Katie Swietlik is a visual artist who works primarily in photography. Originally from Chicago, she now calls Oaxaca home. We caught up with Katie to talk about her current solo exhibition at Convivio.
I thought we could start by talking about the title of your show, Sketches to Feel Better about the Future (Bocetos Para Sentir Mejor Sobre El Futuro). Who do you hope feels better? Do you want to feel better by making the exhibition or do you hope the viewer feels better by seeing it?
As far as who I hope feels better, it is definitely a bit of both. When Convivio asked me to do an exhibition it was shortly after Trump’s inauguration (as POTUS), and I was in a daze. I felt immobile, like I couldn’t do anything, not just create, but I was having a hard time getting off the couch, peeling myself away from the news stream. The proposal of an exhibition felt like it was a perfect opportunity to give myself a goal and kind of force myself into productivity. It wasn’t an option; it had to face what was happening — politically and within myself emotionally as a result.
I started thinking about the “cube” piece first because that’s kind of the principal piece. It is part of the 500 Project where Jen and Gary (the founders of Convivio) invite an artist to create an artwork within the “cube”, the lightwell at the entrance of their space. The invited artist is given 500 pesos and total freedom to do whatever they want within the space. My immediate reaction to thinking about that space is the fact that there’s this big wall. It’s open on the three sides with the surrounding windows and then there is this solid stone wall at the back. With all of the outrageous rhetoric we’ve been bombarded with regarding Trump’s “great wall”, I thought of this very simple act of opening up the wall; breaking up the structure of the wall with a slice of sky, with this universal imagery of freedom. Then the title just presented itself; to use the act of creating to process the current times and in some way release it’s hold on me.
I thought that the work would feel angrier than it does; there’s a little bit of anger and frustration, but then the rest of it is more about letting go and trying to feel better or overcome or stay strong despite it all, trying to be resilient. I think I go through all of these feelings on a daily basis. Amongst my outrage and resentment there are times when I feel a paralyzed impotence and despondency and other times when I feel this is a historic moment where constructive change is sure to occur as we finally unite to fight for a common good. That’s kind of the worst part for me right now. Sometimes there’s so much hope and things somehow feel positive beneath it all and then there’s other days when it’s just like….”how?!”.
Also, just to touch on the fact that the title is Sketches or Bocetos to Feel Better About the Future. I’m always very –maybe too– thoughtful about my work, before actually creating it. I get stuck in this headspace of processing an idea and overthinking it, and then oftentimes I end up convincing or doubting myself out of making it. Giving myself the challenge of producing this show in a short period of time and on a very low budget was an opportunity for me to try new things, to be much more free, and so I do still think about these pieces as being sketches, as being a first draft for further developed work that could happen in the future.
Let’s talk about your sky installation. You mentioned that you used photos from Flicker, so I was wondering about the process of choosing the photos and putting them together. Also, what was it like to do a piece on such a large scale?
As far as the actual process, I went onto Flicker and searched cumulous clouds because I knew I wanted big, fluffy, idyllic clouds, the most positive sky image you could think of. I searched for the largest images available with Creative Commons licensing, so that I was allowed to use them. Most of them are landscape images, so after downloading the ones that I felt would work, I cropped the skies out of all of them. They are all sorts of different shapes. Putting it together was fun because normally when I’m working in Photoshop, doing post-production on an image of mine, it is a pretty standard workflow. But with this I got to play around with tools I rarely use and it was fun because it didn’t have to be so perfect, it kind of felt more free hand.
I like that when you look at this image of sky you can tell that it’s not a single image. There are clouds that are different sizes, slightly different tones, the light comes from different directions. But, at the same time it is likely that many viewers just take it in as this impactful display of sky. The reason for appropriating the photos, aside from the logistical aspect of needing a very large image, is that the sky is so universal. It is the epitome of omnipresent. I didn’t feel like I needed to make another image of the sky; there are so many out there, and it belongs to all of us.
Oh, the size…the size was insane. I never really understood the reality of the scale until I picked it up from the printer and brought it up to the terrace and rolled it out, and was like “That’s what seven meters looks like. Wow!” It was really exciting.
Does it inspire you to work more with that size?
I definitely want to continue to explore large-scale work. I’d been wanting to print on banner vinyl (lona) for a long time. One, because it’s this cheap, industrial, commercial material that’s so often used for photography, but in a very different means, and it’s durable. During the installation I was walking on it and dragging it along the ground, and it held up absolutely fine. And, it is weatherproof, which is the beauty of using it in that space and makes it ideal for outdoor installations. Working on that scale is interesting because you don’t really know what’s happening until you’re in the installation process. So, that was exciting for me because normally my work is much more straightforward. I see the image on my computer. I know the size it’s going to be printed in. It gets printed and framed, and there it is. The finished piece isn’t wildly different from what I have been been seeing on the computer screen. In this piece, that was not the case at all. The process was so much more suspenseful and really rewarding.
This piece, #bleedingandangry, obviously feels angry and the rest of them don’t as much. Going back to your title, could you talk about the need for there to be both beauty and anger in addressing how to feel better about the future?
This image of my bloody middle finger is very straightforward and graphic and feels quite aggressive. Anger is a valid emotion, and it is important to find a productive way to deal with one’s anger. It isn’t something that we should have to keep quiet about — nor is menstrual blood for that matter! I think sometimes as women, and especially in Mexico, there isn’t this space for women to be aggressive.
That moves over to the jean jacket piece, which addresses something that I think about often as a non-native Spanish speaker: the idea of language and masculinity, the role of masculine words in Mexican Spanish. One day it popped into my head, if bien verga is such a dominant expression, bien vulva is only three letters different. Three letters different, but an entire gender concept, and why can’t it have the same meaning? It’s funny to me that I decided to get it embroidered on my favorite old jean jacket, because I’m not a very outwardly aggressive person. I’m not particularly grosera and it is unlikely that I will adopt the phrase into my own language. Wearing “bien vulva” across my back is simultaneously a subtle wink and a bold statement. It makes me wonder who will understand that, seeing these two words together, seeing it as an exclamation, as a statement. Who’s going to make that connection? Because I think if you give it any thought, really it is quite obvious. But, this masculinity in Mexican Spanish is so common that it might be something that just totally goes over the head. I’m intrigued to see what sort of reactions I receive when I wear it out.
The next piece is “Ebb&Flow: You Can Always Count on the Moon.” I love that title, and I was wondering if you could talk about it.
Well, the moon will always be above us, and it will always be doing its thing. Regardless of what’s happening down on earth, it’s above all of us and that cycle of life is always happening. I feel like that is an idea that can give anyone a bit of hope. Things are continuing. We’re moving forward, and life is cyclical. This will pass…hopefully sooner rather than later.
For the two pieces in the corner, can you talk about what the images are and also your orange color choice?
I like the way the orange in these images works to pick up the subtle, warmer tones that are in the Ebb&Flow” moons, and the way that those moons are waxing and waning, and the two central circles in these pieces aren’t moons, but in a sense they do kind of function as a pair of full moons. The actual image (the central circle on the right) is my dog Huitla’s chest. It’s my favourite part of her. It’s the fattiest and the most delicious; it’s her sweet spot. That particular part on her chest is where she has just a few hairs, and they happen to be white, so there is this graphic element to it. I made this simple image to be included in the video that was playing during the exhibition opening and the orange shade I chose for the background is a tone from the tomato in another image used in the video.
This piece, titled Todo Su Corazón, really came together on its own, which was one of the beautiful things about giving myself such freedom while working on this exhibition. I made the right hand image for my video and there was never any intention that it was going to be a two-dimensional piece. I was about to print the image to use in the video and looking at it on my computer I thought, “I’m going to photograph the screen.” I had no idea why. It just called to me for some reason. I liked this sort of digital pixel gradient thing that happened. So, I printed a copy of the photo of the screen too. I got it back from the printer and noticed it had the little Photoshop magnifying glass in the corner, and I liked that surprise detail. I loved the way the two photos looked together, and it was one of those moments where I was just driven by the aesthetic.
In the piece where you are floating, the thing that struck me is that your body looks so calm and serene; and you are floating, but then the black around you is such a contrast. Talk about how you decided to surround the image of your body with black.
The actual photograph is of me floating at night, so it was a black background to begin with. It is a snapshot from 6 or 7 years ago and, to be honest, I have no idea how it popped into my head while I was working on this exhibition. I knew that I wanted to do a piece on fabric and the original idea when this image came into my head was to have my body floating on a solid black background; almost as if I was emerging from the fabric. I bought black fabric, took it to the printer, and learned that I could only print on white polyester. So, I rethought the whole idea and decided I wanted it to be much more painterly. The image that I originally had in mind was really graphic and really photographic. I wanted to go outside of my comfort zone. I wanted it to still feel like this dark, black expanse, but to feel a bit looser, to have more of my hand in the image. I wanted to use the brush strokes to mimic the shape of my body, like the ripples of the water.
Do the photographs of your neck have a title?
The actual photograph that’s used is a photograph that is titled Self-Portrait with Worry (Autorretrato con Preocupación). It’s a photograph that didn’t make the cut in a project that I was working on about three years ago. It is a photograph that I love, and I was hard for me to cut it loose when it didn’t work in my previous project. When I started thinking about this exhibition it seemed like the perfect time to bring it back out. Now it has become Self-Portrait with Mounting Worry.
It was another one of those moments where the process led me to the final piece. My original idea was much more the piece on the left, this stacking of the same image and really extending my neck and this sense of mounting, having it build and build. I decided to print them on sticker and decided that the best way to break it up in order to stick them all together was basically how they are laid out in the right-hand diptych. I got them printed and I liked the way they were just on their own, so simple and so graphic, but still with that idea of mounting and the building up of pressure or worry, but a bit more ambiguous than my original idea. It was such a surprise to print them out and think, “Oh this is practically done.”
Can you describe the next piece and tell me what it’s about?
That is an image that is part of the project Self-Portrait with Worry didn’t make the cut for. In the original project, the image was called Self-Portrait Letting my Emotions Get the Best of Me, and I felt that as a photograph it worked in this context. It brings in a little bit of the aggression again, but also the worry and this state of being overwhelmed.
That’s an interesting title. With your other pieces that have repeated images, you get a sense of moving outward, but in this piece, even though the images are repeated, the ink getting lighter makes it feels like the piece is diminishing instead of growing.
This piece is actually made up of photocopies. The image on the top is a straight photocopy of a small version of my photograph, and then, a photocopy of that photocopy and then a photocopy of that photocopy. With each step the image is degraded more and more. There is this repetition of itself over and over again and the disappearance of information, the disappearance of being able to read what the image is and being left with the sensation of what was there, what had happened.
For me, these three plant photographs are the most traditional in the exhibition. Can you talk about your intention behind them?
They definitely are much more traditional, or less experimental than the rest of the work. They are pretty straightforward, beautiful photographs of plants around my home. The image on right, of the cactus spilling out of its container is something I’d been wanting to photograph for a long time because it feels like such a symbol of resilience. It’s got this little recycled paint bucket for a pot, and it has managed to continue to grow and thrive and spill out of this space that’s supposed to be containing it. Every time I see that plant I feel like it is kind of cheering me on, leading by example. It is a beautiful reminder to persevere.
You put your #bleedingandangry image on stickers, and all the proceeds from selling those stickers are going to the United Nations Population Fund. Can you talk about that fund and why it’s important to you?
The United Nations Population Fund has the most beautiful quote at the beginning of their mission statement. It declares their mission of “Delivering a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled.” They do so much for women’s health, and it seemed like a great one stop shop in a way. There are so many organizations that can benefit greatly from our donations right now that it can be kind of overwhelming deciding where to send your support. For me, personally, it is important that the organizations I back have an impact in both countries that I call home, and the United Nations Population Fund has programming in both Mexico and the United States, as well as a total of over 150 countries worldwide.
Last but not least, I know you had your opening on April 14th, but can you give some information about where your work is, when people can see it, and how long the exhibition will be up?
Yes, please come to Convivio (Avenida Juarez #805, Centro), it’s open daily from 9am-8pm. The show will be up through June, until right before the Guelaguetza. Anyone interested in a guided tour can contact me directly via my website www.katieswietlik.com.
Thanks Aunt Mary-Ellen! Big hugs from Oaxaca! xoxo
Such an inspirational and meaningful exhibit Katie!
So proud of your accomplishments and making a difference for us all!