as I completed my BA in Art History I knew I didn’t want to spend my life in a basement figuring out other people’s stuff. Then I moved into making as a profession.

What materials do you use and how did you come to use them?

An unusual undergraduate art instructor started me in clay. By junior year I was building life size sculptures in clay from a model. As I progressed, my hands were always in something and jobs exposed me to different materials and strategies; iron casting, welding, ceramic, flowers and the tools of large scale flower arranging, catering and food prep skills, wood, carpentry, glass cutting, needle skills, drawing, painting, cement forms ( I made fake rocks for movies in the 80s). From there, materials and techniques mix up. For example, inspired by a cruel break up I spent a year sewing rose petals together into a floor length gown. It started as a handkerchief, but I kept with it and managed to get every florist in my neighborhood to give me roses daily. By the time I was done I had a new life. Having something to respond to is my ideal.

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Katina Huston, rose petal gown, 1995, floor length gown made from rose petals sewn together with cotton thread, 24” x 72”. Courtesy of the artist.

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Katina Huston, rose petal gown (detail), 1995, rose petals and cotton thread, 24” x 72”. Courtesy of the artist.

What does your work respond to now?

Mostly I set up process constraints so I can have a lot of freedom in making and let go of ambition. This is accomplished by setting up situations to respond to, like an obstacle course. I hang objects from the ceiling and cast light through them, then make drawings from the cast shadows with ink flowing through forms.

Why is it important to let go of ambition?

Outside pressure prevents work from telling you what it should be as it takes shape.

You use many everyday objects in your work. How do you choose what to use?

I choose evocative objects that spark my imagination. Right now I need a piano and a lot of wallpaper (different projects). Sometimes I respond to what falls in my path other times I have to find stuff to play a specific role in an artwork.

What is the relationship between play and your practice?

If I didn’t play a lot I think it would be difficult to allow weird impulses to assert themselves. Hang shit from the ceiling? That doesn’t just happen. I show up in the studio every day. I am not sure how often it is play. I do a lot of reflecting in the new year which is when I consider my practice for the coming year. So, now is the time to build that into habit.

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Katina Huston, ascention, 2012, Ink on mylar, 42” x 88”. Courtesy of the artist.

What new habits are you building this year?

I hold back a lot. I want to get rid of that threshold.

Any advice for our readers about how to play in their studios?

I like the book Impro by Keith Johnstone. Read that. It helped me understand the friction between social norms and creativity. In general you have to actually invite people in and do bold things out in the world.

Ms. Huston lives and works in Alameda, California when she’s not traveling around the world. To learn more about Katina Huston and her work please visit www.katinahuston.com .

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