HAPPY. HERE. NOW: TRANSFORMATIVE WORK OF KATHLEEN REICHELT
Kathleen Reichelt, is easily one of my favorite modern artists practicing in use of word, sound and image. Her paintings are visually dazzling, expressionistic with an impressive detailing of color; at once warm; but brilliant brush work, which figuratively creates compositional and textured musical effervescence. Her fine art background includes work as collage and mixed media artist. Essence of much of her creative output revolves around her work for the stage and partnership with filmmaker, Wes Rickert. Based in Canada, Reichelt is involved in body of work which is somehow part of an evolution, making use of complexities of language and philosophy, perhaps contributing to an art revolution, experienced in moments; but echoed internationally.
Kofi Forson: Kathleen, nice to chime up again. First and last times I saw you were at poetry venues. First time was at a Three Rooms Press Maintenant featured reading at the now defunct Cornelia Street Cafe. I’d like to go down memory lane with you. First, if you can, talk about your connections with Peter Carlaftes and Kat Georges and their publication, Maintenant. What has been your collaboration with them over the years and if any, your lasting impressions of Cornelia Street Cafe?
Kathleen Reichelt: Thanks, Kofi! Great to exchange ideas with you! I know Peter and Kat as writers, theatre artists and the powerful force behind Three Rooms Press. They publish Maintenant, the annual journal of contemporary Dada writing and art, and my collages have been included in the past four editions. The first Maintenant launch I attended was at Cornelia Street Cafe, where we met in 2015. It was a small theatre space with the signature red curtains and elevated stage. I remember that night was full of shenanigans, exciting and absurd performances, costumes, dadaesque and surreal. Poets and artists were there from New York, San Fransisco, and a dancer from Russia!
Forson: Last time I saw you was at my co-featured reading at Great Weather for Media Sunday Open Mic and Feature at Parkside Lounge. From what I remember the poem you read touched on the themes of women and fire. What about element of fire that serves as crux of fight and defiance which women have had to come up from under; perhaps fight for equality, freedom from male dominance? Is this represented in female psyche and sexuality, as well?
Reichelt: Yes! The poem I performed at Parkside Lounge this past spring was “I know girls with heads on fire”. It’s homage to artists, grandmothers, women who are fierce. Women who defy expectation of niceties and putting others at ease by speaking out, standing up and defending each other.
Forson: Who were women behind inspiration for this poem? More so commercially, what women of fire have inspired your poetry and art?
Reichelt: Since I was a student I’ve been researching women who lived their lives as artists, and two of my earliest discoveries and role models of Frida Kahlo, Emily Carr and Georgia O’Keefe are in the poem you mention:
who arranges her hair with flowers
making friends with a monkey on her shoulder
painting orchids and skulls
in the red earth west
Forson: Would you say the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s had more women who channeled element of fire as theme in their art – Yoko Ono, Karen Finley, Kathy Acker, to name a few?
Reichelt: I don’t know if those decades had more women channeling elements of fire as theme, but the women you mention certainly are fierce, as is the work they present/ed. They paved the way for many of us by using diverse and challenging art forms to expand on ideas of what an artist is and does. Yoko Ono is still challenging audiences. There is a video of her performance at the MOMA in 2010 for her solo exhibition. She was about 75 years old when she performed this and I think it’s completely on fire!
Forson: Without getting too political, what is heralded conscience of women in politics to enable force for female creativity and self-empowerment? Should we expect more from Hollywood as well? Certainly #metoo movement in so many ways is example of cause for women to hypothetically breathe fire.
Reichelt: Passion is our force. We enable ourselves and each other with it. Hollywood is big business and I don’t find a lot inspiration there for art making, but its enormous influence on our culture is undeniable. The #metoo movement shines a light on rape culture and the reality women face daily. Not just in the film industry, but all over the world.
Forson: I’d like to focus on your work as fine artist; first as collage artist, mixed media artist, then Abstract Expressionist.
Keeping with topic of Maintenant, talk about your collage piece for Maintenant (10); Where It Grows, Paper Collage, 5” x 4” inches, which deals with cultivation, agriculture and growth and Maintenant (11), This Is Not Gravity, Collage on wood panel, 8” x 10” inches, faux pretense of time.
How did you incorporate themes of warmth/hunger (doom and gloom), as well as theme of exposing a lie, into these art pieces?
Reichelt: Where It Grows, is a forest and garden of words and images. The need for ideas and freedom to grow them becomes more and more evident as progressive ideas and the desire for knowledge in our society declines. This Is Not Gravity is a collage on the theme Eye For A Lie. I started by focusing on the hands of figures. Hands folded, hands covering eyes, pointing up, and in two cases resting on shoulders of others. We gesture, create and reveal with our hands. And in placing the figures the way I have, systems of hierarchy, time, and direction are portrayed. Systems considered true, or correct, because they are familiar.
Forson: What is origin behind your work as collage artist?
Reichelt: For the past 4 years I’ve been exchanging mail art with the NYC poet and collage artist Steve Dalachinsky. His passion for working in this medium is very motivating for me. Prior to our exchanges I was much more focused on painting in my visual art practice. But when his work arrives, with a wonderful hand-written message on the back, I feel creating and exchange in a very personal way. He is an inspiration of an artist who is “by does by being”. Creating collage has also led to exhibition, including the annual postcard show at A.I.R. gallery in DUMBO, which is a fundraiser for the feminist based art gallery. Collage is a kind of drawing that informs my assemblage, sculpture and installation pieces.
Forson: Talk if you can about making a piece of collage art. What is process for gathering materials and actual detailing of the work?
Reichelt: Used books are great starting place for materials. “Coffee table” books have high quality printed images, and are the best for creating work that won’t fade. I also use piano rolls that once belonged to my great grandparents. I look for paper that is durable, archival and rare. As for process, for me there are two ways to cut paper: with or against the line. Cutting with the line is the easiest, but figurative. When I’m creating abstract collage I have to find ways to see the photograph differently than it was intended by the photographer. Collage is a modernist tradition and abstracting the photograph in the cut is a contemporary approach.
Forson: Your mixed media pieces include found objects and items manufactured sculpturally from plaster. There’s theatrical sensibility, compositional, curated and arranged as segments for stage production; particularly, the piece, Ellipsis, 7” x 7” x 3.5”, mixed media 2017.
With its inclusion of stage lights and photographic negative; this must be portrayal of your other existence as theater adventurist.
Reichelt: Ellipsis is one of my smallest sculptures. It’s a memory piece about my grandfather, using the things he held onto, that he had tucked away in a drawer. The objects I used for this assemblage include a film negative strip, bulbs, an ammonia inhalant, key & unidentified metal which is holding an eraser. Cinema was forefront in my mind when I created this, as my grandfather loved movies. But the erasure might be the most important object in this piece in the greater context of art and word/image play. One definition of ellipsis is as a cinematic term where periods of time or events have been left out of a narrative.
Forson: One Measure of Present Tense, 6” x 6” x 12”, mixed media 2016, works as stage prop. How is intimacy of tea cup and saucer, measured as momentous act; hence, imagined in present tense? Is art-making much like living mainly about what is captured in the moment?
Reichelt: Balanced on the upside down leg of a chair might have us think about uprightness, upside-downness, Alice in Wonderland. Served in this way it might be momentous. Certainly there is playfulness and absurdity, and a ribbon coming out of the cup plays on the double meaning of present. “Life as gift?” Art in the moment, yes!
Forson: Given the stage and framed pieces of art, do you live existentially and somehow eternally from these boundaries? How does your art live and dwell in the beyond?
Does it take from there; meaning does prescience and fore-sight, enable you to dream the art before putting it on paper, or is it more about whatever happens, happens in the moment; hence a surprise?
Reichelt: When I was a kid I wanted a doll house, so my mother gave me materials to make my own. It ended up being a set. After building walls and furnishing the room it didn’t make any sense to add a roof and box everything in. You can’t see what’s going on as well. Rooms and spaces are stages. Maybe you walk into a room and question why it’s set up the way it is, and why it’s filled with the things it’s filled with. Spaces become something to play with and change. Hugo Ball said art lives in the gap, and that’s usually where I find the jumping off point from doing what I’m doing into oh, that! So, yes, it is a surprise when that happens. The gap comes while I’m already moving, while I’m trying to do one thing and realizing it’s this thing. It’s recognition of what it is that’s important.
Forson: You are also known for your painterly and visually amazing abstract expressions. There are obvious impressions of Joan Mitchell; but certainly these images are modernistically rendered, allowing for your whimsy and colorful imaginings. Where do you get your sense for color? Are these inspired by textile designs, nature or an inner dialogue? They are quite emotive.
Reichelt: Thank you, Kofi! I’m fascinated by the way colour changes in relation to other colour. I look to the modernist masters for inspiration, but also contemporary colour in my everyday life. Daily impressions in nature and the virtual world come together in the studio, in the mixing and application of paint. A lot of overpainting happens to get the right relationships between colours. That’s what’s most important: the relationship between them and how they make me feel.
Forson: Share if you can your experience at Ontario College of Art and Design.
Reichelt: I was very excited when I got accepted into art school, and to learn directly from artists who were practicing, teaching and showing their work in the city. But prior to moving to Toronto, I studied Cultural Studies at Trent University. I was taking classes in art history, film and critical theory, while working directly with artists in the community in theatre, writing groups and visual arts. My time at Trent had more impact on my overall artistic practice and developing philosophy.
My time at OCAD affirmed my ability to study independently while continuing to learn from other artists.
Forson: What is history of your transformative persona for the stage? Where did it come from; childhood trauma? What was your initial introduction to theater?
Reichelt: I owe a lot to having creative parents who took me to see musicals and concerts when I was young. I didn’t really get into theatre until secondary school and before that I tried desperately to turn all of my friends and cousins into actors. Even later in life I wanted roommates to play instruments or be in a play. Maybe this was informed by growing up in a house where my mother wrote poems and stories, and my father painted and practiced photography, and later calligraphy. They worked, but they understood and demonstrated the importance of play. My parents did projects together, took classes together, though my dad wasn’t as interested in dance as my mom. She took classes on her own, performing on stage into her 70s. More than trauma, I think my pursuit of stage and art comes from their positive examples.
Forson: What forms of theater have you applied to your work? Who and what is your theater muse?
Reichelt: The stage is very present in my visual art and writing. It’s something of a theme that is revisited in installations, assemblages, collage. I’ve been writing and creating theatre for over two decades and very little of it has been commercial work. My very first play, which was a two act comedy, was probably my most viably commercial stage play, but since then I’ve experimented with devised theatre, performance art, learning from classical and contemporary artists alike. Sometimes I write for the sound of words or work with an artist in gesture. I also write scenes between characters, starting from psychology and philosophy.
Forson: As someone based in Canada, how have you been aware of burgeoning theater practices from recent history? Do you think of Chicago’s Steppenwolf? New York City’s Wooster Group?
Reichelt: The scene in Canada is smaller, like our population. But thanks to our virtual connectedness we’re all rapidly exchanging ideas. It’s amazing that we can connect with other artists around the world. What an exciting time to make art! Wooster is doing cool things in autobiography and text interpretation. There are artists in Canada doing this kind of work too, in both film and on stage. But the audiences and support systems for that kind of work are much, much smaller. Even in a city like Toronto.
Forson: As someone who channels female creative spirit; who is your source of female creative empowerment in literature, music and art?
Reichelt: If there is a channeling of female creative spirit it comes from other artists.
Forson: Along with your partner, Wes Rickert, you have collaborated for the stage as well as screen.
Please share strength in your working and personal relationship with Wes. How did you first meet? What was and has been circumstances for your collaborative work?
Reichelt: We met over a decade ago. Wes was exhibiting his sculpture in New York at the time and we were part of the same exhibition in Toronto. He immediately started talking about philosophy and I was very glad because a common problem with gallery openings is that it’s often chit chat with few people talking about ideas and art. So I knew this was someone I could relate to and we’ve continued our discussions of art and philosophy. We ran an art space in downtown Toronto for two years, producing events while making visual art, performing and creating a community with other artists. I was running a theatre and workshop space out of my 400 square foot garage in Kensington market at the same time and at one point we had two studios and multiple storage spaces. Toronto was getting really expensive and artists were rapidly moving to areas that they could afford to live and work. We headed to eastern Ontario, about 2 hours from Montreal and Ottawa, and 6 hours from NYC. We turned a century farm house and a workshop building into an artist residency for film and stage. That was five years ago. Now artists come here to work on projects in stage and film, which by natural extension includes visual art and writing. We are constantly evolving our practice, learning and expanding our communities. We moved out of a major city but have been meeting artists from multiple cities. Everything we’ve done, from the art space to this artist residency is a big leap into the unknown. We are constantly learning and building on our experience, and that is a source of strength.
Forson: What’s upcoming for you, individually, and collaboratively with Wes?
Reichelt: This month Wes and I are filming our fifth feature length art film. I would describe it as Dada meets Shakespeare addressing the problems of Utopia in a non- traditional narrative experimental art house film. Artists from Toronto, Montreal, and Ohio will be here this month. We meet and work with so many interesting artists, it’s really amazing. Later this fall we’re performing as Burning Iceberg for a poetry festival, and then we’ll continue to work on short films, scripts, and visual art.
Forson: Centrally, your art draws from philosophical content. What books have you read over time which pulls you to the center, where all this magic is shaped?
Reichelt: So many! I’ll name some that have been impactful, that I return to in thought or on the shelf, or that are piled up by my reading chair right now:
Breth, Bill Bissett
Land To Light On, Dionne Brand
Truth and Reality, Otto Rank
A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Edward Albee
Between Past and Future, Hannah Arendt
The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell
Walden, Henry David Thoreau
The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus
Grapefruit, Yoko Ono
The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron
Frida Kahlo, The Paintings, Hayden Herrera
Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett
Forson: Avant-garde guitarist Marc Ribot released an album entitled, Happy? Here? Now? Theoretically, it’s an understanding of who you are, where you are, what you are manifesting. What are you manifesting and would you say – you are happy, here, now?
Reichelt: Is it true that if I’m not happy here, now, I won’t ever be happy, because here and now is all that is? I have been manifesting to be an artist since I was in my twenties, and I’m a few years away from turning 50. What a ride it’s been so far! I love where I am and the adventures that led me here, and some of them were difficult too. My current focus is paying attention to where I am, what is around me. Last night as the sun was setting the light was glowing on the tops of trees in the east. So brief and so magnificent! If I’m manifesting anything it’s more moments of awe, more long walks and connection. More discovery, surprise, joy, understanding and acceptance! Thank you for reminding me of that. I hope you are also happy, here, now, Kofi!
Feature Photo: Kathleen Reichelt, Staged Reading Set 2018