Keeping Katie’s Voice Alive: Late Artist Katie Pell on Teaching, Dolly and the Need for Kindness

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Friends and family gather at Ivy Hall for Pell’s December 26 memorial service. - ANGELA MARTINEZ
  • Angela Martinez
  • Friends and family gather at Ivy Hall for Pell’s December 26 memorial service.
Magnetic. Magical. Incandescent. Fierce. Thoughtful. Generous. Wise. This is but a sampling of the praise that’s fluttered around beloved San Antonio artist and educator Katie Pell since her death on December 21.

Raised by British parents in the suburbs of Wilmington, Delaware, Pell grew up with a deep appreciation for nature, hippies and rock stars — all elements that would later inform her artwork. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design and working for a glass artist in grunge-era Seattle, she met her husband Peter Zubiate during coinciding artist residencies in Aspen and moved to San Antonio with him in 1995. Five years later, their daughter Bygoe Zubiate was born. Between raising her daughter and caring for her husband during an extended illness that took his life in 2017, Pell pursued her own artwork while teaching at the Circle School, the Southwest School of Art, Northwest Vista College and the University of Texas at San Antonio.

One could argue Pell officially arrived as a San Antonio artist with the 2006 opening of her Artpace residency exhibition “Bitchen,” a blend of lowrider culture and feminist concepts that comprised elaborately tricked-out household appliances — including a hot-pink, fire-breathing stove now in the permanent collection of Ruby City. But high-concept sculpture was only the tip of the iceberg. Pell also worked extensively in ceramics, drawing, painting, collage and public art. In 2018, South Carolina’s Columbia Museum of Art celebrated her wide-ranging work with “Something’s Happening: The Big Art of Katie Pell,” an exhibition she described as her first solo show at a major American museum.

Following a cancer diagnosis just over a year ago, Pell underwent chemotherapy and went into remission. Before Thanksgiving, she learned that the cancer had returned aggressively. Upon entering hospice care at her home in Southtown, friends from near and far flooded in to say goodbye. Hundreds contributed to a still-active GoFundMe campaign — the “Katie Pell Cancer Fund” — that has raised more than $50,000 for daughter Bygoe. While some, including Pell’s friends Tim McDiarmid and Magaly Chocano, assisted with day-to-day tasks and coordinated droves of visitors, others organized her studio and cataloged her artwork. Longtime friend Ethel Shipton stepped up to focus on Pell’s artistic legacy. Working with gallerist Patricia Ruiz-Healy, Shipton organized “Katie Pell: Common Threads,” an impromptu exhibition Pell was able to attend. It remains on view at Ruiz-Healy Art through January 18.



Importantly, Pell was also able to weigh on her own memorial service. She didn’t want a somber sob-fest but “a really good party.” With an estimated 500 in attendance, Pell got her wish, complete with live music, drinking and dancing into the wee hours. McDiarmid, who hosted the memorial at her event space Ivy Hall, said the cops showed up twice to ask her to turn the music down. She complied only temporarily.

“Katie would’ve been so proud of us,” McDiarmid said. “Katie was a rabble-rouser.”

It’s safe to say Pell didn’t realize the impact she had on her students or the community at large until the last month of her life. Letters poured in from students thanking her for treating them with respect and for giving them the tools and courage to pursue art as a career. Her vast cross section of friends took to social media to share first impressions, memories, Pell quotes such as “Kindness is the new power stance” and “You can’t quiet the spirit with rules.” Rightfully, people called her a badass and a force of nature. Tall and lanky with full lips and intense eyes, she spoke her mind freely and had a masterful way with words. She spoke and listened with such sincerity that she left people feeling spellbound.

Tragically, Pell was in the midst of an artistic renaissance — undoubtedly fueled by her South Carolina museum show — and her time in the spotlight appeared to be approaching after decades of creating important yet underappreciated work.

Given her interest in helping solidify Pell’s legacy, we spoke to Shipton in hopes of learning what the future might hold. After shedding a few tears and sharing an amusing anecdote about Pell being pulled through King William on rollerblades by her two large dogs, Shipton explained that her interests are not entirely selfless.

“The selfish part is that I want to see these things out in the world so that I can visit Katie,” Shipton said.

Expanding on the conversation Shipton helped ignite with “Common Threads,” Ruiz-Healy hopes to include drawings from Pell’s Tree Book Series in the forthcoming exhibition “More Than Words: Text-Based Artworks” (April 8-May 23).

“My hope is that I am able to include her work in this show and hopefully in others,” Ruiz-Healy said.
A group photo taken with Katie Pell at Ruiz-Healy Art last month. - PHOTO BY ANGELA MARTINEZ VIA FACEBOOK / RUIZ-HEALY ART
  • Photo by Angela Martinez via Facebook / Ruiz-Healy Art
  • A group photo taken with Katie Pell at Ruiz-Healy Art last month.
Curator Celeste Wackenhut of the art and design hybrid French & Michigan confirmed she plans to publish monographs on the work of Pell and Zubiate in 2022. To support that project and bring another to light, Shipton approached Wackenhut about publishing a book of Pell quotes that Slab Cinema cofounder Angela Martinez collected and projected on walls at Pell’s memorial. Shipton has also taken steps to place in a museum one of Pell’s seminal works — a large-scale charm bracelet carved out of wood.

As exciting as those prospects may be, Pell left lasting marks on San Antonio’s cultural landscape in the form of public art projects at Lackland Terrace Skate Park (a colorful Día de los Muertos skull painted on concrete), Arnold Park Playground (playful designs rendered in recycled rubber), the intersection of Nacogdoches and North New Braunfels (a large butterfly sculpture poised for selfies) and San Pedro Creek Culture Park (a tile mural commemorating the flora and fauna that once inhabited the area).

When I learned that Pell had gone into hospice care, I sent her a note offering to record a conversation with her. I eventually heard from McDiarmid that Pell wanted to talk and visited the artist December 14, one week before she died.

“There’s going to be a lot of dropping out,” Pell explained. “I get tired and slip.”

In addition to Pell (KP), the following highlights include the voices of Tim McDiarmid (TM) and Bygoe Zubiate (BZ):

KP: Thank you for paying attention to me.

You’re easy to pay attention to. You’re fascinating and beautiful.
KP:
I appreciate it, thank you. I’m trying to be on top of my game.

I love that Ruby City bought your Bitchen Stove.
KP:
Holy fuck. It is crazy.
Pell in 2006 lighting up her Bitchen Stove, originally commissioned by Artpace San Antonio. - KIMBERLY AUBUCHON
  • Kimberly Aubuchon
  • Pell in 2006 lighting up her Bitchen Stove, originally commissioned by Artpace San Antonio.
Has teaching been rewarding?
KP:
I think it’s been rewarding for sure. Having other people to work with has been amazing. For me, it was difficult because my husband was dying. And it was just this combination of him dying and the difficulty we had putting together our artwork and making objects. It was harrowing. … It was heartbreaking.

TM: Katie, why don’t you tell him about all the letters we’ve been getting?

KP: It has been kind of outstanding. We’ve got these amazing, amazing, beautiful [letters].

TM: Specific, pointed letters saying, “You have had the single most [important] influence on my life and made me feel like I could be an artist.”
KP: It’s amazing. We can all do it.

TM: One of the letters was from a student who said, “You are the only teacher I’ve ever known who treats everybody equally and [believes] that everybody’s idea is valid.”

You’ve made a huge impact on a lot of young artists, and they’re going to be talking about you for a long time. What can you tell me about your unfinished projects?
KP:
Oh, I have this beautiful project I want to do next. … It’s like a hanging, burning thing.

I heard something about Dolly Parton.
KP:
I love Dolly Parton!

BR: So how does she factor into your unrealized work?

KP: “Don’t pity me. Don’t try to save me. Each day I’m stealing what God never gave me.” That’s on my toaster.

Is that a Dolly Parton quote?
KP:
I made it up.

Is it about her?
KP:
It’s about … what we have in common. … We’re not beautiful. You know, I’m not Dolly Parton. I’m not some genius beauty. [Fireworks explode nearby]
Oh my.

KP: I know, they keep forgetting to have good manners. They forget to be special. They forget that we need kindness. Sons of bitches.

Bygoe, are you still making art?
BZ:
I am, yeah. I’m at Trinity University, and I’ve been taking lot of art classes.

Do you ever get critiques from your mom?
BZ:
She really helps me think out my ideas. … I really trust her.

Has she shared anything with you about work that she still wants to make?
BZ:
Yeah, she has. I’m hoping that I can make some of that work and kind of have like a Bygoe-Katie collaboration.
Angela Martinez projected Pell quotes on the walls at Ivy Hall during Pell's memorial. - ANGELA MARTINEZ
  • Angela Martinez
  • Angela Martinez projected Pell quotes on the walls at Ivy Hall during Pell's memorial.
Do you have any specific memories of your Artpace residency?
KP:
Yeah, it was fun. We partied a lot. And I liked working with the other residents.

And you had an oven that was on fire?
KP:
I had an oven that was shooting flames. And then I had one that was on hydraulics. And then I had [a dryer] that spun lights. It was a really good show.

BZ: It was a great show. And I remember going to the car show and bringing all the appliances … That was really good. [The work] got a lot of attention.

KP: That was funny.

BZ: That was really funny. Plus, you were one of the only women.

KP: I was … I always forget about that now because it’s assumed. You know what I mean?

BZ: That you were the only woman?

KP: Yeah, but at the time … I wasn’t thinking about them in the context of being these female pieces of artwork.

BZ: But that’s what it was about, wasn’t it?

KP: It was, but I didn’t know that [at the time]. … I didn’t realize that it was a feminist kind of stance I was taking.

You also had a toaster with men painted on pieces of toast. Who are they?
KP:
That’s Gregg Allman.

TM: Katie, do you love the Allman Brothers or are you making fun of them?

KP: I make fun of them and I love them. … There’s a lot of masculinity going on there.

What’s your favorite band, Katie?
KP:
Oh, I don’t know. I love The Rolling Stones. And then I love Tom Petty. And I like Arcade Fire.

So, it’s all men.
KP:
Well, yeah … you know, I like men.

Who’s your favorite female singer?
KP:
Um, I guess I’d have to think of some women. … It might be Dolly.

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