Kate MacDowell – Creating with Purpose

On March 25, 2015 by Evan Senn

Sculptor Kate MacDowell opens up to Rogue Arts about her process, her love for art history, and her concern for the environment.


Kate MacDowell’s romantic and eerie sculptures seem as if creations from a dream. Responding to her fascination and concern with the environmental threats and the consequences of man’s manipulation of nature, she is playful with her themes and concepts, but her execution is impeccably representational and uniquely innovative. MacDowell works almost exclusively in porcelain, although recently has been dabbling in new materials. Her porcelain creations, often illuminated from within, are able to mimic skin and further propel her creations from imaginary to real. “

“I use a variety of methods to create these pieces,” she says. “I see each piece as a captured and preserved specimen, a painstaking record of endangered natural forms and a commentary on our own culpability.”

MacDowell’s work called to us initially through the innocence and inherent connection we see between the animal kingdom and the human species. As vegans, we Rogues are often compelled by animal-friendly artwork, but the sheer morbid curiosity and provocative relationships that MacDowell portrays in her creations is mesmerizing and inspiring.

Based out of Portland, Oregon, she has been exhibited all across the globe, in galleries, museums and art fairs. She was recently an artist in residence at the Kohler Arts and Industry Program and recently had work in group exhibits at the JM Kohler Arts Center(Wisconsin), and Museum of Arts and Design (NY). MacDowell is preparing for a solo exhibition with Mindy Solomon Gallery in April and completed a new body of work for her solo show. She was kind enough to sit down and chat with us about her work, her process, her symbolism and passion.

"Strange Fruit," 2013.

“Strange Fruit,” 2013.

Your anatomy-based works are amazing and provocative. What inspired you initially to begin working in this playful series? How did you think of these strange and beautiful objects? 

I think it was seeing a decaying seagull on a beach (or one of the amazing dead albatross photos of Chris Jordan) and being struck by the parallels between the delicate skeletal system and delicate feathers.

Most of my work responds directly to human encroachment on and abuse of the rest of the natural world. In this way, I think of each piece as striking a warning note, and in some ways continuing the vanitas and memento mori tradition of Dutch painters in the 17th-century, who strove to remind viewers of our prideful folly and inescapable mortality. I like to collapse or decay the surface of my pieces, “dissecting” birds and animals to reveal a skeleton within. But I twist the tradition of Dutch still-lives by making the skeleton human within a non-human corpse. I want to show our fate and that of animals and plants as that closely intertwined.


"Predator," 2013.

“Predator,” 2013.

How and when did you fall in love with art?

I always have been in love with art, even as a small child. Craftsmanship and intricate detail in made objects fascinated me, and I liked narrative art because I also loved reading and writing stories.


Do you exclusively work in Porcelain? Can you tell me a little bit about your process, and why porcelain is your medium of choice?

Not exclusively, more recently I’m making slip-cast work out of terracotta and vitreous china (an industrial slip) in colors other than white – because the use of a specific color is part of meaning/message the piece has for me. For example I made a piece involving bright orange Costa Rican Golden toads, so used black to indicate the ‘missing’ or ‘extinct’ toads, and the bright orange of the males during mating season for the sole survivors.

I first started working with porcelain partly because of its translucent qualities. When lit from within I could evoke the effect of an ultrasound or x-ray used to look inside a body and instead use it to look inside a mind or soul. I could also refer to classical and baroque marble sculpture, and contemporary tomb sculpture, and draw the viewer’s eye to the form rather the surface colors. A pure white piece also speaks to me of ghosts or negative space–it suggests something missing from the world.


"The God of Change," 2011.

“The God of Change,” 2011.

Do you have other peer ceramic artists that you respect/admire that maybe don’t get enough attention?

There are several ceramic artists I admire, some of whom are well known. I always get something from the work of Roxanne Jackson, Dirk Staschke, and Beth Cavener Stichter for example.


What are you working on right now? What is the significance of this new project/series?

Lately after spending sometime investigating what is inside the skin (the skeleton revealing pieces), I’m more interested in the skin/outer covering without an inner body. I like the idea of clothing or armor and the sensual aspects of fur, feather and scale. So my piece ‘Scalps’ displays just the hair of several classical youths associated with reincarnation myths (they change into flowers after violent deaths). I recently completed ‘Skin-changers closet’ which springs off the skin-changing myths of various cultures and imagines a closet of animals whose psyches we inhabit in imagination and empathy when we don their outer shells.




"Skin Changers Closet"

“Skin-Changers Closet”


What do you feel you are trying to express in your work? Does it differ with each series, or is there a similar theme or feeling you try to keep cohesive throughout all your work?

Most of my work over time focuses on the conflict between our longing for and love of the natural environment and our negative impacts upon it. A lot of it is inspired by the experience of solastalgia – this word was coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht and it describes the sense of dislocation and loss that people feel when they see their local environment being harmed. In other words, it’s a psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change.

My newest work explores our physical and psychological relationships with the animal kingdom. Whether as proxy, trophy, raw material, or mythic symbol, animals currently occupy a space in my subconscious which layers history, fable, and an awareness of species fragility.


"Solastalgia," 2010.

“Solastalgia,” 2010.

In some of your work you use lighting. Is there a specific reason for certain pieces being lit? What do you think it does for the work, and for the viewer?

I mentioned it above but my very first porcelain pieces were illuminated. I liked that it created an effect akin to light passing through the living tissue of an organ, and I liked being able to reveal something hidden inside (as in my ‘Canary’ piece).


"Canary," 2008.

“Canary,” 2008.

"Canary," 2008 (illuminated).

“Canary,” 2008 (illuminated).

Any shows or projects coming up you’d like to share?

I recently completed a body of work for a solo show with Mindy Solomon Gallery in Miami opening April 10 to May 22.


"Clay Pigeons" installation.

“Clay Pigeons” installation.

"Clay Pigeons."

“Clay Pigeons.”

Who were some of your biggest artistic influences growing up?

Growing up? I’m not sure, I greatly admired Bernini’s marble sculpture and Caravaggio’s paintings when I saw them travelling in Europe during college, though. I think the Baroque made a big impact and continues to influence my work.


Kate MacDowell: Completely Exposed,” Mindy Solomon Gallery, Miami, FL. April 10 – May 22, 2015



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Protected by WP Anti Spam