From her garage studio, I caught up with Asheville-based artist Katie McWeeney and discussed on-the-ground activism, figures in space, family and writing. Amidst the twin pandemics we’re witnessing — COVID-19 and nationwide protests in solidarity for George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement — we reflected on the meaning of art and community in this time of isolation, refraction and anxiety, and how it can be transformative for communities and individuals alike seeking solidarity and strength.
In this time of international pandemic as well as nation uprising, personal expression and self-care can often be forgotten or suppressed as we grapple with the unprecedented events that infiltrate our news cycles every day. But even talking over Zoom, it’s easy and comforting to connect over art and this shared, absurd moment we are all experiencing, together yet apart. Read on to learn more about how Katie is visioning her art to become a platform for POC and minority voices, and more about her practice as an writer and visual artist.
Emily Conklin: You recently moved from Memphis to Asheville. How has the relocating affected your practice?
Katie McWeeney: It was a big move for my partner and me, as we moved to be closer to my partner’s father, who was quite ill and in a retirement community when we saw cases sweeping through communities like his. We have been caregivers first and foremost since October, and obviously the COVID pandemic worsened our anxieties. We also, of course, took our quarantining quite seriously, and I mostly have used the time to catch up on reading and writing. While I am now starting up my art practice again, getting into my garage studio daily (my favorite space in the house!) this stream-of-consciousness written work I’ve been putting my energy into has really helped silo my thoughts, from the move to the BLM movement to what it means to care for your elders.
EC: What sorts of ideas for new work has your writing process helped spark?
KM: The writing has sparked a lot of ideas about representing figures, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in response to the killing of George Floyd and others. When I was in Memphis, I was very involved in activism through my direct jobs as well as personal actions, and now more than ever in a small, mostly white city like Asheville, I’m thinking about the role of white artists, like myself. I use figures in a lot of my work, and have been revisiting charcoal studies, filling them in with color later in the process. But while this has been happening on and off all during quarantine, I am now rethinking it, seeing so many white artists creating portraits, for example, of the Black people whose lives have been taken by police officers. I see them monetizing these images. I just don’t think that’s a space for us to be in right now: it’s a space for POC artists to represent themselves and their community, and I am interested in how I can support that, rather than how I myself can mimic it.
EC: What projects do you think could help elevate POC voices during this movement?
KM: I’ve been thinking a lot about spaces, creating work that evokes a mood or idea without a figure being present, as a way of communicating without taking up inappropriate space. One of the ideas I had (that came to me through a stream-of-consciousness writing session) was if I was granted permission, I could draw or paint the interior spaces of people of color. There’s so much power behind the decisions of how to present your space, what is in the space, what’s missing. How the light is used. What things are occupying space. If I could use my artmaking as a platform to elevate these everyday decisions, I think it could be a really interesting project where my art is secondary to the voice or mind of the person whose space I’m recording.
EC: Has depicting space had a place in your practice before this idea?
KM: Yes, actually. I was an architecture minor, so I think a lot about the environments people spend time in, and a lot of my previous work has evoked the iconography of telephone lines. I think they’re interesting, as they’re physical, visible symbols of communication, and long distance communication at that. This is something that has particular significance during these times of COVID-19 as well as that of government surveillance. How do we show each other support or love or solidarity? Recently, the telephone lines have become more abstract, sometimes resembling contour lines like those on a map. I’m playing with those dividers of space in my compositions, and seeing what they bring forward.
EC: Do you see activism or political charges in your work to come?
KM: I think it’s always been something I’ve been interested in, because I’m interested in human connection. Specifically, I’ve been interested in female connection. I was adopted at birth, and I have always been interested in my relationship with my mother, and my lack of relationship with my birth mother. Activism seemed like a logical next step, and a project I worked on in school involved me going into strip clubs and other spaces to speak with sex workers. With their written permission, I asked them to tell me about a lot of their personal relationships: from family to friends to other women and their customers. They were some heavy conversations, but making art that deals with the stuff of human life is heavy. I feel like, coming from this place where I give voice to people who don’t usually have a platform, activism was a natural next step.
EC: While you’ve said you’ve been away from your daily artmaking recently, how do you think this time for family, reading and writing has informed your thinking towards this goal and future projects?
KM: I think that as an artist, right now is a really important time to be patient with yourself. I’m making a lot of time for myself to just think, to process the intense categories of thoughts and current events that are unfolding. Writing has helped me silo these ideas into distinct areas, and it’s allowed me to get to this current place where I feel like I have something to say, and I am working out the best way in which to say it, taking up the right kind of space and sharing it with others, too. There’s this concept of curation behind a lot of what I’m doing. I recently created an “art instagram” account that’s separate from my more “personal” account. On my art account, I follow people and things that inspire me, that uplift and inform me. I also publish my work there and save new ideas. My personal account is where I still follow old friends and those people who post pictures of their food. I think this has helped me stay focused, and inspires me to keep creating and rethinking my positioning.
EC: How have you been connecting with and creating your own communities during this time of quarantine and protest?
KM: Having just moved to a new place, my new community hasn’t really been built yet! I spent so much time being a caregiver’s partner, and have now spent a lot more time quarantining and trying to keep myself and my loved ones safe and sane. But my network in Memphis continues to inspire me to keep going, as well as supports me as friends and fellow artists do. We do the usual things — we Facetime or Zoom, or message each other over Instagram, comment on our posts. It’s amazing to see what the institutions that we worked for together are doing now: I have worked for a variety of businesses, but all in the cultural sector, working for art, artists and social change. From a film festival to a new vertical arts district and non-profits offering relief, I am inspired by those I’ve met and am grateful we can still stick together, even when physical distance isn’t possible.