Studio Visit: Artist Katie Bell Is Making Sculptures From Cast-Off Remnants and Walking Through a Subdued Times Square

We caught up with the artist, a RISD MFA graduate, to hear about how she's spending her time.

Katie Bell. Photo by Anna Bauer. Courtesy of the artist.

For the past few months, the artist Katie Bell has taken some time to slow down and experiment in her East Village studio. Along with her partner, artist Stefan Gunn, she has been making functional objects—chairs, shelves—while experimenting with new materials and preparing for a two-person show alongside Rachel Mica Weiss at Super Dutchess in New York. (The show, titled, “Objects of Desire,” is curated by Lauren Fejarang and is open through October 11.)

Bell, a graduate of RISD’s MFA painting program, is now getting ready for a solo show in 2021 at Spencer Brownstone gallery. We caught up with her to hear about her process, how she’s taken advantage of New York’s quiet streets, and what local bakery she can’t live without.

What are the most indispensable items in your studio and why?

My Makita router and router bits. I have been using a router as a drawing tool, working with cove bits that create a mark like a finger going through wet cement. I like how it can create a mechanical yet organic mark in solid material, like wood or drywall. 

What is the studio task on your agenda tomorrow that you are most looking forward to?

I am currently working on a model for an upcoming show. I love building models because it is so different than most of the other work I do that is physical and large. Models allow me to think through big ideas on a small scale. I like how intimate and immediate they are; I can whip something up very quickly and try out things fast using simple materials. For most of my larger, installational projects, I always start by making a model as a rough guide. It’s a way to take drawings a step further before building and constructing on a large scale.

Katie Bell's <i>Standing Arrangement</i> (2019). Photo by Jessica Bingham.

Katie Bell’s Standing Arrangement (2019). Photo by Jessica Bingham.

What kind of atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Do you listen to music or podcasts, or do you prefer silence? Why?

I always have to have something on: the radio, music, or an audiobook. When I get to the studio I turn on Democracy Now!. I usually switch to music after that, needing a change of pace. I have been listening to Randy Weston, Raulín Rodríguez, Bonnie Raitt, Joan Armatrading, and Teyana Taylor. The kinds of tools I am working with that day often dictate what I listen to—a quiet day is good for an audiobook, a power tool day is good for music.

What trait do you most admire in a work of art? What trait do you most despise?

I admire inventiveness and feeling one’s voice. Going for it—executing an idea that seems too big. I don’t despise any art. There is art I don’t care about, which usually tends not to feel authentic.

Katie Bell, <i>Free Forms</i> (2020). Photo by Stan Narten.

Katie Bell, Free Forms (2020). Photo by Stan Narten.

What snack food could your studio not function without?

A pork bun and coffee from Harper’s Bread House, a Chinese bakery on Grand and Forsyth.

Who are your favorite artists, curators, or other thinkers to follow on social media?

@summaeverthang, @tau_au, @darthgibson, @houseofextravagarza, @ernatmack, @pinkessay, @bizarrecolumns, @drawernyc,  @rebuild_foundation, @staceyabrams, @aoc, @jmartinbell.

Katie Bell, <i>Scattered Structure</i> (2020). Photo by Dan Carlson.

Katie Bell, Scattered Structure (2020). Photo by Dan Carlson.

When you feel stuck in the studio, what do you do to get un-stuck?

I go on a walk. I have enjoyed going on long walks around the city the last few months. There is a stillness in not feeling the normal rush of those around me. I have gravitated towards places I usually avoid—tourist destinations like Times Square, Grand Central Station, Wall St, etc. Without all of the crowds, I can really look at the place and be present in a way I never have. 

I am always looking on the ground or at what’s sitting out for the trash, searching for little bits of things to bring back to the studio. When a walk isn’t enough and I need a long-term distraction, I make something functional, like a chair or shelf for my apartment. Making something functional allows for different practical decisions to be made, but it gets me working with my hands, which always leads back to my work.

Work in progress by Katie Bell. Courtesy the artist.

Work in progress by Katie Bell. Courtesy the artist.

If you had to put together a mood board, what would be on it right now?

Various styles of stage curtains, duckpin bowling balls, fish tank décor, a Doric column, Saul Bass’s Kleenex logo, images of Jantar Mantar (a site of 13 architectural astronomy instruments in New Delhi), white denim, and Robert Morris’s Scatter Piece.

What is the last exhibition you saw (virtual or otherwise) that made an impression on you? 

I saw the Thaddeus Mosley show at Karma right before the shutdown in March. It stayed with me all through the summer, when I couldn’t see art in person. The show was striking in its active presence and scale. The sculptures acted like figures in different positions having a conversation, or like a sculpture forest.

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