Interview with Kathy Akey, Fata Morgana

Where are you from? How does place affect your work?

KA: I was born and mostly raised in central Virginia. I spent several of my youngest years in Athens, Greece with my mother and stepfather who are both archaeologists. My stepfather still works there most of the year, so it’s never stopped being a place to call home. I also spent many summers and holidays on Nantucket, and my father and stepmother have been in Ithaca for over a decade. I guess I’m from a lot of places and they have all had an influence on me in their own ways. Going to an old prep school in Richmond while living in an ante-bellum plantation house in the country and being exposed to Athens and the rich view of history that archaeologists have all made me love and long for history and the amazing stories you come across in old places. My appreciation for local history and learning from a very young age how to relate those histories to myself and the present day comes very much out of the amazing and varied places I’ve gotten to live.

Talk about the title of your thesis show, Fata Morgana.

KA: A Fata Morgana is a complex type of mirage; they occur most frequently in deserts and within the polar circles. They can be so convincing that people have been fooled into mapping out islands that, upon a secondary excursion, turn out to have never existed. I think the ambitions of so many of these men who went north were like Fata Morganas; what drove them to embark, what kindled the hope that kept them alive, and what they give credit to for their success once they return are all completely different things. The North Pole itself is elusive, misleading; there’s a geographic north pole, a magnetic north pole, the celestial North Pole, and a northern pole of inaccessibility. The Arctic, unlike the Antarctic, is a frozen ocean, not a continent; there’s no land mass, just sea ice. Sometimes adventurers would lose ground to the ocean currents no matter how fast they walked. The mythic explorer hero is also a foggy, misleading concept; these men were egotistical, driven by ambition, and many of them died miserable, needless deaths alone.

Before ICP, you came from a background that was unrelated to art practice and making.  Could you talk about this a little and how that influences the way you make work now?

KA: I did my undergraduate studies at NYU, earning a BA in Psycholinguistics. It’s a node of Cognitive Science focusing on the neurological and psychological underpinnings of linguistics. I supplemented the major with classes in philosophy, anthropology and art history, taking the linguistics-heavy emphasis of the major and stretching it out to encompass art and creative thought in general. Interdisciplinary thinking is phenomenally important, and Cognitive Science itself is a field born of overlapping disciplines. Though I found out quickly that research science was not the profession for me, I’m so glad that I stuck with the major. Having a deep understanding of the mechanisms of the human mind and how to apply it to pretty much anything a human has produced or interpreted is a super useful tool in my arsenal. It adds more complexity to how I unpack a work of art.
How has your work evolved since you started at ICP?  Is there one critique or lesson that you’ve gathered since starting that you could mark as a tipping point to a change in the way you perceive your practice?

KA:I came to ICP without any formal photography training. I was anxious about my technical abilities, and spent a lot of time trying to make my work fit into a theme or line of inquiry that I thought was worthy of capital-a Art. I realized after the first year that this was just not working; my work was stagnating, I was getting frustrated, and my classmates and teachers were really bored with my work. I realized that making work on a subject that you are totally crazy about (in my case Polar and Antarctic exploration, early aviation, manned spaceflight etc.) automatically takes you halfway there. Sure, not everyone is going to get jazzed about the technicalities of man-hauled sledging, but you have to trust that there is something beautiful and compelling to what you are passionate about and that as an artist you have the abilities to communicate that to others. So, don’t worry if what you’re interested in most is super nerdy, or seemingly mundane, because your excitement will carry you through your art making and will shine in your work.

What artists are you looking at right now?

KA: We have a class this term that is just us and our teacher, Joanna Lehan, going to galleries around the city and seeing what’s up. It’s incredibly fun. I also am a total Tumblr addict and most of the work I’m seeing on there is from emerging or even amateur artists. I come across some seriously amazing stuff, and keepa tumblr of my own as a collection point for these discoveries. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Richard Mosse’s The EnclaveandCristina De Middel’s The Afronauts.I also revisit Klimt’s work every few months; he seems to be the point around which I orbit.

If you weren’t an artist, what would you be doing?

KA: That is a very good question. I can say what I fantasize myself as doing, and also what I’d more likely be doing. I’d love to have been a writer! I took a number of creative writing courses and I think I would have both enjoyed and been pretty good at writing some historically grounded fiction. Realistically, if I hadn’t come to ICP I would have been working full-time at a start up here in New York and may have moved from the tech sector into the NGO sector, working in a marginally creative capacity in a photography/video/media department. All in all, I am thrilled to be an artist and hey, maybe I will write a book anyways!

What are your plans after graduating?

KA: In the short-term, I’d like to take a vacation this summer and in the fall I’m going to become an aunt. In the longer term, I have some really exciting stuff planned. I have been selected to participate in the Arctic Circle artist residency in October 2015. I am over-the-moon excited and have a lot of planning to do! I’m also going to start a body of work on the early days of the US Postal Airmail Service, which is going to be insanely fun for me. I’m growing my relationships with explorers, Arctic Advocacy groups and air and space enthusiasts, every step of which is opening up exciting new lines of inquiry for me. In the longer long term, I’m not really sure where I am going. But I have a heading direction, an unbelievably supportive network of family and colleagues, and a whole lot of energy. I think it’s going to be great.

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