Kate Javens and Sheila Kumar talk about the work that drives them

It was interesting to learn the image history of American artist Kate Javens, who personifies unsung American social heroes through animals in her paintings. Listening to Kate’s colleague, Sheila Kumar, discuss how her passions — flying, painting and poetry are connected was a soulful experience. The two were at Gallery Five Forty Five to showcase and speak about their artworks in a recent talk.

Kate’s journey began with a standalone image of a horse which now stands in the Palmer museum of art. Her first series, however, began while at the Mc Dowell Colony of Arts, a multi-disciplinary art residency programme, where she was inspired by Andrew Furuseth, Founder of the American Seamen's Union and Secretary of the Sailor's Union of the Pacific. Kate chose him after she saw a photograph of Andrew taken by Dorothea Lange in 1934.

She had to wait a bit to find a crow, that she thought Andrew resembled, then freeze, manipulate and photograph it to finally paint a large image. Next she painted a series of bulls to commemorate Derrick Bell, a professor of law at Harvard. “He wrote on racism in American law and changed the way America law looked at racial issues. I chose a bull to personify him, just for his visual weight, for the solidness of it.” She then went on to paint Oscar Neebe (as a bison), one of the defendants at the Haymarket trial who was pardoned; Martha Ballard (as a moth), a Colonial mid-wife who kept extensive records of her 60-year career; Lucy Parsons (as a swallow), the feared wife of one of the Haymarket trial defendants and more recently, Reverend Linnette C. Williamson of Harlem (as a lamb, pitbull and later elephant) for her community service.

“I came to India when I was putting the last show together and my friend took me to see elephants. It was such a profound experience. I wanted to tie in to the reverend so I ended up calling the show Euphoria and I used the elephants to trumpet this message,”said Kate, who works are on the permanent collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Museum, among others.

When asked how she manages to integrate character into animal forms, she explained that it was a gift. “I think about it all the time and I realize that it comes to me. I have nothing to do with it. When I’m painting, I keep going until it gets there. It’s like someone has taken over for that mysterious part of it.”

As much as the focus of Kate’s work is on form, Sheila’s work is about light and colour. Most of Sheila’s works are depictions of the atmosphere, of clouds, rain, fog and mist. Much of her work in influenced by her childhood in Iowa, full of vast skies with floating clouds, where she learnt how to fly planes in her childhood.

“As a pilot and also through my grandfather’s farm, there was always talk of weather. I spent a lot of time since sixth grade studying weather maps and sometimes my studio is in the plane. I fly sail planes that circle up the clouds using the thermals. And the imagery while flying sometimes stays in my memory. And so most of my paintings are specific to the location in light and feel but not exactly to that moment though sometimes I take pictures,” said Sheila who has exhibited her works in the United States, Japan, Israel and France.

Sheila explained how she always takes detailed notes on the weather, filling thousands of sketchbooks with them. “This ends up percolating into the painting through a more emotional connection rather than a scientific recording specific to that day.”

Much of her work has been inspired by the landscapes which she encountered in Ireland, Costa Rica, Cornwall in England and many times, New York. Most of the time there’s a poem connected to the painting.

“Poetry informs my paintings and vice versa. Many times the poem comes first, I usually start my practise by reading a poem. I make practise of reading a poem at the start or the end the day. I especially enjoy the romantic poets who looked at the light, sky and landscape.”