Recently I was fortunate to sit down with artist Katie Pfeiffer, and discuss her background, art, inspiration and the connection of spirituality to the creative process.
How would you describe your work?
My paintings, drawings, collages & designs are a mixture of naive sophistication in a folk/outsider/art brut style. I love children’s art because it so free. I combine that freedom with what I learned in art school.
The subject matter of my art is constantly changing. I focus on issues which are personal; problems with other people, my fantasies, obsessions. I use art as a vehicle for therapy or working out my emotions in a safe way.
How, when & why did you begin making art?
My art style just happened as soon as I started art school at the age of 21. I had a really horrible experience in junior high school. I was required to take art class or wood shop. I chose art. The teacher would routinely humiliate me in front of the class when my art pieces (craft projects like a tie dye pillow or a stained glass window) wouldn’t look “perfect.” I received many Ds and Fs in the class. I did not attempt to make art again until I was 20.
I was studying film analysis and creative writing at the University of Oregon (Eugene) in the mid 80s. I had a huge crush on a guy who was a sculptor and wished he liked me. I started making celebrity collages; cutting out photos of celebrities from PEOPLE magazine and then drawing these weird figures with colored pens and humorous captions. My early collages were very James Thurber-esque. I basically started making art because I was bored and I found the collages to be funny.
I left U of O after two years. I was getting straight As in the graduate level film analysis classes and I felt uninspired. My initial dream was to become a female Roger Ebert or Gene Siskel. I also loved celebrity gossip so maybe a female Roger Ebert/Hedda Hopper is a better description of what I wanted to become. I applied to transfer to UCLA film school but didn’t get in. I left U of O and moved back to Palo Alto.
I spent the next year feeling lost as I worked at a temp job. All the while, I continued creating my secret collage drawings. My parents found them and said I should take them to an art school and see about applying. I was on the verge of applying to cooking school when this happened. I went fro an interview at SFAI ( San Francisco Art Institute) to just show them my portfolio. I figured they would laugh at my art and kick me out the door. Instead I ended up getting accepted to the school on the spot.
How has your artistic style changed over the years?
It has basically come around full circle. I started out making collages with drawings as I just mentioned. I’m still making collages along with my straight paintings and drawings. I go through phases in which my personal life really seeps into my work. I then get self-conscious and will pull back and make art that is more general; paintings using my pets and flowers. The emphasis on color and humor have stayed the same although I started making “ugly” paintings about 6 years ago. The “ugly” paintings are about working out my negative emotions or dealing with negativity.
How do you visualize a new work and begin the process of creating it?
Something usually sets me off. I’ll be looking at another artist’s work, watching a film or even looking at illustrations in a book. I will be simultaneously be dealing with some issue or person in my life and the two elements begin to fuse.
I always carry a sketch book with me wherever I go so I write down humorous titles, make sketches and write journal entries. I use my sketchbook with the sketches and text as the basis for the actual art. I have to play music when I paint and draw. We always had music playing in art school in the studios.
What mediums do you work in , and do you have a favorite?
I mainly use acrylic paints, ink, crayon, pens (paint) and pencil. I love using gouache and glitter paint and the paint pens which give me a wonderful control and help me with definition. I hope to start painting with oils in the future. When I was in art school, the paint pens did not exist. I remember a teacher getting annoyed with me in a beginning painting class because I asked about using magic markers.
What do you want people to feel when they experience your art?
I want them to think, laugh and feel happy. When looking at my dark and disturbing self-therapy paintings I’m always hoping for someone to relate ( to my experience).
I don’t talk about the meaning of my paintings much which can lead to assumptions and misinterpretations. I have a story of a painting I listed on eBAY called “DETOX NUDE (getting the toxins out)” and it depicted a nude woman, her head bent leaning over a toilet. It looked like she was about to vomit. The woman who bought the painting was telling me she had to have the painting as she had personal issues. I’m assuming she meant bulimia. The painting was actually about me getting rid of the negative people in my life; not bulimia.
Where does your inspiration come from? What recent experiences have you recently had which provoked artistic ideas?
Inspiration comes from everywhere – films, children’s books, nature, fashion, magazines, other artists, my pets, my problems, my fantasies and obsessions, my spiritual pursuits. Basically I have come to realize that everything and anything can become art. Recently, I have been obsessed with symbols relating to protection from other cultures and the idea of spiritual cleansing.
Are there contemporary, or historical artists, or artistic movements which have influenced you?
Tons. I love the Ash can painters- William Glackens, Robert Henri, Everett Shinn, George Luks, John Sloan, Arthur B. Davies, Ernest Lawson. They all studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art and started the realistic art movement.
I’m extremely fortunate to live 10 minutes from the current Barnes Foundation (which is moving to the Parkway in Philly). I love (Chaim) Soutine and Dr. Barnes has several of his paintings at the foundation. The Barnes has one of the best collections of art in the world.
Niki de St. Phalle, Ernest Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde, Odilion Redon, David LaChapelle (l love kitsch). Pierre & Gilles, Raoul Dufy, Matisse, Picasso, Japanese artist Seiji Fujishiro – his paper cut outs are amazing and he is still alive in his 80s!
Francoise (children’s book author and illustrator- she wrote one of my favorite books called THE THANK YOU BOOK. Her folk art simplistic illustrations are wonderful!). I love Frank Asch’s first children’s book called I MET A PENGUIN – the illustrations in that book are very Cocteau-esque. He depicts people with penises in the book and I don’t know how he got it published as a children’s book but it was 1972 – the height of the Hippie era, Vintage Walt Disney films like FANTASIA, SNOW WHITE and BAMBI, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Justin McCarthy, Takashi Murakami.
Most recently the works of James Castle ( they had a big retrospective of his work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art). I saw the show 4 times which is a record for me. I became totally obsessed with his work.
The best art show though I ever saw was about 10 years ago at the Museum of Natural History ( New York City) it was a show about the history of Voodoo. It was mind blowing. In one room they had constructed altars to some of the big Voodoo Gods. People had thrown money, candy, gum cigarettes and bus passes on the altars for good luck.
I love Haitian art and own several paintings by famous (dead ) Haitian artists. I’m mesmerized by religious art too – especially religious folk art from all religions. Victorian gothic, sandpaper paintings made by unknown young girls in New England in the mid 19th Century,Victorian mourning art, Mexican art. I love Hindu art and Tibetan art too – anything that depicts deities. I love art done by children. It is honest, raw and free.
Are you drawn to work similar or very different from your own?
Usually I like work that has some kind of connection to my work or moves me personally. Humor is something I always hope to find. Maybe that’s why I can even find artistic inspiration while watching PEPE LEPEW cartoons. I appreciate artwork with soul.
You have a done a series of paintings inspired by the Dalai Lama. How does your spirituality connect to your artistic life?
My spirituality is a huge part of my life and is directly linked to my artwork.
I was born Jewish but my family never followed the religion except we always celebrated Passover. In art school, I had a profound spiritual awakening during a weekend art retreat at the Marine Headlands. We were there for the weekend listening to Robert Monroe hypnosis tapes to increase our creativity. I ended up becoming a psychic. I ended up giving readings to the other people. I would just look at someone and see pictures of their life in front of them. Everyone at the retreat was freaked out but fascinated by instant intuitive awakening.
I also had a friend in art school whose father is a Zen Roshi (priest). My friend was someone I always looked up to. He was always calm and happy and would take life in stride. He meditated every day and lived his life simply. Back in the late 80s, I attended a birthday party honoring his Holiness (the Dalai Lama) in Berkeley. I then got to see him in San Francisco at a ritzy dinner. I secretly hoped back then I could see more of His Holiness. That was one of my main reasons for moving to the East Coast.
In 1998 I started volunteer at events for His Holiness and attending meditation retreats. Being around Buddhists and His Holiness has made me a better person. Since everything in my has the possibility of becoming art, I have turned a few of my Buddhist experiences into paintings. Recently, I got in trouble for this by a well known Buddhist group. I was initially upset and then I realized they did not understand what I was doing. I see my art as being very Buddhist; I have a problem or negativity or longing for someone. I make a painting, then let it go.
I consider His Holiness one of my spiritual teachers. These days I am trying to look at everyone who crosses my path as a teacher to me.
What do you think is the role of art in society?
To educate and enrich people’s lives. The question brings the subject of Pearl Fryar to my mind. Mr. Fryar worked his whole life in a canning factory in South Carolina. He asked a local nursery if he could have some dead plants they were throwing out. Mr. Fryar with those “dead” plants became obsessed with transforming his three acre property into a Topiary wonderland. He never had a an art or botanical class in his life. He just was fueled by his passion and love to make things grow. To me, this is something good art does; to inspire others to look within themselves and open up to their creative potential.
What are you currently working on?
Currently I’m making t-shirts and designs for underwear. I’ve been actually working on a screenplay and a personal essay. I’m planning a new series of paintings based on getting “unstuck” with astrological references. I have a lot of planets in Taurus. I tend to get stuck. I refer this as “swimming in peanut butter”.
Where can people see and buy your work?
At KatiePfeiffer.com there are links to all the art sites where I sell my work. I also have a Zazzle store where you can buy clothing and accessories imprinted my designs. I usually have a physical gallery show somewhere approximately once a year locally.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Yes! Time and energy are the only things we really own. Strive to be happy and kind. I try and remind myself of this everyday.
Please visit Katie’s website, www.katiepfeiffer.com.