Feral interview with artist Kirsty Whiten
Kirsty Whiten (b. 1977) is an artist known for her intricate and disturbing drawings and paintings and instantly recognisable street art. Graduating from Edinburgh College of Art in 1999, she lived in Paris and Edinburgh before building a house and studios in the village of Craigrothie in Fife. Whiten’s work has been exhibited internationally, including solo shows with Stolenspace in London, Edinburgh Printmakers workshop and Arusha Gallery in Edinburgh.
Kirsty Whiten makes intricate watercolours and large, colourful, detailed oil paintings. She works with human figures, stories and psychology. The images she makes are confronting and often humorous, concerned with picking over the social norms, exploring human behaviour, especially gender and sexuality.
Whiten has published two crowd-funded artistbooks; a beautiful hardcover book of misremembered rituals WRONGER RITES The Quing of the Now People, and another of new work about ritual actions and healing ICON ORACLE.
What area/field are you in?
I’m an artist – mostly drawing and painting, sometimes street art in the form of murals.
Describe in as many ways as you like what you do. Tell me all your job titles.
Artist. I make drawings and paintings in my studio. Simples. It’s always about, and of, people. Work comes in sets and series exploring a theme, and evolves each time. I seem to circle back around and find myself re-exploring something, sometimes years later. I have done this work for over 20 years, and I can feel the ebb and flow of it and know it will keep on coming.
I exhibit and often sell my work, but in order to survive I also do commissions and collaborative projects; most recently a gable-end mural in Tay Street Lane in Dundee with Open Close Dundee, and development workshops with a theatre company in Copenhagen, where I was the visual artist working with dancers and performance artists to investigate the idea of Female Primordial Force.
"...I love the very focused attention you have to bring to it [life drawing], the experimentation and freedom of mark-marking.. It’s really good to spend time drawing something which is not for finished work, but just for the doing of it..."
I am a life-drawing teacher. Drawing from life is an important part of my practice, I love the very focused attention you have to bring to it, the experimentation and freedom of mark-marking.. It’s really good to spend time drawing something which is not for finished work, but just for the doing of it, for the practice, for the exercise – it’s possible to get on a production line with your art and that’s not healthy, you’re not a factory. I love to work with a model and a group, and share that focused energy. To be in some sort of an exchange with the model, and the company of other artists at work. Peace and quiet except for cute, scratchy charcoal on paper noises and good tunes.
What is the biggest eye roll you’ve given a question or comment about being a freelancer? Or what would you like waged people to understand about working as a freelancer?
All the times you are asked to work for free?! REALLY? I’m in MY FORTIES NOW! For exposure or promotion “on a website”?!!! <eyes roll back so far they disappear into my brain> The uncertainty of where the next money comes from – the precarity of it – is hard for waged people to understand I think. Pay the invoice, please! Ding dong.
What’s your favourite part of being a freelancer?
The total flexibility of where I put my energy, how I spend my time.
What is the hardest part?
Having total responsibility for where I put my energy, how I spend my time.
How long have you been feral?
I think I have been feral since I left Art college… over 20 years ago … There are bits of structure that come along when I commit to teaching a course or doing a project with a deadline, but those times are the minority. I cannot imagine being attached to a job now! My whole set-up is pretty feral. It’s important to feel that if things get a bit threadbare you can pull something out of the bag and survive if you need to, but also to relish the times where you decide to do something completely unplanned and glorious, or work late into the night because you can’t help it, or spend time with someone important to you and call it research (with cake).
"My whole set-up is pretty feral. It’s important to feel that if things get a bit threadbare you can pull something out of the bag and survive if you need to, but also to relish the times where you decide to do something completely unplanned and glorious..."
What have your highlights been? (Take a moment to have a brag about your accomplishments)
When I have built good bodies of work to exhibit, that feels gooooood. It’s so hard to get timing right, but so satisfying to feel the whallop of the message getting across to people. When people tell me, in person or in messages, how my work has affected them – especially if that’s in a good way (or a really bad way!) Because for me it’s all about communicating ideas.
When I crowdfunded and published my books, it was really amazing to get support from all those people and I could really sense the network of my audience, which is invisible most of the time, and feel the love. Highlights of free-lancing have been the times when I have really made my income, perhaps a big commission or a sell out show, from my own, uncompromised work – that’s a thrill – and imposter syndrome can pipe down for a span.
I just had a dream job working with Kristjan Ingimarsson Theatre company in Copenhagen on two workshops developing a new show. They hired me to work with a group of performers, to get these women to ‘inhabit my universe’, embody the theme of shamelessness in my imagary, to work with ritual transformations and nature connection. It was...awesome. I did the first workshop online but the second was in Copenhagen and I stayed there for a week, cycling to and fro on a big Danish bike and swimming in the sea almost every day. It generated so much material – I’m still only starting to dig into it now. Boomsauce. That really was a dream job.
Why did you decide to become self employed?
I was determined to be a painter. It was a pretty straightforward decision. Really hard in the first few years, but I didn’t ever consider any other options.
How do you protect your work time from distractions?
I don’t know! I really struggle with this, as I have two kids and my studio is in my house, and my extended family lives next door. Sometimes the scarcity of solitude means that I am desparate to get going once I’m alone, sometimes I have to lock myself in! I get loud music or a really good, really long audiobook on the go and that makes me want to get in the chair, and stay there to listen. Some days it’s hard to walk past domestic mess and undone tasks to get there, but when I have real momentum in the studio I just scale the piles of laundry heroically, and get to it.
"Some days it’s hard to walk past domestic mess and undone tasks to get there, but when I have real momentum in the studio I just scale the piles of laundry heroically, and get to it."
Where do you work? home?studio?/favourite cafe/all of the above?
My studio is in my house like I said. I regret that sometimes – even a shed at the bottom of the garden would give my worklife some separation. I mostly love the solitude of the studio but sometimes I need the friendliness of teaching drawing groups - teabreak and funny/mundane chat – I am missing that so much in covid-times. In the meantime I will keep talking to myself, and various friendly objects in my studio.
Street art projects are a total joy in that way – the painting is a public performance, and you get such good chat from passersby or people who live over-looking the mural site. I have always felt totally majestic when I get my own scaffolding!! RAH!! In Tay street lane the mural team was working late and we were playing very loud, motivational James Brown tunes when someone threw open a window and started yelling at us. For a moment I was horrified, and then they held up a banner asking us to text them our playlist!
Do you think you’ll ever retire?
That is hard to imagine. I don’t think so. Creative practice is a part of me. I’m hoping I get one of the awesome late-in-life bursts of brillance like Louise Borgeious or Matisse and go on till the end.
If money wasn’t factored into your work choices, what would be your most glorious dream for your future as a freelancer? Be as outrageous as you dare.
Travelling for work is just the best, I want more of that please – doing projects with other artists and performers all over the world – making murals in awesome cities, taking residencies - in wilderness and cultural hubs. I would love to curate exhibitions with artists, building big structures to place the work in…
Anything else you’d like to highlight about the life of a freelancer?
You can, if you allow yourself, take good care of yourself as a freelancer. You can try to balance the working day with exercise and outdoor time, quality time with your children or dear friends and lovers, let yourself have time to read or research, allow yourself flexible hours and bingeing when your flow is good. Although it can be really hard to get it right, that’s another thing to relish. You get to choose what’s important on any given day.
@kirstywhiten studio (instagram)
You can virtually come and visit my real life studio (and me!) as part of the postponed Open Studios North Fife on 10th, 11th & 12th October http://openstudiosfife.co.uk/
Are you too feral to ever think about line managers, annual leave, sick days or retirement? Would you want to be interviewed for a blog post? If the answer is yes, comment or contact me through my website.