Artist Spotlight

Debbi Kenote

If you track the evolution of Kenote's work, you might not guess that these colorful and bold abstract paintings started, in some form, as imagined sandcastles on the moon. Here, we discuss origins, influence, and environment with the New York-based artist.

You got your MFA from Brooklyn College. How do you suppose your work would be different if you hadn't pursued formal arts education, if at all?

This is a contemplative question for me, mainly because I got an MFA in Sculpture from Brooklyn College in 2016, but I make paintings now. Outside of some foundational painting courses in undergrad, I didn't receive too much training in the conceptual, theoretical, or historical aspects of painting. I do think I benefit from this in some ways. I've digested all of my painting education piecemeal and in small real-world doses. Ultimately it's taken me a lot longer than a two-year program to learn what paintings I want to make. I'm not sure my work would have been that different without grad school honestly, but I'm glad I went. I would credit living in NYC as my strongest educational experience. When I moved here eight years ago, I landed right in the heart of the emerging artist scene in Brooklyn. Since then, I've worked in galleries, in artist studios, and I've attended several residencies. I will also add that I've had a unique relationship with education systems from the beginning; I was homeschooled on a farm in the Pacific Northwest until high school. I'm a believer in education coming in multiple forms. I think that with a little intention, anything can be an educational opportunity.

What attracts you to the style of abstraction? For instance, why do you abstract landscapes as opposed to more literal depictions? 

I love abstraction. It's funny because I grew up with zero abstract art in my home, and I don't think I saw an intentionally non-objective painting until a school trip to Paris when I turned 18. I had never been to an art museum before that experience. I learned traditional drawing and painting skills growing up, and I still enjoy drawing from life from time to time. With all that in mind, I'm really moved by abstraction.

For me, non-recognizable and simplified forms transcend the limits of language. Poetry, music, and art ... I feel similar about it all. Painting abstractly is so freeing to me. When I take away a horizon line and perspective, it's like the canvas just opens up. Anything could float anywhere — it's magic. It's a sacred space where gravity and logic can take a breather. But it's not easy. I think I'm also hooked on the challenge of it. Painting in this way can sometimes feel intensely like a game of chess. My practice incorporates my surroundings, including landscape, and I try to unite it all aesthetically under a specific mood or feeling. I am able to filter my experiences and surroundings through the lens that I look at the world. Creating in this way allows me to develop my own visual lexicon, and my hope is that the work communicates on a deeper level about the world I inhabit.

"Painting abstractly is so freeing to me. When I take away a horizon line and perspective, it's like the canvas just opens up. Anything could float anywhere — it's magic."

Do you consciously pull from the tradition of abstraction in fine art painting? 

Yes, and it's inescapable. Having lived and studied art on both East and West Coasts of the States, I find that dominant movements from these regions have influenced my work. The West Coast "Hard Edge" painters definitely have, as well as the East Coast "Color Field" painters. I also love looking at unique artists who said "NO" to what came before them. For example, Emily Carr's modernist abstractions of nature and Liz Murray's exploration into the limits of shape. I don't consciously pull from past art as I'm making, but I love learning about and being inspired by what came before.

Could you share a childhood memory that informed a work or a series or a style?

I grew up on a rural property in Washington State. The land there had a large swimming pond, and all the neighborhood kids played there every summer. One of the best features of the pond was a sandbar my grandpa built. The water lapped against a C-shaped area of sand that I spent countless hours of my childhood drawing in. I remember being fascinated by how I could draw anything I wanted, but building vertically was a challenge. At some point I was given a book about the planets, and I remember learning what gravity was and discovering that there was less gravity on the moon. I couldn't get the idea out of my head about making sandcastles on the moon. I was fascinated by this idea, and while making my sand structures, I would hold up sand and pretend there was no gravity in the sandbar. I would also push the sand structures as far as I could, inventing new ways to keep them in place. There was a split in my mind from that point forward, between what I could build and what I could draw or imagine (which later became paint). Now, having studied painting, sculpture, and installation, I look back to memories like these. I still find myself trying to outsmart physics and push the boundaries of the mediums I work with. 

Often, art is an anecdote to something personal or universal. Is there any of this in your work?

I think this happens with my work sometimes, but I usually discover it after the fact. I don't have something hiding under the work while making it, but I do use my old work as inspiration for new works. I like to say I'm "stealing" from myself. I go back and find a moment in a painting, or maybe just a color palette or shape, and I use this reference to begin a new piece. Oftentimes during this process, I'll reflect on the older work and see things I hadn't before. For example, a familiar shape or a mood that captures something about my life at the time, or even like you've said ... something universal. 


Do you prefer collaboration or solitude in creating? Or both? 

I prefer solitude. I like the playful aspect of collaboration, and I enjoy trading ideas and feedback with other artists. However, when it comes to doing my work, I only want my voice and the painting's needs in the room. I intentionally don't keep any of my own art anywhere I live, and I like it this way. I fill my home with other artists' work, so when I come home from the studio, I can feel inspired and outside of my own head. Similarly, I choose not to have anyone else's work hanging in my studio. I usually only have a couple of finished works of my own visible while I'm creating. Sometimes, I clear out the studio and just have the piece I'm working on. I think of my practice as a conversation between myself and my painting. Other voices, even past ideas of my own, can steer a work one way or another. I think this brings us back to why I paint abstractly. It's the challenge of it and the connection I feel with the painting. I like not knowing where it's going. It's exciting to watch my painting unfold.

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