A year after her first exhibition at the gallery, with a pandemic in between, we spoke with Katherine Sherwood about her ongoing series of “Brain Flowers,” working in lockdown and what to expect from her in the coming year.
George Adams Gallery: I thought we’d start with a little context: you only recently retired from teaching -
Katherine Sherwood: three and a half years ago,
GAG: - but you were teaching for many years before that. How has that adjustment been for you?
KS: It's been so smooth because I'm just spending so much time in the studio. I was never able to, except for the summers and the holidays, to really get in there full time and I just think it's fantastic that I have this time and have a place to show and I'm so motivated to make good work.
GAG: This year obviously was quite different for everyone, how did that affect your time in the studio?
KS: Well, I had a show scheduled at Anglim Gilbert in San Francisco in May and because Ed Gilbert was very much near the end of his life I was very - I wanted to continue to have the show. I wanted to a lot because it gave me a way to connect with him while most people didn't have that opportunity. And so because I was working towards that show anyway, I continued to do that for the first four months of the lockdown. Eventually the show went up in July and it went until the end of August. I was very pleased with it, but, it - obviously not very many people saw it. So anyway, because I was involved with that till July, I thought about changing what I was doing, but I felt like - after all, the paintings, especially the flower paintings, are so much about life and death and the brevity of life, I felt it was fine to go ahead and just continue working on those.
GAG: Do you think that, having spent so much of your time working on the pieces for that exhibition during lockdown, did that context affect the work you ended up making?
KS: You know, I don't really. I think I was just very concentrated on continuing the work that I had already begun. And in fact, I was working on two Venuses of the Yelling Clinic at the end and so those, both of those pieces, I worked on for probably two to four months. So it was just - I felt like - that I couldn't change in midstream and then also I just started thinking, “Oh, well.” I was in a show about resilience and standing up to the pandemic as well as you can and so that's how I also understood my art in a new context.
GAG: You mentioned thinking about moving on from your “Brain Flowers” series yet choosing to stick with them in the context of the pandemic. Do you still feel like there's more ground to be covered with those?
KS: Yes, because my work in San Francisco was not seen. I’ve been completely working on 17th century women artists and the work that they did, largely still lives. I want to continue that with my next show, but I want to - I'm going to do something a little different too, I think I mentioned to you before that I'm interested in doing disabled folks in the woods or in nature. And then also a long time ago I, well, it was when I was in graduate school, I did this piece called “Aggressive Women” that pictured women that were advertising for male slaves. And then the opposite, women saints that had given up their life for Jesus. So now I want to continue that series, and I have quite a few from, you know, back when I did them, and integrate into that series disabled women that can either be saints, or looking for male slaves.
GAG: I’m sure there are ads for those too.
KS: Yes. That's where I got them from - I got a little booklet from a porn store, a store in Times Square, that was all women looking for male slaves. But I called them both aggressive women.
GAG: What about that series prompted you to want to revisit it now, so many years later?
KS: When I - I almost said graduated - retired from Berkeley, I had a show there in their gallery and I reconstructed all of them on a red wall, because that's how the wall was originally. And I got so many people that really related to them and that obviously hadn't ever seen them before. So then I started thinking how I could include disabled women into them and bring them up to the present.
GAG: So do you still think the series is going to be called aggressive women?
KS: Yes. Yes.
GAG: You’ve, for the past several years, been focused heavily on art historical contexts for your work both as the sources for your paintings, but also the actual physical substrates that you're working on. Why do you feel this is an important part of the work and why have you continued to make it part?
KS: Well, I got those art history prints from the art department at Berkeley. They were moving their reading room to a smaller site and so they gave away all those art reproductions and they're really high quality in that they are backed by cotton duck, I just took as many as I could, not knowing what I was going to do with them. So when I started to work with them, it was so obvious that first of all, my attraction to art history - I was an art history major in college - and that I was just using all these back surfaces and I really like the way they are categorized. It seems difficult to understand, but then when you get it, there on the back, they have the artist's name written on the back side in large letters, then they would have like “E20th Matisse” but they wouldn't say “Matisse,” they would say “Ma” so that's how they’re categorized. So it just made perfect sense that my subject would be art historical, and that I would sort of riff on that and bring in the disabled context within the overall, my overall intentions.
GAG: You’ve looked to a pretty wide range of sources in these series, but more recently, you’re, like you said, you're focusing on mainly 17th century female painters. What about these women's work do you feel is relevant that you are continuing to engage with it?
KS: Well, first of all, many of these artists are just not known by the average art person, so it was a matter of rediscovering them or discovering them. You know, in the “Brain Flowers” too, in the beginning, they were all 19th century impressionist and post-impressionist painters, so it made sense that I would switch to another specific time in history. I was really attracted to how successful these woman were. Probably Rachel Ruysch is the most well-known of them. She's the only woman that I have researched that had children. She had ten children and she had to, for the sake of sounding modern, she had to pay for childcare. So she worked like mad and she sold her pieces for 750 to 1,200 Gilders. Rembrandt during his whole life, the most he sold a painting for was 300 Gilders. So that gives you an insight into how smart these women were.
Now in Northern Europe, the women were not allowed to do figures because they couldn't look at a person that was nude or - so that's why they were really, really attracted to still lives, and they really had a whole overlay of symbolism. So they were vanitas paintings and all their flowers were symbolic and also all their insects and butterflies. They saw butterflies as attaining redemption and all those creatures that roamed, that touched the earth were, for sake of another word, evil. So all those things were very attractive - alluring to me.
GAG: I noticed in some of the most recent paintings you started working after Giovanna Garzoni. She was, as far as I understand it, somewhat of an Italian equivalent to Rachel Ruysch, but her style is so drastically different. What drew you away from the Dutch painters to look to the Italian?
KS: Well, I was really curious to see how they were different and Giovanna Garzoni was a person that a local baker told me about. Her daughter’s an art historian and doing work on Garzoni. What I'm working on now is by a Portuguese woman artist named Josefa de Obidos and she did altarpieces as well as still lives. Her father was a painter and studied in Seville for a long time and she did do figurative altarpieces. So I'm working on one right now of a really large Venus figure and it's of the - originally it was the baby Jesus and it's all surrounded by a huge garland of flowers. So it's the first time I’ve gotten to do flowers and the figure in the same painting. I'm making - I'm converting the baby Jesus into the queen of the little people and I'm going to give her, you know, big breasts and other things that show she’s an adult versus a child.
GAG: What are you looking forward to, moving along from this year into next, both in the studio and out?
KS: I’m looking forward to showing in LA again, it was 2018 when I showed there before. I’m looking forward to taking the vaccine and seeing loved ones again and traveling again and I’m looking for new inroads into my paintings.
GAG: You had mentioned to me earlier this fall that you were thinking of setting up your own still lives. Is that still something that you're -
KS: Yes. With the 17th century still lives I've really made the brain flowers more colorful and so they recede from - the viewer takes longer to figure them out. So I'm also going to go back to my first “Brain Flowers” that were pretty much the colors of the scans, so that they're more obvious that they are what they are.
GAG: You still see them continuing to appear in all of these works, the collaging?
KS: Yes. You know, I - if somebody told me I would be painting flowers in my sixties, I would just think they were insane, but I just love doing them. I would have gone completely crazy during this whole time if I didn't have my studio and my daily practice.