An interview with Kateri Tolo, an artist and fellow Belhaven Alumni. You can find her website here.
Tell us about your background:
I grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. I am of mixed ethnicity (Mexican and American), which means that I grew up with the voices of two heritages in my head. As a child I did not find anything attractive unless it conjured a rich image. For this reason reading was my favorite pastime. I spent a short period of my childhood in Mexico in which I got to know my extended family and develop a love for them that is real yet distant as I have not seen them in many years. I did not have an idea of the function of art or the names of more than a handful of artists until my junior year of high school. That year was the most exciting of my life because I finally realized that I could use art and art history as a framework to understand just about any other subject in the world. That was when I knew that I wanted to be an artist.
Where are you now?
I live in Jackson , Mississippi. I completed my undergraduate degree in visual art at Belhaven University. The fall after graduation I began work as an elementary art teacher at a private school. I just finished up my second year of teaching and am using the summer months to catch up on my own work.
What does your process look like? How do you go about making art?
This is an interesting question because I feel like my process is currently (or constantly?) in process. There are a few things, however, that I have noticed remain constant in the way that I work. I constantly break apart and reconfigure my work. Whether I am painting, drawing, carving, or shaping, I am constantly cutting up and breaking apart what I have made. I like to bring my works to the point where they are mostly ruined, take them apart, and then I put them back together again or repurpose the pieces. I am currently cutting apart some old drawings and paintings and reconstructing them to discover new relationships that I hadn’t noticed when I first composed them. I work this way because that is my drawing process. As I draw from observation in my sketchbook I find that every physical thing is made of countless planes and pieces. I like to break them down in my mind as I put them together on the page.
Many of your pieces reference biblical themes, how does your faith manifest itself through your art?
You are what you eat. There’s a good scientific fact for you. That is the way that my faith finds its way into my work. I have found that when I am truly immersed in the presence of God on a regular basis I want to make work that addressed what I am learning in my time in the word. It is not that I am trying to specifically reference a biblical account, although there are times when I do so. My work is a combination of things that I understanding and things that I do not understand; my physical and emotional experience as a human being as well as the wonder and awesome power of God and his plan for this world.
In what ways does your art illuminate the text? How do you wish your art to dialogue or interact with the Word?
More Than Years
When I read the Bible I make a conserted effort to record any symbols or images I notice in a passage. I do not focus very much on illustrating a story or an event with figures and such. I am more concerned with the more generic imagery. For example, I record images like rocks, thorns, fire, triangles, undulating lines, etc. God himself chooses objects and images to illuminate the message he wants to convey to his people. Christ is called “the cornerstone” for a reason. Rocks are firm, ancient, and stable. The character of a stone lends itself well to the description of Christ’s role in the church body. It is the character of the object that is important. For that reason, I see that understanding the character of the images and symbols in the word is essential to illuminating scripture truthfully. In my work I want the marks that I make to FEEL like suffering when I am talking about suffering. I think that a viewer can relate to that sort of thing naturally. Many have said that art is not a good preacher. I think that art is more about our testimony, which is simply the story of a life molded by the truth of the gospel. I believe that art illuminates the gospel when it is molded by the character of its truth.
Tell us more about one of your pieces:
I feel that “Restitution” embodies two characteristics that are almost always present in my work. There is a very rough and destructive element to it. Portions of the plywood the work is painted on have literally been stripped and wrenched from the surface. The entire piece itself has been broken into two pieces. Other portions have been burned and chiseled violently. This piece was made with a intentional harm, however. In my mind I never sought to ruin the work, but rather to improve it. There were long periods of time where the work was treated with great tenderness and sensitivity of mark. In this work I acknowledge pain and beauty united. That is the only way I know how to make honest work.
What advice do you have for artists of faith?
I would urge artists of faith to pursue their faith. In fact, that would be my advice to all people of faith. The common pitfalls of the artist include arrogance, conceit, intellectual swelling of the head, a preoccupation with image, depression, the drunken pursuit of the hypnosis of the “process,” under-productivity, over-productivity, and an inordinate acceptance of all ideas for the sake of being well rounded. A human being does not posses the discernment or the will to navigate all these. I wish that I had more friends who are artists that would challenge me not only artistically and intellectually, but also spiritually. Artists are in desperate need of community that will honestly and lovingly encourage and rebuke them. I encourage artists of faith to pursue heavenly wisdom above all else.
You recently returned from the CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) Conference, what’s one thing you learned there that everybody should hear?
The theme of the conference was JUSTart, or art and how it relates to justice. We discussed many aspects of the issue, but the main question seemed to be “Is art of any use when it comes to real issues?” We also discussed the roles of beauty and brokenness in art. Which one properly addresses injustice in the world?
One of the final worship songs of the conference was a reprise of a song that was referenced during a plenary discussion by Cecilia González-Andrieu. The song is “Anthem” by songwriter Leonard Cohen. The famous line from the song says:
Ring the bells that still can sign.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
For me this line was pivotal in my realization of how brokenness and beauty work together. Everything has a side of brokenness to it. When we draw attention to the brokenness we admit that it exists. When we live out the gospel, it becomes an avenue through which truth can shine through.
Kateri also has a blog about art education which you can find here.