Katie DeGroot: Compulsive Observation

Introduction by Mary Kathryn Jablonski

When is a mushroom a corset? When does a branch drink a cocktail? Just ask artist Katie DeGroot. The watercolors of Katie DeGroot reflect not only her love of nature and her longtime home in upstate New York, but also her sense of whimsy. Her former etchings of dying flowers attest to the fact that she raises decaying specimens to an elevated position, and in so doing, entices the viewer to reconsider their own thoughts and position vis-à-vis such lighthearted topics as — interbeing, death, rebirth, our relationship to nature and in her recent work, more specifically, trees.

An Interview with Katie DeGroot 

MKJ: Let’s talk about the evolution of your work, including medium and subject matter beginning with your Tribute to Dead Flowers series, which were monochromatic sepia-toned etchings. As a frontispiece to a portfolio of six, you quote Emily Dickinson, using words such as “immortality” and “Redemption.” These themes seem to carry through to the present in your work even though you are making what you call “portraits” of dead objects from nature (flowers and now branches). What has made you personify your subjects?

KDG: I have always been both a painter and a printmaker and always enjoyed the conversations back and forth between the two practices. The common theme in both has been the temporality of the objects I choose to paint, and of course us, as humans. Having been a figurative painter for many, many years I think that gestures are what I notice first about the branches I choose to paint. The gestures made by the branches I find seem to me very universally human; after all, we call tree branches “limbs.” 

MKJ: What inspired the shift from printmaking to watercolors?

KDG: I started using watercolors when I was at Yaddo for an artist residency almost 20 years ago. I was frustrated with the length of time it took for oil paint to dry, so I started working on small watercolors. Unfortunately, access to a printshop is needed to make (most) prints, and I have a wonderful painting studio, so I just ended up painting with watercolor. I do make watercolor monoprints whenever I get the chance, and hopefully someday I will get to work in a printshop again (to make etchings). 

MKJ: You seem to live immersed in nature, can you tell us more about this? 

KDG: Well, I am lucky and live in my great-grandparent’s farmhouse on a family farm. I even raised beef cattle for a while! However, I must give my corgis, there have been several over the years, credit for starting my collection of “muses.” Time spent walking on our farm property or in a local nature preserve with my dog has been the way I have found and collected most of my branches. I also have found wonderful limbs from trees on the coast of Massachusetts where my mom lives. There are different lichens and mosses there. 

MKJ: When I look at your recent watercolors there seems to be a shift from working with a singular branch against a stark white background to painting large groups of branches that almost obliterate the background completely. What made you include so many branches “in conversation” in works such as “Cocktail Party IV”?

KDG: Well, my studio is filled with an entire wall (and spreading) of whole tree trunks, various sized tree limbs and smaller branches. During a studio visit by a good friend it was suggested that I consider painting the entire line up on the wall. Until then I had just worked on “portraits” of the individual branches or trunks. In considering the idea, I remembered one of my favorite artists, and specifically one small watercolor I had seen years ago. Gladys Nilsson, the Chicago artist and member of the Hairy Who, a wonderful surrealist group from the 60’s and 70’s, painted a small watercolor that showed a Cocktail Party, people all dressed up, high heel shoes, drinks, etc. — all packed into a colorful, animated space. Thinking about that Cocktail Party, I suddenly could see my “muses” interacting on a much bigger scale. I was super excited, and still am, to be working on large scale pieces, along with the smaller portraits, featuring my ever-changing cast of objects/characters. 

MKJ: Talk about the relationship of lichen and/or mushrooms to the branches? How do you see this relationship? What do you want the viewer to get out of this? 

KDG: I see them as accessories really; I am not particularly interested in their scientific relationships. They are just beautiful adornments. 

MKJ: The works also seem to be becoming more colorful? Where do you see them going next? Can you envision these watercolors expressed in some form of printmaking?

KDG: Maybe someday. I would love to be invited to a printshop to make work as an artist, for sure! I am currently working on a very large series, each watercolor is 72 inches tall by 52 inches wide, I have three so far and hope to create a forest wall of interacting “muses.” I love color and am always pushing the colors in my objects, sometimes past “real,” but I paint what I feel as well as what I see. 

MKJ: Lastly, do your titles, while wonderfully humorous, have any hidden messages for viewers?

KDG: I hope that the viewer does find them humorous. I think about the objects and their quirky personalities as I paint, but the titles are not meant to be flippant. The hope is that next time you walk by a tree, or a broken branch, or even a dead flower, you might stop and consider its beautiful and odd, but interesting individuality, something that everything in nature has, especially us humans. 

Artist Statement

I have been focusing on painting trees and their cast off limbs, i.e., sticks, for many years. Trees are completely individual. They are adapters and survivors, each one unique, and I think that is something most people don’t think about.

We are taught to look at trees based on a stereotype, the image of a perfectly pruned tree is the one most people have in their heads, balanced and symmetrical. But in nature those rarely exist. Trees grow to survive, they adapt to their given environment, growing into strange shapes, producing oddly shaped limbs, becoming contortionists to get to sunlight, bowing to the will of other larger trees. They grow in context to each other and their neighbors, adapting as best they can to the situation they find themselves in.

While my artwork has always been based on a traditional observation process, the final appearance of the objects in my paintings is grounded in contemporary ideas and concerns and by my own quirky interpretation of the objects’ personalities. These objects allow me to explore my interests in surrealism, (especially the Chicago artists collective The Hairy Who), and abstraction along with pursuing the pure physical pleasure of painting.

A Gallery