Noctuidae moths, bison, barn swallows, a crow — in her paintings, Kate Javens shows a fascination with animals. Or are they animals? They seem to convey human qualities, especially in her Named For series. We are animal and animalsRus.
Kate Javens is one of the 10 contemporary artists to be featured in Creative Hand, Discerning Heart: Story, Symbol, Self, on view at the Michener Art Museum September 8 through December 30.
Fascinated by obscure, unsung heroes in American history, Ms. Javens has given their spirits to four-legged or winged creatures, rendered on theater muslin in earthy pigments. The images are haunting and timeless, and evoke a sense of mystery.
How does the artist, who lives in New York City, create a world of wilderness, of sinew and fur? Even her summers on Talbot’s Island in Penobscot Bay, Maine, wouldn’t expose her to these creatures.
As it turns out, she keeps a stock of birds in the freezer. Her husband’s family owns a farm outside Bath, Maine, and when they find dead barn swallows, they save them for Ms. Javens to use as reference material.
“If I find an animal I want to personify, an animal may become available or I may have to wait,” says the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts-trained painter.
For example, when she saw Dorothea Lange’s 1934 portrait of the labor leader Andrew Furuseth, she knew she wanted to “name” a crow for him. She waited two years, she recounts, until she came upon one in an empty lot in Philadelphia.
“I photographed it 500 times and drew it from life, making a whole series,” she says. “I chose the crow because I thought (Andrew Furuseth) looked more like a crow than a person should.”
An inscription on Mr. Furuseth’s monument reads: “What would I do if they served an injunction on me to stop the organization of our men? I would put it in my pocket and the judge would put me in jail, and there my bunk would be no narrower and my grub no poorer nor I there any more lonely than in the forecastle.”
Artists who work from animals are often at the mercy of a taxidermist, says Ms. Javens. By having her own birds, she is free to move them into different positions, to wire or thread it and make an armature to hold it while she draws. “I’m lucky to be able to use the barn swallows in different positions and angles.”
Born in Missouri, Ms. Javens had a peripatetic childhood in Japan, Mexico and the U.S. Her father was given an honorable discharge after serving as a pilot in Vietnam, after which he took the family traveling. “My mother, a notable adventuress herself, held it all together in often chaotic times and instilled a lifelong philosophy to live without fear,” Ms. Javens says. “I learned to embrace adventure from my parents.”
The family finally settled in West Chester, Pa. “I always wondered what it would be like to have had a proper home town,” she says. In 1998, continuing the family tradition, she cycled from Washington to Philadelphia and then Canada with her friend Tom Casey. Putting in 100 to 125 miles a day “through some of the most beautiful and brutally barren landscapes of North America,” she completed the trip in less than 40 days.
Outdoors the entire time, she saw bison and other wildlife on the plains. “I learned about their behavior by watching,” she says.
“We were riding left and they started running,” she writes. “There were so many, and I could hear their breath… Tom said, ‘Don’t look, don’t turn, stay straight!’ I could hear he was scared and so was I. We were so small compared to the bison.”
“Her images are accessible in form and visionary in concept,” writes Margaret A. Skove, director of the Blanden Art Museum in Fort Dodge, Iowa, in the catalog for an exhibit there. “Conjuring the luminous out of the quotidian, she has the master extrapolator’s eye approaching perfection: small details, visceral sensitivities, decisions executed that have become, in some way, the result of an act of cosmic integration.”
In order to achieve her gestural marks, Ms. Javens uses a large wallpaper brush. “I’ve taken such good care of it, it’s served me for 15 years — it’s about the width of two hands,” she says, “and with an angle that allows you to hold it just so for the right amount of paint. It’s so big you have to handle it with confidence and give in to the flow of paint and accept what it gives you back.”
She works in Old Holland Van Dijck Bruin or walnut ink on theater muslin. “I use a reductive technique, with a base of a mid tone, then wipe out the light,” she says. “The form is revealed and put back into the shadow masses.”
Ms. Javens does not do preliminary drawings, but prefers the immediacy of working quickly.
During the years of family travels, “our family was in the center of the storm. Like a cyclone, only those on the outside were in danger. When you’re traveling, the world is beautiful, and traveling was our home town. My husband often tells me I was raised by wolves.”