Interview with Katherine Bradford

© Katherine Bradford and Figure/Ground
Katherine Bradford was interviewed by Julia Schwartz. February 13th, 2013.

Bradford_headshotKatherine Bradford is a painter who lives and works in New York. She attended Bryn Mawr College and holds an MFA from SUNY Purchase.  She is on the graduate MFA faculty at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and in 2009 was a Resident Faculty at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine.  She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2011 and a Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant in 2012.  Her work is in the permanent collections of numerous museums and universities, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Brooklyn Museum, The Wooster Art Museum, and the Portland Museum. She is represented by the Edward Thorp Gallery.  She maintains a studio in Brooklyn.

Katherine, I loved that interview you did with Jason Stopa at Brooklyn Rail. You said, ”It was the huge ocean liner being completely humbled by the ice in the sea. That story’s very close to 9/11, our World Trade Center towers which collapsed before our very eyes, something we never thought would happen.” It seemed like a kind of existential mood took hold (at least that’s the phrase that occurs to me) and came through your paintings in the form of Titanic and Superman being toppled or humbled.  Was this idea something you were consciously aware of while you were painting or does it occur afterwards?

The toppling liners were done before 9/11, before the banks collapsed.  I think I wanted to subvert the insistent verticality of a looming ship by tipping it sideways.

The result was a sort of dismantling of the usual strength symbol of a big sea going ship.  The Titanic kept appearing in my work because of the visual interest between the black ocean liner and the white iceberg, between rectangle and triangle, between man made and organic.  Once I heard the painter Suzan Frecon say “all my decisions are visual.” She’s an abstract painter and I knew just what she meant.

It took me awhile to learn not to put too much story into the Superman and Ocean Liner pieces.  I pretty much focused on the sight of Superman flying and the sight of the ocean liner in the same frame as an iceberg. You see how much I left out, great chunks of both of these legends.  Anything more seemed like it would be too much information and in the end I had to consider what worked best to present clearly in a single frame painting.

On the other hand, I really like having both balls in the air: the tension between formal elements and also the stories.  The tone I’m most drawn to is one of vulnerability and searching which seems to also reflect the way I paint, my touch, and also the way I proceed through a painting which is to try and find the forms in the process of putting the paint on.  However, once a painting is finished it’s always very interesting to reflect on how it communicates to the viewer, the various interpretations, and I thank you for this chance to revisit these works in this way.

So clearly I attributed something of mine to the paintings, interpreting them according to my existential mood linked to 9/11!


Sargasso, Oil on canvas, 56×66 inches, 2012

Can you say something about color in your work. I am really struck by the colors, the orange and pink, for instance, in S.O.S. and Midsummer Night, are so spectacular. Is this conscious and deliberate or is it a more intuitive process? 

Thanks for noticing the orange and pink.  That came at a moment of heightened confidence when I felt I’d done enough paintings for my upcoming show and could fly around the studio doing whatever I wanted.  I think artists have to USE color and think in terms of putting color next to color rather than of describing something.  If you squeeze out tubes of the most vibrant 6 basic colors plus black and white and then as the studio gets heated up and brushes get loaded with paint and you’re working so fast that bits of one color get into another color, well hopefully fabulous things happen.

My mother was a very visual person and often talked to her four kids about what she was looking at and asked our opinions. She was the daughter of an architect and her son, my brother, is an architect.  Even now I can picture her at the kitchen sink with all sorts of Matisse postcards and art clippings pinned up on the wall for her to look at while she did the dishes.  This I took for granted for many years until recently when I realized it was quite unusual.

The best times I had with my mother were when we went to a museum together to look at paintings.  She was not at all supportive of me being an artist as she thought it would interfere with my wife and child rearing skills.  Once I took her to see an absolutely beautiful exhibit of Morandi paintings at the Guggenheim Museum and after a few minutes she wheeled around and said to me in a very angry voice “Did this man ever have a wife and children?”

She loved going to my art openings and meeting my friends but was very skeptical about the artist bohemian life style even though the way she raised us was so eccentric some of my friends were afraid to have meals at our house.  I guess the atmosphere was too rowdy and also she was what you might call a horrible housekeeper HOWEVER she filled our house with great color, always – flowers, peasant art (as she called it) and wonderful touches everywhere.


SOS, Oil on canvas, 61×69 inches, 2012

That story from your childhood is interesting- art in the domestic setting. Did you argue with your mother about her expectation to be “wife and mother”?

No I didn’t argue with her.  I thought that if I really wanted to live the life of an artist and to eventually have as my life partner another woman then I should just go do it.

And actually I think that my mother wanted for me what she valued most about her life, which was having a husband and children.  She didn’t know artists as we know them and saw them more as lonely misfits who didn’t play by the rules.  She would be very surprised and impressed by the global community of people on Facebook who reach out and support each other, as you are doing, but this was something she could not have imagined.

It sounds like that was your earliest exposure to art, but what about making art? Did you go to art school? And what about important mentors, influences?

No one ever sent me to art school.  When I was in my 40’s I got a teaching scholarship to SUNY Purchase just outside New York.  By the time I got there I’d already formed a close circle of friends in Brooklyn who were painters – Chris Martin, Peter Acheson, Rick Briggs, Don Voisine –and this was crucial since for the first time I was thrown in with multi media artists, photographers, video artists and I had to hold my own in these large debates about the relevance of painting. It was really helpful to return home to Brooklyn and hang out with my friends who were all dedicated painters.

I have had to fight for the life I lead now and this had made me value it all the more and not take for granted that I get to make art sometime all day long every day.

Now I have a question for you:  How did you get so involved with artists who live and work in the Brooklyn New York area?  You could say it was through Facebook but how did this start and how did you know which artists to contact?

I’m going to answer your question but first I have to say that you are the first person to ever ask me that.  So thanks. I’m not sure how it started. Probably Facebook, yes, but I don’t know who the first artists were, I think some were friends of L.A. friends, and a few via Jerry Saltz’s wall who seemed like kindred spirits. Then people contacted me.  I discovered myself at some point on 1000 Living Painters – wait, no, that was actually after I was FB friends with them!  I built connections like playing hopscotch.

I am by nature a shy person, but in this world of art I find myself much more fearless- like contacting you after reading your interview to say ‘I like your work!’ I would see someone’s paintings in a book or in a gallery or online and feel like I had to make contact, like there’s someone out there like me. Sometimes it happens the other way- someone contacts me, having seen me on a friend’s page or something.  I built a community of artists whose work was alive and who were open to conversation, I guess. I didn’t go to art school so THIS is my education. Does that answer your question?

You know the way you approach facebook is so exemplary.  You see people on facebook making post after post and then never having the curiosity or awareness to interact with anyone else.  I’m very wary of people who use facebook as a bulletin board instead of as a tool for community building, which is what you have done.  And I agree with you that there’s a great deal to be learned from being attentive to other people’s posts.


Desire For Transport, Oil on canvas, 54×72 inches, 2007

Can we talk about your studio routine a bit? In some ways you’ve addressed this in other answers- like how you lay colors out, but if you want to say anything else here- do you paint every day, work in oil or something else, multiple pieces at a time. I think you have a summer studio and winter studio, but is the work different depending on where you work?

My best time to work is in the morning, and by the afternoon my powers of imagination and inspiration begin to dwindle so I use the rest of the day to answer email, do errands and visit people’s studios. Evenings I go to openings, read or exchange stories about what happened that day with my partner, Jane. In the summer I take a large amount of unfinished work with me so there is not much difference in how I proceed. My summer studio is in an old barn with a very forgiving plank floor and I think I feel more freedom walking around with wet brushes and paint pots in a place that is already covered with spilled paint.  In Brooklyn my studio is also used as guest quarters for visiting family so I have to be a little more careful; but my Brooklyn studio is warm and comfortable which I really appreciate.  When I lived in Maine year round I experienced enough freezing studios to last a lifetime.


At Home, 2012 80×68 inches, oil on canvas

Any advice for future or emerging artists?

Yes, make work and get feedback.

A whole lot of early work just doesn’t amount to much and I had to be brutally honest about that.  I’d make more work and ask people over to look at it.  I’d ask people who would give me tough critiques.  Not only did I listen to what they said I wrote it all down and have 15 black notebooks filled with studio notes taken over the years.  Right after they left the studio I’d write down what they said especially the bad parts.  Days and weeks and years later I’d read over what I’d written.  The same damn things kept coming up – too tight, too self-conscious, too small, too afraid.  Then once in awhile I’d do something someone liked and it would inevitably surprise me.  You like THAT ONE!  It’s so sloppy, so vulnerable, so unskillful, so OPEN, so revealing.  It took me a long time to own up to the kind of artist I really was and let go of an urge to be a technically good artist whose paintings my parents would perceive as competent. In fact, I’m still working on this.  So maybe what I’ve said is enough.

What I most appreciated about this interview was that it turned into a conversation and I think your way of being in the world- at least in relation to the interview and with me- is fully consistent with your way as an artist: fully embedded in a process of discovery, searching, vulnerability, but being able to say “maybe we’ve said enough.”

And thank you Julia for letting this all take on another form than perhaps the one you first had in mind.

Thank you Katherine. It’s been an honor and a pleasure.


Kathy Bradford. Photo credit: Greg Irikura

©  Excerpts and links may be used provided that full and clear credit is given to Katherine Bradford and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Schwartz, J (2013). “A Conversation with Katherine Bradford,” Figure/Ground. February 2014.
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