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Interview With Kayt Fitzmorris

Interview with artist Kayt Fitzmorris by John Vincent Falchi

I was thrilled to speak with artist Kayt Fitzmorris whose vibrant work explores a tension between what can and cannot be controlled and organized. A combination of color theory, surrender to the medium, and exhaustive repetition form her colorful grid compositions. We met up one afternoon in t La Colombe along the LA River in Frogtown. After coffee we walked down the river path to her studio where we talked about her background, process, and what inspires her.

JOHN: Where did you grow up, Kayt? 

KAYT: In Northwest DC. Most of my childhood I lived in Woodley Park near the National Zoo, and then my family moved out a little farther, closer to Maryland.

JOHN: Can you talk about your background and how growing up in DC influenced you? 

KAYT: Yeah. My parents were not in government. My mom had a creative job. She's a documentary film producer. Both my parents were really creative in different ways. And my older brother was just like a total prodigy artist kid, like at three years old, doing incredible work.

Art and art making was just very normal. It was just always integrated into my life. I had a very different ability than my brother. I was doing a lot of more abstract stuff. He was doing like, Where's Waldo? Incredible scenes of medieval castles and horses and battles and things like that and I was doing color mixing and grids and angels and little girly things, but also just pretty abstract color based stuff, even as a kid.

I was really fortunate to have a good art program at my public elementary school. And my parents were supportive, so I was always making stuff. And then I got really into photography in middle school and high school, which was also a huge privilege just to have access to that in my school. It was a massive grounding anchor point for me, and it also never seemed like something I could do professionally. It just never occurred to me. I think some of that is just the culture of Washington.

Culturally DC is very like…people go to law school and you have a certain, you know, you're maybe in government. It's a much more politically active environment than what I experienced out here in LA. I think it was just like, oh, art is something that I do all the time, but that's it.

It was what I wanted to do. I excelled at it. I love my professors, incredible professors at Occidental College, but it literally never occurred to me that that could have been more until I got older, and I was adjacent to a lot of artists. I felt very envious of people that were doing it more full time. And that was like a signal to me that it needed to be a bigger part of my life. 

JOHN: Do you remember a moment where you had that shift? 

KAYT: I'd like to say that it was like a mature epiphany that I had because I talked to someone, but it was much more angsty, like in my twenties, pretty depressed and feeling like there's just something missing and then kind of banging my head against the wall trying to figure out what it was. 

In the early 2010s there was a big makers movement where Instagram was new, and all these people making ceramics or clothes or painting. I kind of became obsessed with them and reading their blogs, but it didn't feel like I had permission to do the same thing. I think I felt very shy about showing my work, but I was always painting, making stuff, so yeah, it was not like a moment of epiphany. It was like, I was not doing great mentally, couldn't quite figure out why, and eventually it was some therapy and support from family and being introspective…journaling. Thinking about the things that made me feel jealous, just sort of put one foot in front of the other, and really committed to myself that I was going to make creative work. 

I went through a year and a half of making, I had a secret Instagram account that I didn't tell anybody about because I was so shy. [They laugh.] I would make little collages or pieces of work and post them every day. I would get up at 6am and do that every morning. I think just showing up for myself like that consistently, and then realizing that I actually really liked what I was making just built my confidence.

My work is very repetitive, meticulous, sort of hypnotic. It's about the ritual. And I feel that when I look at a piece right in front of me it sort of transports me to that place and that process. I think journaling, making art every day, it's all just part of this practice that is kind of the point for me. It's not so much about the content of my work, it's about the ritual of it. 

JOHN: You talked about going to Occidental. Are there any particular teachers or artists in general that influenced you? 

KAYT: Definitely. One of my favorite professors from Occidental is a woman named Linda Stark. I worked as her teacher's assistant for a little bit, and I think just her existing was really helpful to me. Just like, oh, you can be an approachable person who is kind and also have this formidable career.

Agnes Martin was a huge one, seeing her work in person at LACMA just blew me away. And taught me that you can make art look any way that you want. It doesn't have to be one type of way, it can just be something that makes your eyes, just in your brain, do something that is so hard to describe with words.

It might be kind of trite, but James Turrell, I went to like the semi-permanent exhibit he had at LACMA and I just felt completely transported. Like my nervous system was changed standing in his space and that was something that was a major moment for me.

Then there's this incredible artist who's been doing painting and also sculpture named Torkwase Dyson. She uses a lot of symbolism, a lot of shapes that mean things in a vernacular that's her own. It's almost like, I don't know if she would call it an alphabet, but it's these like, black and white paintings, on paper sometimes, these shapes. Now she's so much more expansive than that, but hearing her talk about her work, and understanding that you can develop your own language in your work, was really informative, and really stuck out to me. 

And then people that use color in a really bold way, like Lily Stockman. Who does these incredible, large scale oil paintings of  abstract shapes that reference things in nature and plants. That really blew me away. There's a fiber artist named Kustaa Saksi who does these incredible high contrast tapestries that are woven, and it's like, lots of like green blues and then orange reds, that vibrate. He did this series of tapestries that were based on interpretations of migraines. 

JOHN: Oh wow. 

KAYT: They're huge, they're so beautiful. I think just something about the grid of a fiber, like a woven fiber plus these just like very extreme sort of aesthetics, just really was exciting to me. So all those types of people where it's all immersive, abstract, kind of wild, and a little bit weird, but with purpose, those people have informed me a lot. 

JOHN: Could you talk about your process? 

KAYT: Yeah…my paintings are all watercolor, and they're just layers and layers of very thin, watered down watercolor pigment on a cotton paper, like hundred pound paper. It's almost like a fabric, so I'll usually lay down a cool tone, and I'll just do like three to six sort of layers…I’ll lay the paper on the floor, and then I will like soak it in water, and then layer the pigment over it. As it dries. each layer will show me something I couldn't have planned. So there's this kind of wild, mysterious thing that happens with the pigment as I lay it down. I've gotten better over time, knowing what could happen, and how the colors will work together.

It's always a surprise to see the layer once it's dry. I’ll do cool tones, and then I'll usually do warm tones with these specific pigments that pool in a specific way. So there's often like kind of these rivulet patterns where the cooler colors will settle to the outside of a pool of water and the warm tones will sort of settle into the center. That's how I get those shapes. Then after it's dry and I'm happy with where it is, I will do a grid in graphite, usually it'll be a one by one inch grid all the way across, every square is one by one. Sometimes it will be one inch by a half inch, and then I will do a pattern within each box.

What I've been doing recently are circles with an abstract shape in between, which I call teeth. So it kind of goes from a meticulous grid to a slightly less meticulous circle within each box, and then inside is like an even less meticulous tooth. And that was a combination of shapes that I’d just been doodling different versions of for months and months and finally was like, “This looks the way I want.” I don't know why. It doesn't mean anything. It just feels right and then I repeat that across the entire piece. I always try to play with complementary colors, so that there's a vibration between the pencil that I choose and the paint in the background. My goal is that when you stand up to my piece, it feels immersive. I want there to be sort of like a strange feeling when you look at my work.

Something I think about a lot is the tension between something that's kind of chaotic and unplanned and then something that's very planned and controlled. It's almost like a net has been cast over something that's kind of wild…and you can read into that as much as you want. [They laugh.] You'd probably understand a lot more about me if you did.

JOHN: I love that. In general what inspires you? 

KAYT: Oh, what inspires me is, I think ritual of any kind, people creating things because they have to, for no other reason. I think that's something that I find to be really interesting about creatives is that there's just this drive to make things. Even if it doesn't matter to anybody else, it just has to be made.

I think that's really interesting and inspiring. For me, it's these sort of abstract paintings. It might shift, you know, over time for me, but I have found grids that I made when I was seven years old. Like, what is that? There's probably something, some reason for that.

I was talking with a friend, another painter, Nick McPhail, about my process. “Why the grid?” And what it was and it made me remember that I had this repeating…I don't know if it was a nightmare or a dream growing up, that very regularly it would look kinda different and it was always this sort of large mass of objects. Sometimes they were pins or balls or something very small that I would see a few of them, and then suddenly the pile would just grow to this enormous scale, and it was a number I couldn't comprehend, and there was a very specific feeling about that.

Clearly some processing was happening [She laughs.] in my like childhood brain, but I had that for years and I think that's so interesting, and I don't feel that kind of overwhelmed feeling when I make work. I do think it's interesting that there's literally thousands of circles on my larger scale of paintings. I think it's a little over 2,000 — which is nothing like what was in my dream, but I think I am searching for some kind of feeling or number or scale that I can't quite articulate. So, I don't know if that's the dream connection, but there's that. 

JOHN: I had a dream like that growing up, but it was only when I was sick and feverish.

KAYT: Oh, interesting. Maybe I had a fever. Maybe that's what a fever dream is.

JOHN: When I hear you talk about your art, and because of your background — you talked about DC and the political nature of that city, which is different than art…Having that balance of those two sides of the brain, I'm interested in that. It's like the grid and the abstract, you know, it's like that combination.

KAYT: Is that what my art is about? It's actually just LA versus DC? [They laugh.] 

JOHN: I might have just discovered something. 

KAYT: There’s probably a lot of truth to that, actually. I've literally never made a big decision about my life that was based on any logic or intellectual choice. It's always based on a gut feeling. I do think that that’s antithetical to the stereotype of a Washingtonian intellectual, which obviously not everybody in DC is like that. There's lots of creative people there, but, yeah, it's an interesting tension. 

JOHN: How long have you been associated with the Elysian Valley Arts Collective? 

KAYT: I think it's about a year and a half. I was part of the last Artwalk, and that was very cool and I've done some volunteering with them as well, which has been wonderful. 

JOHN: Can you talk a bit more about the Artwalk, what that was like? 

KAYT: Yeah, I had one of my large paintings as part of a group show, which was fabulous, and I also did some volunteering with some of the activities. I met a bunch of other artists, whose work, some of whom I had seen on the website as well, which was cool. I got some interest in my work that way, and it just felt very grounding in this nice community way, which you can feel in Frogtown, there's just clearly a lot of creatives. I was like a much more formal access point that I didn't have before, and I really liked that. 

JOHN: One of the things that the collective looks to encourage is the creative spirit, especially in young people. Is there anything that you'd care to share that's helped you on your journey as an artist? 

KAYT: For young people who are interested in creative work, I think just that it's important to do it and not necessarily because of an income stream or recognition, but just because it's in you and it's gotta go somewhere. There's nothing better than that.  So whatever weird thing you think you wanna try, you need to try it and it will be wonderful, but at first it's probably gonna not be what you imagined. It's so wonderful.

Sometimes you need to stick it out until your confidence grows and there is a learning curve and some time that needs to go into that. So I think just make the thing you want to make. No matter how silly it seems, if it's in your head, do it, and then do it again, and then probably, like, twenty more times. If it's not looking the way you want, try a different medium. I was trying to do work like this, with inks, in different ways, and I just kept trying different types of paper, different types of paint. Unfortunately for me, more expensive. [They laugh.] Paper and paint really made a difference. It's really worth investing in yourself. At least just with time. To figure that out. 

JOHN: That’s a good way of putting it. What's on the horizon that you're looking forward to?

KAYT: I'm planning a “to be announced” art show with Jessie Dubois, who is a ceramics artist. It will be a group show. We'll be inviting other artists to participate in it. We did one of those November of 2022. It was such an amazing experience. We had hundreds of people come from around Frogtown and LA to our show here. We had musical guests perform. We're planning another one and I'm really excited about that.

I'm working on getting my work out to more interior designers. I'm really interested in architecture, and I think my work really lends itself to interesting spaces. I love modernism and LA is a great place for that. / @_kaytfitzmorris

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About the author: John Vincent Falchi is a multi-disciplinary artist who does illustration, graphic design, and motion graphics + editing for TV and film. He lives in Frogtown with his wife, Traci, and their two black labs, Juno and Ollie. @falchiart


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