Kate Fauvell is a visual artist based in Gowanus whose work explores memory, impermanence, and the inner and visceral experiences that connect people. While much of Fauvell’s work is deeply personal and draws primarily on her relationship to her family, it is her close and careful look into her own history that makes her work emotionally resonant and evocative for others. In her own words, Fauvell “explores what it means to be human.”
Working in collage, painting, and photography, Fauvell has produced a series of paintings of the teenagers she mentored in Flatbush, along with collages of loved ones constructed of family photos and letters (The Legacy Project). Her current project is an installation series that uses collage, audio, photography, and film to explore memory, specifically within the home (The Archived Memories Project). Inspired by recent political tumult and a wave of mass protests, Fauvell has created postcards with illustrations of the Women’s March. She is selling them on Etsy to fundraise for the ACLU.
Katie Heiserman, who is currently assisting BRIC’s Contemporary Art program, recently sat down with the artist.
Katie Heiserman (KH): You say on your website that your work explores “all that makes us human.” I really liked that. I’m wondering how you define what makes us human, how your work explores humanity, and by what means.
Kate Fauvell (KF): I’ve always felt a desire to understand people and I’ve always been really affected by other people. I started archiving my grandparents’ house, and in this exploration of what it means to be human I started to think about memory, and all these objects and their connections to people, and telling people’s stories. In some ways we’re all the same, and I want to look at what connects us. I use my grandparents’ telephone, and they had it for like sixty years, and I think about how many times they used it, and how many conversations that have happened on it. Like how many bad phone calls there were, calls about my dad when he was young and the calls they got when he had gotten into trouble, or when their parents died, or good news like marriage. You know, all those things. So I use places and objects now to recall memory. So in painting my room installations I think about that. And whenever people come see it they ask me about the work and the objects in it, and then they tell me stories about themselves, and then those stories become a part of mine. And I get a larger understanding of the little things that make us all human. When the archive started I found this letter that my grandmother wrote to my grandfather when she was about to have heart surgery and she thought she was going to die. And it ended up that she didn’t die. She lived another twenty-five years, but he carried around this letter in his wallet until he died. And it was just a letter where she thanked him for their life together and said that if she died they should know that they had a great life together. And that just made me think about our temporary existence, and then how these objects, even a piece of paper, will last longer than us.
KH: Yeah, I’m so interested in that - the relationship between objects and memory in your work. There’s a feeling of familiarity, but also dissociation in your room installations. They’re really disjointed, but at the same time there is a familiarity in all these objects that are so mundane. That, for me, emulates memory. They’re also eerie because there’s a clear absence of people, yet all these objects seem connected to people.
KF: Yeah, and part of that happens really instinctually. I think there is a way that they pull you in and push you out at the same time, and that lack of humanity inside the space is something. But when you get to see the pieces in real life there are hidden images within them. So there are some people, but you wouldn’t see them in the photographs of the work online. And there are actual objects embedded in the collages, which I don’t know if you can see online either. So some of my grandmother’s kitchen objects are in the kitchen installation. But yeah, I think there’s one where there’s all this blackness inside the dining room, and it sort of pulls you in and pushes you out at the same time, like a heavy weight inside the space.
KH: I did miss those details in the images online. How did you attach the objects to the collages?
KF: With some I cut into them and pasted them inside, so there’s a towel hanging from the refrigerator door, or magnets on the refrigerator, and plastic bags and oven mitts. Just because those actual objects are so much a part of the experience of being in their home, and the actual objects have so much beauty because they’re so old. My grandparents never wanted to buy new things because they felt like it didn’t matter if it didn’t come out super white in the wash, or whatever, because it was still good to use and they shouldn’t waste money on that if they had one already. So yeah, there are all these tiny pieces of my grandmother’s aprons, for example, and I think those objects have stories on top of stories.
KH: When I was first looking at your collages for the Legacy Project, my first thought, before I realized that they must be photocopies was, ‘isn’t her mom mad that she cut up all the family photos?” Did anyone have that kind of reaction when you were cutting up these objects?
KF: Well, I think it was after everybody had taken the things they had already wanted. But they didn’t want the everyday things because, you know, everyone has an apron and thinks, “who wants a stained apron?” Or my grandfather’s undershirts…because they were all really really old, or even their favorite glasses because everyone was grown up so they didn’t need glasses other than ones they already wore. So yeah, a lot of the things might have been donated.
KH: On your website you say that you were moved to begin The Legacy Project after your grandparents’ deaths. Also, I saw that you’re selling postcards on Etsy that have drawings of the Women’s March on them. Have most (or some or all) of your other works been inspired by life events, family, or landmarks of some kind?
KF: I think the project was expanding and that the loss of my grandparents’ inspired a huge shift in me. Because I was working on a series of all the kids I was working with in Brooklyn, and then the Legacy Project was made with all the family photos that we had found in boxes, and I started obsessively photocopying them and then it expanded to these objects and these things that could hopefully be a little bit broader, because the portraits were really personal and I didn’t feel that they were easily accessible to a lot of people. So by creating those spaces I wanted to welcome points of engagement. And what I’ve been asking myself is, ‘how do I access what makes us human and how can I tell not only my story, but other people’s stories?’ So I started photographing all these places around the city. I just got housing in Chelsea and my whole block is under construction so I’ve been documenting other people and places, and all the marches. I feel that at the Women’s March everyone was there. It didn’t matter if you were rich or poor or Black or white. We were all together. And that’s part of the story I want to tell - that no matter where you come from or what you look, how do we all live and be here together? How do I tell that story?
KH: I feel like art is consumable across class - as long as you don’t have to pay to see it. But it’s not like other commodities.
KF: Yeah, and it's important how different people see themselves reflected in the work. There’s a fine line with engaging people. So I’ve been thinking a lot about sound and music, and creating whole environments that make people feel comfortable. I always feel that music makes people feel at home. Some galleries can be so quiet and white-walled and that doesn’t welcome people. So with my installations, as I build these rooms on the walls with collages, they all become a house. In the final installation you’ll walk inside of this home and there will be the sounds of TV and the phone will ring and you’ll be able to pick it up and hear the words “I love you.” We all have TV, we all have music, so engaging those points inside the installations and exploring different kinds of homes is what I want to do.
KH: Just wondering about music - are you producing your own music for the installation?
KF: No, I have a lot of old tapes from my grandparents, but also I want to use the sounds that are familiar, like TV game shows and talk shows that are always on, the news and newsradio and just the sound of conversations. I’ve been recording conversations with my parents, so finding how to include those - probably in the dining room I’d have those conversations playing.
KH: I’ve always thought about doing that with my parents - just sticking a camera in front of them and asking them a bunch of questions.
KF: Right, I also think the conversations could be any conversation about anything - cooking, whatever. And I have this worry. I don’t want to miss something, before it’s too late. You also don’t want to forget the sound of someone’s voice.
KH: There are some stylistic differences in your collaged portraits of your family and family friends in The Legacy Project and your painted portraits of your mentees. For instance, the family portraits are in black and white and placed against flat, single-color backgrounds, whereas your mentees are painted with bright, playful colors and are more often than not part of a scene. You give them a context (like a classroom or school steps). What informed these choices?
KF: Yeah, how that shift happened? I think that I was wondering about the accessibility of painting for other people. And that’s been a question for me overtime. Why do I paint and is it really the best medium for me to tell the sort of stories I’m trying to tell? It was just a jump to “okay I want to be a little bit more literal and a little bit more direct” and painting wasn’t feeling like the best medium. And I could see things more clearly in these black and white images. And I’m still playing with using a touch of painting. All these installations are photos I’ve taken and then I get them printed and then I hand paint them after, so it's using painting in a new way. And it was all about letting go to make them more accessible. Painting wasn't doing exactly what I wanted. But it was a big shift, I feel like the work is really different. I feel sort of disconnected from my older paintings at the moment. And thinking about the actual transition, I was in a residency in Switzerland when my grandfather was really sick, and he died when I was on the plane home. And these collages had started with all these photos I had and what to do with them, because I wanted people to see them. I didn’t want them to stay in the boxes, so I just started photocopying them. And then looking at them I thought, “I could use these to start archiving all the people in my family.” And then they came so naturally to me - the physicality of the collages, using letters and photographs others had taken, and then also pictures I had taken of things I didn’t want to forget.
KH: How do you shoot? Do you shoot in film or digital?
KF: In digital, I just use my phone actually. I like to have them with me. It started with me photographing just small things from tiles to the top of the counter to the inside of the utensil drawer and then light switches - the things we always forget. It was sort of like portraiture of all the stuff. Like we use the spices all the time, and I started photographing them because they were all so beautiful, even though they were just from the dollar store and they were there forever. But the idea that we don’t think about it - like the salt shaker we use a million times, or the inside of cabinets, or the way the napkins are, or the stuff on top of the refrigerator, or the way the blanket lies on a chair, or how the pictures are hung on the wall. All those tiny things that are almost invisible because you use them so often. And that was exactly what I was thinking about - these things that I’ve known my whole life would be gone, or would be taken out of the space they lived in. Isn’t that important in telling my grandfather’s story - his space and the way he used objects, and objects that everyone has that everyone can relate to? And the objects are still here even after the people aren’t.
KH: I really did think that when I was looking at your room collages - that they’re like portraits. Because they really look like portraits of a space, and there seems to be a theme of portraiture in your work.
KF: That’s awesome. Also the way they’re photographed. I didn’t photograph the room, but the objects in the room, and then reconstructed the space. So it both replicates and distorts it.
KH: Have you ever thought about smell?
KF: Yeah, absolutely. I want to work with some smell artists to create the familiar smells, like bacon or coffee. The end goal with the upcoming archiving memory installation is to engage all of your senses in memory. Even though it's been a few years, the clothes I got from my grandparents still smell like them.
KH: There are so many people in the Legacy Project. I’m wondering who all the people are.
KF: They are friends and family, and then it expanded to portraits of other people - a man I saw in a protest in Baltimore, for instance, was the last one I did. And it felt like a full circle because my grandfather was a cop, so tying in all of these elements. But it started off with immediate family, and then I tried to do portraits of anyone who had been influenced by my grandparents, so I was tracing back all these people who had a connection to them. And it grows from one life to thousands of lives.
KH: It's funny to think how all these people are part of a web, but any two of them don’t necessarily know each other at all. I also want to ask what you see the relationship being between art and activism, whether you would describe your work as political, or however you want to answer that.
KF: I think that it's a hard relationship, and that there are some artists who have always been politically based, and that they’re so brilliant at it and their work is conceptual. I don’t think I fall exactly into that, but in thinking about what it means to be human, and given the state of politics right now, I think as artists we can’t be quiet. I’m telling stories, I’m showing people, so I guess there’s a fine line between that and being political. And right now, I think there’s so much about being human that’s at risk. When I was younger my work was all about women’s rights and the power of the human figure, but I think that was more of a teenage thing for me. But yeah, politics affect my story and your story and all of ours.
KH: How do you make the Women’s March postcards? Do you use a tablet?
KF: No I do it on my phone! I have this app where I can draw with my finger on my phone.
KH: Wow, that’s pretty amazing.
KF: Yeah! But I just got a stylus, so for the last few with writing I had to use a stylus to sort of get a fine line.
KH: This is going to be my last question. Was there a moment when it became clear to you that you were going to be an artist?
KF: Yeah, one hundred percent. When I was studying abroad in Paris in college. Before that I wasn’t sure, but when I was there it was just clear. And I came back and switched to a painting major.
Interview compiled by Katie Heirserman
View Kate Fauvell's BRIC Registry Profile HERE.
View Kate Fauvell's website HERE.