Student Spotlight - Katie Butler

Art is a way to contextualize the political climate and make sense of a tumultuous world. MFA candidate in painting and graduate teaching assistant, Katie Butler, has confronted the COVID-19 pandemic and related political issues in her work over the course of the past year. Her still life depictions of fish, a departure from her beginnings in abstraction, convey the anxiety and turmoil that have affected every household to some extent since the outbreak. Katie has been earning her M.F.A. during this unprecedented time, and has used art as a mechanism to explore issues in United States politics. Her paintings have been shown at venues like Summit Artspace and Miami University. 

Katie earned her B.F.A. in Painting and Drawing from the University of Akron in 2017. She recently exhibited her M.F.A. thesis show and is graduating from the School of Art this May. In this interview, Katie shares how her work has evolved throughout graduate school, explains the inspiration behind her still lifes, and reflects on how her recent exhibitions have contributed to her growth as an artist. 

Painting by Katie Butler. Image of fish and shellfish on a dinner table.
Q: Can you talk about why you decided to attend Kent State for your graduate degree?

A: When I started thinking about grad school, I visited Kent along with several out-of-state schools. I was looking for something tight-knit, with plenty of energy in the studios and a sense of community within the program. I wanted a good balance between critical discourse and studio production, and something very painting-focused, yet informed by cross-disciplinary dialogue. The opportunity to teach was a priority for me as well. The program at Kent had everything I was looking for and judging from the current students and faculty, it seemed like an exciting time to come here. At first I was a little hesitant to stay local, but the program is far from isolated and is very aware of what is going on in New York and elsewhere. Looking back on the past two years, I have no doubt this was the best choice for me.

Q: You used to work in abstraction and have since shifted to the still life genre. Why did you make this change? How has your work evolved throughout your time as a graduate student?

A: My work has evolved so much in such a short amount of time! I had been inching more towards representational painting before I got here, but it wasn’t until the beginning of my second year as a graduate student when I really made the leap. The paintings were informed by political issues, but I was putting that content through so many filters that it was never allowed to become part of the final product. Grad school was an ideal environment to test the waters. I was having regular, open conversations about the underlying content and it began to come through in the work with more clarity. Now I am circling back and using abstraction to strengthen the content in my work, rather than obscuring it. 

Q: Your work draws inspiration from the still life genre, which rose to prominence in the 17th century. Why do you use this genre in 2021? What is it about the more traditional still life genre that helps you to communicate your contemporary message?

A: I am drawn to the ways in which still life paintings have reflected the ideologies of society and responded to current events throughout history, from the symbolism used in Dutch still life paintings in the 17th century to Cubism in the World War I era. I am looking at these historical strategies and using them to make observations on my own environment and the political climate in 2021. I find ordinary, relatable objects to be a good vehicle for talking about some of the larger, more complicated issues in our society. 

Painting by Katie Butler. Image of fish wrapped in newspaper on a cutting board with a knife.

Q: One of the primary motifs in your work is the fish. Can you explain more about why you chose a fish to represent your ideas in your paintings? Is there any special reason why fish are so important in your work?

A: I do a lot of cooking and find comfort in preparing meals (especially this year!), but it is hard to bring a fish into the kitchen and not connect with it on an emotional level. I found the fish on the cutting board to be an accurate visual portrayal of the anxiety, fear, and sense of impending doom I was feeling and observing in the past year. 

Q: Your M.F.A. thesis exhibition, Kitchen Table Issues, uses still lives of fish and knives to approach themes about the state of United States politics and the pandemic. How do you think the subject matter of your work has changed or evolved as a result of the pandemic? How would your thesis exhibition have been different had the past year been “normal”?

A: The domestic space definitely became a bigger part of my work during the pandemic. I was pulling more imagery from my own home after having spent so much more time there the past year. The work also expanded from specific political commentary to include a more universal sense of anxiety, brought on by the pandemic at large. While some of the work maintained focus on an individual political issue, such as election disinformation, other works in “Kitchen Table Issues” pointed to the broader consequences of disinformation in general and how not having a shared understanding of reality is impacting our society.

Q: Your work was exhibited in the 2021 Young Painters Competition at Miami University, and one of your paintings won Best in Show at Summit Artspace’s FRESH exhibition. You also had a painting selected by Abattoir Gallery in Cleveland! What have you learned from participating in shows like these as a graduate student? How does it feel to have your work recognized by these galleries? 

A: These exhibitions give me the opportunity to see how a juror, who may be unfamiliar with my work, interprets it and places it within the contemporary discourse. The juror for the 2021 Young Painters Competition, Kelly Baum (Curator of Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), brought together artists from all corners of the country who are responding to the present moment through painting. It was so great to be able to see how my contemporaries, from different geographic locations and backgrounds, are dealing with similar issues in various ways. Those connections are so valuable and reading what someone wrote about your work or seeing how they placed it alongside others is always informative. 

Installation view of the Young Painters Competition at Miami University in 2021

Q: Now that the COVID-19 vaccines are rolling out, how do you anticipate the subject matter of your work to shift? Are there certain areas you would like to explore in the future? 

A: The pandemic has brought several issues to the forefront of the national dialogue and I don’t imagine those issues will go away anytime soon, but there is a lot to be hopeful for. I hope to keep talking about these issues as we work through them and begin to heal.

Images: (top) Image from Katie Butler’s MFA Thesis Exhibition “Kitchen Table Issues” CVA Gallery; (within text, from top down) “A Seat at the Table” 2021 oil and acrylic on canvas 60 x 72 inches; “Sealing Your Fate” 2020 oil and acrylic on canvas 40 x 65 inches; Image from “2021 Young Painters Competition” Miami University

POSTED: Thursday, April 15, 2021 - 3:38pm
UPDATED: Thursday, April 15, 2021 - 4:04pm
Grace Carter