Kathy Clark is a Korean-American artist who lives in Iceland. She has always been a maker, and she is the product of a family of makers: a painter and seamstress mother, an engineers pilot father who could build anything, and a sister who is also an artist in metals . Clark’s inspiration comes from many different places – she’s a frequent user of found objects and found materials – but all of it is born of a feeling or a message she wants to convey. Establishing a connection with her viewers is of the utmost importance to her. She says, “We’re always here to learn things from others, and from nature. We’re all connected.”
You’re in an American artist who lives in Iceland. How did that happen?
I went to a few different colleges after high school. I ended up doing my master’s at the San Francisco Art Institute. At the time, Icelanders were able to obtain grants to go to school abroad and there was a group of them that I became friends with and remained friends with for many years after. I met my husband at an Icelandic dinner party – he had come over to visit a friend. We met, and then we got married, and we lived in the Bay Area for nine years. That’s where we had our son. Then we decided to move to Reykjavik.
Do you speak Icelandic?
I don’t. I’ve taken many courses, but it’s very difficult, and [my husband] and I have spoken English since the beginning of our relationship. And we have an English speaking home. Also, we have an apartment hotel business, and when I was working there, everything was transacted in English, because of the tourists. I can understand a lot of Icelandic, and I can speak a little bit – I understand more than I can speak. And everybody speaks English. I still want to try and learn, some day…
Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?
I’ve always been creative. My mother is a painter. My father was a do-it-all fix-it guy. We always made things. We lived in the Chicago area when I was growing up, and it’s a very snowy place. In the wintertime, my sister and I – she’s a year younger – would always make things. Sewing, drawing, constructing things. In high school, I gravitated towards sculpture and painting and photography. I also had an affinity for children, so in college I majored in childhood education as well as in art. I’ve always had sort of a dual thing.
Did you use your childhood education degree after college?
After I graduated from college and moved to San Francisco, I was doing my art full-on, but it was very hard. I got some part-time jobs at schools and camps, and then I opened up my own Montessori school in Berkeley.
How do you start your own school?
When I was working at the Montessori school, I went through the Montessori teacher training program. You have to have a certain amount of years teaching, and then you have to get your credentials in order to have a school.
How did you do that and balance your artistic practice?
I devoted all my free time to art. And with my school, I made it so that I worked half days, and four days a week. So I had my art career on the side, and was having exhibitions and was involved in the local art scene.
Moving to Iceland must have been a big shift. What was that like?
It was really difficult at the beginning. I was away from my family, which was tough, because we were really close. And it was tough starting a life in Reykjavik. My husband was changing jobs. He was a graphic designer, and then he/we started doing these apartment hotels. All during that time I was painting, doing my artwork – I could never stop. I feel like if I ever stopped creating I wouldn’t be able to live. I have an urgent need to make things. When I’m not making something, I’m developing new ideas.
Do you develop whole bodies of work and then take a break?
No. I have many bodies of work going on at once. I have a lot of different ideas. I’ll do one thing, then I’ll go do something else. Each one is very separate, but they are all also related.
Can you talk a little bit about your process?
I have to have some kind of feeling or idea. There has to be some substance behind what I’m doing. It has to have some significance to me, and be something I want to say to the world. The materials that I choose are the ones that speak to me. I use a lot of found objects. One room in my studio is filled with shelves that contain found objects and found materials. Once I have my idea about what I want to do, I go in and see if anything speaks to me. It’s like my palette. If nothing speaks to me, I’ll go out and find something that will work. I go to thrift stores and pick up things, some of which I’ll use and some of which I won’t.
I sketch in notebooks and gather ideas that inspire me. They can come in many different ways, through characters in books, things in nature. Ideas come from all sorts of places. One never knows where. It’s important for me to be open and have my feelers out. I also like to write phrases, thoughts and feelings in my notebooks. I notice interesting exchanges or characters in people I meet or read about that also are springboards for ideas.
You said earlier that when you begin to make a piece, it starts from something that’s meaningful to you. Is that meaning personal? Political? Both?
I like to use metaphors. I also like to use objects, and animals, and sometimes I’ll create a dialogue between objects. I use a lot of text in my work. It can mean a lot, but it isn’t so specific. It’s open to interpretation, and the understanding depends on the person who is looking at the work. When you come down to it, all of my work is about human nature and about nature itself. I ask, “Who are we? What are we doing here?” The age-old questions. Then it goes to a more spiritual level. What are we here for? What is our role? What are we supposed to do in this life, in this body? Every living thing is connected.
Have you found any answers to your spiritual questions?
Be in the moment. Live your life as fully and as joyously as you can. We’re here to communicate with each other, and to learn and grow from one another. What makes you feel good? What is it inside of you that drives you, that gives you energy and passion and inspiration? It sounds corny, but it’s true. It’s an amazing life.
What are three ways you define success?
- Continuing to make more work and touching more people. Feeling satisfied at what I have accomplished. Sharing the work. Giving.
- Helping one person take a step forward in evolving her spirit. Making her think about who she is and where she’s going and whether she’s chosen the right path in life. Making her think about how she can use the relationships she brings into her life to better herself.
- Sparking something inside somebody. My wish is for the viewer to take the time and really think about the work. Most people just spend ten seconds on a piece of art. But if they take the time, I want to summon something inside them, something from their past, something deep, something that touches them, that might inspire them, that might awaken them. If I have done something to make them think about their life and where they’re going and who they are – if I have done one little bit of that in some small way, I feel that I am successful. When you inspire some kind of connection, it’s really wonderful.