It’s often said that every artist can recall an early, transformative encounter with art or art-making. Often it emerges from the mist of childhood sensations as the first clear memory. In Seoul, South Korea, it was the tail end of the 1960s when Kathryn Stedham was born to a Korean mother and an American father, a G.I. stationed there after the hot war turned cold. When they soon moved to Georgia, though, and later to Virginia, the U.S. was still in the middle of the time warp of cultural upheaval we remember as the Sixties. At four, an age when most children are likely to eat their crayons or scribble on a wall, while national attention was focused on the Watergate scandal, Stedham remembers her grandfather giving her a piece of paper the size of a rug, on which she sat, absorbed in drawing his portrait. Someone pointed out that she’d omitted his glasses, and she quickly drew them in. “Aren’t you a good little artist,” he praised her, and although the words were new to her and she wasn’t sure what they meant, that moment forged an indelible connection between the world’s appearance, her response, and an audience. She never forgot how that felt, or deciding right then to be an artist.
If the broad outlines of this story of self-discovery are familiar, other memories hint of something darker about becoming an artist. In Korea, Stedham’s mother had been part of an affluent and influential family. In Georgia, she was isolated, struggling to adapt her traditional lifestyle to alien circumstances. Stedham recalls watching her hang fresh fish from a clothesline to dry, an experiment that failed in the humid air. The solitude and self-reliance she endured probably prepared her daughter for the life she lives today, where in spite of their common interests she and her partner, the popular landscape painter Gregory Stocks, spend their working hours as artists must, apart in their separate studios.
It’s also likely that as she watched her parents merge and realign their lives into a family—a universal struggle made more challenging by choice—the little student artist was discovering the importance of point of view, of placement and perspective, in how each individual experiences the world. Isolation drew the family together, and her mother reciprocated her attention by insisting that the family’s activities be as inclusive as possible. Instead of the motorcycle races her dad favored — dangerously anarchic events that required leaving the children in the car for their own safety — mom suggested they buy a sailboat she’d seen in a store window: something they could all enjoy. A sequence of larger boats followed, until when Kathryn was twelve they were living on a 36-foot Catalina. “I grew up on the water,” she says, her eyes sparkling like sunlight off the ripples: “My childhood was spent on the bow of a boat, drawing and watching as we came into harbor.”
Perhaps unknown to her, Stedham was learning to construct visual metaphors of her experiences from nature. In time, as the natural world became her passion, those metaphors became more self-referential. If her first subject was that quintessential emigrant experience of entering a new place from the sea, in time it would be the restless departure and return of the tides, the ceaseless movement of clouds hurrying somewhere else, or the turning of the seasons like a great clock marking the year’s hours. She became an enthusiastic hiker who found it hard to turn back, certain that some wonder lurked just around the next turn, waiting for her eyes to discover it or her pencil to reveal it. Incautious in her pursuit, she would be caught working on a beach in Thailand, the day after Christmas in 2004, when the catastrophic tsunami struck. Like millions who also barely survived, she lost everything: her studio and its contents swept away. A canvas from 2005, titled “Concerning Tides,” may indirectly respond to those events. Stretched atop a streaked green field, a band of brown, gray, and white marks march across the canvas, surrounded by a cloud-like yellow band. Usually Stedham suppresses the accidental pictorial bits that emerge from the layers of paint that build up as she paints, but here she allows her brush to suggest figures standing just beyond the limits of perceptual grasp. To one viewer they might suggest vacationers obscured by the glare of a sunny beach. To another they could be survivors comforting each other, or something worse: the lost, separated from living witness by an impassable void.
The temptation to read such things into her work is hard enough for Stedham to deal with without also worrying about what her audience sees. “I can’t control that,” she says. Her sister, seeking to interpret these characteristically alternating fields of calm, contemplative color—what Stedham calls her “let-go-of” spaces—and the energetic gestures that seem to erupt through them, chose to interpret them as depicting emotions. Feeling is a common response to abstraction—consider the viewers who stand weeping before the rectangles of color painted by Mark Rothko. But where Rothko turned paint into diaphanous veils of light, Stedham’s canvases insist on remaining works of paint, complete with brushstrokes and other painterly features like drips, smudges, and splatters. Commenting on the seemingly unstoppable advance of the computer into every area of human enterprise, making its universally small, flat screen the only window on the new world, she says, “We’re leaving behind a tactile world for an anemic world, losing scale along with tactility. I’m trying to put the paint back into the painting.”
So, if she’s not painting feelings or the things she sees, what is Stedham doing during the hours she spends in her studio? It’s a question she often tries to answer by describing the steps of applying layer after layer of paint. But if a process could explain its result we could all be painters. Assuming that she strives to discover, rather than to capture the revealing copy, what is it she is looking for as she paints? “My work is largely about the process of making associations,” she explains. Then, switching to metaphor, she compares it to a common experience: “We’re approaching something and not sure what it is. We have an inkling.” Due to distance, bad light, unfamiliarity—whatever—visual impressions often resist the brain’s normally mundane efforts to label them. Under the right—wrong—circumstances, that challenge can take long enough to for us to become conscious of it. Stedham says, “I work in that zone.” To that end, borrowing a concept from her daily Zen practice, she adds: “The biggest thing when I’m painting is being available to what happens.” Then she anthropomorphizes, transferring her agency to the result. “The painting is tenacious. It says, ‘That’s not what I want!’ You have to listen to the work. What I’m doing is listening.”
Biography helps understand a painter’s influences, but it can only go so far to explain her art. Among those childhood memories of Kathryn Stedham’s, one of the most vivid seems to point away from the direction she eventually took. Among her household landmarks were mother-of-pearl Hanja characters inlaid into her mother’s lacquered furniture. She spent hours poring over them, using a child’s literal imagination to project human figures and scenes into these complex signs that, being based on Chinese calligraphy, still carried the pictorial resonance that had been drawn from life millennia before to lend them meaning. She didn’t need to know that Korean consonants were derived from the shape of the speaker’s mouth before she assigned herself the apprentice task of tracing these Hanja onto paper and developing what they suggested to her into fully-realized vignettes. But through youthful practice, exhibiting her art year after year from high school on, art school in Atlanta and then West Virginia, teaching art in public schools and through her example as artist in residence, she turned away that most fundamental compulsion to find meaningful objects amid visual noise. Eventually committed fully to what is usually called ‘abstraction’—a nearly useless, catch-all label for a way of making art that each art-maker must discover and constantly re-invent for herself—she struggled to staunch in herself the impulse to find pictorial hints among her brushstrokes and develop those into something like those early vignettes. After three decades of exploration, she ended up ironically close to where she began, working with oddly plangent manual gestures, once animated by iridescent swirls, now brought to life in paint.
When T.S. Eliot wrote, in Little Gidding, “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time,” he could have had Stedham in mind. Before going to see her paintings later this month at the Evolutionary Healthcare Gallery, do this: imagine walking on a beach at sunset. The sun is so bright it takes great bites, as Georgia O’Keeffe called them, out of what it touches. Or the overwhelming volume, the glare of light reflected off wet sand, absorbs and devours mere things. Turning the other way, darkness follows, masking and melding what was clear only moments before. This, in its most visible form, is Kathryn Stedham’s subject matter. Not the sunset, nor the shadows: what she paints is the experience of being in the moment, on the cusp, between illegible impressions and the instant when what may be vaguely perceived suddenly makes sense. Most of the time it is the briefest of essential experiences. Only when we struggle to see, as when we stare into the distance or the dark, or open our eyes in an unknown place, are we likely to notice it. Yet it’s the purpose that our nervous system built itself to achieve, and the source of powerful rewards. It’s likely that, as the cognitive scientist V.I. Ramachandran hypothesizes, this is why we enjoy looking at art at all. Pictorial art shortcuts this process by starting out with something we’ve already seen. An artist like Stedham gives us things we haven’t, but which we all have the capacity to perceive. We gaze, we peer at the painting for a moment, and then suddenly what was visual noise resolves into a unity, a view. And the pleasure is extreme.
In 2005, although she felt, and still feels at home, in West Virginia, Stedham decided it was time for a change. Having traveled the globe in search of nature and the outdoors, she shifted her focus to what she calls “a new place to hang my hat.” She checked out Arizona and New Mexico, but found Utah the most appealing. While the landscapes inspire awe, it wasn’t so much their sheer beauty as it was the contrast. Compared to the homely “woods and hollers” she’d known, the vast space and open vistas grabbed her imagination and left her feeling they could contribute something new to her art. At the same time, Utah felt accessible, not least because of the strong arts community she found. Citing the Kimball Art Center in Park City and 15 Bytes, she anticipated feeling challenged not only by the sheer quantity, but by the high quality of art among which her own would hang.
Ironically, once she was ensconced in a studio at Poor Yorick, the challenge proved more daunting than she’d anticipated. Months of struggle turned into three years with nothing to show. Easterners, she felt, couldn’t even imagine the impact not just of so much space, but of such intense, direct light thinning color and sharpening detail. Even though she doesn’t literally paint what she sees, it informs her work. That her energies were diverted to the community that had attracted her in the first place made the struggle no easier. In 2007 Stedham became the Executive Director of Park City’s fledgling Spiro Arts and was instrumental in establishing its artist residency program and community outreach. She left her position with the organization in the summer of 2009, and has been painting daily since. Looking over the new paintings that finally emerged, she talks about how the fear of mistakes that can hold an artist—or anyone—back: “Nobody wants to be wrong. You can’t afford it. People are afraid to take a risk, but you’ve got to be curious to be a painter. And curiosity is freeing. It let’s you see your world—the one you built yourself.”
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.