That Other Place

Pen-and-ink artist imbues common yearnings with transcendence

Kate Sea Barrett does way more than scratch the surface.
Portrait by Clark Hodgin

If looking at art is a portal to other worlds, Kate Sea Barrett stands just inside that doorway. Her intricate, highly detailed pen-and-ink drawings depict a place familiar at first glance but a bit stranger on close inspection. Human figures emerge from densely rendered primeval foliage, perch on rooftops gazing over a fairytale village, or float down ghostly rivers under a watchful moon. 

It’s a world suffused with an omniscient spirit. Barrett says she experiences circumstances, even the mundane, “in a rather mythic way.” Her favorite themes are mystery, human frailty, and what she calls “a kind of redemption.”

Brittny’s Dream

Particularly apt is a series of drawings inspired by the human heart, both the physical organ and its more metaphorical meanings. The 20 pieces, completed last winter, began as items for an invitational exhibit. Images were to be no larger than 5” by 5”,  and for Barrett, that scale immediately suggested the heart.

“I produced these hoping that people might recognize themselves in a sort of universal human way,” she says. Each scene contains the anatomical shape of the organ we all share and expresses its common yearnings — comfort, security, compassion, hope. The finely drawn images sometimes required Barrett to peer through a magnifying glass to create detail as intricate as that of the human body; she jokingly labeled herself a “visual surgeon” in an artist’s statement.

Trained in painting and sculpture at New York’s Pratt Institute, Barrett had grown up in a family environment that easily combined the pragmatic with the ethereal. Her mother is a concert pianist, her father a composer, and both contributed their musical gifts as church musicians. “Religion and the idea of the sacred were intertwined with art and music,” Barrett remembers. “Impressions from that time … continue to define my relationship to art and the process of creating.”

Lost Boat

The textural and compositional complexity Barrett gets from pen and ink are remarkable. “I’m very aware of how everything is reacting to everything else,” she says. “I really look at texture as having atmospheric qualities, and try to incorporate it in building the space.” 

For portraiture, she will sometimes work from a photograph or prepare a sketch from a sitting. But otherwise the diverse but oddly complementary elements of the scenes spring directly from mind
to hand.

The process is what Barrett terms “calculated intuition” — bringing subconscious feelings to the surface in a controlled way, a sort of right brain/left brain negotiation. “I kind of live half here and half somewhere else,” Barrett says of her creative periods, “and the drawings come from that other place. It’s a largely unconscious process until suddenly there’s just this picture in my mind, floating there, waiting for me to make it material.”

Lake Heart

She doesn’t shy from the more tender and painful seeds that take root. The unexpected death of her sister a decade ago eventually produced a series Barrett titled “The Longest Night.” It includes some of her most sought-after work.

Drawing on influences as varied as 19th-century printmaking, classic Chinese landscape painting, and brightly colored miniatures from Persian manuscripts of the Safavid period, Barrett’s art has broadened in its spatial sophistication and texture in a new direction she places under the general heading “Variations on Heaven.” Some of it will be included in this month’s Open Studio Tour, along with her older work. “It might not be your standard interpretation of beauty,” she says about her pieces. “But the language comes from experience and challenges.”

Kate Sea Barrett is among the 60-plus artists featured in this month’s self-guided Open Studio Tour of Henderson County, happening 10am-5pm Saturday, Sept. 21 and Sunday, Sept. 22. Barrett will show at the Kanuga Road Pod (2004 Old South Carolina Ave., Studio #K2). For a map and more information, visit hcost.org. For more information on the artist, see kateseabarrett.tumblr.com or @kateseabarrett on Instagram.

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