Katie Pell is a multi-talented artist, professor, and bundle of energy who lives and works in Southtown. I was first drawn to her because she looks like a California surfer girl. Her latest project was a six-year collaboration with her husband, master woodworker Peter Zubiate, in which Peter completely rebuilt the interior of a vintage Airstream trailer with wood, after which Katie covered every square inch with fantasy-nature scenes, drawn with a woodburning tool. I was eager to interview her because she’s smart, animated, and because I never know what’s going to come out of her mouth.
What was your childhood like in Delaware?
I grew up with British parents in a real European expat community — French, Germans, Hungarians, Poles — and I think a bit of their leftover trauma lingered. My father was orphaned in World War II. My parents were older when they had three children, and I wanted so much to be an American. I was a misfit, and alone a lot — all pretty standard artist stuff: Sadness,but with a deep love of nature, and later on, a deep understanding of my parents’ trauma. I went to a really fancy prep school with old money East Coast kids — they pretended they had somehow accomplished something by being born rich. That’s where I got the idea I could go to the Rhode Island School of Design instead of the University of Delaware.
If you could own any piece of art, what would it be?
I can’t imagine what it would be — I think a James Ensor painting, Christ Entering Brussels, the big version. Oh, I know! The Peter Doig painting with Duane Allman in a canoe. Those paintings he does in Trinidad make me cry — and Duane Allman to boot!
You were in Seattle in the heyday of grunge music and art glass. Tell me about it.
Seattle was so much fun, but I took all of the obvious risks and none of the real ones. I worked for a wonderful glass artist, Ginny Ruffner, and met incredibly great people. There were lots of people my age making tons of money, but it gave me unrealistic expectations of how it goes for young people. I lived down the street from Soundgarden, and met tons of other bands. Eventually, the rain sucked, my job sucked, and everybody thinking where they lived made them cool sucked, so I went to Colorado, where I met the love of my life! The unbelievably beautiful, brave, and talented Peter Zubiate.
You have a great sense of humor, but I’ve never seen you laugh hysterically. What cracksyou up?
I wish I were silly — I’ve never had a carefree moment in my life. I laugh at wordplay, situational absurdity…I would like to be a giggler and laugh at fart jokes, but I think they’re stupid.
What’s the most valuable piece of advice you give your students?
Screw your career! Learn some damn art history! Make some crazy stuff! Never, EVER look at DeviantArt! Take your tattoo budget, buy a plane ticket, get off your ass and go somewhere. Get rid of your video games and stop entertaining yourself so much. Be self-reliant, bold, risky, conniving, ambitious, and most of all, curious. If you are too cool to be interested in things, then you have become boring. What is happening in your life right now is what matters. Don’t borrow money, just work more: Remember, everyone who wants you to be in debt is making money off you. Shit, that advice is so good I’m going to use it myself!
Name four things that never fail to bring you pleasure.
Drawing, running, riding huge waves, and observing nature.
Do you believe hard work trumps talent?
Hard work uncovers talent. I don’t even know what talent is — being good at rendering? Being charming? Being talented is being smart — making work and looking at yourself, not art magazines, for context.
Speaking of advice, I read somewhere that if you have a style, it’s probably someone else’s. Avoid that trap, and you will uncover talent.
One of the ballsiest things I’ve ever seen was at Ken Little’s talent night, where you read poetry you’d written in high school. How are you different from the high school girl Katie Pell?
I am so much more open-minded than I was. I used to think there were rules on how to do things, like be successful, be in love, be interesting. I definitely have more in common with my high school self than is probably healthy: I’m still trying to fit in, be
good enough, make up for the sin of not being pretty or popular. Weak shit like that.