Q+Art: Artist Kathryn Shriver Tempts the Fates with Handwoven Glass Sculptures
Artist Kathryn Shriver doesn’t believe in fate. Growing up working class in the eastern-most Rust Belt city of Buffalo, the multidisciplinary artist now takes a critical eye toward the middle-American values that shaped her upbringing. In her latest body of work, AND THE FATES PUT DOWN THEIR HANDS, artist Kathryn Shriver looks at the mythos behind literary and folkloric traditions in the West, their implications, and their limitations.
Like many American children, Shriver studied the Western classics and learned about Greco-Roman mythology during her formative years. In an era when women were refused the right to express themselves in the arts, white men defined the high literary canon, choosing to celebrate works that mirrored their own point of view. Shriver points out that these male-focused literary traditions, now so ingrained in Western culture, carry consequences for the young minds who absorb them. “As a teen, I developed a peculiar brand of internalized misogyny,” she writes in her artist statement, suggesting a link between her state of mind and a desire to see herself through male eyes: “[I wanted] to see myself through those…romantic damsels, or furious, fearsome goddesses that always seemed to be karmically tragic, damned, or demonized for their power, allure, or mere existence,” she continues.
Shriver’s work operates from the assertion that female archetypes—be they mother, maiden, goddess, or witch—are largely determined by men’s fear and desire. AND THE FATES PUT DOWN THEIR HANDS centers on four sculptures—a crown, a robe, a shirt, and a quartet of gloves—that retell the story of women through subverted literary archetypes. Crafted from hand-woven glass beads, Shriver’s sculptures examine how clothes and ornamentation define female identity. “Hinging on the prominent role clothing, adornment, and textiles play in the storytelling around femininity, this project takes seriously the power inscribed in making, wearing, and imagining,” she notes.
With “The Cassandra Crown,” a wearable sculpture crafted from a ring of fiery red beads, Shriver reimagines a mythological Greek tale as symbolic of male dominance over female identity. In the story, Apollo falls in love with the princess Cassandra, and grants her with the gift of foresight. When she refuses his advances, the god curses her with a lack of power over the future: Cassandra’s prophecies are always accurate, but just as often ignored by the men around her. In her retelling of the classic tale, Shriver suggests that women can and do rise above their predetermined identities to cast their own fates in the world around them.
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Kathryn Shriver discusses her favorite art theory books, how she incorporates jewelry-making into sculpture, and the importance of robust funding in the arts.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Kathryn Shriver: I think every artist responds to different kinds of writing differently. I tend to get overwhelmed if I go looking for inspiration from other artworks, poetry, fiction, or art criticism. I tend to go for non-fiction and theory books that write ideas through art rather than write ideas about art—I find it easier to lift bits and ideas from to expand on in my work. Some of my all-time favorites have been Our Aesthetic Categories by Sianne Ngai, Willful Subjects by Sarah Ahmed, The Forms of the Affects by Eugenie Brinkema, and the stunning and impactful M Archive by Alexis Pauline Gumbs. I’m currently reading Ornamentalism by Anne Anlin Cheng, which has been extremely elucidating.
What are you trying to express with your art?
KS: I think most of my work so far has been more of an attempt to figure things out than to express something in particular, though the underlying point for me is always that there’s something really important and revealing in the moments of slippage and transformation that happen when different kinds of materials and objects come together in an artwork. And The Fates Put Down Their Hands is the first body of work that I’ve done that has a more direct, thematic vein of expression.
For this work, I was really trying to tease out and communicate a sense of curious uneasiness towards how prevalent certain myths, allegories, and archetypes are in shaping our understanding of people and their behavior, especially those that don’t get categorized within a certain kind of masculinity. Initially, I’d set out to undercut or resist the idea of the feminized figure as a container for male ideals, fears, or fantasies (think: the virgin, the witch, the goddess, the femme fatale, etc.), but as I worked on the project, it became much more complicated than that. My own internalization of these ideas shaded everything and in the end, that became much more interesting than a straightforward critique.
Would you work for free in exchange for exposure?
KS: In my experience, those offering exposure instead of pay usually don’t actually have a platform that can give you useful, profitable, adequate exposure in exchange for your work. And if they do, they probably are exploiting you to sidestep paying you what you are owed. However, the world artists find themselves in today is extremely difficult to navigate, both socially and financially, and because of this, I have, occasionally, found it worthwhile to work for free. In these cases, I never count on any promised exposure to even out the balance, but instead assess whether I can benefit from the enjoyment, experience, or connections that the work can bring me, or if my work will be able to affect any good to the community or lift a burden from someone else.
But most importantly, I have to be discerning about when I can afford to work for free. Artists very often already do a great deal of unpaid work, usually making art, writing lengthy applications, keeping business records, and helping friends, in addition to the hours they log in paid positions. Sometimes, my time and energy are too stretched, or my finances are too unstable to justify unpaid work, even if the experience sounds enjoyable, fulfilling, or close to a spotlight. Exposure, sadly, hasn’t yet helped me pay the bills.
What person has most influenced your work?
KS: I have had the benefit of being near many impressive and inspiring artists that have helped me grow into my own work, like Katie Waugh, who taught me during my last year of undergrad and shaped and supported my ideas enormously, in a really sensitive time. However, I’d have to say that the biggest single influence on my work has been my maternal grandmother, Sue Miceli.
She spent her life being inquisitive and probing, as well as maintaining a regular practice of creative, resourceful, and low-budget DIY redecorations of her home and the homes of her children. Because of her, I grew up with an understanding of domestic spaces not only as creative spaces, but as potential works of art themselves, and learned to see any material or project as belonging to the artistic or aesthetic world.
What is your favorite guilty pleasure?
KS: Gratuitous studio snacks.
What do you consider your greatest artistic achievement?
KS: For a straight answer: And The Fates Put Down Their Hands is maybe the most complete and coherent body of work that I’ve produced that also feels like I didn’t over-edit or stifle myself from a preoccupation with making things legible. I am really proud of the way I let this work breath and come into its own, and I consider that an achievement for sure. For a more oblique answer: My work has led me to a lot of incredible people and places that I never would have encountered otherwise. That, I think, is a meaningful way to measure success as an artist, and it’s what I’m most grateful for.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
KS: Many excellent people have taught, told, and showed me that sincerity is one of the best guiding principles, whether it be in mark-making, socializing, proposal writing, teaching, or working in the studio.
Is a formal arts education worth the money?
KS: To be perfectly real, literally no education is worth the money we are being charged currently in the United States, much less an art degree with overworked faculty and underfunded facilities. BUT, abstracting the specifics of our current iteration of dystopia, I know that I, personally, needed and benefited greatly from my art degrees, and the university structure made my job as a research assistant, which supported me through a crucial two years post-grad, possible.
But I do hope for a new approach to art education and funding that is less centered around universities and institutional frameworks that are, at their core, colonial and capitalist mechanisms that continue patterns of trauma and oppression for many people, even some of those that pass through them with apparent success. Crit groups, mentorship programs, accessible and substantial arts funding, affordable skill workshops and studio spaces are, I think, the pieces that need to come together to support artists to learn and grow. Formal education is useful, but I think only because, for many, it’s hard to otherwise access teachers, community, studios, equipment, and dedicated time to make art elsewhere.
What is one thing you would like to change about the art world?
KS: I would definitely reiterate the idea of solid alternatives to institutional degree programs. Additionally: more funding, more funding, and more funding. And we can just delete NFTs as a concept, their environmental impact is reprehensible far beyond any perceived conceptual or economic benefit.
Would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist?
KS: When I’m in the studio working, I want to be historically significant. But when I go out to buy the groceries, I want to be commercially successful.
What are you listening to in the studio right now?
KS: I really love the New Books Network Podcast, which hosts author interviews for tons of books coming out from various university presses. Academic work is great to listen to in the studio, not just because smart people are inspiring, but because research topics vary from hyper-specialized studies to wide, sweeping philosophical questions. For studio music, if I’m being completely honest, I’m currently listening to a lot of both Dolly Parton and Phoebe Bridgers.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
KS: I’m currently working on integrating jewelry-making experiments into my paintings and sculptures, which I’m finding very refreshing as well a natural continuation from my past work. I’m also writing a collection of love letters to friends, exes, and family members, which reflect on the ways the pandemic has underscored and shifted our ways of caring for each other, and wonder about the different kinds of love we can have for people.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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