Klea McKenna

Artist, Photographer, San Francisco // February 2013
I want to make an imprint of a place – both visual and emotional. It’s strange because I’ve gotten the impression that many people think of place or landscape as something sort of impersonal, but for me it is the most intimate thing I can imagine. It’s the stage and the score and the character.

IN THE MAKE is on the cusp of turning two years old, and now with 75 visits under our belt I thought it was high time to “flip the script” on Klea and for IN THE MAKE to do a studio visit with her— she is, after all, an artist.

Klea and I began IN THE MAKE amidst a floundering economy, uncertain career trajectories, and with the question of “What’s next?” ringing in our ears. In part, I think we started it just to get out from under the anxieties about the future and to have a chance to collaborate with each other. But mostly IN THE MAKE started off as a product of our curiosity— and now, almost two years later, our curiosity is still why IN THE MAKE has endured.

From the get go Klea came to IN THE MAKE as an artist, privy to the challenges of what it means to make creative work and interested in how other artists deal with them. I had been trying to get Klea to open up her studio doors and reveal a bit about her own art practice for a while, but to no avail. But with our two-year anniversary coming up, it just really seemed like the right time to ask her to share her thoughts on her own work as an artist. I’m not gonna lie— it took a lot of convincing, but Klea finally put aside her modesty and self-consciousness, and agreed to do it.

Klea already had some images of her process while doing field work in Hawaii where she created pieces for her current solo show at Smith Anderson North, called Archipelago. But we did need a stand-in photographer to help out when we visited Klea’s home studio in San Francisco, so luckily our friend and fellow documentarian Sara Brooke Curtis came along. These recent pieces readily reveal some of her affinities: electric colors, abstracted forms, shifting plays of light, and the often invisible, unobserved narratives of landscape. It might be said that Klea is a photographer, but that term wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Klea doesn’t take photographs in the traditional sense, but she does utilize light-sensitive materials and hand-made cameras (among other techniques) to create photographic images. Her process is very hands-on, very unpredictable, and often takes her outdoors at strange hours in inhospitable weather in far-off locations. Really, Klea does the bulk of her work outside in the realm of the natural world and then returns to the darkroom to see what she’s recorded.

Though Klea comes to her work with well-honed skills that she’s garnered over the years, she can never quite anticipate the results of her process. Setbacks, missteps, and disappointments are often part and parcel of her work— but these failures seem only to spur her on to consider alternate options, and to continue fine-tuning, adjusting, and evolving. Klea says she aims to “make an imprint of place – both visual and emotional – rather than just a picture of it”, and along the way she also manages to leave readily observable imprints of her process, both personal and technical, that reveal just as much about inner landscapes as outer.

Interestingly, though Klea and I talk about art ALL the time, we don’t often talk about her art. Sometimes we discuss her art in the context of life choices, but we rarely talk about specific methods she might be trying out or the ideas incubating in her brain. Doing a studio visit with her and posing these particular questions to her was illuminating in a way I hadn’t anticipated. Certainly, it reiterated and broadened my understanding of her work and dedication, but it also dawned on me that though we have been friends for close to 10 years, there are elements of her personality that only reveal themselves in her work and art practice. It’s a funny thing to see your friend and close collaborator in such a different light and to really recognize just how many reads there are to one person.

What mediums do you work with?
I work almost entirely with light-sensitive materials, so that means analog photographic papers, films and emulsions, both black & white and color. I rarely go out and “take” photographs in the traditional sense (although my work does dictate that I spend a lot of time outdoors, sometimes in strange settings). Instead, I devise ways that photographic materials can interact more directly with the landscape. That can be anything from nighttime photograms in the forest or filling a camera with river water, intentionally damaging film or intricately folding photo paper before exposing it to light. I like for things to be very hands-on, in a physical sense, or else I don’t feel that I’ve really done my job.

How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
I want to make an imprint of a place – both visual and emotional. It’s strange because I’ve gotten the impression that many people think of place or landscape as something sort of impersonal, but for me it is the most intimate thing I can imagine. It’s the stage and the score and the character.

I’ve always felt that each landscape is sort of teeming with the personal stories and histories that have taken place there. This sort of residue can animate a place and affect the way we inhabit it. These embedded stories are the impetus for my work and they can be personal or cultural (such as the military history of the California coast which was the jumping off point for my installation Paper Airplanes) or even about larger natural or geological processes. There is always a sort of fragility or instability that I am working with, because if you really consider our relationship to landscape you have to recognize how fleeting and unstable everything is. I think a lot about tectonic plates and magma and what’s happening beneath the surface.

So, yes, my work is about place. Sometimes I go on tangents into pure formal abstraction or get swept up in playing with the magic capabilities of light-sensitive materials, but ultimately I come back to the emotional resonance of landscape and the way we experience it.

You use a variety of crude methods, such as hand-made cameras and outdoor photograms, that directly interact with a landscape and it’s distinct elements. This means you can never really predict what the results might be— what are the challenges to this approach and how have you learned to contend with them?
Yes, the way I’ve been working is extremely unpredictable and there is a high failure rate, but the risk and then the thrill when it works, is addictive. Often a whole night’s work will turn out black, or blank, or more often red due to too much moonlight. There are so many unpredictable variables to contend with and they’re not things you can look up and find an answer to— it’s all trial and error. I can never make the same thing happen twice, so there is a lot of letting go, acceptance, and sometimes I even find myself praying to the photo gods for divine photographic intervention. This generally takes the form of playing or singing the Leonard Cohen song Anthem over and over again. There is a line in it that says, There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light get’s in, It’s absurdly literal when applied to photography, but I love it, and of course it’s true about life as well, it’s the brokenness that makes it rich and real.

I used to use photography in the more controlled, representational manner that most photographers do, you know, go out and “take” pictures, but I got to a point where it just wasn’t satisfying for me as a creative process. I still love a lot of representational photography made by other people, but the process left me hungry. It felt like I was just replicating what I saw and I wanted a transformation to take place, I wanted magic to happen, so I began making technical choices that would force myself to lose control over the finished image, and that’s brought me to where I am now. Admittedly, though, I think that I am rounding the corner and beginning to come back towards wanting a bit of control again and that’s evident in my most recent work. I’ve finally honed some of these techniques to the point where I am able to allow for chance, but also have some degree of articulation.

The objects and places you capture are often abstracted and only reveal the barest traces of what they are, creating persistent but ghostly impressions that render the familiar unfamiliar. Why is the idea of “defamiliarization” important to your work?
It’s about transformation again. I want to shift something just far enough away from its original form in order to really see it, or see what it feels like rather than what it looks like. Abstraction can be one way to get there – to describe a sensation without imitating its form. And one of the things I love about photography is that it always wavers on this line between object and image, surface and window. I like to play with that by making the flawed material of the paper or film as visible as the image it has captured.

There is a wonderful Robert Heinecken quote and it’s something I strive for: Many pictures turn out to be limp translations of the known world instead of vital objects which create an intrinsic world of their own.

I love that. I want to make a “vital object”!

Do you see your work as autobiographical at all? Does personal history work its way into your practice?
Yes. It’s not overt in a narrative way, but certainly my personal history and worldview are at the source of it, that seems inevitable. In my most recent work Volcano Watchers I have let myself embrace this a bit more. The work was made in reaction to a particular landscape that my family lived in when I was a little kid in the early 80’s. We lived in a one-room, octagonal house, off-the-grid on the slopes of Mauna Loa, on the Big island of Hawaii. The images are a reaction to the nature and volatile geology of that place, but also to my uneasy upbringing in rural, bohemian/psychedelic subcultures of that era. The metaphor of living on an active volcano is pretty accurate. It’s strange now that so many artists of my generation are sort of enshrining those alternative/utopian lifestyles, but if you lived it, then you’ll have a much more nuanced perspective.

After years of distancing myself from the influence of my upbringing it feels really good now to accept it and let the aesthetics, colors and patterns of that era come into my work in a way that feels like my own. My parents, Terence McKenna and Kathleen Harrison, were/are both ethnobotanists of sorts, so my brother and I have always had a strong awareness of plants and nature, and I love that they taught us that. I absolutely believe that for artists, whatever is around you at the age when you’re first becoming visually aware, whatever appears significant, is quite literally imprinted into your mind’s eye and we return to it again and again in our work. I’m enjoying that.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
Right now IN THE MAKE is my primary day job and it is kind mind-blowing how much time and effort it takes to keep it running at the velocity we are currently moving at. I also teach photography some semesters, I’ve taught at CCA and UC Davis over the last few years. And I also do the odd photo job, magazine work, event photography, whatever fits the moment. I’m sort of a photographic Jack-of-all-trades and to be honest, I am still figuring out how I feel about each of these jobs. In the future I’d like to learn how to do just two jobs at a time. I think that would be wonderful. I’m lucky in that my rad husband, Dave, really believes in what I do, so together, we make it work.

So, in case some folks didn’t already know, you are the photographer and cofounder of IN THE MAKE— how has your work at IN THE MAKE affected you or influenced your own art practice?
Oh man, I don’t even know where to start. I’m learning so much! I went to grad school a while back, but I feel like the last, nearly two years of doing IN THE MAKE has been an equally formative education. Going into someone’s studio or their home and spending two hours really talking with them about their life and art is such an insight, and people can be really candid and honest. Of course we don’t publish everything that gets said, if it’s too sensitive, but we soak it all in. It has simultaneously broadened and honed my own taste in art. I’ve learned to enjoy and engage with work that I might not have tuned into before, but also to be discerning. But really I think I have learned more about being an artist than about art itself. We visit a lot of women artists, which has been important to me from the beginning, and I always pay special attention to what I can glean from women who are juggling jobs and families and their own art practice and careers. I think it is a really important conversation and I guess I keep hoping that I’ll be able to crack the code. The thing that I hear across the board is DEFEND YOUR STUDIO TIME LIKE IT IS GOLD.

Another thing that is really interesting to observe (and that Nikki and I discuss a lot) is that self-recognition and acceptance is such a long, slow, agonizing process and with artists you can really see it evidenced in the arc of their work over time. Visiting a lot of artists, we start to be able to see this and identify what stage people are at in this process. What we are doing with IN THE MAKE often feels almost more akin to anthropological research than to any sort of journalism or art criticism. We’re really just super curious people observing other people. It’s sort of miraculous that we get to do this. But to be honest it is also a huge sacrifice, every day I spend documenting and publishing someone else’s art practice is a day that I am not making my own art, and I am keenly aware of what hangs in balance.

But yes, I am gathering little bits of wisdom and attempting to integrate them into my own life and work. I think it’s making me a better person, if not a better artist.

What are you presently inspired by— are there particular things you are reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
Close observation of nature is a constant for me. Lately, I’ve been fascinated by traditional textile patterns. I’m looking at things like Indonesian ikat weavings and resist dyeing techniques such as batik and Japanese shibori and trying to figure out how I might translate those methods into working with light-sensitive materials. The idea of “resist” actually lends itself quite well to the photogram process. Also, I’m drawn to art that is really emotional, I crave it. I think Gordon Matta Clark’s “Split” is the most powerful example I can give of this, it breaks me open every time I see it. I think Pina Bausch is brilliant at this, too. I used to be a dancer and twice I got to go see her company perform live. When I watch them dance, I feel that I am learning how to express emotion. Of course, how to apply that to two-dimensional abstraction is a riddle I’m trying to solve.

How do you navigate the art world?
Hmmm. Artists we interview usually try to skirt around this question, so I am going to try to take an honest stab at it.

Navigating the art world is really hard and confusing and I never really feel at ease. I’ve found that I have to have incredible patience and determination and an internal sense of purpose that is not at all dependent on what the world thinks of me, but that is so much easier to say than it is to do. In the last two years, I have learned a lot about existing in the art world simply by doing IN THE MAKE. It is so much easier for me to promote a project that is about supporting other artists rather than promote my own work. So I am trying to take what I learn about being professional and outgoing and building connections and begin to apply that to my own path. I’m naturally an outsider, I’ve always steered clear of scenes and cliques and that really puts me at a disadvantage in the socially driven art world. So instead, I focus on finding people I connect with individually and building those relationships gradually –one person at a time- and also on being generous and supportive of my peers and community. That part is so important. When we interviewed Linda Geary she said a wonderful thing that has really stuck with me. She said, the art world is basically you and me. There is no “us” and “them.” I love that. On a good day, that’s how I feel and I also tell myself that there really is no substitute for heart and hard work.

Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
I wouldn’t say that it fits into a particular movement, as things are just so splintered now. But I definitely think there is a whole slew of young-ish artists that have overlapping interests and are using analog photography in experimental ways, driven by the capacity of the materials and an interest in perception, and in some cases landscape too. Just to name a few semi-local folks: John Chiara, Chris McCaw, Meghann Riepenhoff, Maggie Preston, Jason Kaligoris, Eric William Carroll, Brice Bischoff, Matthew Brandt…I’m forgetting a lot of people… Even artists like Chris Fraser and Claude Collins-Stracensky, who are working more sculpturally, are playing with related ideas. In some ways it’s a rehashing of some of the interests of the Light and Space movement of the 60’s and 70’s, except now photographic and imaging technology has changed so much and that’s affected our understanding of perception and how we use our materials. And also our relationship to our environment has completely changed and feels so urgent, so those questions are relevant again.

How will you know when you’ve arrived?
When I’m being interviewed by Terri Gross on Fresh Air. And no disrespect, but I don’t want “Dave Davies standing in for Terri Gross”. I want the real deal.

Do you have a motto?
I’m always telling myself something. Right now it’s:
You don’t need to be liked by everyone, just loved by a few.

And Rilke is always a source of wisdom for me:
Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I currently have a solo show called Archipelago at Smith Andersen North. It will be up until March 23rd.

There is a feature on my work Slow Burn in the current issue (#5) of Moholy Ground Magazine.

Some other things are in the works, one of which is that my installation Paper Airplanes will be included in the upcoming triennial invitational show this fall at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego.

To see more of Klea’s work: and Von Lintel Gallery

Photos shot by guest photographers Sara Brooke Curtis (Studio shots in San Francisco), and Hadley Nunes (field work in Hawaii).