Wavy Blades | September 2020
Rachel Kaye is an artist based in San Francisco, California. Her love of fashion and textiles has informed a meditative study in collage, pattern, and movement where her paintings come to life in vibrant melodies of color and shapes.
A conversation with Rachel from Plunge Rag Vol. 2:
PLUNGE: I remember taking your collage class at Case for Making ages ago. Do you still work in collage at all?
RACHEL: Every now and then. For a long time collage was always this thing for me when I felt I was stuck in painting or drawing. It’s like cooking in a way, it is immediate, instant gratification. I could make these quick loose things and then they would help me. For a while I would make paintings off of them, then they just became this way to keep myself active.
What is your daily practice like?
I’m probably in [the studio] on average 30 hours a week. Then I feel like things ramp up with a show. I used to be a night worker and I’m not so much anymore because I’m just tired from having kids and I want to get a good night’s sleep, but that being said when I have deadlines I’ll come here at night too and get extra hours in. Something that switched in the last couple years is the paintings and drawings clicked together. I feel like they were always two separate bodies of work and now I’ll make a lot of drawings that then I can scale up for paintings, which feels really good. I feel I have a line of process to get to the paintings.
So are you finding that you’re doing more painting than you ever have?
When I had that show at Part 2 [Gallery], I was definitely painting a lot and then Hawaii kind put the brakes on that, which was unfortunate because I had all this momentum.
Is that just because you were limited by your materials?
Yes. I just couldn’t bring canvas, I didn’t have a big enough space, painting is so messy… and just the functionality of making drawings. But I did make bigger drawings though which was cool in the sense of the scale being bumped up.
Do you find that your practice changes when you’re moving around a lot or traveling?
It just always goes back to drawing which is kind of my [default] and I feel like in some ways the drawing’s always stronger because I never stop. I love drawing but it is frustrating as a painter when I do want to push the paintings and I have to stop and go.
Do you think that’s why the paintings and drawing have meshed?
Maybe. I think it’s more when I started working in bigger blocks of color. For 10 years now I’ve been making these colored pencil drawings and they were so heavily patterned in the beginning, and then all the pattern slowly kept getting whittled out, and suddenly now the forms are more important, which makes painting more accessible for me. Painting a heavily patterned painting felt more laborious than gratifying, so I’d make one or two and be done. Now I see endless ideas in the paintings. I guess it took 10 years for the two to click for me.
I’ve noticed a lot of movement and emotion in your work and it often feels very lyrical. There also seems to be some allusion to music in your show titles, like Loop Melody and Song in a Room. Do you listen to music while you work?
I go through phases of listening to a lot of music and then for a while, like during the last election, I listened to a lot of the news and then I completely shut out the news and I’ve been listening to a lot of books. I guess when I look at the pieces as a whole, that’s when I start to think about the rhythm between them and the repetition of shapes and the movement that you see that’s the thread between them.
Can you talk about where some of your shapes and forms come from?
Definitely the environment… like for [Drawings from the Pacific at Sarah Shepard Gallery] I was in Hawaii -- I did all the work there so I was alway thinking about the place. Literally you look out the window and it’s just an incredible landscape, really cinematic. I usually make quick sketches, then when I find something I like, I start to really slow down and play and work out compositions before I get a drawing going. So there it was much more about natural environments, but before I was in Hawaii I would often find shapes in debris, like when I was working in the garden, or my kids cutting up stuff… it was really domestic for lack of a better word. [I was] always home and so that’s how far I saw things, and then [in Hawaii] I would go on a hike and I would see things. I sometimes photograph things but they never turn out how I like and I prefer the memory of remembering something, so I’ll try and capture a shape and then play around with it and it’s a loose interpretation of that memory.
There’s a nice inner-world-versus-outer-world conversation, and then you’re finding these really beautiful moments, studying them, and then working them out in your painting. That’s really lovely. In thinking back on your career as an artist, are there moments that you feel were really pivotal?
The JB Blunk Residency was probably the most pivotal, even though it was simultaneously a really hard time. It’s something that I think a lot about because my work did a major change around that time. When we got there, we’d landed in Inverness [California] from New York and I think it was really pivotal in the practice of just being an artist. We had a stipend, so I wasn’t hustling. Also, I grew up in the suburbs and always lived in the city, so being in a remote place changed me. I never knew how much I would love living tucked away in nature. But I didn’t really make anything big when I was there… major growing pains. Leaving New York coincided with my work doing a 180, so I didn’t know what I was doing, I was trying to make paintings; they weren’t working. And in the end, the last two weeks, I started making these drawings based off of an actual pattern. I made six of them or something and I left with, “I can do something with this”. Basically, those last drawings that I made, I still see as the thread to where I am now.
So it seems like the residency shook you up in a way that allowed you to explore.
Yes. I basically went there and was like, “I’m not making that work, but I don’t know why.” It was really stressful because here I am being told I can work and I don’t know what to do. Also, being there with [Jay] who is always super prolific, he was there and ready to work, he made a boat, he made a bunch of paintings. I would pretty much be in the studio crying, “this is so hard, is it done for me?” Anytime you read anyone’s autobiography, there’s rarely a case where an artist isn’t confronted with those moments. However when you are in it, it’s hard to see how you’ll get past it.
Totally, and those moments can be really important for the work to progress. Do you ever find yourself stuck now?
I’m lucky I haven’t been stuck for a while. Honestly, strangely, the pandemic was really productive for me and I’m excited for where the work will go next.
Do you find that you’re most interested in the process of making work or the outcome or something in-between?
I think both. Painting is so much of the experience of painting in itself. There are many moments in making a painting that can feel magical and unexpected. I’m so process driven in my practice that I need those moments to feel excited in the studio. Sometimes I know a painting is done but I’m not even sure I like it. I often ask myself how do I make a painting that has that same immediacy (as the drawings), and also have the medium integrity that I want — it sounds very “beginner”. But isn’t the goal to have that feeling, like a child who makes something with such immediacy and stops with the same fierce intention. The brain’s thought isn’t leading, it’s visceral.
It seems like keeping a “beginner’s mind” is really important to many artists I’ve talked to for growth, not getting stuck in a certain way of making, and not having an ego about being at some level where you can’t move backwards to explore new things.
People who are artists can think in a different way. They don’t think in yes-or-no answers. They don’t think something’s a failure because it wasn’t done right. You constantly are failing and that’s how you get on with it. To me being in that mind-state of learning is so valuable because it’s a fucking crazy world! And there’s not just “one way”.
Can you talk about your path to first becoming an artist? Did you go to art school?
Yes, CCA for undergrad. I never went to grad school… maybe one day.
Were you always creative growing up? Was there creativity around you?
I was but I was not a good drawer. My mom was always sewing but she’s by-the-book, and my dad was always fixing things. It was very practical, utilitarian creativity. I was obsessed with dance as a kid. I danced until I was 16 and then when I stopped, I was like, where do I put my energy? I had a really good art teacher in high school. I always liked those classes, but there’s those kids that have that innate gift of perfectly rendering whatever it is they’re looking at and I wanted to do that, so I started taking classes at community college. I’d go to the local art center and do all the figure drawing sessions, I was really formal in my training. I wanted to be able to master the figure and that’s how it all started.
Do you feel like you got what you wanted out of art school?
I think so. Some of my closest friends are people from the CCA, and I think so much of being an artist is finding community of people to support you because it’s such a lonely field.
How did you make the leap into a career as an artist after school?
I just always had a side hustle. It was always like, how can I make good money and not work full-time so I can be working in the studio?
Even then, were you always making art?
Yeah. It would ebb and flow. I’d have really prolific times and then not-so-prolific times. In the last three or four years I’ve just been really head-down and consistently making work.
Do you ever find it difficult to tell people what you do?
Yes. Something that drives me crazy is people will be like, “How did you get all this work done?” It’s a job. I work. So much about motherhood gets tangled into that too, which if I had a normal job, no one would question.
It’s so interesting because at the same time, being an artist is very glorified somehow.
There was a really good quote which I don’t know verbatim, I think it was something someone said to Picasso or something: be a freak in your studio, and just live your normal life… Which resonates because my life looks conventional in marriage and home life or whatever. But it’s not, because we’re both artists and are working for ourselves and making money… I could look at paintings all day. Painting is like… you start with nothing. It’s a complete illusion of the world. To me nothing is more interesting than making something out of nothing. I’m a painter’s painter in that way. There’s so much magic there and there’s a reason it’s still being made — because it’s endlessly fascinating for the maker. Maybe the work is nothing new in the history of painting and maybe it is, but it’s not about that. Sometimes the most interesting stuff happens just when you’re making the work, it’s not always when it’s a finished thing.
How does making art make you feel?
I mean, it makes me feel like everything. Some days, it’s really good and some days I’m like, “What am I doing?” Sometimes things feel really fast and then things feel a little slow. A lot of times drawing is really calming for me, grounding and centering. Yes sometimes, it feels like everything…
SINCE THIS CONVERSATION RACHEL HAS COMPLETED A MURAL FOR GOOGLE, HER LARGEST TO DATE. IT’S 32 FEET TALL AND WRAPS AROUND THE EXTERIOR OF AN ELEVATOR SHAFT. SHE AND HER FAMILY ARE HEADING BACK TO MOLOKAI FOR THE SUMMER AND SHE’S EXCITED TO MAKE WORK THERE AGAIN.
Find more of Rachel's work: