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Artist Interview: Nina Katz

“The portrait serves not so much to provide the answers to questions, but provides the questions themselves, and points to the importance of asking them.” – Nina Katz

Nina Katz is a local Bay Area artist whose work is largely concerned with the figure and portraits. She was born in Brooklyn, NY and spent her formative years in Hong Kong before attending college in Boston and eventually moving to the Bay Area. She is primarily self-taught and has dedicated herself to painting full time for the past 15 years. For our #portrait exhibition, Katz presents a series of paintings on canvas including Queen V, which was named a semi-finalist for the 2016 BP Portrait Award.

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Queen V, 2015 (detail) | Oil on canvas

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT YOUR PROCESS AS A PAINTER?

I spend time with my subjects photographing, taking notes, sketching and just noticing. Back in the studio I’ll do several drawings before I start painting. The drawing phase is probably the most important part of the process as it allows me to get closer to my subject. It’s like what I would imagine a blind person might do by using their fingers to feel every curve and dent in a person’s face to “see them.” When I start on the painting it’s a matter of drawing with the paint; layering and scraping and moving the paint around until I feel the essence of the person.

When not painting direct portraits, but figurative and landscapes, the technical process is the same. I still look for a feeling or emotional sense of the place or figure to come alive in the process.

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Eileen, 2014 (detail) | Oil on board

YOU’VE SAID THAT YOU DO NOT PAINT DIRECTLY, BUT “AROUND” YOUR SUBJECTS – CAN YOU ELABORATE ON WHAT YOU MEAN BY THIS?

To me an eye is not an eye, or a nose a nose. I paint in broad strokes, the darks and lights defining shape as I gradually close in on what I feel and see is the person or subject before me. I continue to add and scrape away paint until the subject emerges. A likeness or recognition of the person comes from subtle expressions unique to that person – the wrinkle around their eyes or edge of the mouth, for example. I move the paint around until it gets there, rather than draw or fill it in precisely.

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Woman, 2015 (detail) | Oil on board

YOU WERE RECENTLY NAMED A SEMIFINALIST FOR THE BP PORTRAIT AWARD BY THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY IN LONDON FOR YOUR QUEEN V PAINTING – A HUGE HONOR! WHAT IS THE BACKGROUND BEHIND THIS WORK? WHAT INFLUENCED THIS PAINTING?

It is a huge honor and I am so grateful. Queen V is part of an ongoing series of portraits of people I know, primarily in the world of artists, writers and creators, and started at a time when my style of more loosely painted portraits was emerging.

Queen V is a portrait of Vivienne Flesher, an artist and illustrator for The New York Times, amongst many other reputable publications. I spent hours looking at her own illustrative work and used her sense of color. She is a very strong, beautiful person with an understated sense of humor behind a very regal poise. Once I saw this stately, commanding personality staring back at me the title Queen V felt apt.

WHAT INSPIRES AND INTRIGUES YOU?

People. Their lives, struggles, motivations. I am intrigued by the hero, the criminal, the innocent and the victim. A sense of wonder about who they are beyond what is on the surface. My challenge is to use the paint in a way that gets at that. I am inspired when I find a painting that can truly surprise me and keep me fixated on the image, even when I can’t put into words what draws me in.

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Ward, 2015 (detail) | Oil on canvas

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A Year of Obituary Drawings, 2009-2010 | Graphite on paper in Moleskine books

WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW? DO YOU HAVE ANY NEW WORK IN THE PIPELINE FOR 2016?

I am going through another exploratory phase while also continuing with my ongoing series of portraits and figurative work. As a mother of a transgender teen, I have long wanted to expand this to a series of portraits of transgender people and am working to figure out how to do this in a way that holds meaning, without being exploitive.

Concurrently, I am developing a series of works on paper, primarily paint and ink. This work plays into my need to stay loose while also influencing the making of the paintings to be as immediate as the drawings.

Hear Nina speak about her works at DZINE Gallery’s upcoming lecture series Artists in Conversation: #portrait on Wednesday, July 20th at 6pm. RSVP here.

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