Hello Kitty as Sympathizer and Provocateur

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Dwayne Butcher Interviews Leslie Holt

Leslie Holt is an artist currently working at the Red Dirt Studios in Mt. Rainier, MD. She is originally from Bethesda, MD and in 2012 returned to the DC Metro area after living in St. Louis for 20 years. She received her BFA in Painting at Washington University in St. Louis and her MFA in Painting at Washing State University. She is currently represented by the David Lusk Gallery in Memphis, TN and Curator’s Office in Washington, D.C. She has exhibited her work in art fairs, galleries, and museums around the country. Holt is having a “Farewell Tour” exhibition at the David Lusk Gallery in February, 2015.

I recently visited her studio to talk about Hello Kitties, jello, beer, and the I-55 corridor. Here is part of that conversation.

Hello Venus of Willendorf (fetish sisters)
Hello Venus of Willendorf 2015 earthenware, porcelain, steel 7 1/2″ tall

Dwayne Butcher: How did you first start with Hello Kitty?

Leslie Holt: Well, Hello Kitty and I both came of age in the 70’s, so I feel like I grew up with her. Truth be told, I wasn’t that into her as a kid – too girly. Then somewhere in the 90’s she got kind of counter culture, punkish. And now we are in an odd place with her – she’s popular but seems to have some sort of agency, voice, and power, maybe partly because she is so pervasive, her strength is in numbers!

I have been teaching Art Appreciation for some time. It’s a class for non-art majors. And for people who haven’t taken it or taught it, it is one crazy course (I still teach it online). Crazy because of all the stuff it tries to cram into one semester. Including the entire history of art in the last quarter of the class. You literally have to flash these images in front of the class and talk a mile a minute to cover the highlights. They often give this class to the new adjuncts because no one else wants to teach it and you get every kind of student in it, including a large contingent who think it will be an easy A and resent all the actual critical thinking and memorization you may require.

Hello Pollock (tipsy) 2014 house paint, acrylic, enamel on canvas 36x48"
Hello Pollock (tipsy) 2014 house paint, acrylic, enamel on canvas 36×48″
Hello Pollock (tipsy) detail
Hello Pollock (tipsy) detail

I have actually grown to like teaching the class over the last 10 years I have been doing it. To watch some students really get excited by the art (or at least pretend that they are for my sake), or shocked and/or pissed off when they look at contemporary art. Anyway, I was literally leafing through the textbook doing class prep when I had the random thought to put one of my HK figurines on a reproduction in the book. I thought it was interesting and fun. So I took pictures of her on various images and started doing paintings from them. I started calling them “Hello Art Appreciation,” but then the word “masterpiece” came to mind and it seemed to fit my ironic purpose better. Bringing these heavy hitters of art history down several notches with HK. And it grew from there.

They started out very small – 4×6 and 6×6 inches. They were supposed to be sort of bite sized nuggets of art, much like postcards and souvenirs you can buy in the museum shop, referring to the commodification of art. We are so saturated by some of these famous works of art, many of which we have never seen in person but know them from posters, t-shirts, coffee mugs. When Hello Kitty is added, I know that there’s a likelihood someone is much more familiar with her than the piece of art. So she often becomes the entry to the famous art. Several collectors have bought one for their children as a way to get them interested in art. That seems so earnest of a reason to connect to the art, which I like, but was not expecting.

Hello Monet (bass pro shop) 2015 oil on canvas 20x40"
Hello Monet (bass pro shop) 2015 oil on canvas 20×40″
Hello Monet (bass pro shop) detail
Hello Monet (bass pro shop) detail

While I started using her for the irony and satirical content, it has evolved into more than that as people truly start to appreciate and be curious about the original masterpiece when looking at the fake version. Hello Kitty becomes like a friendly art ambassador, the unpretentious, puffy, white museum docent you wish you had in 6th grade. Very fitting considering Sanrio’s original purpose for her was to improve the reputation of Japan across the globe. I think she was literally referred to as the ambassador of friendliness.

hello matisse (scuba)
Hello Matisse (scuba) 2015 gouache on cut paper mounted on canvas 32×18 inches
hello matisse (scuba) detail
Hello Matisse (scuba) detail

DB: How do you choose the images you paint?

LH: At first I chose the most obvious “masterpieces,” the ones almost anyone would recognize and are most likely to have presence in the art appreciation textbook. Then I branched out a bit, mostly to images I love for one reason or another. I love Baroque, and I love the challenge of pointillism. I love putting HK into the darker pieces, like “Third of May” and “Guernica.” So while the series has lots of formulaic aspects to it, with many of the components being pre-determined, the choice of the original masterpiece is mine. In terms of installation, I have always preferred they not be grouped by time period or multiple pieces by the same artist next to each other. I am not sure exactly why except that I am obviously not intending to create a learning experience with my exhibit. More like poking fun of certain institutional learning experiences, really.

DB: Are you learning anything from these “masters” by recreating their work?

LH: I have learned a TON from making these fake paintings. Funny I never counted on that part of the benefit – I just thought I needed to make these copies for the sake of my concept, a means to an end. I never imagined I would be working on the series for so long. Slowly I realized I was actually learning a lot about technique, design, and color theory. I have gained incredible amount of respect for some artists I used to overlook, ironically because I felt oversaturated with those images– like the constant museum blockbuster shows of impressionists.

Now after having faked Monet several times, I bow down to his greatness and mysteriousness. Picasso is another one. – I didn’t get the big deal exactly, beyond his breaking out of representation, which was major, but to me mostly conceptually and historically significant. It wasn’t work I wanted to linger on and examine… until I needed to for this series. Now Guernica is one of my absolute favorite pieces of art of all times, and I really enjoy many of his women.


DB: How do you get over the possibility of these being more than simple one-liners?

LH: Yeah, I think part of me recoils at that reality and part of me embraces it. It’s Hello Kitty, for god’s sake. She’s a walking shtick, ha! She is very much a one-liner, but then also quite complex and multi-layered in all her different iterations and contexts partly by virtue of being around for over 40 years – she has been through many phases and her original fan base has aged, has more money with which to “appreciate” her, and is very nostalgic about passing her on to their children…

The concepts behind the Hello Masterpiece series – including the commentary on commodification of art and the mass production of these reproductions – certainly lends itself to a shtick. On the other hand, a shtick can lead to complacency and the dreaded stagnancy of the artist. No one wants to be dismissed as one dimensional.

hello last supper (wonder)
Hello Last Supper (wonder) 2015 oil on canvas 20×40″
hello last supper (wonder) detail
Hello Last Supper (wonder) detail

My “Hello Masterpiece” exhibit at Curator’s Office in 2009 got reviewed in the Washington Post. It was generally quite positive, and the last line was something to the effect of “Holt has a shtick… and I want one.” That both stung and flattered me. And I have worked hard to keep pushing myself with this series, both conceptually and technically.

I have been talking to colleagues recently about the levels at which viewers engage with your work. From the very superficial reading, the “drive by” viewing, to spending more time looking and thinking about it, going deeper and exploring more. You hope that the viewers will spend a lot of time uncovering the layers of meaning and genius of your creation. But most folks won’t. That doesn’t mean they won’t appreciate it on some level, and hell, even buy one maybe. As I get deeper into my crusty middle age, I find embracing all of those levels of appreciating the work comes more easily. And because the work is not personally or emotionally sensitive, it is easier to let criticism slide off my back. I have other work that feels a lot more vulnerable.

hello goya (stuffing feelings)
Hello Goya (stuffing feelings) 2015 oil on canvas 20×16″
hello goya (stuffing feelings) detail
Hello Goya (stuffing feelings) detail

DB: The current work is much larger then I have seen you create. Why the change to the larger work?

LH: I started getting bigger a few years ago, from the tiny postcard to 8×10 and 10×20. Last year I went hog wild with a couple pieces that were 20×20! When I saw them in an exhibit I appreciated the presence they had on the wall. You have to get really close to the small pieces to see them at all. The larger ones can be experienced from afar. So I decided to do a whole exhibit of the larger ones – the smallest ones in the Farewell Tour exhibit are 16×20 and they go up to 36×48. The technical challenges were more plentiful than I anticipated. I am generally a pretty fast painter, but on these I had to really slow down, paint in layers and pay attention to details in ways that the small ones didn’t require, all good challenges for me.


DB: There seems to be an opportunity to have a conversation about feminism and the role of women in art history. Is this something that you think about?

LH: Once I told a reporter that Hello Kitty is a feminist icon. I was kind of being tongue in cheek but she went with it in a pretty serious fashion. Besides what I do with Hello Kitty in my work, I do think there’s a reclaiming of language of femininity going on with her. Pink power and all that. She has, to me at least, quite a powerful presence, despite the fact that she has no mouth.

Maybe because she doesn’t speak and is pretty expressionless in general, you can project what you want on her. And she’s not super skinny like some dumb ass Barbie. So she’s a much better role model for girls, don’t you think? She went through a semi counterculture phase as well, somewhere in the 90’s when it was kind of punk to sport her image on your clothing. Not that I know anything about that level of cool. But the contrast between those kinds of presence in our culture, to her pervasive presence in every Target in America, is pretty interesting.

So in my work she shows up in all these canonized works from Art History, the vast majority of which are made by men. The commentary is pretty clear. Sure, I have the Gentileschi’s, Kahlo’s and O’Keeffe’s to pull from, but really it’s kind of bleak when you focus on who makes it into the art history books. For this current exhibit, there is only one masterpiece out of 20 by a female artist – “The Slaying of Holofernes” by Artemesia Gentileschi, another favorite painting of mine. But the paintings is still – in the scheme of things- on the obscure side compared to the Last Supper for example. Not the coffee mug type image (Although I would buy that mug!). I could have easily left that one out, and no one would have batted an eye. But the inclusion of it may make some viewers wonder why it’s there, take stock of what’s included in the exhibit. Or not…

As another view on this issue, I have made a couple of Hello Guerilla Girls because of course their role in pointing out gender inequality in the art world is so important. Add HK to that mix and it gets kind of topsy turvy. So sometimes HK is a sympathizer, sometimes a provocateur…


DB: Has Sanrio ever contacted you?

LH: No, they haven’t for good or bad. They are actually quite open to artists using hello kitty in their work. Which is smart. Plus, it wouldn’t be worth their time to go after such small potatoes as myself.

DB: The upcoming exhibition in Nashville is titled the “Farewell Tour.” Is this really the end? If so, why?

LH: I have been doing this series since 2007! 8 years. That’s 120 years in artist time. As our president said in his State of the Union Address “It’s 2015. It’s time.” I think he was referring to something a bit more consequential like equal pay for women, but still, he and I are on the same wavelength.


DB: Since this is indeed the case, what is next?

LH: I always have had something else going. It’s just had to take a backseat to Hello Masterpiece. Partly because the Hello Masterpiece series has been in demand by galleries and collectors. But also because I have had some really intense jobs in social services and the nonprofit sector, a completely different and absorbing world. Not to mention the adjunct teaching hustle of living in one’s car and teaching at 3 different schools.

For the first time in my life, while I still teach part time, the vast majority of my working days are in the studio. I have managed to pretty intensely produce the hello masterpiece series as well as experiment with some other work, including a series of partially eaten cakes, embroidered line drawings of the figures in Guernica, embroidered and painted images of desserts from vintage cookbooks and self help book covers. So I am about to shift my focus on that work completely, give it my full attention, and see where it goes. In fact, I am driving from my opening in Nashville straight to a month long artist in residency in St. Louis at Paul Artspace. This will be my time to recalibrate and figure out what’s next.


DB: What was the thinking about creating the “Help Yourself” book cover pieces? 

LH: I am attracted to these books as cultural objects, particularly in the American, pull yourself up by your bootstraps and solve your own damn problems kind of way. Many books make pretty amazing claims, like that you will learn to love again, you will conquer your fear of public speaking, or overcome your obsession with eating, drinking, lying, sleeping, etc etc.. I also love the visual appearance of a lot of them – the retro fonts and designs of the covers are very attractive. There’s a pop quality to them, which is sort of absurd given the often heavy topic inside the book.


DB: Did these books hold any special meaning to you?

LH: I became most aware of the whole self help genre when I worked at a bookstore after college in the early nineties. We had a self help section – my young co-workers and I made fun of it pretty ruthlessly. And there’s fun to be had, especially the ridiculous titles like “Men who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them,” “The Dance of Anger,” “The Dance of Intimacy,” “The Dance of – fill in the blank.” But as I get older and see how complicated life can be, I recognize how helpful some of these books can be, particularly for folks who have shame or stigma associated with their problems. So while many of these self help books offer overly simplistic solutions to complex problems, and perpetuate an unhealthy ethic of self sufficiency, when what is called for is outside help from other humans, there’s often something useful to be found in them.

What’s interesting about my “Help Yourself” series is I get the whole range of reactions – from people remembering how great a certain book is to people laughing at them. And then there are people who don’t know that these are real titles of real books! Mostly twenty-something’s who have never heard of such books as “I’m Ok, You’re Ok.” That’s hilarious right there and certainly an indication of how time sensitive they are as pieces of our culture.


DB: Again, the question about feminism and women’s work can be talked about with this style. Is this unavoidable?

LH: Sure to a certain extent. For the self help books, for example, it’s a significant part of the content. These books are largely targeted to women who are programmed to think there is something wrong with us that needs improving. And who frankly are usually a little more self reflective in the emotional realm – again social programming there. But I think we are getting far enough from the feminist art movement, the artists who brought traditionally domestic women’s work and elevated into the “fine art” realm. It is a relatively new history to grapple with, but plenty of artists are grappling with it. How to relate to these feminist artists who did some of the initial trailblazing in this area. Now what? What does placing this crafty work in a fine art context even mean right now? Those are questions that I simultaneously sort of resent having to be burdened with (Dancing with my own anger of the feminist kind) and also find a rich layer of content for this work. And for which I have no ready answers, so my research begins! Painting carries its own incredible baggage, and has died many times apparently, so you can’t escape this awareness in any media.

The embroidery is exciting because it is so foreign to me in a way that painting is not. The physical process is so different, although I am still incorporating paint into the images. It really changes my whole process… and slows me way down. I mentioned I am a fast painter. I was quite adept at producing high volumes of work at a good clip. And my life circumstances necessitated that I be quick, at least I thought so.

Well, you can’t do embroidery quickly. Someone will get hurt. The slower pace already changes my process. And because the way I am currently building form with embroidery (the jello pieces in which I leave much of the threads dangling and unfinished), deciding how much of a form to describe and how much to keep open – I have to step back from the work constantly and take stock. You can’t just paint over or scrape out a bad decision. And when you put that many hours into something as laborious as embroidery, the stakes get higher and higher the further you get. Finding ways to deal with that and incorporate mitakes into my process is exhilarating to me.

DB: Is it possible for a Hello Kitty Dwayne Butcher Reunion Tour?

LH: Of course! As long as I can do a “Hello Butcher.” What would be a respectable time frame to reappear after a farewell tour?






Author Dwayne Butcher is an artist, writer, curator and chicken wing connoisseur living in Baltimore, MD. Butcher moved here from Memphis in the summer of 2013. In that time he has continued to have international exhibitions, published articles in local, regional and national publications, and curated an exhibition of Baltimore-area artists titled “Bawlmer” at Crosstown Arts in Memphis, TN. To see his work and curatorial projects, visit his website and follow him on twitter @dwaynebutcher.

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