Sculptor Kate MacDowell has worn many hats over the years, some of which include teaching in urban high schools, volunteering at a meditation retreat in rural India, and creating websites in high-tech corporate environments. It was in 2004, after her return to the US, that she began to study ceramics at the Art Center in Carrboro, North Carolina, and then later expanded her education after a move to Portland, Oregon.

Though she is now a full time sculptor, the experiences she found during these travels have culminated and continue to bring both an informed statement, and a divine inspiration, to her phenomenal sculpture works; each of which comment on humanity’s struggle with nature, as well as how science has affected it.

Her work is a beautiful commentary, I thought. And I was more than excited by the opportunity to get in touch with Kate and discuss her work, as I’m a recent fan thanks to a previous posting on Warholian’s Facebook Page.

Why did you choose to sculpt animals? Do you have a personal connection?

I’ve always been interested in animals. When I was a child I had absolutely no interest in dolls, but played with stuffed toys. Although I grew up pretty much in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, my parents took my sister and I hiking and camping frequently, family reunions were often at a seaside cabin in Maine, or to visit my uncle homesteading in a tent in the West Virginia woods. Before starting high-school we all went on a month-long family car trip through the national parks out West.

Very early on I felt a strong connection, and that pretty much never changed. I remember reading On Tintern Abbey in college living in a concrete bunker of a dorm in Providence RI, and bursting unexpectedly into tears because I suddenly missed the natural world with an ache like homesickness. I headed to the highlands of Scotland to study abroad a few months later and it felt like such a relief.

Why sculpture? What about the medium drew you in, and how did you get started with it?

I used to teach high-school English and later produced hi-tech websites. After the dot-com bust my husband and I moved to India for a year and half and worked at a meditation retreat center. We came back to the states by way of Italy, and I found myself without a job, and with a head full of fantastic tropical plants and animals, and classical and baroque marble sculpture.

I started taking a local clay class somewhat randomly while we figured out what to do next, and started funneling these images into early sculptures. I really hadn’t had much experience with clay or sculpture before, but I immediately loved the material, its’ malleability, and how it existed as an object in space rather than a flat plane.

How do you first start a sculpture? What’s your process?

I usually have a picture of the finished piece pop into my head (often with a title) while trying to get to sleep, hiking, or otherwise letting my mind wander. When I’ve chosen my best ideas, I go online to google images and collect source pictures of the forms I’m going to be sculpting, from as many angles as possible. I also do a little reading about the environmental issue or case study that has caught my interest to deepen my understanding.

I make sure to find scientific drawings as well as photographs. Skeletal systems are especially good for figuring out proportions. I usually build a piece solid around a ball of newspaper and then cut it open and hollow everything out to 1/4″ thickness. I build small forms like flowers petal by petal, and amass a collection until I’m ready to add them to the larger piece. Until recently I rarely used or made molds although I do pick up texture by rolling clay over little leaves, for example.

Often I’m dealing with components such as fly legs that are too small to hold with my fingers. In those cases, I use a tiny damp paintbrush tip, which the leg will cling to, and touch it into place on the sculpture. I bisque my work, glaze it with clear glaze in parts, then fire to cone 5. I patch cracks in my pieces both before firing, at bisque, and after firing.

Your statement mentions that you hand-sculpt each piece.. Are the materials you work with time / labor intensive, or is the process pretty routine once you’re past the conceptualization stage?

It’s very time/labor intensive. There are certain parts I can hand off to interns, like hollowing out the sculpted piece, but during the process of building I’m continually reconsidering and making changes in positioning, and often I’m working with a new animal I haven’t sculpted before so I’m learning a lot about its’ anatomy and posture as I go. It’s nerve-wracking and involves having to redo parts sometimes because I don’t want to remain wed to a sketched out idea if something better occurs to me later.

Do you work on a series, or do you sculpt one at a time?

Occasionally I will make a collection of components intended to be shown together as one piece. Sometimes sculpting an original and then making molds can help with that, but I find not using molds really helps each component to be unique and gives me more freedom in positioning/posing the animal.

Why porcelain? How did you begin working with the fragile medium?

I first started experimenting with it because of its translucence. When I lit it from within I could evoke the effect of an ultrasound or x-ray used to look inside the body. I could also reference marble sculpture – both classical and baroque, and more contemporary tomb statuary, and draw the viewer’s eye to the form rather the surface colors of the piece. A pure white piece also speaks to me of ghosts or negative space–it suggests something missing from the world. Finally, because it’s extremely fine textured, yet strong and dense, it can hold minute details well.

How big and how small are your sculptures? What’s the range that you work?

The smallest are probably about about 2” square (the size of a mouse), the largest are installations which can cover an area of 6’x8’ feet or more.

Do you do any site-specific work? I was especially wondering about the birds on your homepage – I love the photo of the bird sculptures in the field, it’s very beautiful!

I do have several ideas for site specific pieces, similar to the “clay pigeons” installation and photographs. These tend to be a lot more ambitious and require a lot of preplanning for funding and a team to execute them.

Any upcoming shows and events we should watch out for?

My “quiet as a mouse” wall installation will be on view in the “Night Blooming Stock” group exhibition in at Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York opening Sept. 14th

Also, you can see my work on the cover of Erasure’s new album “Tommorrow’s World” designed by Tom Hingston as well as for the single covers. (scroll down to see two news items).

– interview by Megan Wolfe for Warholian

You can read more about Kate MacDowell’s work on her website, at: