“I didn’t really mean to become an artist at all. I just kept loving it. It wasn’t one of those things I always knew.” As Katherine McCullough and I sip Orangina at The Gelateria on South Grand, I’m surprised to hear her say this. Her latest body of work, a mix of colorful, large-scale paint explosions across vast expanses of panel have a playful, obsessive quality to them that doesn’t line up at all with what she has just said. The type of artist who could harness that kind of infatuation with paint and material would have to come out of the womb wielding a paintbrush and palette, with a giant studio and access to huge buckets of paint and shiny lacquer. In contrast, McCullough’s studio practice revolves around creative, practical use of her surroundings, aiming to make the most out of the least.
A St. Louis-based artist from Georgia, McCullough came to St. Louis to pursue her Masters of Fine Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. Instead of moving to a coast upon graduation, per the trend, McCullough chose to stay in St. Louis and take advantage of the many opportunities for artists here. Her paintings are predicated on that same free-spirited mentality that didn’t force or predict her eventual evolution into an artist, as the work ultimately appears curious about itself, its abilities and limitations, its texture and color, and how it interacts with other textures and colors that exist on the same plane. Closely allied with her materials, McCullough has a fervent curiosity about similar issues, as she lets the paint have its way with the canvas rather than try to control or manipulate it. Abstract observations aside, her approach to art making spills over into other areas of her temperament as well. Her philosophy? Let it. “Being an artist, there’s no prescription. There’s no way to do it that works for everyone, or even a group of people. It’s so personalized.”
The paintings mark a shift since she transitioned from graduate school to “the real world,” as she made a conscious choice to focus less on the portable, sellable painting during school and spent more time developing the conceptual side of the work; quite a departure from the large-scale, multi-colored paintings on display at her latest show. That shift in approach comes from a similar curiosity about material, a curiosity that bleeds over into questions about the relationships between different ways of working. “Installation work is much more expansive, because I’m using objects and materials that aren’t actually paint. I’m conceptually transforming them into paint because they’re placed in the context of this painting, so all of a sudden, everything functions as paint. Whereas in the painting, it’s literally plastic paint. But I’m still thinking of it as the same thing.”
While the work is not a conventional representation of her, it is full of her presence and absence. “There’s always a tension there. And it is, in a sense, an extension of myself, about a feeling of making, and the process. There’s a lot of my personal decision making present: formal decisions, material decisions… things like that are a direct reflection of myself.” She pauses, and meditates on the thought. “But not in a way that’s like, I’m using blue, that means I’m sad. Not like that. But it is an insight into how I’m thinking when I’m making. I don’t think it’s saying a specific message about me, but it is showing a part of me.”
Since completing her degree, McCullough has entrenched herself in the St. Louis arts community with several shows and a residency at The Luminary Center for the Arts, all of which have armed her with a humbling appreciation for others who do the same thing. “The most important thing about grad school is the community, because your peers’ opinions are going to matter later on, not necessarily your professors’. Having an open dialogue in the midst of that critical environment is so important.”
“I like being an artist in St. Louis,” she says, a lively, whimsical tone in her voice. “Being in St. Louis is good for an emerging artist. It’s big enough to where there’s a lot of art you can see, and having good institutions, like the Contemporary and the Pulitzer really helps. But it’s also small enough to where you can actually show your work.” This is an important, yet often overlooked advantage of making art here: we have a community that offers a wealth of talent, prestigious arts institutions, and creative niches that are actually accessible to young, emerging artists. While St. Louis may not carry the tempting grandeur of New York, its low cost of living and manageable size facilitate an environment where artists have the room and freedom to rent studio space, purchase supplies, and develop projects that a recent grad budget would never be able to allow for elsewhere.
At the same time, “It’s not the kind of city that’s going to be like, ‘Look at me, I’m here, I’m so amazing!” notes McCullough. “You have to try to love the city. And if you never put in any effort, you’re not going to.” Here, McCullough hits on an innovative idea: in the process of establishing a relationship with one’s city, perhaps it is not unfair for it to request that we learn to love it. There is no shortage of bright, motivated talent in the city with the potential to embrace it, but the predominant mentality amidst students is to leave following graduation. As a native with my own learned set of disillusionments about the city, I had similar ideas about St. Louis: I had not planned to stay past graduation. But upon recognizing what is materializing here, the amazing growth that is already happening, the progress and the innovation at work, it is clear that St. Louis is not at the end of its life line. It is not in the throes of extreme crime, despondence, or lackluster stagnancy. It is just beginning. It is in the process of a rebirth. If you are here too, this is an experience you do not want to miss.
St. Louis posits itself as a place that doesn’t allow us to simply demand that it provide us highways for transportation, homes to live in, restaurants to feed us, theaters to entertain us, hospitals to nurse us back to health, and monuments to identify. It demands something from us as well: that we spend time with it, get lost in its back streets and roads, meander down the sidewalks lined with shops and record stores in the Delmar Loop, or peruse the selection of fresh fruits and vegetables at the historic Soulard Market. If we don’t actually take the time to explore the incredible amenities the city has to offer, many of them free, how can we expect it to prosper? We have to try. McCullough is an excellent example of a transplant who has done just that: put in the effort to explore St. Louis. Subsequently, she has carved out an admirable niche for herself, her work, and left a path for others to follow in her footsteps.
For more information about Katherine McCullough, visit: www.katherinemccullough.com