Artist Kailee Viator muses on mortality, celebrates life
A veil of death hangs over Kailee Viator’s art. An awareness of mortality infuses every brush stroke of her paintings, every kneaded piece of clay, every item in her assemblages.
That does not, however, mean that Kailee’s work is not brimming with life and vitality.
“It’s more of a reverence thing,” the 25-year-old says. “If you don’t have a concept of mortality then you are not going to live life to the fullest.”
The fruit of Kailee’s musings on the nature of existence will be on display in “Memento Mundi” at The Art Studio in February. The show opens Feb. 7, with a reception from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., and runs through Feb. 28.
A graduate of Lamar University where she earned a BFA in painting, Kailee has wanted to be an artist since she was a child.
“When I was four years old I told my mom I wanted to be an artist,” she says. “My mom would draw pictures for me. I would say ‘Draw me a zebra.’ She got her artistic ability from her father, my grandfather, He’s the one who taught me how to give things volume.”
When her maternal grandfather, Craig Hoyal, died, she found that his death — or more specifically, her thoughts about mortality triggered by his death — began to permeate her work.
“A lot of the show is about, not necessarily death, but the whole idea of appreciating life through death, and he was the first experience I had of losing someone close to me and not really knowing how to feel about it,” she says.
He died in 2009.
“I didn’t really feel much about it,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh, that happened.’ And then way later, about a year later, I really thought about it and cried.
“Before he passed, I was doing paintings of road kill, just for the hell of it — blood and guts and gore kind of deal — and in the middle of that series is when he died and things turned from there. It actually had a concept to it more than getting some shock value. Before it was just ‘Yeah! Fuck shit up!’”
Kailee laughs at the thought of her 19-year-old self, with her Suicide Silence hoodie, actively trying to shock and offend with her art.
When her grandfather died, her art immediately changed, she says, but while she was working through her feelings, she was not intellectualizing her motivations. It was not until she worked on her senior thesis, in the fall of 2012, that the life/death/rebirth theme really came in to focus, prompted by a study abroad summer trip to Italy.
“I saw all these cathedrals and all this work about similar themes,” she says. “A big one was the Capuchin Crypts in Rome where all the monks’ bones are all over the floors and all over the ceilings — all the intricate patterns with these bones. In the final room, there are headstones in the ground and it says, in Italian, of course, ‘What you are now we once were, what we are now you will be.’ The whole dust-to-dust thing.
“It was comforting. At first, when someone dies, I will never get to see them again, never get to learn from that grandparent. Not that I don’t love my other three grandparents, but he was the one I should have spent the most time with.”
Her grandfather was 77 when he died. Now her other grandparents are failing and she makes sure to spend time them.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t spend time with him, it just wasn’t enough,” she says. “The only other instance of death I experienced, I guess it was around that same time, the guy I was in love with in high school killed himself and I didn’t find out until about three days after his funeral. That was important at the time, but I don’t know if it is important to (the show).”
All these events started Kailee thinking about mortality.
“It’s evolved a lot,” she says. “Thesis-wise, I was trying to express that whole idea of life/death/rebirth without referencing any specific religion content — I mean, I probably kinda did, it looks just like an altar — but using symbols such as bugs and flowers, and all the symbolism that goes with each kind without saying anything really specific,” she says. “There’s still a lot of flowers and bugs. I guess that’s a sort of personal symbolism. I want it to make sense to me but also to other people.”
Kailee uses cicada shells in her assemblages and says they are the most important symbol for her.
“In ancient China, they used to carve cicadas out of jade and put them in the mouths of the deceased to bring them to the tranquil afterlife,” she says. “They are very much a symbol of rebirth — the whole shedding of the skin, living underground for 12-14 years and then coming out as this new thing. I relate to that a lot.”
One of her thesis pieces featured a woman whose lower half is wrapped in fabric adorned with cicada shells, with winged cicadas flying up and around her.
Despite the seeming fixation with death, Kailee does not see herself as a morbid person. Working through these issues in her art makes her feel connected, she says.
“I definitely believe in the collective unconsciousness,” she says. “I have a read a lot of things by (Carl) Jung and I like Joseph Campbell a lot — feeling connected to all people and the earth and dirt, all the bugs and flowers being connected.
“I think a big reason I switched to clay is touching and molding the dirt and playing with it, and having it bend and shape to my will. Even in the wax things there are a lot of sticks and bugs, things like that. I guess I feel like I enjoy making a thing more than drawing or painting a thing these days, because it’s more genuine, more natural. I can’t draw a flower to be more beautiful than the real thing. Not that I’m doing that because I can’t, but because it’s more genuine.”
As she talks, Kailee seems to revel in the realizations about her work. She says she has been preoccupied with school — she is training to be a radiology tech — and while she has been making art, she has not been able to intellectualize it.
Although she uses bugs in her work, they are found pieces. The idea of killing the bugs (she references Damien Hirst’s butterfly installation with annoyance) is a complete anathema to her.
However, the found cicada shells and flowers mean that her work will eventually decay.
“That’s part of it,” she says. “I think it goes back to the whole concept of dust to dust. The butterflies of mine aren’t going to be pretty colors forever — eventually they will turn brown and fall to smithereens.
“I am OK with that. And I hope that the people who like and buy my stuff are OK with that, too. Or if they are not, I don’t feel like they get it.”
People hold on to things too much, she says.
“I do it, too.”
While the work in “Memento Mundi” references specific people, Kailee is quick to play down the specifics of any of the symbols and images.
“I don’t want to get too personal,” she says. “I mean, it’s personal to me, but I want it to be personal to you and to the next person. For example, when I had my thesis, my friend came up to me in tears because she felt what I wanted her feel from that, but it has nothing to do with me in the end. I mean it does, but it doesn’t.”
When someone looks at a painting, the viewer sees what they will see — the artist has nothing to do with it any more, she says. Although she then contradicts herself.
“I say you are no longer part of it but you are — there are pieces of my hair and my sweat in it,” she says.
Kailee moved into working ceramics over the past year and has embraced the challenge of learning a new skill. Changing her medium has changed the way she approaches her work.
“It’s not really more direct, but it feels more direct,” she says. “I don’t have to do all these layers and getting my paints out and washing my brushes — which I never do, I just throw them away.
“If you get involved with clay it teaches you a lot — not just art related or skill — it teaches you patience. If you look at my painting, is no such thing as patience there.”
She points out a larger than life size, ornate ceramic skull.
“I would never in a million years have thought that I would spend that much time on one piece — ever,” she says. “If it’s not instantaneous I would walk away from it and maybe come back in two years and work on it some more — and even then it’s doubtful.
“It’s not even about art — it’s life. I guess you always learn about life through art and vice versa — the clay especially.”
There is a relationship she has found with clay that is different from her past relationship with painting.
“The way I work is I do a bit here and there and then I walk away, go eat, go to bed, and I forget about it — and that’s OK with clay because as long as you wrap it up it’s fine,” she says. “It’s pretty forgiving, too. I mean, with paint you can paint over it, but you still know it’s there. With clay, you can re-shape it however you want it.
“It’s like you have more of a relationship with your material than you do with paint. With paint there’s more of a disconnect. There is a separation between you and the canvas because there’s the brush, there’s the paint — it’s different.”
She credits local ceramicist Linnis Blanton for fostering a love of clay and mentoring her.
“I have Linnis coaching me in every way possible — that man is my Zen person,” she says.
An artist must constantly challenge herself, Kailee says.
“Clay is a big part of that because it was pretty much completely new to me,” she says. “I would mess up all the time, things would break and fall apart, and I would cry. And Linnis would just tell me to calm down, go home, come back tomorrow, it will be OK.
“I’ve worked through so much with myself through (clay), things I never really dealt with. I guess that goes back to my grandpa and the guy I went to high school with. You just rush through it and never really deal with it. Art’s like that, too, I guess.”
Much of her multi-media collage pieces incorporate letters and book texts but Kailee cautions against reading too much into that. She laughs and says she should make up a reason why she uses a particular text. One piece has pages from a George Eliot novel.
“We had to learn the whole ‘To be or not to be’ speech,” she says, laughing again at the appropriateness of her likes, connecting the melancholy Dane’s musings on death to her work.
Kailee is also inspired by the landscape she encountered on a trip to Sedona, Ariz.
“I went there a few years ago and I knew I wanted to make art about it, and since then I haven’t stopped making art about it,” she says. “In those moments, being there, is the closest I’ve ever felt to something, I don’t know, divine? — I know, it sounds stupid, but it’s true. Since then I have been trying to incorporate other landscapes into (my work).”
Kailee points to a shelf on which sits a ceramic cave with a small white figure perched solitary on a ledge.
“A lot of the ceramics have these figures in them — little bitty non-descript ceramic people, not male or female or anything like that — and they are just placed around these landscapes in meditative poses. So, just humanity being in nature and around it — interacting with it,” she says
They are small because they are humans, Kailee says.
“It’s like that whole thing about looking at the stars and feeling insignificant, but not in a bad way,” she says. “What’s that quote about us all being stardust?”
So death comes to us all. But to know that is not to dwell on sadness, but to celebrate with enthusiasm and fun. Kailee laughs at death — she laughs often — not in spite or defiance, but because it makes the living so much more fun.
The Art Studio is located at 720 Franklin in downtown Beaumont.
For more information, visit www.artstudio.org, or visit the “Memento Mundi” Facebook page.
Story by Andy Coughlan