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Art AND: Katie Pumphrey

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Katie Pumphrey is driving two cars at once. At least, that’s how she explains the tightrope balancing act that is her career as a full-time artist. Pumphrey’s “cars” are her studio practice and the business side of supporting that studio work, which she acknowledges is “a whole other full-time job.” Pumphrey cautions, “Don’t let the pressure of needing or wanting to sell work, or the failure that comes along, change the work you’re making. Make the work, and then figure out how to sell it. The two are very different skill sets, and you have to nurture them both.” 

She recognizes that both vehicles “can’t always drive at the same pace” but she’s committed to trying. And while none of us particularly loves the term, she’s good at the hustle: Pumphrey earned her BFA in painting at MICA in 2009 and has been supporting herself, first partly and now entirely, on sales of her work since then, without the added advantages or connections of an MFA or gallery representation. 

Pumphrey operates as a small business owner and is confident in her ability to both make and sell her own work. “You are your best advocate,” she explains. “Someone told me years ago, you have to be your biggest fan and always remind yourself of that when you’re in doubt.” For Pumphrey, being a full-time studio artist motivates her to pay attention to her business, without which she wouldn’t be able to eat or pay rent. When another artist recently asked her for guidance on becoming a full-time artist, Pumphrey told them, “my advice was just do it and then you’ll figure out what it takes. You don’t really know it until you’re in it.” To make the artist’s family feel better, she elaborated, “You’re just going to do it, and by doing it more people see that you’re really invested. I noticed that when I went full-time and said that I was full-time a lot of the conversations changed. People took me more seriously.”

 

In 2017, Pumphrey shifted her painting practice away from imagery of large animals towards the abstraction for which she is now best known. The change came in part from a desire to get viewers to pay more attention and to linger a little longer in front of the work as well as to distance interpretations based in biography—people were constantly asking her if she was from the West when she painted bison. “Of course there’s times that your personal experience as an artist comes into your work,” she says. “I try to pay attention to how I communicate some of my experiences, but really what I’m always trying to do is open a door for people. I’ve never believed that you need to know everything about me to look at my work.” She still uses images to start paintings, as aids in creating areas of chaos and calm as she figures out her compositions, but moving further into abstraction has allowed her to play more with color.

This is probably as good a time as any to bring up Pumphrey’s other life passion: open water swimming. She completed the Triple Crown of swimming in 2018—the English Channel, the Catalina Island Channel, and the swim around Manhattan—one of only 242 elite swimmers in the world to accomplish this feat to date. She’s currently training to swim the English Channel again in summer 2022. Knowing that Pumphrey seeks out opportunities to be in the same water as sharks somehow puts into perspective her “leap and the net will appear” attitude toward her career. Which isn’t to say she doesn’t have fears about swimming in the open water or making rent but perhaps that she’s better at managing them than some of us. She isn’t fearless, but she refuses to be fearful.

Pumphrey’s drive isn’t the only connection between the painting and the swimming though. “I feel like a lot of my work is always pulling from my experiences as a swimmer,” she says, explaining that, with “open water, there’s a whole mess of crap happening. And then there’s moments of quiet. I want to play with that flat edge of being above or below, or how you walk around [a work] and experience it.” Any casual athlete knows the mental struggle while your body resists exercise that eventually gives way to an endorphin release, and Pumphrey’s paintings encase this sensation, offering the viewer moments of emptiness alongside layer upon layer of acrylic. Pumphrey is investigating contrast, placing “those moments where I’m in the water and I feel out of control and the moments where I feel controlled” alongside one another to underscore their beauty. “It always goes back to this, I put myself here, I volunteer for these swims,” she says. “It’s my choice. It’s supposed to be fun. I do talk myself off the cliff or back into a state of, ‘You got this.’ Because I choose it.”

SUBJECT: Katie Pumphrey, 33
WEARING: Jeans, T-shirt, pink sneakers (my nice Pumas)
PLACE: Highlandtown, Baltimore

 

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading? 

Katie Pumphrey: A memoir written by Marcia Cleveland called Dover Solo. It is a very honest memoir about training and swimming the English Channel. I read it when I was thinking about training for an ultra marathon swim, and I’ve read it several times since. The way she wrote about the process and experience was not only super informative and eye-opening on what it would take, but it lit a fire inside me. After I read that book, I couldn’t stop thinking about that body of water, and I set out to train for that swim right after. Two years later, in 2015, I successfully swam the English Channel. It’s now six years since that swim, and I still can’t stop thinking about that body of water.

Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton. It’s a nonfiction collection of essays about the connection between being a competitive swimmer and an artist. She writes about the meditative elements of being underwater and intensely training for hours on end, and how that connects to a studio practice. It’s really quite lovely, and obviously hits a particular chord for me. 

What was the worst career or life advice you’ve ever received? What is the best? 

The first thing I think of with the worst isn’t really advice, or if it is, it’s total garbage. When people realize I’m in my 30s and married, even strangers ask when I’m having kids. And then when I share that I’m not, I hear “you’ll change your mind” kind of comments on repeat. Lots of “you should, otherwise you’ll regret it” type of garbage advice. My husband and I don’t want to have kids. Some people really struggle with that idea but it’s just not something I want to do. 

The best advice I’ve ever gotten: Be your own biggest fan. I try to remind myself about that, especially during countless moments of doubt. As many artists know, rejection is a huge part of this job, so be your own biggest fan, because no one else will. Sure, lots of people will support, cheer you on, hopefully enjoy your work, but especially in the thick of it, you have to stand tall and be into what you’re doing. Something about that keeps my compass pointed in a good direction. It’s that little reminder to make work because I want to, and no other reason is needed. I think about that a lot with swimming too. The little voice in our head can be mean or full of doubt, so we have to keep cheering ourselves on. 

Pre-COVID, you started Friends with Studios as a way to connect with artist friends and feel less isolated in your studio. Why do you think artists need to build communities of all kinds?

I feel like we are all stronger when we have each other. That goes for a lot of areas of life, but especially when navigating the ins and outs of being an artist. The more fellow artists we all know, the more resources we all have, because truly we are the greatest resources to each other. 

The idea for Friends with Studios originally came from the structure of an adult kickball league for artists, minus the sports. Gather artists together, make friends, be as involved as you want to be. It doesn’t matter how much you are playing the game, you can be on the team at any time. Too often artists are down on themselves for their productivity or success, and in a digital world it’s easy to compare your work and résumé to others. It’s also too often [that artists] learn the business of being an artist the hard way. My hope with Friends with Studios is that if artists talk more to one another, share more, then hopefully we all benefit. I also know I am not alone in feeling a bit isolated in my studio at times—sometimes you just need some feedback, or another set of eyes, or maybe you just need to chat. I hope Friends with Studios can be a fun way to make friends and expand your circle.

For now, Friends with Studios is starting with monthly happy hours—which will resume when we can safely gather—but I also hope Friends with Studios can expand to other things. For now, it’s really ‘let’s just get artists from around the area around, and let’s hang out!’ One question I have gotten about events is, “do I have to have a ‘studio’ to attend?” No, but I would really define a studio by wherever you make art. So if you make art, you have a studio. The name Friends with Studios came from the idea that we are all artists, so we are friends that also have studios aka friends that also make art. 

Friends with Studios had held only two events when the pandemic started, so really it’s just getting going. But whenever the monthly happy hours can get going again (hopefully soon!), I’ll be sure to spread the word. The happy hours are purposely held in non-arts spaces, that way no one has to be “on,” feeling like they have to host because their work is on the wall, or where some people are more connected than others. We’re meeting in bars or spaces that are really just about making friends in the most casual way possible. It’s not a networking event—unless you want it to be, then go for it. Really, just show up, meet people, and hopefully make some friends.  

 

How would you describe your relationship with failure? Is there any advice you give to others about dealing with the disappointment that is a natural part of any career?

Failure and I are besties. It’s a love/hate relationship, for sure, but failure is ultimately helpful. I tend to think of it like a mean little gremlin that I just have to live with—it pops up randomly, stings for a moment, but ultimately I just say, “You again!?” and move on. Whether it’s in the studio or in the sense of career progress that failure comes about, I just know it’s a given. Rejection is woven into the fabric of being an artist, and that’s just the way it is. I think recognizing that it is all part of it is a helpful first step . . . then move on to the part where you have to be your own biggest fan. Feel the sting of failure and then tell that lil failure gremlin to go away, and keep doing what you’re doing. The path we want to be on, the one working towards our goals, it’s never a straight line, and the speed limit isn’t the same the whole way, but [the idea is you] just keep on going.   

What does it mean to you to have people buy your work and live with it every day?

It’s pretty magical. It’s an incredible feeling when people want to invest in your work and career. I feel like it’s the ultimate compliment when someone wants to live with my work day in and day out. I think it also puts the life of a painting in such a unique trajectory. I have been working on building my art collection, mostly from local Baltimore/DC artists—and the experience of living with art, and seeing the same piece again and again, day after day, year after year is just amazing. I love how it evolves. You noticed different things about a piece, all the while your life kind of happens around it and with it. My collectors often send me photos of my work hanging in their homes—and I truly love to see it. In a lot of ways, it makes that painting take on a whole other life.

It’s also definitely a goal of mine to have my work in public collections. I truly hope one day my work is in a museum, especially one that is free, accessible, and open to all.

Being a full-time working artist is a rarity. I think our readers would love to know what your daily or weekly routine looks like. How do you establish your own routine and how do you stick to it without a boss telling you what to do?

Establishing a routine can be tricky when you’re self-employed. I think people tend to worry that they won’t do the work without a boss telling you what to do, but really, it’s the opposite. Self-employed people tend to work allllll the time—I mean, the rent’s not gonna pay itself and I don’t get paid time off, but it’s important to set boundaries and maintain balance and some sort of sanity. 

I definitely think it’s easy to just be working all the time, so I really try to stick as close as I can to a regular Monday-Friday work week, and for the most part that works for me. Of course, when I am close to exhibitions or deadlines, my hours increase, and weekend days get added in. I tend to have more studio visits on the weekend as well, but for the most part, I operate a typical M-F. 

Having a studio away from my house has been very beneficial for me. It helps to have that routine of “going to work,” plus it automatically creates a cut-off to the day. I do occasionally miss the perks of my studio being in my house, but the separation has definitely been an improvement for the work itself and my work/life balance. For a long time, I was more of a night owl, which is obviously easier to do when your studio and bed are in the same place, so that was definitely a challenging adjustment. It took me a little while to get comfortable working in the daytime and to find that flow, but I do love ending my workday and still having the rest of the evening to hang out with my husband or friends. The pandemic has thrown much of my routine out the window, especially after I was sick with COVID for a couple of months, but I am getting back to my regular schedule now though, which feels great. 

My workday routine tends to look something like this: After I workout in the morning (yay, swimming), I aim to get to my studio around 10 a.m., and I work until about 5 or 6 p.m. I tend to start the day with the admin side of things—emails, invoices, etc.—but I also do those when I’m home (again, it’s easy to just work all the time). I also start the day by cleaning up whatever mess I left the day before (another perk to a studio outside my house, yay to leaving messes), plus I also start the day with the more mindless tasks, like building canvases or cleaning up the sides of finished paintings. It’s a nice way to warm up to being in the space and getting myself organized. I am also a big TO DO list maker, so being able to cross a few things off right at the beginning of the day helps a ton. 

Then I jump into whatever painting feels like it’s calling my name. I tend to work on several paintings at once—which often means they progress at different speeds, which allows me to be able to pick and choose. If I am ready for some tough problem-solving, I will dive into a painting that is well on its way or nearing a finish. If I am feeling like I want to start the day without so much pressure, maybe I’ll start a fresh one. More often than not though, I tend to bounce around on several paintings throughout the day. I’ve also recently jumped into a large sculpture project, which is such a different process compared to painting since it requires several steps and a much longer waiting time between them. So pieces of that sculpture have gotten through into the mix. 

I have also found that having a dog in the studio—I have two, Monty and Adja, so one or both is always with me—helps me keep a regular routine. They push me to take breaks or step away for a midday walk, and my dog Monty tends to be my end-of-day alarm since he knows it’s close to dinner time and will come nudge me like, Hey! Lady! It’s time to stop working! 

 

Have you had any pandemic-influenced hobbies or things that you loved coming back into your life because you’ve had more time to reflect on them?

I got into building furniture, which was a lot of fun! Especially during the Spring of last year (2020), when everything felt pretty scary and overwhelming—I found it really helpful to take a little break from painting and build things. It was the perfect mix of turning my brain off while also having to focus on math and various steps. It helped a lot with the anxiety I was feeling. 

I built a desk for my husband Joe. He is a 9th-grade algebra teacher at Patterson High and has been teaching from home, so we made our guest room his office. I also built a new coffee table for our living room and one for my neighbor. My biggest furniture project was building a whole patio furniture set. It was so much fun! I definitely learned a lot about woodworking, which has also helped my canvas building and other projects in the studio.  

Do you have a daily “uniform” or specific favorite piece of clothing? What is it?

My daily uniform tends to be a T-shirt and jeans. Boots and a hoodie in the winter, or shorts and sneakers in the summer. Since I paint large scale and I’m always moving, I tend to stick with casual, easy-to-move-in clothes.

As a working visual artist, you have to increase your prices over time to survive. Are you ever concerned about demand for your work dying out?

I occasionally worry about that, but then I tell that failure gremlin to get a hobby instead of bothering me. Demand will be there if you work at growing that audience. It’s not the work that sells itself, it’s the artist (and the network you’ve created around your work) that makes it happen. 

I always describe the ways that sales come about as “pots brewing,” and it’s important to have lots of them. In order for [sales to] happen, you need to continuously work at building your audience, and the best way to do that is through lots of different avenues. Social media, mailing lists, developing relationships with consultants/designers, as well as exhibiting your work. Through all those means, your audience will grow, and from that you get various “pots brewing,” aka potential sales. I call it pots brewing because RARELY do sales come easily. They usually take putting yourself out there over and over again, along with constant follow-up. Some pots take longer to brew (aka for sales to actually happen), but the more you have brewing, the better your chances to make it all work. 

I feel Instagram especially has changed the way a lot of things work, and most of my pots brewing come from there. Not just sales, but exhibitions, and certainly it’s the easiest and fastest way to grow your audience and connect with more people. I don’t feel like I would’ve been able to be a full-time artist without Instagram, or certainly it would have just been very different. Most of the exhibition and sales connections I’ve ever made have come from that app—which is just wild.

 

You’re very good at Instagram and extremely consistent in generating posts. How did you figure it out and what tips can you share?

Well, thank you, I appreciate that. Admittedly, I didn’t know a ton about it when I joined, and originally I joined for swimming back in 2013 when I was training for my first English Channel swim. My first few posts are just about swimming and then, I specifically remember sitting on my couch, scrolling, and [thinking], “Oh my gosh, there’s a whole mess of the art world on here!” I didn’t know. And obviously, Instagram has evolved a ton since then. 

I started by just watching how other artists were doing it and sharing what I enjoy seeing. I love seeing finished work, of course, but I truly love seeing an artist’s studio practice, their process, experiments, as well as snippets of their life. Seeing a bit of their life outside the studio is such a wonderful little connection and a way to see that they are a person, more than just the maker of the things I like. I think Instagram gives an opportunity to see the personality and, in a way, get to know an artist that you’ve never met.

I noticed that connection with my own collectors and followers too—I think they have enjoyed getting to know me and recognizing that I’m a person. When people come for studio visits, especially for the first time, it’s helped create a natural ice breaker because they already know things about me. We’ll talk about other things, like my dogs, or swimming, or some other thing they saw I shared on Instagram, which makes them more comfortable while they’re walking around my studio . . . and then we can dive into the nitty-gritty of things. 

Do you plan your posts or have a schedule?

I have a little pattern, but most of it just happens naturally. Within a handful of posts, I try to share my studio, a finished piece, a work in progress—some kind of a rhythm like that. Sticking at least loosely to that pattern also helps me not share the same thing again and again, especially when I get stuck on one painting for a while. In my stories, I really try to share my day, including some of those snippets into my life outside the studio. I love the feedback I’ve gotten from people that feel like they get to know me through what I share. That’s always my goal—I want it to feel like me. 

As far as a schedule, I just try to have some sort of consistency. I know there is probably some magic to the algorithm, but just try to be active. Some days I share a lot more, others a lot less or not at all, but hopefully it averages out to being in people’s feeds most days. And I also love sharing old favorites of things—I certainly don’t think everything needs to be happening in real-time. 

I have noticed that posting consistent progress shots has helped me problem-solve in weird ways. I can look back on my stories or posts and see how a piece or a whole body of work progressed. It’s made me stop and pay attention to what I’m doing. I also think that posting to my story throughout the day, especially with silly little stickers has just made me lighten up and recognize this is just painting.

What are the last three emojis you used?

Flamingo, upside-down smiley face, hot dog!

Do you believe in astrology? If so, what kind of insight can astrology give our readers about you?

I don’t, but I enjoy the little takeaways when various messages from astrology seem to fit me, kinda like getting a really great fortune cookie. Although really bad fortunes are also pretty fun. I’m a Scorpio if that means anything to you, dear reader. 

 

Who are your art or business heroes and what do you look to them for? Do you have anyone whose work you’ve always admired or whose career you’d like to emulate or just someone you think would be a cool person to have coffee with? Why are they the coolest?

Honestly, my art heroes are my friends. I think if this past year has taught us anything, it’s that our connections to people are so important. I would be lost without my wonderful friends. As I said, friends who are also artists are your greatest resource. I am beyond thankful for studio visits with friends and the times they have sat with me over coffee or beers (and in text messages) to chat, problem-solve, vent, joke, talk out ideas, critique work, tell me to stop painting or to keep going. It’s friends that also help tell that failure gremlin to get lost. It’s friends that are there, ready to pop champagne when you meet big deadlines and fulfill crazy ideas. Friends are the coolest. 

Did you have a formative and/or terrible first job? What was it?

My first job was certainly formative and also sometimes terrible. I also loved it. I was a server at Bob Evans for five or six years throughout high school and college. I feel like it taught me a lot about talking to people—which has probably helped me a ton with studio visits and sales, plus public speaking and artist talks. I do feel very strongly that everyone should work in food service at some point in their life. I love that meme that’s been around that says, “If you haven’t cried in a walk-in cooler, I don’t really care what you have to say about food service workers.” So true.

What’s your favorite local restaurant and what’s your go-to order?

I am in a pretty serious relationship with coffee, so I have to mention one of my favorite local spots, OneDo Coffee Roasters in Canton. I stop there on my way to the studio most days.

Atwater’s is one of my favorite lunch spots. Everything is good, you can’t go wrong.

For dinner and drinks, Sally O’s in Highlandtown. Everything on the menu is absolutely amazing. Their chicken sandwich, wings, and burrata are my favorites.

What would your teenage self think of you today?

Oh boy, I think teenage Katie would be pretty excited. We would absolutely high five. I try to remind myself of that when I feel like progress in my career is slowing, or when I’m struggling with things, and especially when that annoying failure gremlin comes around. But I really think teenage Katie would be super jazzed about what I’m doing and the goals I am working towards. Not to mention, I have two adorable dogs (she would love that), great friends, awesome family, and a hottie husband who’s the most kind and supportive best friend ever (she would super love that). So, to teenage Katie I say, Good job, lady. You’re doing alright.

 

Photography by Justin Tsucalas for BmoreArt

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