24 April 2018

The artist Katie Holten lives and works in New York, where SCHIRN MAG has paid her a visit. In Part 2 of the series she talks about tireless protests, the Pussy Alphabet and all the cool women she is planning to portray.

By Natalie Wichmann

Irish-born Katie Holten, whose work “She Persisted” is currently on view in the SCHIRN exhibition POWER TO THE PEOPLE, went to New York many years ago. She wound up in East Village and, like so many others, simply stayed in the metropolis. Today she lives and works in West Village, where the SCHIRN MAG paid her a visit. For a long time she primarily focused on themes relating to nature and the environment and even designed a “Tree Alphabet,” as she explains in Part 1 of the series. Yet her attitude to life and to art changed after the 2016 elections.

“I remember thinking: Oh, the problems we have with language, reality, and truth are way bigger. I knew we had problems, but I didn’t realize they were this big.” She laughs again, but you can feel part of it is helplessness and still surprise that all of this has really happened. She turned her Tree Alphabet into a feminist version called the “Pussy Alphabet”, for the “NASTY WOMEN” show at the Knockdown Center, an art and performance space in Brooklyn. She joined and got involved in various projects and groups like Rise and Resist, MoveOn and NYIndivisible.

Never-ending protest 

“Everything happened so fast. There was no time to think. There would be a rally in the morning, at lunchtime, in the afternoon. So I would take my Sharpies every day and make signs for whatever that day’s action was and run out with them. I was roving the streets for six hours straight holding up signs almost every day. At some point I just felt like: This is ridiculous. I need to do something in between these sessions or I’ll go crazy. That’s when I started doing the “She Persisted” portraits, which are part of the POWER TO THE PEOPLE exhibition at the SCHIRN. I did them almost as a way to meditate and have a break from the rest of it.”

Image via Katie Holten's Instagram Account @katieholten

And not only her focus shifted; her artistic practice changed as well. “In a way this was all very odd for me – I never did figurative work before. I work with humans, I really feel like my work is about being human, but it isn’t figurative in any way at all. It’s never been about the human body for me. So the Pussy Alphabet was very obviously all about the human body, because each letter was a different dancing woman. And it’s the same with the “She Persisted” drawings – they’re portraits of women. So that was a huge shift, really different.”

An endless list of powerful women

Her voice meanders up and down, her Irish accent is getting heavier, she waves her hands to underline her points. You can see that she is still very much emotionally involved. When I ask her how she decided whom to draw she chuckles: “Well, how to pick cool women? That’s easy, because there are so many! Some of them are iconic, like Angela Davis. Some of them I wasn’t aware of before. Also, with that series I wanted to cover a wide span of time. So I included Harriet Tubman, who freed slaves in the 1800s, as well as Linda Sarsour, who was one of the Women’s March organizers in 2017. Since I always work in series I feel like they are never ending. So, when I did the first ten [Harriet Tubman, Chelsea Manning, Malala Yousafzai, Angela Davis, Emily Dickinson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Anita Hill, Linda Sarsour, Rachel Carson, and Kathleen Cleaver] I never felt like that was the end of it, but I actually haven’t made any since.”

Well, how to pick cool women? That’s easy, because there are so many!

Katie Holten
Katie Holten, She Persisted, Angela Davis, 2017, Courtesy VAN HORN, Düsseldorf, Foto: D. Steinfeld

I tell her I especially like this series and would be excited to see more drawings. I ask her if she has some women in mind whom she would like to draw next? She seems to consider it for a moment. “Hmm. Bob Bland comes to mind, another co-creator of the Women’s March, or Andrea Bowers, she is also in the SCHIRN show. You know what?” she smiles. “I should draw up a list.”

Performing the Pussy Alphabet

I want to know if she is planning on doing more activist projects like “She Persisted” in the future. She seems to think about it for a moment. “Well, the Pussy Alphabet happened pretty quickly. I drew it up and the designer of the “Nasty Women” show turned it into a font, but we didn’t even have time to really share it. So, I do wonder if at some point we should go back to it. For example, I met this woman, Anneke Hansen, a choreographer, on the streets during one of the rallies. She wears a number every day of the new administration; I met her on day #27. At that time I was working on social media for NYIndivisible and so I asked her if I could take her picture and share her story. When I heard that she is a dancer I told her about the ”Pussy Alphabet” and we both instantly thought it should be performed. So something like this could happen, I just don’t have any immediate plans.”

Katie Holten, Pussy Alphabet A-Z, 2017

Holten will also leave the country in May for a project in Ireland. She might have chosen New York as a home base for now, but she has been working all over the world – from Berlin and Paris to Mexico City – her whole life. Interestingly, with the new administration this has changed, as well: “Leaving the US now somehow feels like we would just be running away.”

As the next March snowstorm is transforming New York into a magical snow globe, I’m sitting at the dining-room table in Boston (no snow here) thinking about my time with Katie Holten and starting a first draft when the familiar pling announces a new email. I open my mailbox and there it is: a list of all the cool, amazing women she would like to portray in the future. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that we will see all of them soon as part of the ongoing, never-ending “She Persisted” series: Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, Bob Bland, Patti Smith, Hypatia, Billie Holiday, Rebecca Solnit, Grace Hopper, Maya Angelou, Mary Robinson, Mutter Teresa, Marie Curie, Anne Frank, Helen Keller, Rosa Parks, Jane Goodall, Tracy Chapman, Patrisse Cullors, Sojourner Truth...

Leaving the US now somehow feels like we would just be running away.

Katie Holten
Image via Katie Holten's Instagram Account @katieholten