“The universe is a big, scary, strange, and beautiful place. As an artist, I am fundamentally a visual creature with my eyes wide open.”
Intro: Kate Castelli is an artist and professor living and working in Boston, MA. A self-described coffee addict and bookstore fiend, it makes sense that her work is a beautiful hybrid of new and old. It is graphic, layered and nostalgic in the best way. She regularly documents her work on her website and her process via social media. As an adjunct professor at the Lesley College of Art and Design, she is able to utilize academic workspaces and surround herself with conversations about art. She admits that it's easy to become over-saturated, but she balances that by "purposely getting lost" on long walks or trips to the bookstore. After admiring her woodblock carving via Instagram for months, I got a chance to pick her brain about living, working and getting lost in Boston.
S: What is your daily process like?
K: Besides my daily trip to Starbucks, I have more of a weekly routine. It depends on my teaching schedule, but I generally have one full day in the studio a week and several afternoons and evenings. If I am printing woodblocks, I’ll take a full day to work in the print shop. Otherwise, I work on projects in stages. My printing surfaces and grounds take time to prep and the prints need to dry longer because of the nature of the surfaces. Books and mixed media work develops in layers. I also take time to scan and document my work, update my website and social media, and work in my sketchbook.
S: What is it like living and working in Boston?
K: I’m a New Englander by birth and I love Boston. I actually live just over the river in Harvard Square in Cambridge. The pace of the city is much slower than New York, and it retains a lot of its provincial East Coast vibe. It is both urban and academic. I love the many used bookstores and amazing food culture. Admittedly, the winter is tough. It wears you down by February, but it only makes the first warm days of spring so much sweeter.
S: What classes do you teach at the Lesley College of Art and Design?
K: I currently teach in both the Illustration and Foundation departments. The Foundation department focuses on the first year art school experience and not only teaches students the fundamentals of visual thinking but also the language of critique and professional practices. I teach introductory and experimental courses in the Illustration department that include mixed media, bookmaking, sketchbooks, and sequential projects.
S: Do you like to experiment with any media outside of your specialties?
K: Not as much as when I was in undergrad or grad school. I still try use my sketchbooks as a safe place to play and experiment.
S: Where do you go to find inspiration and new ideas?
K: I've always been a bit of a magpie in collecting things. It's an active part of my process to haunt used bookstores and antique shops, especially when I travel. I love museums and libraries, and luckily Boston is a home to a lot of both. When I need inspiration, I usually grab a coffee and go on a long walk or ramble in a neighborhood. Purposely getting lost has always worked for me.
S: How do you define art?
K: I make work with an awareness of what preceded me, and I think most artists understand the burden of art history. I try not to define it beyond that. Leave that to the art historians and scholars. They never agree on it anyway, and people still make art.
S: When do you feel most inspired and/or creative?
K: Usually when I am trying to fall asleep. I wake up to some weird post-it notes in the morning, like “Ode to Pluto” or “Even hummingbirds sleep.”
S: Do you create your routine more around inspiration or structure?
K: I think it is a healthy mix of both. During the academic year, my life and work is much more structured around my semester schedule. My focus is definitely split between teaching and making. Summer is much more open and I have a lot of time to make work.
S: What type of work/studio space works best for you?
K: Depends on what I am working on. If I’m making books, I like to have a large surface to spread out on. I’m a big fan of working on the floor, too. As faculty, I’m lucky to have access to the print shop and other facilities at Lesley College of Art and Design. So I take full advantage of that workspace.
S: What life lessons have you learned by being an artist?
K: The universe is a big, scary, strange, and beautiful place. As an artist, I am fundamentally a visual creature with my eyes wide open. It is less about the big picture and more about the little picture. It is the details, the space between, a pause in the chaos, and the difference between looking and seeing.
S: In your opinion, what resources/voices are missing from the art world?
K: I think the conversation needs to be about how success is defined in an art world that is highly commercialized, no longer orbiting around New York, and operates in a society that has devalued it for decades.
S: Is there a specific type of music you like to listen to when making art?
K: I always listen to music when I work, and especially when I am printing in the studio. My soundtrack varies from Alternative to Classic Rock. The Rolling Stones are usually in heavy rotation. Lately, I’ve been listening to The Augustines, The Heavy, Bibi Tanga and the Selenites, and Dave Brubeck.
S: What distracts or discourages you from making art?
K: Teaching takes up a huge amount of time and energy. Sometimes, when I spend most of the week engaged in lecturing, critiquing, and looking at art, the last thing I want to do is come home and think about my own work. Teaching at an art school is an amazing environment and community, but sometimes you can get over-saturated.
S: In your opinion, how has the digital revolution impacted the art world and creativity in general?
K: The Internet has made the world a small town. Everything is connected and accessible. This makes it easier for emerging artists to get established and seen. But also creates an overload of information. It is hard to hear when everyone is shouting and the challenge is to have your voice heard.
S: How do your creative pursuits benefit you personally?
K: I have the rare privilege of being the architect of my own life. I’ve learned to live with some of the uncertainty and instability, but I get to do what I love and be part of a community of people who see the world through a very different lens.
S: Do you have any daily rituals that keep you on track?
K: Coffee (preferably Starbucks) in the morning is a must, and I rarely do any work in the studio before noon. I am much more of an afternoon/evening person. I always carry a sketchbook and I write or work in it everyday.
S: How do you describe your work and process?
K: I have threads that run throughout my work: traveling and the desire to be elsewhere, cities, fragments of literature and art history, small moments that need to be recorded or remembered. They all get layered on top of each other to weave something new out of something old. There is a subtle poetic tension in that, something mysterious and lingering. Someone once described my work as “Sherlockian,” and that has always seemed very accurate.
I work a lot with ephemera and found paper, so a vital part of my process is sourcing material. I wander around used bookstores and antique shops. I don’t usually know what I am looking for, and that is part of the process. Found paper has a subtlety that new paper lacks. The color is particularly beautiful, but more importantly the paper has a memory and a history. Much of my work explores how I can edit, alter, or add to that history. I layer the found paper to create surfaces and grounds to print on or incorporate into the interior content of a book. I’m constantly adding to my archives of paper and material.
Click through the gallery below for more photos of Kate's work and process:
Check out this playlist of tunes and the reading list below for recommendations directly from Kate.
"Wes Anderson's Worlds" by Michael Chabon
"Principles of Uncertainty" by Maira Kalman
"The Posthuman Dada Guide" by Andrei Codrescu
"The Art of Looking Sideways" Alan Fletcher
"10 Rules for Painting" Richard Diebenkorn