Occupation: Artist & Farmer
Website: Katherine Dunn
Biography: Although she received her BA in Art with an emphasis in ceramics, Katherine did not start painting until her late 30’s. When she did, she chose to work independently as a freelance illustrator for 9 years, working with national clients from her home base in Minneapolis.
But she knew she would eventually go the gallery route, and that yearning became more powerful after a Minneapolis gallery invited her to do a solo show in 2001. At the same time, her heart and soul were for some reason pulling her West, and she moved to Portland, Oregon in 2002 where she eventually met her husband, a landscaper. They now live on Apifera Farm in the Willamette Valley where they farm 3000 lavender plants, and raise sheep. She is grateful to be living out her dreams and internal myths.. Her work is shown in Oregon, Santa Barbara and Santa Fe. She also has a variety of print and card lines.
How did you start?
I was always a free spirit. I remember once painting my radiator in my bathroom with finger paints. My father was an architect, so we always had wonderful books around. I never really thought, “I’m going to be a painter”, I was more interested in being a vet as a child. I spent most of my time alone in nature. What is odd is I do remember not liking art class in grade school. I majored in ceramics and was forced to take one painting course for a requirement.
I got my art degree, but then fell in love with NYC and moved there, worked in a cheese shop, lived all over, got a job in an ad agency. I did the ” I’ll just work in a creative setting ” thing for years, architectural offices, design firms, photo assistants. Each job was fun, but I lost interest. And then, one night after moving back to Minneapolis, I stumbled on Bill Moyer’s interview series with Joseph Campbell, and within the next 8 hours, I had decided, “I will now be a full time painter”.
It really happened that way. I was 36 years old. I resigned from my marketing job soon after, within months sold the condo, bought a teeny tiny run down house, sold the car for a used one…It was scary, but fabulous too. I never looked back. Doors just blew open all around me. I got a national rep within three months, got some jobs…I was very fortunate as I never had to work elsewhere-but I had made sacrifices and got my overhead down. I was living in a 600 SF bungalow, worked/lived in 2 rooms basically. It was great.
Fears & Creative Blocks
My biggest fears are on a personal level – if I die will the animals be OK, what if one of us gets disabled, etc. I have fewer fears about my art and business – I think because I’ve done this for 10 years, and I lived through one really hard transition time after 9/11. ‘What’s the worst that will happen?’ is a good question I ask myself. There is a solution to every problem and I have power to choose certain paths over others. We all do.
Usually if I’ve been forced to ‘over paint” for a period of time, I can get burned out. For me, I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve learned to just stop painting for awhile and not worry about it. Different mediums allow me to be creative in different ways – gardening, farming, building things,training my horse. Nature, being in it and around the animals brings me back to balance.
What has been your biggest struggle(s)/challenge(s) with your creative career?
After 10 years of being a freelance artist, the biggest challenge is to keep on hustling the next project, the next chunk of money. For me, I had one really down time, about a year after 9/11 where illustration market had really dwindled. I had to reinvent myself a bit. I had been wanting to do more gallery kind of work, and it was a forced transition. The change in the illustration market over the past years has made me diversify how I sell art – I now have a nursery line of framed prints “Shepherd Girl”, paintings, illustration, several galleries, archive prints and now a new card line. I have had to work harder for less money than in the early 90’s.
Other challenges are finding balance and room for my art in the busy life of farming! I have never worked harder in my life! I have learned though, that there are times I need and allow myself to farm, or work with the animals and then I also need intense periods of art…But I am mellowing in late 40’s – and I am not as hard on myself when I’m not painting. “I should be painting” enters my head less and less – after all, fencing, building barns, helping lambs, nurturing the land, harvesting lavender – this is also my creation. I spend enormous amounts of time tending our little bird/rodent cemetary, creating hand painted tombstones for each…I get great satisfaction from this!
I also am challenged to allow myself to listen to my inner zone when I paint, and shield myself from gallery owners who say things like ‘You know, people really like the red ones” and they do this all the time, as they care about what sells, not what moves people emotionally]
Nature and animals are my muses. Since living in the country, I have never “lived” more – in that I am much more aware of the ‘chain’ here, the cycle, of both life and death- It’s more primordial here. Death/survival is everywhere here, right in front of you. It’s in the city too of course, but it is on one’s eye level here. I am inspired by the stories of the many people that are also in transitions and seeking balance in turmoils of life/work/the world. The many couples who have also left the city to farm for the first time. People that have ‘fallen’ and keep on re-inventing themselves, especially as artists. People that speak up without anger but with conviction and clarity are inspirations and role models – People not swayed by the majority, but who allow to dance their own beat even if unpopular at the moment.
Music – -all of it, generally, but anyone that knows me knows Neil Young has come to me many times through his music to lift me through something, above something to clarity, to the ‘zone’. He follows his own muse in a crass business and world, and creates no matter what, on his terms. I still list ‘Cinama Paradiso” as a movie that says something very important to me.
Invisible People: I met two women painters in my 20’s, they were both in their 70’s but they made livings as painters, and I thought, “someday I think I can do this”. 15 years later I did. We all make impacts like that without knowing. I love that.
My Work Environment
We moved to our farm in 2004 and my studio is a converted carport on the house that faces some of our pastures. 13′ tall ceilings and 84″ square windows give me natural light, and I look out at the pastures of our sheep, goats and horses. I am surrounded by fields and nature, the coastal range, smells of the farm. And we installed a gas fireplace which is wonderful in the rainy season. I have painted for 10 years, and this is my dream studio. It’s still being worked on, but it is wonderful, and gosh darn it, after many winters without good light or heat, I think I deserve it!
Hardest part of what I do
Well, I really am fortunate to do what I do. I know, because I did the 9 to 5 thing. I think this all the time, when I’m busy or slow. Working alone can get isolating. I have created a pretty nice network of freelancer friends. Isolation is one of the key frustrations I hear from them too. I was always a companion to nature even as a young child, so I am really used to being alone, and actually like it for the most part. But I do make an effort to reach out, get together for coffee or walks weekly with people. Email is a great way to connect and I love it. But it can’t take the place of a touch or a smile. I take my Pug to visit a 95 year old woman in a home to stay connected and grounded to what’s really important in life, which is very simply, love.
I try to be open, kind and helpful to people that email me asking for guidance. I have witnessed for myself that when I extend in kindness, it comes back to me. Many were helpful to me when I started. Some weren’t. Everyone has an opinion based on their assessments and experiences. I ask myself what my feelings are about something, and understand they might be different than someone else’s – it’s not personal.
I am not always good at choosing the right words for advice. I recommend you watch ‘Cinema Paradiso’ , read Joseph Campbell, ask questions, give and take, look up at the sky a lot.
Words of Inspiration
None of us really has the ability to understand our path until its over. Keep on rockin’ in the free world. Who says?