At her house, Katie Kiley is drawing in India ink on a wooden vase created by Steve Sinner. Using magnifying-glass headgear and two of the finest-point pens she could find, she’s creating eight panels around the vase, depicting scenes from a California town. The naked eye can’t appreciate the level of detail, and each panel takes two weeks to complete, she said.
Sinner expects to sell the piece for $20,000, Kiley said, and she’s being extremely careful with the vessel. “I have this resting on a down pillow,” she said.
Sinner, of course, is among the most highly regarded artists in the Quad Cities, and Kiley notes that he knows what price his work commands. But she is no slouch, as evidenced by two awards she won in the 181st Invitational Exhibition of Contemporary American Art, presented by the National Academy in New York City.
The academy, also known as the National Academy of Design, was established in 1825, and its membership has included Norman Rockwell, political cartoonist Thomas Nast, landscape artist Frederic Edwin Church, sculptor Frederick William MacMonnies, and comic-book artist Irv Novick.
Kiley’s intaglio print, Invitation to Enlightenment, was awarded the Paul & Magaret Bertelson Prize and the Samuel F.B. Morse Medal in this year’s show, which opened May 11. The medal is “one of the Academy’s most prestigious awards,” the show’s brochure noted, but Kiley was particularly interested in the $750 cash prize associated with the other honor. “Tell me about the cash,” she said. The award was “the biggest I’ve ever received.”
That might sound crass, but Kiley’s manner suggests someone more interested in practical things than accolades. “I’m just doing my little thing,” she said. “Maybe if I were 20, I’d be more excited.”
The winning work itself looks like a drawing with photographic detail, but it’s actually the result of a yearlong process necessary to “build the depths” of the piece. Kiley coated a copper plate with a tar-like substance, scraped away some of the material with a needle, and dipped it in an acid bath to etch the metal. Sometimes, she used an engraving tool to create an “aura.”
Some artists might repeat this process a few times to achieve a desired effect, but for Invitation to Enlightenment, Kiley repeated it roughly 40 times. “I wanted to push the envelope,” she said.
The piece is part of a 10-plate series on “mudras,” hand gestures with roots in Egypt thousands of years ago. “They’re basically yoga for hands,” Kiley said. The group of plates took roughly four or five years to finish, she noted.
“I almost suspect there’s a meditative quality to it, or maybe masochistic,” Kiley said regarding her love of printmaking.
She has other explanations, too. Once a painting or drawing is sold, it’s gone, she said. “It killed me when someone wanted to buy things,” she said.
The process is appealing, too: “There’s something sexy about it.”
And, lastly, there’s the chemical and alchemical side of things – how each aspect of printmaking contributes different variables. “I think I’m a frustrated scientist,” she said.
After getting her bachelor’s degree in art – at which point she hadn’t even done any printmaking – Kiley worked at Deere & Company for more than five years. “I got my fill of the real world,” she said, and decided to pursue advanced degrees. She got her master’s degree in 1987 and her MFA in 1989, and her first exposure to printmaking confirmed that as her primary artistic path. After doing one or two plates in a lithography and intaglio class taught by St. Ambrose’s Les Bell, she thought: “Yeah, this is what I want to do.”
Throughout her artistic career, Kiley said she’s paid particular attention to hands, such as in a series of self-portraits she made in the early 1980s. Her master’s thesis was on gesture in kabuki-theatre prints, and the fascination with hands probably originates in having a hearing-impaired cousin.
One of her interests is showing how hands communicate, she said. Plus, she added, hands are difficult to render accurately.
Kiley acknowledged that recognition from big cities is one of the few ways to distinguish among higher-tier local artists. Certainly, the Quad Cities have certain markers of distinction for an artist – being selected for a show by Mode Gallery, Quad City Arts, or MidCoast Fine Arts, for example, or being chosen for the Rock Island Fine Arts Exhibition or shown by the Des Moines Art Center. But “the strata isn’t as deep” as in big cities, she said; once you’ve reached those pinnacles, big cities represent the next level of recognition.
There are movements afoot to change that situation, she said. The Figge Art Museum’s Artists Advisory Council produced the 41º/90º exhibit last year, Kiley noted, and “it easily could have been in New York or Chicago. ... That’s what we’re trying to develop.”