Kathy June uses almost every material imaginable. And the messier her media, the better. “I like smudges and fingerprints,” says the artist. “I guess I can be more a part of the work if I can get in there and use my hands.”
She creates pieces in oil and chalk pastels, india ink, and collage. She also does photography, and displays knitted and crotched pieces alongside narrative drawings in her booth at ZaPow Gallery in downtown Asheville.
Answering to the eclecticism, her vision toys with transcendence. “I wonder what is dream and what is reality,” muses June, 38. “My art is fantastic and surreal, but there’s so much reality in it.”
Earthy beginnings cultivated this dual outlook. June says art was always part of her daily life. Her maternal grandparents and her paternal grandmother were avid quilters who were continually cutting and sewing; she remembers the big quilting frame set up in their living room. Her father was a watercolor painter, and her mother a writer. One of June’s earliest memories was the time her father brought a log into the house to paint: “All these bugs were crawling out of it, and my mom was freaking out.”
These are the stories that enrich June’s narrative drawings and paintings. She loads each with symbols that are important to her, but in the end she believes it’s not necessary to describe every stroke of significance. “I try to make them universal. I want the viewer to make up their own mind. I don’t think you should have to explain art.”
June is a native of Birmingham, Alabama — a city, she says, that gets a bad rap. “I grew up in a diverse place,” she insists. “People I knew were tolerant and expressive. There might be racism, but the people who rise above it really do, and it’s so rich.” She acknowledges outsider artists such as Lonnie Holley, whom she met on a school field trip. At the time Holley was working with stone made from a byproduct of steel mills, and June remembers how he showed her how to carve into it: “My family was doing traditional crafts, so this was very new to me.”
Other notable Southern artists who inspire her include the widely memorialized visionary painter Howard Finster and Pearl Fryar, a sculptor whose dazzling topiary garden was the subject of a 2008 documentary. June also cites the influence of 18th-century poet and artist William Blake, whom she says shares similarities with Finster because “he’s someone with a religious fixation who expressed his inner turmoil, and by doing so, he worked it out.”
June attended Birmingham Southern College for sculpture and minored in philosophy. “I read a lot,” she says. “I’ve always loved Jung and dream interpretation.” Later she found work in a gallery, but became frustrated at the disconnect between client and artist.
“We dealt a lot with wealthy folks,” she explains. One client spotted June’s large sculpture of modern-dance pioneer Isadora Duncan and, arrogantly, tried to make a swift sale. “I wouldn’t let him buy it,” she says. “I didn’t appreciate pandering to folks who seemed so far removed from what the art is about.”
Throughout her twenties, June struggled with addiction, and moved to Western North Carolina in 2001 to get away from an abusive relationship. “I’m a survivor,” she says. In 2003 she gave birth to her daughter, Lily Simone (named after legendary blues singer Nina Simone), but shortly after was advised to get a hysterectomy. “That’s when I started the egg drawings,” she says, referencing a series of pastel works that depict women and eggs in highly charged scenarios; the scenes echo the oeuvre of famed surrealist Salvador Dali.
Some of June’s latest creations are soft sculptures she refers to as “figs.” Woven on a child’s loom that fits in her lap, the “hug objects” each embody their own personality, like totems. She says the weaving process is cathartic. “With a loom, it’s in and out, like ripples in water.”
Art as a mechanism toward self-reliance colors all areas of her life. She buys her clothes at thrift stores, make jams from berries she’s harvested, and entertains her daughter with old-fashioned board games such as CandyLand and Apples to Apples.
“So many people get caught up in consumerism and gadgetry. I have a belief that what you have is all that you need.”