The psychology of Art: Sitting down with Katie Southworth ’16

Each year in May, The Colby Museum of Art hosts the Senior Art Show, an exhibition featuring works by senior students ranging a variety of mediums, including photography, sculpture, printmaking and painting. Over the course of the next several months, the Echo will feature profiles of the senior artists, showcasing their work and speaking to them about their personal inspirations and processes.

Katie Southworth ’16 is a senior Studio Art major concentrating in painting. Her paintings are abstract compositions derived from closely observed color relationships.

Can you tell me about your experience with taking art classes at Colby and how you came to be a major?

Let’s see, I pretty much waltzed into Bevin’s office on the first day of freshman year and told her that I was not going to take foundations, pretty aggressively, because I didn’t want to. I just wanted to jump right into Painting. I did Painting 1 and 2 freshman year: they challenged me a lot. I really liked the challenge of breaking it down to just learn about color. I hadn’t really done that before. I had kind of just created things at free will in high school. And then coming here, it became just a pursuit of the study of color and I think it was an all new kind of challenge for me that was supplemented by a few art history classes, but it was mostly just taking the painting classes that was a really nice outlet for my creative personality. But it was also an equally challenging, very academic pursuit for me and it kept my interest enough to just keep doing it. Eventually my advisor sat me down and was like, “You know you only need one more class to be a major,” so it just kind of happened. I never really planned on being a minor or a major but it just sort of accumulated based on my unwillingness to let go of creativity in college.

What else are you studying at Colby? 

I’m a psychology major as well, which I knew I would be coming into Colby. I knew that I wanted to study psychology and that experience has been really great as well, but that was more of a clear cut path. They give you the little “these are your courses that you have to take” and I followed it pretty religiously. But art was definitely more of an intuitive process, and here I am.

Have you found that your two majors overlap at all? 

Definitely. I’ve always found painting and the process of making art extremely therapeutic for me. It definitely shifts my mood around. When I’m creating, I definitely sort of retreat to the studio whenever I’m in a certain mood, whether it be a creative mood or just sort of when I’m happy. I tend to flock to the studio whenever I’m just feeling really happy. And there are also certainly times when I’m feeling sad. I’m actually taking a seminar right now for my psych major and it’s called “Mood and Creativity” and sort of explores the ways in which mood disorders like Bipolar Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder sort of have this element to them when manic states can sort of be a catalyst for creative energy. Sort of like the mad genes paradox, these people might be, for lack of a better word, crazy, but they create all of these amazing things, so it’s been interesting to sort of study that. So yeah, I’ve definitely seen some parallels. Mostly art’s just kind of a form of self expression, a therapy for me.

What art are you currently working on? 

Right now I’m in Painting 6, which is the formal name for the course, but it’s just a continuation of my endeavors and painting that I started at Colby. I’m working on a Capstone Series right now which will be at the Senior Show at the end of the year.

Can you describe the body of work that you’re currently pursuing and then how you arrived there? 

I guess what I’m working on now is just studies of light and color, or rather light conditions. I sort of set up a specific light source on a colored piece of cloth and sort of observe the interplays of the colors that happen in front of my eyes. And then I’m painting off of perception of what I’m looking at, but it’s not quite a still life, it’s more of an interpretation of the interplay of colors that’s going on and I have been working with layers and stripes, vertical theory like clear cut sections of color. It’s really hard hard to describe.

It’s pretty abstract right? 

Yes, definitely abstract paintings, and I don’t even know if I would call them paintings. They’re studies to me, they’re studies of the light condition that I am looking at in front of me. There’s always a challenge, it’s really fun, and I got there based on just my fascination with perceiving color. It took me a while in my painting courses to find the right way to observe it and then the right method, the right process, of putting it down on a board. That took me a while, but once I found it, it’s now something that I could now honestly do forever if I wanted to, I think. I never get bored.

What figures in your life, if any, have influenced your creative career?

Not quite so much other artists, honestly. I’ve been pretty, for lack of a better word, self-centered with my development of what I’m working on. I pretty much pay attention to my own interests and develop my next direction off of there. But definitely Bevin has helped guide me to get there. She’s suggested many good artists to take reference from here and there, but mostly she’s really helped me discover what I was really interested in because I feel like once you discover that as an artist then you can really take off from there. But until you find that method of observing what you’re interested in, it’s a very difficult path to navigate. There’s also been some great classmates that I’ve had. I generally start my sessions in the studio, every time I go to the studio, I start it literally by circling the studio and observing my other peers’ work and how they’re progressing. And usually if they’re there I’ll ask them something about it or ask them how it’s going and usually you have a great conversation. I love that part of going to the studio, so they keep me inspired and we have a great time together. I feel like a lot of people don’t really chase their creative pursuits anymore. Once they get to college it becomes all academic, but I really just love the studio and the community of people that we have there that love to create and to share their creative process really is a gift.

Do you have any idea of where your painting will go after you leave Colby? 

I generally joke with people who ask me what my plans are post graduation because that’s obviously a very heavy question for a lot of seniors. I generally say that I don’t have any idea what I really want to do. I have some idea of what I want to do after college but I know for a fact what I want to do for my retirement which is just paint all day, have little shows, little exhibits, maybe sell somewhere. It’s what my great-grandmother used to do, and I always loved that. I used to paint with her all the time when I was a little girl, and I always thought that was such a cool way to spend your retirement, when you don’t have kids anymore. However, what I’ve been thinking about is, I don’t know if it’s exactly art therapy, but definitely somehow using the power of creativity and the healing powers of art to help others because it’s basically art therapy. I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can help veterans struggling with PTSD, people struggling through schizophrenia, people with Bipolar Disorder, there’s a lot that art can give people who are struggling with mental health. It can give them an outlet. Lately, that’s something that I’ve been thinking about. It doesn’t have to be that, but I definitely think that art will be in my life, forever, in some way, shape, or form.

If you were to tell someone about your artistic life at Colby, what would you say?

I would just say that I feel lucky. I think that this is an opportunity to be creative, to let the depths of your creativity just flow out of you everyday, and to also have it simultaneously count for credit. I just thought that was hilarious over four years, I just think, “I can’t believe I’m getting credit for this: just for being myself, just for letting my creativity flow.” I just thought that was amazing. The grading thing is a different story, but grades start not to matter. I never cared about that, I just felt lucky and privileged to just have studio space. Our space that we have is unbelievable, we have professors that genuinely care about the evolution of your creative pursuits. I just think that’s something that I’m always going to be really grateful for that I took advantage of and stuck to it because I knew it was a passion of mine coming into college. And I had a lot of people who gave me advice to just not let it go, to not choose other things or choose other things that you thought were more important, but just to stick to what you’re passionate about. I think I’m just going to be thankful that I did that.