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an interview with Kat Geng

by Danielle Wright

Kat Geng is a self-described “itinerant” Colombian-American artist primarily working in sculpture and installation. Her work often features delightful, surprising combinations of reclaimed objects and bright pops of color to transform them. There is a surreal, dream-like quality to much of her work which captures my imagination. I reach out and we agree to meet at a cafe in the Mission District of San Francisco on a sunny, windy Monday afternoon. Kat seems a bit nervous which I find endearing. We begin by recalling how we met which is through the gallery and studios of Creativity Explored. We go back and forth trying to determine how long ago it was.

—Danielle Wright

Kat Geng: I like how relationships evolve sometimes very, very slowly. You think that they might not even become a relationship, you know? But then over the years...


Danielle Wright: We cross paths! So I must have met you about four years ago. Have you lived in San Francisco that whole time?


KG: We’ve been in the Bay Area for five years. Our first five months in California we lived on a 60 foot yacht in the Emeryville Marina. It was a former shrimp trawler.  Once upon a time, it was a restaurant in Mexico that nearly burnt down but was revived as a bed and breakfast. We ran the b&b in exchange for food and a place to sleep. We made quiches nearly every morning for the guests—I didn't know how to make anything else! When we left the boat, that's when we began living with animals, housesitting. First bouncing around Rockridge, then we got a gig in San Francisco, our dreamland. We've been here ever since. Before California, we were in the Northeast, which is where I grew up. Well, mostly. I owned a home pretty young, at 24, and I was working in art conservation at the time.

DW: And where was this again?

Watchyamacallit,2016. Acrylic paint, inner tubes, hamster wheel on wood. 12” x 12” x 5”.  Photo courtesy of Derek Macario.

KG: In Massachusetts at The Williamstown Art Conservation Center nestled beside the Clark Art Institute. We used to look out our windows and see cows. The head of the furniture and wooden objects department noticed I was lingering in the art studios a lot, particularly his. I was always curious about what he was working on. He must have sensed my desperation to leave the office so when he had an assistant leave, he asked, "Would you like me to train you?" I was ecstatic. I had an art history degree and not a masters, like most in the lab (which is what we called it—The Lab). He took a chance on me.

DW: What was his name?


KG: Hugh Glover. He's a quirky British guy and we became friends quickly. We would listen to Car Talk and mend broken art. During snowfall, I felt like an elf in Santa's workshop. Working with tiny tools, gilding objects, getting them ready for their new life. I remember we went to The Met in New York City to visit a particularly large frame for an Asher B Durand painting. We had spent over a hundred hours working on it.


I worked at the lab during the days. and at night I’d return home to peel wallpaper or sand floors. I had a car, owned a two family home with my ex and two cats, Flash and Putty. I started with all these belongings that were mine (and my partner's)—what we associate with adulthood, this notion of success. Now all the cars and homes I inhabit and the animals I care for are someone else’s. Not owning things is highly underrated.

DW: Where did you go from there?

KG: After a few years of domesticity, I moved to Mexico. I worked in restoration in a large church in Guanajuato (The Basilica of our Lady of Guanajuato). We were a team of 15 or so young artists—at that point, I wasn’t a self-identified artist, though. I remember people would be gilding up on the scaffolding, and I would be sanding on the floor while the priest was giving Mass in Spanish. The whole place was gilded. I was the only non-Mexican in the crew. At the lab, we had endless tools to do one thing. And in Mexico, there was, you know, like a rubber band and piece of gum. That’s all we needed. It was cool. It teaches you that you can’t rely on these things. This is what you have so you have to get creative. I really loved that.


I was also working at a cafe and drinking Micheladas and smoking more than my share. I still had a student loan from Bard, so I started working for an American because the pay was better. It was only $7 an hour I think, but there it went further. She wanted to start a line of warrior-inspired apparel for cats and dogs. It was apparel based on medieval armor or samurai attire. Part of my responsibility was to figure out how we could make chain mail for a bulldog, speak with local artisans, come up with designs, or research warriors. She wanted to create a medieval breastplate for a bulldog. That was our holy grail of warrior pet gear.

DW: That’s amazing that that was your job. Where did that idea even come from?


KG: She had these wild cats that were on the large side. They were patterned like a cheetah with these intense blue-green eyes. They were regal. I think they were her inspiration. She started off by creating shields for them. Originally she was from New York and she had a connection with a man in China who bred bulldogs. So that's where the bulldog came into the picture. We had a client in waiting so we had access to a whole market. I didn’t stay through to the fruition of the project because I ended up returning to the states.

DW: How long were you in Mexico?


KG: I was in Mexico for three years. I backpacked for six months in Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador towards the end of those 3 years. When I was in Peru, I met a boy, an Australian Phillipino surfer. 


We were both living in a house with forty other people, volunteering in Pisco. Fast forward, many months later, he and I were driving through Michoacán, Mexico in my beat up car coming back from the coast. We were on the road later than intended, just after the sun went down. We were bickering about which route to take home when we got carjacked.

DW: Oh my god, Kat. That must have been terrifying


KG: Yeah. We got carjacked alongside the highway at gunpoint. We were kidnapped by two men. It’s a little hard to know the actual timeline because of how you react and how you feel in those moments when you have that kind of terror, time acts differently. It has been a slow process to talk about. It has been 8 years and I have been sharing it with friends and family more and more often in the past couple of years. I don’t necessarily want to go into all the details of it though.

DW: Sure, whatever feels right.

Unsolved Case of the Vertig-Oh no's, 2017. Acrylic and latex paints, wax marker, ribbon, shoelaces, laundry detergent cap  and other found objects on wood with linoleum. 40” x 30” x 9”. Photo courtesy of Derek Macario.

KG: But it is a part of my life. I remained in Mexico for several more months after- I began working for the warrior lady at that time. I never wanted to leave Mexico. It had become my home. I probably wouldn’t have left if I wasn’t having money problems.


DW: Was the Australian O.K.?


KG: Yes, he’s okay. We both survived, you know, and that was a big question at the time, whether that would happen because it was certainly a real threat. So that’s that.


DW: Wow… I’m so sorry that that happened. That’s terrifying and a violation of so many things. Has it affected how you travel and move through the world?


KG: Yeah, completely. I have grown eyes in the back of my head. I have post-traumatic stress disorder. For me, it means there are certain things that may trigger a memory or more often cause my body to go haywire. The year that followed, I saw everything as greener and kinder than before. Everything was so vibrant. If I had any grievances with anyone, they all disappeared. That intense euphoria didn’t last, but I am aware of the fragility of life in a way I never was.

DW: If something that like had happened to me, I think I’d have a lot of anger about having to live with a condition that I have to manage. I’m curious how you navigate that. Do you feel any anger? Have you been able to let that go?


KG: I’m not sure that I ever really felt anger. I have felt more grief. I don’t know why, but I don’t really think, “Why did this happen to me?” I’m reading this book about the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu and their conversations, and there’s one section, it says, “There’s no beauty without suffering.” It’s so hard to take this event out of my life, if I were to remove it then I wouldn’t have my boyfriend Jon. I wouldn't have my art ... It’s O.K., you can cry.​​

DW: I’m totally that person. I see you crying and then I start to cry. I’m a super crier.

(After I recover, we go on to discuss her childhood)


KG: I grew up around art. My dad’s an artist—growing up he worked as a creative director in an ad agency. He has an amazing eye for color and line and space. My mom, sometime after being a runway model and before being a soap maker, was a rep for photographers and illustrators. There were always artist’s portfolios laying around, and I remember visiting her photographer's studios. Wherever we lived, there was art in every nook and cranny. Artmaking was always encouraged, and I continued to make it through high school and college. Once I left Bard’s studio art program I stopped making art for many years. I only made stuff for my consumption and for people close to me. I think it has given me back my art practice in a way it had never been possible before. I like to learn, to acquire new skills. After returning from Mexico, I started working at a paper company in Western Mass redrawing family crests for different printing processes and sneaking out of my cubicle to speak to the press people.

DW: Interesting! How long did you do that for?


KG: After a year and a half, Jon and I moved out here. We had been traveling and met an American man in his sixties on an emu farm in Western Australia. He was driving the farm owners’ car from Toodyay, a small town outside of Perth, to Northwestern Australia in exchange for food and a place to sleep and adventure. We were already working for room and board on the 650-acre farm, but he told us about helpx - an international work exchange website. That is how we found the shrimp trawler in Emeryville.


We lived on the boat for five months. And that was sort of the beginning. There was another couple on the boat towards the end. She was in her sixties and he was much younger. They boasted about living in a beautiful home in Hawaii for six months for free. They had taken care of a cat. This planted a seed in my mind. A month later a couple asked if Jon and I would be interested in petsitting their two cats while they traveled for a month—we said yes. That month we built a website, we made business cards, flyers, we put our name on every website we could find. That was the beginning of our house sitting business. It was also the beginning of my art career.

DW: I’m seeing the connections. I know you started to ask yourself aloud, “How is this related to art making?” as you shared, but I see it. You’re talking about making work, and how all of the things aligned, and you got back into making art. You also mentioned the work you’re scheming on right now. I don’t know if you want to talk about that—


KG: Sure, it’s still in the planning stages. The title is “Good Morning My Little Fear,” and it comes from a lecture by Thich Nat Hanh, the Vietnamese Monk. He talks about the concept of fear and how fear has been with us ever since we were born. He suggests that if one can treat fear as a friend and not an enemy it would alleviate a lot of our suffering. I’m fascinated by this idea. What would it mean to befriend your fear and what would it look like?

I’ve noticed that there’s something about the word fear that elicits fear. This project will be very playful, an exploration of fear, with a hint of humor. It will be fun and difficult.

DW: Like having humor, and gentleness, and respect.


KG: Yes! Respect! That’s so key to me. Some of our fears may seem so absurd, and I find humor in that, but we have to respect our fears, too. And not shame ourselves about them. It’s ok, and some fears are necessary. It’s part of our survival. We can form a relationship with them.


I’ve explored fear before in “A Hint of Optimism.” That’s this little toy car on a rotating Lazy Susan. The car was covered in this shredded paper. I spent weeks dripping latex paint over the paper. It was a meditative process for me. The whole sculpture took me 6 months to complete, despite being the size of a dinner plate. The car was covered in detritus and it’s a dark piece but there is one headlight working.  You can see the original bright shiny red surface of the car surrounding it, unscathed. It looks like this car is getting consumed by all this darkness but that one headlight is still working. That was important for me. Hope.


DW: It’s funny because I wouldn’t have known any of that by looking at it.


I have a quick aside: have you ever read Fears of your Life? It’s a book written by Michael Bernard Loggins that got featured on This American Life. There was a dance company (AXIS Dance Company) comprised of differently-abled folks that performed it. Also, do you know Lance Rivers from Creativity Explored? He makes drawings, but only of architecture and landscapes. He has a series of just the most beautiful drawings of tunnels with a tiny little light at the end. I’ve been wanting to get one for so long and put it on my desk as a visual meditation for each day.

Too Cold!, 2016. Vinyl, acrylic, paper mache, and ribbon on wood.  Collaboration with painter Jon Levy-Warren. Photo courtesy of Derek Macario.

KG: Yeah! I love that. It sounds amazing. I think hope is the most beautiful thing. That reminded me of “A Hint of Optimism.” Viewers could touch the rubber edges and spin the piece with their fingers. I didn’t have control over the pace or care with which someone will treat it, or how. It makes you feel rather vulnerable.

DW: That reminds me that reading about your work, it seems like touch is really important. Touch and all of the ways it can be inherently intimate, completely violating, wonderful, and welcoming. I’m curious to her about why it’s important to you and how it figures in the work you make? I’ve been near your work and it does feel like it wants to be touched. And a lot of things have been already! A lot of the work involves reclaimed toys and household objects, and so they’ve had these former lives of being touched and used and discarded. And they're reclaimed and painted over, so you’re not sure if you can touch them anymore. So there’s this push and pull and this tension of touch me but like—


KG: But only here, not there. (laughter)

DW: Yeah! It’s really interesting.


KG: It’s this internal conflict because I want to say, “Have me, fully! Enjoy this. Let every one of your senses gets involved in this experience." It’s how we can connect most. But then there is something that feels so precious and so personal and no you’re violating this. Is there respect? There are so many other factors. I think that I just want both.

I did an installation called "If I Had a Bathroom" on a 16-foot box truck in a parking lot at The Parking Lot Art Fair. That was really exciting to me because it was the beginning of me experimenting with shared experiences and immersive installations.

We live in all these people’s homes and it’s very intimate. I live among all of their belongings, I have a good sense, not of every aspect of their lives, but certain things that are generally more private. And we’re total strangers. They’re not friends, often they become friends but they don’t usually start as friends. And I was thinking what is one of the rooms that feel the most private besides the bedroom, which has a whole other set of associations. The bathroom. That’s where we all get naked. Store our medications, get diarrhea, recover from a long night out, preen, and hygiene. So what if I do a role-reversal and create my own bathroom and invite strangers in, which I’ve never had here, what would that look like? And perhaps they take a bath or make themselves at home, in a way. They put on a bathtub suit and come and relax. And I had this friend of mine from childhood, Katrina Goldsaito, a wonderful writer and performer, she had her pajamas on and was strumming the guitar and singing songs in a very unrehearsed natural way. Sometimes she would pick up on something we were talking about and it was never from finish to end. She was singing to herself, sitting on the toilet.

A Hint of Optimism, 2014. Acrylic and Latex paints on shredded paper, magazine and lazy susan with bicycle inner tubes. 3”x 11”. Photo courtesy of Kat Geng.


I had this moment where I was in the tub with a woman and her son and I had all of these toys velcroed to the wall that you could play with. And I didn't know them at all. First of all, you’re in very close proximity—


DW: I know! I was in it! (laughter)


KG: Yeah! You know! (laughter) That was so exciting to me. I don’t know that I want to recreate that, but I want to experiment.


DW: Was it exciting because you were connecting with people in a way that would never have happened if not for that piece?

KG: Yes, we were strangers but we skipped all the formalities and went straight to play. It was oddly comfortable. And also—you’re not physically removed from it like when looking at a piece on a gallery wall. You are a part of the art. Physically within it. That’s exciting because you have no control over it, as the artist, none. The viewer is as much a part of creating whatever that art is as the artist. And I feel like this with a lot of my sculptures. I kind of just set the scene and maybe give a certain tone, like a playful environment with bright colors. Within a sculpture, there’s a car on this cloth, and there’s a shoelace, and maybe that's a curvy road. It requires your imagination to complete the piece whether it’s a sculpture or an installation.


DW: It seems like it requires more than your imagination—it’s like your active participation as a co-conspirator.


KG: Yes, in the case of the bathtub, completely. In the non-interactive sculptures I create, it is about imagination. It is not always easy to imagine. That requires work too. I begin the story and please will you finish it? Your ending will be better than mine.


DW: Or here’s the baton—


KG: Yes! Here’s the baton, take it. I enjoy that and am interested in developing it more. With "If I had a Bathroom," there was something very exciting about the bathtub suit, you know? People were very hesitant to put it on. Or at "Om, I’m Home," the exhibit I curated at The Luggage Store Gallery, people were very hesitant to put the house slippers on. But once people made that leap, took the leap of faith, and did it I think they were able to get into the character more and let go and appreciate it. And that to me was so exciting. I’m playing, come play with me. And these people are playing with me, you know? Whether we’re there at the same moment is irrelevant. It requires a certain amount of trust.


DW: A lot of your work I’ve seen has a playful element—if not the colors you’re using or the reclaiming of old toys—there is this sort of thread through everything that's related to that as well. Whether or not it’s related in an obvious way to what you’re saying, there’s this cohesiveness to that, and I guess I’m just interested in notions of play for you and why play is important to you.

KG: Well it’s important because it’s what I want to do (laughter).


You know, nothing is perfect, but I enjoyed my childhood. I enjoy just getting lost in my imagination and going with that. I don’t create with toys specifically because they are toys—‘cause I feel like I could play with anything.


DW: I think it seems obvious from your work that that’s true, too, in a really interesting and complex way. It’s like you’re watching people play to learn. I see what you were saying about wanting to learn. It’s like seeing somebody’s thinking, you know what I mean? It’s really interesting to have a visual record of that.

KG: It’s interesting, why do you like to play? I don’t know (laughter). It’s hard to know how to answer that.


DW: I know, it’s like why do you like to do anything? Well, some people make work that’s really not about playful connection with other people, so it’s like, if that's something that you’re thinking about, how did that become a value of yours? Where does that come from? Because some people make paintings that are hard to look at, or some people make sculpture that isn't meant to be touched, you know? So I guess I’m just contrasting with that and just being curious. Also, I gotta say, I was looking at other work on your website, and maybe because these things are discarded, and you’re thinking about home, and you’re thinking about the concept of that, and these like left-over, used up, loved up toys. And not just toys but the ephemera. There’s also a nostalgia in there for me. And because all of that is mixed in, it’s really rich, you know? So it’s not just light-hearted, it’s tinged with other stuff.

Under Construction, 2016. Acrylic & latex paints, colored pencils and oil marker on found objects, 5’ x 2.5’ x 3’. Photo courtesy of Derek Macario.

KG: I never considered that there would be another way to create art. I grew up reading Maurice Sendak and Shel Silverstein and gobbled up their stories. I loved being a kid, I loved games, I loved to imagine. Adult things like dinner parties and responsibilities have always given me anxiety but play—play is calming. I can sit amidst my objects and get lost in them. There are no rules and I can do whatever the hell I want.

When The Conditions Are Right, I Just Might, 2017. Acrylic and latex paint on fabric with found materials. Dimensions variable. Approx. 7’ x 5’ x 12”. Photo courtesy of Grace Sager

Oh yeah, and it’s not just play (laughter). I think my big struggle is that there’s a lot of concept behind much of the work I create and I’m always trying to balance that with this play, or the feeling coming from the heart and not from the brain.

DW: Yeah.

KG: And how does one nourish that? Concept is important to me as well. It can act as my guide. There is usually a narrative that runs through it. You might not always recognize it when you see it, but for me, that’s part of my play, this make-believe element. I’m playing with what I want to be near, and what’s available, and what speaks to me. I’ll be walking down the street and see a discarded roller skate and it taps into a memory. And yes, that’s the nostalgia. Or I could see a discarded umbrella and think of it as protection from a storm. The storm could be rain or wind or it could be another sort of struggle.


Once I found the game Operation and I was walking around with the board. I was so excited that I’d found it. I had a lot of people come up to me on the bus and say, 'Oh, Operation!' and that they grew up playing it. They were excited just to be reminded of those times. All from a worn out ol’ boardgame. In all of these objects, there are stories or memories.

DW: Well, I want to add one little thing and then switch gears a bit. I’ve had a number of conversations, mostly with Gabe, my partner (who I don’t know if you’ve met) but the long story short is that I wish more people took play both playfully and seriously. It’s good to know other people are thinking about it because I think it gets really disrespected and it shouldn’t. So there’s that.

KG: I take play seriously, very seriously! In fact, at times more seriously than I would like to BUT play doesn’t need to be serious. It should be fun. Some people may see a sculpture of a foosball player with his head first in a bush and have a little chuckle and then be on their merry way, whereas the next person may imagine the plight of the foosballer and what led him to hide in the bushes. I’ll take a tear or a chuckle, either way. The point is to elicit feeling - even if just for an instant.

DW: That aside, you mentioned getting lost, and I keep thinking about home, and your work, and the other work that you do all the time which is being in people’s homes. I’m curious about so many things, but let’s start with how long you generally stay at a time. A month? A few months?


KG: The average is about two weeks. We try not to stay less than that, but it happens. It’s common that we’ll move a few times a month. Sometimes we stay for 3. We’re always moving.

DW: Do people help you often?


KG: Not usually. We don’t move in like one would to their own place. We just bring our bags and our groceries.


DW: You’ve got it down to a science by now, I bet.


KG: Yeah, yeah we do! (laughter) We’ve been here five years so it’s been four and a half years to perfect it.

DW: Is it stressful?


KG: Not really, although there was a time when it was. It gets easier and easier. You learn to adapt faster. I grew up in Boston and lived in at least 5 places there before moving to Florida for high school. Then I moved back to Western Massachusetts for more of high school, and eventually, I started traveling a lot. In a way, it’s my comfort zone. But still, when you’re moving somewhere every two weeks, it is an adjustment. You start to adapt to the place in 20 minutes when it used to take a day. Now it’s about getting to the basics quickly, like, “where’s the extra toilet paper?”


When we first started, we used to bring around a blanket that my mom knitted, and I would put it on the bed wherever we were to say this is home, this is something of ours. But after a while, it felt unnecessary. 

Where the highway meets the greenway, 2017. Fabric, shoelaces, acrylic paint and cursive paper on wood. 13” x 13” x 7”. Photo courtesy of Derek Macario.

When you’re always moving, mobility becomes important. You want the least amount of stuff. Things with handles are better. Virtual things are the best.

DW: So I’m thinking about "Om I’m Home" and "Transport Me" and the spaces that they’re in, and about how the concept of home figures in. Knowing how you grew up—moving around a lot, that you continue to move around a lot, and that you’re exploring what it means to belong places—I’m struck by the idea that in your living spaces, it’s not about objects or belongings. But in a lot of your work, there are a lot of these objects.


KG: That’s true. I’ve become very comfortable making other people’s belongings mine for a time, in homes, or in art. In a way, I'm not that enamored by objects themselves. I'm more excited by their potential. The potential to mean so much more than the sum of their parts.


DW: And maybe if it hasn’t been something that’s pointedly intentional that you’re exploring, I’m wondering as we’re having this conversation now, what home means to someone who is, and I think your words were “itinerant,” moving place to place. What is home when it’s not a physical space that you return to every day where you’ve accumulated a bunch of shit? Tell me more about the connection between your work and the ephemera.


KG: It’s a place where I feel safe, not only in a physical sense but safe from judgment as well. People can be home.  


DW: Do you find a lot of the objects on the street? Do you go to second-hand stores?


KG: Yeah, two of my favorite stores to go to are SCRAP and Building Resources. I love both of those places and I would go there endlessly. I also constantly find objects on the streets, particularly in the inner Richmond. It’s a very object-wealthy place. Yesterday I found a big round abandoned table. And I had my kick scooter with me so I rolled it on top and wheeled it to my studio. I found a tire last week. You just need a couple of wheels.


DW: It sounds like there’s an important balance for you between the concept and the feelings you get, and the feelings that are aroused in other people.


KG: Yeah, that’s the most important thing to me. I think that really gets transferred. If you’re feeling something in the creation of work, or overthinking it, or it's all concept and no heart—people can sense that. You can't fake it.

Yesterday, 2017. Mixed media, dimensions variable. Photo courtesy of Jacob Palmer.

DW: A former teacher at Creativity Explored, one whom I love and I respect, once shared with me E.M. Forster’s advice, “Only connect.” That that’s the most important thing. As you’re working on the next phase, it sounds like a rich area of exploration what with getting closer to people, and all of the things that come up with that.

KG: Yes, artmaking in the studio can be such a solitary existence. One I love, but I think these immersive, shared experiences are a perfect counterbalance to that. I would like them to provide an avenue for connection between strangers, or to connect with strangers.

DW: Do you think that the honesty piece, and being vulnerable by being honest about your feelings and how the expression of them is integral in how the work comes together, facilitates that connection? It seems like you’re taking the first step and inviting people to be vulnerable with you. Is that what’s happening or am I making that up?


KG: In that particular project?


DW: Well, I’m thinking about what you said about the bathtub and that it sparked the investigation into connection.


KG: We mirror each other. If I make that first step toward you, it might make you feel more comfortable to make another step toward me. Do you know what I mean? (laughter)

DW: Yeah, I do (laughter).

Kat Geng uses play—as a practice and an outcome—to imagine objects with renewed purpose in her colorful mixed media sculptures and immersive installations. After earning a B.A. in art history from Bard College, she received her objects training in art conservation at The Williamstown Art Conservation Center, MA. Geng has recently shown at The Luggage Store Gallery, Root Division, and Incline Gallery in San Francisco where her studio practice is based. Kat will have a solo show at Royal Nonesuch Gallery in Oakland with an opening reception on January 13th.

Danielle Wright is a visual artist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She earned a B.A. in Visual Arts with an emphasis in Fine Arts at the University of San Francisco in 2007. Her work investigates the language of materials and the delineation between artist and viewer/participant. In addition to her studio practice, she teaches at Creativity Explored, a not-for-profit art gallery and studio in the Mission District of San Francisco.

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