Mother Nature is Majorly Pissed: Nicole Kutz Paints the Apocalyptic Dread of Wildfire Season [Interview]
It used to be a four-month period, starting in late summer and early autumn. Now wildfire season in California stretches into six, seven, even eight months of the year, leaving behind a noxious cocktail of toxic fumes, scorched earth, and apocalyptic dread.
Jogging through the sprawling, torturously-shaped city of LA, Nicole Kutz spied insatiable megafires everywhere. “While living in Los Angeles through 2020, I became particularly impacted by the wildfires as I watched the areas that had inspired my art succumb to disaster,” the painter writes in her artist statement. Though she’s escaped to Nashville, Kutz’s latest flashe paint series addresses the horror she felt as flames consumed the Californian landscape last year.
Visually tied by flashe paint, a luminous acrylic medium, Kutz’s series grapples with the relationship between women, fear, and our ecosystem, pointing out the feminine connotations of the phrase, “Mother Earth.” A devoted runner, Kutz developed the series’ concept while jogging through Georgia, processing what she’d seen in LA.
“I drew the parallel while I was running along a trail and became panic-stricken as I reimagined all the warnings of what can happen to a girl who runs alone or at night,” she notes. “As I realized I was projecting my fears onto the landscape, I became aware of the reality of this same landscape surrendering to the wildfires ravaging California. It raised the question: why do I instinctively feel afraid, and how has that been ingrained into my gender?”
Using vivid flashe paint, Kutz channels the sinister underpinnings behind human aggression—whether environmental, physical, or sexual—remembering that fear, survival, and, eventually, hope lie on the other side of violence: “As I continue making this work, I realize this fear is shared by Mother Earth, as she too feels the constant threat of aggression experienced by most women. Yet for all the ominous insinuations, these paintings are imbued with power and strength, reminding us of the ability of nature—and humans—to change course, adapt and overcome.”
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Nicole Kutz discusses embracing the flaws in her work, sustaining an “inner forest of wisdom,” and the importance of trusting your gut in uncertain situations.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Nicole Kutz: I am a book hoarder, but the ones that are staples on my shelf are: Unflattening by Nick Sousanis, Just Kids by Patti Smith and Be Here Now by Ram Dass.
Which cultural concepts, themes, or philosophies inform your work?
NK: I have always resonated with Buddhist thought and wabi-sabi aesthetics are ingrained into my process. Wabi-sabi is the truth that both life and art are beautiful not because they are perfect and eternal, but because they are imperfect and fleeting. I find this liberating not only in life, but also in how I approach making art. I have learned to embrace the flaws within a work, as well as materials that are unpredictable. Transience is a recurring theme in my work, and I think by looking at what is fleeting or ephemeral, I have an easier time coping with my own desires to grasp onto things or try to control a situation.
I also draw inspiration from meditation, Reiki therapy, moon cycles, and how all of this plays into understanding my environment. Japanese culture views the moon as a symbol of the passage of time and as the guardian of mountains. The moon frequently finds its way into my work—be it subconsciously or planned.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
NK: This is hard to answer, but right now I would love to have dinner with Lita Albuquerque. Her work transcends our physical plane and I’m dying to pick her brain on the pigments she uses.
What are you trying to express with your art?
NK: Recently I have been focusing on using my paintings to better understand my neural patterning. I started going to somatic therapy to process trauma and the whole process has opened a new world of understanding my psyche. Nature has profoundly supported me through this journey and I have been especially drawn to trees and how their winding branches mimic our neural pathways. We all have an inner forest of wisdom, but if you water the wrong trees, the toxic and smaller trees grow into an unsustainable forest.
I noticed a connection to the process of retraining my brain and how those trees/neural pathways are changing, but also reinforced by external toxicity. I think that this could also be said for what is happening to our natural world. Simply by labeling it “mother” we give it a connotation of female, which we have culturally reinforced as being “submissive”—she has to submit to us and our wills because we as people are the dominant force and what we want is more important than what she provides us. I can empathize with this, and while I am trying to rebuild my mental canopy to think differently, I want to use my art to help preserve and rebuild her’s. This desire seeps into all of my mediums—be it vibrant flashe paint, making my own pigments from nature, or dyeing sheets of paper with indigo.
What do you wish you learned in art school but weren’t taught?
NK: I’ll keep this short: how to do my taxes and how to sell my art.
What's your biggest barrier to being an artist?
NK: Admitting to myself that I am an artist was a bit like a coming out process. I wanted to deny it so badly for fear of failure, rejection, financial uncertainty and all the horror stories you hear growing up. Yet when I allow myself to create, I feel like I am living a fuller life, instead of a half existence. The biggest barrier for me has always been the financial aspects of the career path. I want to put everything into my art, but that does not always equate to financial success or security. That fear can be crippling some months, and others everything seems to flow. I’m still searching for that balance.
What does generosity mean to you as an artist?
NK: I think it is so important to share opportunities with your fellow artists and also promote their work. I don’t view surviving in this field as a competition, but rather an opportunity to support each other through the rough patches and celebrate each others’ successes.
I am also a curator and I think because I have a natural inclination to bring artists together, I am always looking for ways I can support my friends or the people who inspire me most. It brings me immense joy and lights me up sometimes more than painting itself.
What does success mean to you as an artist?
NK: My response to this question has definitely changed. Five years ago, I defined artistic success as showing your work at Art Basel and having Hauser & Wirth or Blum & Poe represent you. Now I’m a little more practical in my response.
I think success is nuanced and dependent on your work, goals, and above all, your health. Success for me recently has been about showing up for my art and being vulnerable by sharing it with others. This can be at any scale, but I’m trying to celebrate the smaller successes instead of focusing too hard on an ideal.
What role does the artist have in society?
NK: Art is a vital component to the human experience—artists have the power to shift perspectives and promote lasting societal change by sharing their talents. An artist can offer reprieve from the stresses of daily life or ignite a spirit of activism and progression. Although society often shuns them, artists are powerful beyond what we give them credit for and are innately change-makers. The artist’s role in society is to vulnerably share their voice, and by doing so, they support and expand others.
Have you ever turned down an opportunity? Why?
NK: I have turned down way too many things to count and mainly ones that are either scams or are trying to take advantage of me/my work. I had a major learning curve with that, and in hopes that this advice helps other artists:
Listen to your gut. I’ve unfortunately had to learn that potential “clients” aren't always just interested in your art and think that by pursuing your painting, they can also pursue you. If you have any sign of this during the transaction, it isn’t worth your time and the money will find you in other ways that are more supportive of you as a person and artist. I had several run-ins with prominent collectors that led me to believe that they were interested in my art and wanted to grow my career—but unfortunately that wasn’t actually the case. Although it was a hard pill to swallow financially, I realized my art and myself are worth more than that.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
NK: I’m gearing up for another cross country move to Seattle, so my work in the immediate future has been in a bit of a purgatory. Once we make the cross country trek at the top of 2022, I’m diving into a new series of indigos for a joint show at Modfellows Gallery in May.
What do you do to maintain your mental health?
NK: Maintaining my mental health has been really important to me lately. My go-tos for centering myself are: meditating, somatic therapy, running (always), hiking or being in nature for extended periods of time, and hot yoga. If none of those are available to me, watching the Great British Baking Show or listening to Glennon Doyle speak always pulls me out of a funk.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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