Performance Art

In the Studio with Phoenix Artist Katharine Leigh Simpson

What happens in the studio shouldn't always stay in the studio. Studio Visit is a monthly series that profiles artists in their studios. We ask them questions, they provide answers, and then we have a nice discussion about their work. This month: Katharine Leigh Simpson, whose work blends visual and performance arts.

Withered botanicals and flowing strips of paper dot the landscape of Katharine Leigh Simpson’s art studio in Phoenix. It’s housed inside a small building at Bentley Projects, where several additional artists have studio space. Most people only discover it by happenstance when they hit Third Friday art openings at Bentley Gallery. That’s just fine with Simpson, who says she’s more comfortable with solitude than being surrounded by other people.

But you wouldn’t know it by watching her demeanor as curious strangers wander into her space. She’s patient and engaging as they ask about the various objects they find there: her vintage sewing machine, masks that look like hybrids of humans and forest creatures, clear canisters of multicolored sand saved after making a giant mandala for a local art space.

Even so, the Phoenix native says she’s reticent to reveal the rationale that goes into creating her works. She’d rather people experience her works, then feel whatever impact they create in that moment. Simpson is a painter, performer, and fiber artist whose work often involves donning costumes of her own creation, then moving through spaces to create a sense of wonder.

During Artel, she roamed open spaces at the Clarendon Hotel dressed as a giant white bird with flowing wings, and partnered with Mark Hughes and Justin Winters to project her character onto a concrete wall towering over an outdoor courtyard. “All my pieces have some kind of movement to them,” Simpson says. Often they reference water, or other aspects of the natural world.

“I’m inspired by nature,” Simpson says. Yet she’s not sure when she first made the connection between nature and art. “It was always known,” she says. Simpson says she’s most comfortable outdoors, a preference clearly reflected in her favorite pastimes, which include gardening and hiking. Outdoors, she finds the sensory elements that infuse so much of her work – shapes, smells, and sound.

She’s working now on a series of outdoor performances for upcoming First Friday events on the Herberger Theater Center plaza, where she’s previously performed work inspired by John Waddell’s bronze sculptures of dancers in motion that grace the space.

Simpson earned her BFA in painting from ASU in 2005, and her works have been exhibited in several local galleries including Art One in Scottsdale, monOrchid in Roosevelt Row, and several art spaces in the Grand Avenue district. A fervent recycler of her previously used art materials, she’s hung remnants from a show at the Hive on the walls of her art studio, creating a dramatic backdrop for her eclectic collection of found objects and other treasures.

In 2010, Simpson began “exploring the fleeting moment” through performance art, embracing what she calls “the effect of being a performer in relationship to art and the viewer.” Nowadays, most of her work is three-dimensional.

The costumes Simpson creates, some with modern and vintage sewing machines, comprise a significant part of her art practice. “They’re more than just clothing,” she says. “Costumes embody a spirit, a spirit that maybe teaches you how transformative human beings are.” Her studio is filled with the head-pieces, masks, and flowing body coverings that help bring her work to life. There’s even a mannequin-like figure Simpson built in 2009, which she’s dubbed Ersillia.

Most days, Simpson is in her studio from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. – sketching, cutting, painting, sorting, shaping, sewing. “I do too much, and I don’t get much sleep,” she says. But Simpson wouldn’t have it any other way. “Art is all I know how to do; it’s all I’ve ever been.”

Tell us about your work in haiku format.
My hands they bend soft
the trees once mighty presence
into comforts noise

What artist(s) are you really into right now?
... Me. My present state has brought me to a place where I need to look upon my work and find inspiration and satisfaction there. I love looking in history and finding beauty, my peers of today and the Phoenix Art Community offer me inspiration, but I'm really into my work right now. There is something that I need to make sense there. An understanding of the past that allows me to be proud of the work I am doing.

What are you reading?
This is a funny question. I will leave it with the short answer that a book is not in my hands often and I have started the The Bat-Poet over three times in the last month.

What's the last TV show, film, or video you watched?
Dead Man. By the time I make it to the scene with Billy Bob Thornton and Iggy Pop, I'm seeing it in color.

If you could collaborate with any artists, alive or dead, who would it be? And why?
That's hard to say; I like meeting people in person and finding the unlikely links that allow me to collaborate. There's the person and then there's their work, and then there is the space between. It's the latter that intrigues me the most. My best answer would not be who that person is but what we would create. Spaces of enchantment that ignited the imagination of all. If that person did have a name, one of them could have been Jim Henson.

What was the last exhibition you saw and what did you think of it?

Steve Hanson's "People, Places + Pop," a Polaroid exhibit. I enjoyed it thoroughly. The presentation was in parallel with the work itself. The subject matter was delightful to me and the aspect that Steve's daughter was roaming the exhibition with today's version of a Polaroid camera, snapping pics and adding them to the wall, echoed the purpose of the show.

Jeff Koons or Marina Abramovic? And why?
Bill Murray! His ability to occupy a space without hesitation.

What's the best advice you've ever received?
This is as of recent: "Be gentle with yourself."

What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on various personal projects, a Halloween costume commission, and a large-scale public art installation. I do well keeping myself busy. The large-scale public art installation is to this date my largest undertaking. "The Living Moments Series: We Are." This past January, Mark Hughes, Justin Winters, Jimmy LaValle, and I created a three-night installation outside the Herberger Theater, with the support of the theater and many others. Thanks to the effort of all those who participated in the first; we have been granted funding to do it again.

Our first in the series was Friday, October 7, 2016, and I can't begin to thank everyone enough for coming. We will be making more magic happen these First Fridays: January 6, 2017, and April 7, 2017, from 6 to 9 p.m. We are asking all to join us on these nights in attendance, enjoy the space, and be a part of the story that will evolve across the three nights.

What's your most valuable tool as an artist?

First would be my mind. But we would be here too long for me to explain. So next would be my blade. It allows me to cut paper like water.