I wanted to share my dear friend's interview with me that she did for Surrealist week for Art History Class. Marty and I have known each other since we met on the first day of 3rd grade. I try my best to break down some of my Surrealist processes and influences. I'm a bit of a nervous talker, she deciphered my long winded ramblings into a cohesive format therefore she should get an A+!
Interview With Kat Shevchenko, Contemporary Realist
Kat Shevchenko is a Surrealist artist that I have known since I was 8 or 9 years old, so over 30 years. I have seen her development not only as an individual but as an artist. I had a conversation with her about her work and what inspires her. In her work, I can definitely see the influence of master Surrealists like Ernst (who she gets influence from), & Tanguy especially in her piece “Tragic Magic” from her color palette as well as the color graduation to the defined horizon in an infinite type of space.
Her work can be found at katshevchenko.com & on Instagram & TikTok @sphinxoddity
Was the decision to become a surrealist something that happened organically?
That’s a good question. I have to say it was very organic. I think there were already Surrealist elements in my work already just from looking at artists that I enjoyed growing up.
I remember that growing up you have always been into fantasy.
Fantasy and I think there was already that intense desire to explore beyond the surface reality of things already. So fantasy provided a really welcome doorway to that.
Surrealists were obsessed with the unconscious and methods like psychic automatism- Would you say that your unconscious or just kind of letting your paint brush flow, that sort of thing, do you think that those types of ideologies & methods influence your work? Or not?
Yes, especially in the pre-planning stage. I say the pre-planning stage, and the inspiration and brainstorming stage are where I draw the most from those tools & ideologies. It’s kind of like automatic writing or automatic drawing where you just doodle and you don’t have any end goal in mind, you just start sketching, and you just let it flow and see where it goes. Or I’ll look at patterns in things or if I'm just walking and I see some strange shapes like a shadow cast on a rock or a mass of some foliage & plants that looks like a figure or something. A lot of that, yeah, I’ll go and sketch out things. Or sometimes I’ll play with things like Rorschach inkblots & tests, those kinds of exercises. Or writing down dreams. It’s never a set plan. It kind of evolves from my day- day to day. A lot of it’s my responses to things. It just comes in and filters out in different ways, unexpectedly.
I just read that Miro used inkblots to develop works from.
Yeah, I like doing that with watercolor washes, too. Or laying saran wrap on top of wet watercolor or ink and letting it make weird textures, and then after it dries to look and examine and see if there’s any images you can pick out. It’s like looking at clouds. Decalcomania. I’m a huge Max Ernst fan. I love decalcomania a lot.
I saw some influence from Ernst in your work, but I wasn’t sure if he was someone that inspired you or not, & I wasn’t sure if you had ever used that technique.
I don’t do it too much. I’ve been very precisionist in my paintings. I haven’t done it as much in my oil paintings. I would like to. When I make a painting it becomes shaping it [ideas, dreams, current events, unconscious] into a concrete form & trying to translate those symbols into more of a narrative. And still, it comes out really cryptic! I’m never too straightforward, unless I need it to be more of like an illustration. In my personal work, I wanted to stay enigmatic. I’m kind of a control freak with my paintings. I used to paint real expressionistically and I just really wanted to learn how to paint representationally and the consequence of that was being less liberated. I didn’t want to use all the texture. But I want to be able to balance that.
What Surrealists would you say inspire you? I definitely see Ernst and also Tanguy in your work. Which could you compare your work to? What makes you different from other Surrealists?
Well, one of my huge inspirations would be Remedios Varo. She came across as a WW2 refugee and resettled in Mexico City. She was really good friends with Lenora Carrington. She [Carrington] was actually one of the last of the Surrealists to pass away recently. Her work definitely is a huge influence- she did a lot of decalcomania- but more of the fact that she created universe building and how she had her own style of
these figurative half-human hybrid animals. I remember when I stumbled upon her work in a book in a little shop and I was floored. What makes me different? I guess having the influx of more contemporary influences of more art movements, darker art, H.R Geiger was a huge influence- this is a difficult question!
No, I get it, from the development of so much artwork from the beginning of Surrealism to now, there’s so much you can draw from.
I think just even having different pop culture, different historical events- but I mean that could go for any artist, so.. and I guess maybe one of the main things that sets my work apart I feel like my style has always been in flux. I wonder if that’s a weakness? You always hear “Artists have to have one style.” I feel almost like I am multiple different artists in one body. I like a lot of different things. In everything like my taste in art and music I don’t like to keep it too confined, you know? I like science fiction, I like dark art, fantasy, Surrealists, visionary, low-brow, I feel like art is freedom and I don’t like to limit myself. I want to keep exploring and I don’t want to have this stamped trademark. I guess the downfall is that people aren’t going to say “Oh, that’s a Kat Shevchenko” [laughs]
I don’t know if it’s because I’ve known you since the beginning, but I can definitely tell your work apart.
If you could say which of your pieces exemplifies or depicts your journey as an artist best, which would that be?
There’s some stuff in the mid-2000s I did that I feel like came to a head- I felt like I hit my own milestone of being able to say what I wanted to say. I was really happy about it, you know? Compared to when I started trying to seriously study painting I was really having a hard time, I would just make swirling blobs versus going like “Hey that looks like a flower.”
There’s “La Mystica” and then there’s “A Beautiful Poison”. La Mystica I feel was a good bridge.
“A Beautiful Poison” is in a setting and it’s very straightforward in a setting where the elements are very “of this world”, but “La Mystica” was the first time I broke through where I felt like I started to give myself permission to step away from a defined space where there was “Sky, Earth, ground- that exist in this void space” and I just started to paint the elements in an undefined space. I gave myself permission just to do that.
I had wandered away from painting figurative work. I just did symbols from the animal world, flora, fauna, went down this tunnel of researching arcane symbols for the meanings of different plants and flowers and was trying to weave narratives through that. I enjoy the natural world and I didn’t want any human element in my work for a long time. And with that piece [“La Mystica”] I hadn’t painted semi-realistically in a while. I did the portrait in that plus adding the different organic abstract elements of shapes expressively collaging that protean space of subconsciousness but having it be cohesive- things just got weirder and weirder from that point. [laughs]
Walk me through the creation of a piece from inception to fruition in the simplest way.
Let’s say I walked on the beach one day and I saw a milk carton in a pile of seaweed and said “Hey, that looks like a face with all these tentacle things coming out of it, cause of the seaweed.” I see something random like that. I’ll draw a little sketch in my sketchbook to file it away for later. So finally when I was working on a series, I went back to that image and I did a drawing from it. I created a drawing to figure out how to convey the figure. Like a tryptic or a single...Oil paintings will be gessoed on wood panel, I prefer wood panel above all to work on because of the smoothness. Sometimes I’ll trace the drawing on drawing paper and I’ll trace it with tracing paper. And I’ll use transfer paper and I’ll trace the drawing and transfer it onto my painting panels. And then I’ll ink the drawing and that way it’ll stay and show through. I’ll put on a wash or a layer of like red ground (a base value color) I was using red earth, I’ve changed, and now I use black.
What’s the difference between using red or black?
Black is gonna have more drama and the red earth ground is very “old masters”, traditional. Some painters use white ground, you know, painting from dark to light. But when I’m working from a colored ground I’ll work in using white paint I have been using a fast dry white oil paint. Now that I have digital, I can plan it out. I used to do color planning by hand, but I have an Ipad so I can color out my whole painting and see how I like it. And then once all that’s done, add in my colors, color glazes, layers, and layers. It goes really fast in the beginning, but in the last 15-20%, those details seem to take forever. You work all day and it feels like you haven’t really done anything. Ideally, you have to step away a lot. Cause you get too close. And you gotta rest your eyes cause I see stuff that I come back to later and I’m like ”OMG why didn’t I see that?” Or “Oh, I hate this!” Or “This isn’t as bad as I thought”.
Example of white egg tempera underpainting on a toned ground before color glazes