Vancouver artist Katie So recently unveiled a new body of work at Burrard Arts Foundation. In “Take Care”, she explores her struggles with mental health and examines the idea of self-care. There’s both a heaviness and a lightness to the paintings—a seriousness but also a sense of humour. Katie was kind enough to answer a few questions about the deeply personal show, which is on display until August 1. She is also selling prints of works in the show, here.
If you were to think about your entire life up till now, what would be a few significant milestones or moments that have made you the person you are today? Nothing like an easy question right off the bat!
In second grade, I didn’t get along with the other students, I talked way too much, and asked too many questions, so my teacher would let me spend my days in the supply closet. I loved it. A sensory deprivation tank full of books, basically. I got a lot of reading done. So from an early age, I was down to be alone in deep focus. When I started tattooing in my early 20s, I had to learn how to interact with strangers on a pretty intimate level and that degree of socializing was totally new to me. It took me a while to strike a balance between those two skills; productive isolation and social interaction, all while juggling mental health issues. Before I started working as an artist full-time, I got fired from a café (over email) for being too depressed. I thought, “I’ve got to get a job where I can use this sadness to my advantage!” That was the last joe job I ever worked.
It’s been really amazing to see your work develop over the past few years, how has this journey of finding your voice been for you?
I’m still figuring things out, and there’s a blessing and a curse in social media that has contributed to that. I love having an audience to share work with online, but it can be difficult to stay focused on the work you are making rather than on what you think people want to see. It’s been interesting seeing how my work will adapt to the medium I’m working in. I got my start in DIY comics and illustration, which led directly to tattooing, and now I’m taking all of that language I’ve collected and trying to translate it to painting.
Let’s talk about your show, can you expand a bit on the title, “Take Care”?
A lot of my previous work stemmed from my struggles with mental health. As I got older, I was better equipped to deal with these issues and I think my work started to reflect that. “Take Care”, is an exploration of self-care practices. I wanted to confront the trends that go along with the idea of self-care and show that although aspects of those practices can be beneficial to your health, there is a line between self-soothing and self-indulgence.
A few pieces in the exhibition are pinned directly on the wall, allowing the canvas to drape heavily to evoke the duality of a heavy shroud and the comfort of a blanket. In that sense, “Take Care” means both those things, be gentle but be aware. Don’t get too comfortable or you’ll never get back up.
There’s a confidence to the work here that perhaps wasn’t there before, do you feel that way?
To me, confidence is fleeting and illusive. It’s like looking back at old photos of yourself and realizing how terrible your haircut was, and then questioning if your haircut is any good now. But this series was the first time in a while, where I felt relaxed in my work and I really enjoyed doing it, even though it was difficult at times. So maybe what I was feeling was confidence? This was also my first time working in a real studio where the only thing I had to worry about was this one body of work, and it really affected my focus and productivity positively. That’s where locking myself in the supply closet comes back in. I’m really grateful that I got to experience the residency at Burrard Arts and I hope I’ll have more chances to work in this way again.
Walk us through a bit of the process of making work for the show. What was the first piece you finished? And at what point did you decide on the limited palette?
I think the first piece I finished was, “Are You Still Watching”, which is a figure in bed with a laptop. I was experimenting with ink on raw canvas and I really liked working with the materials that way. I ended up redoing that piece three times. There were a lot of pieces that took a few tries, which I think is normal. I started introducing colour into the smaller plant and still life paintings, and at that point the work really became more about building an environment with the pieces, which was where the colour as a design element came in. I didn’t set out to have a limited palette necessarily, but I’d like to explore more colour in the future.
How does it feel to stand in the gallery now, surrounded by all the work?
As soon as I finished a piece, I rolled it up and kept everything in a pile in the studio. I made over 30 pieces and had not seen them all together until installation day, which was exciting. Plus, the city started quarantining just as my residency was ending, and there were about 2 months between then and the show opening, so mentally I had kind of moved on in a way. The show was my main focus since the year started and all that momentum was put on pause. But during isolation, many people were dealing with a lot of the themes that were in my show, so in a way the work was speaking to people in more ways than it had before, which I wasn’t expecting. So I guess, now that it’s all up, I’m glad people get to see it.
What are some of the things that have been inspiring you to create lately?
I had a bunch of film from disposable cameras developed recently, and whether posed or not, some photos out of context can be so strange, so I’ve been inspired by that lately. I like hanging out in my garden, because it gets me to focus on tiny details. Small worlds that usually go unnoticed. And I guess I’m just excited to work more on canvas. It’s new to me so I’m having a good time, but damn it’s expensive.
I always like to end interviews with these two questions, what’s one thing you’d like to accomplish in the next year?
I’d like to finish another series of paintings. Good paintings, I hope?
And what about in your life time?
I think it would be cool to master all forms of transportation. Like land, air, water, horse. Whatever dystopia lies in our future, it’ll be good to know how to get around.