Art, Emerging Artist

Versatile and Layered Art of Katharine Harvey

Renowned for her bold and dynamic artworks that seamlessly blend vibrant colors with intricate design elements, Katharine Harvey stands as a beacon in the Canadian art scene. Based in Toronto, Katharine’s 35-year artistic odyssey spans a diverse range of mediums, from captivating acrylic paintings to monumental installations that challenge societal norms. With a background rooted in both academic training and relentless passion, Katharine’s journey as a conceptual painter and multimedia artist is as multifaceted as her creations. Today, we have the privilege of delving into the depths of her creative process, exploring the inspirations that drive her forward, and uncovering the stories behind her most iconic works.

Hey Katharine! First of all, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I am a Canadian conceptual painter and multi-media artist based in Toronto. My 35-year artistic practice ranges from painting to installation and public art on a monumental scale. A bold and energetic palette characterizes all my multi-layered works. I combine the haptic presence of shimmering and glowing colors with complex and surprising design elements that both obscure and reveal photorealistic details.

I studied at Queen’s University (Kingston, Ontario) for my BFA and earned my Master of Fine Arts at the University of Victoria, B.C. 

What motivated you to become an artist, and what sparked your artistic passion?

I cannot recall a time when I did not want to make art. According to my kindergarten teacher, I started making huge marks on pages even back then. By grade 1, I knew that making art was my passion and nothing else could replace it. I am entirely devoted to this craft, and I do it all the time.

I am constantly thinking of ways to keep making art, as I consider myself an art “junkie” who is addicted to the creative process. I frequently sell paintings to fund my passion and buy my freedom to keep making more of it. The feeling I get when I am painting is indescribable; it’s like getting high, and I can’t get enough of it.

I pursued my MFA education not to become a teacher but to gain two years of freedom to make art without having to work an office job at the same time. I loved my MFA experience because it challenged me to talk about what I was making with my professors and peers.

As a young child, I was always intrigued by the creative process and how artists can transform raw materials into something magical. When I was a teenager, I began taking painting lessons, starting with still life. I was immediately hooked on the challenge and the allure of creating something captivating. I believe painting comes naturally to me, but I also put in a lot of hard work to build my artistic portfolio outside of high school hours. I took anatomy drawing lessons, still life painting, and figure drawing classes, and I would often sketch on my own whenever I had the chance. Being an artist is 5% talent and 95% drive, desire, and love of the creative process, and also a ton of hours working at developing skills and techniques. This is like succeeding at anything in life—you keep going. In 1982, I applied to the Bachelor of Fine Arts program at Queen’s University and was accepted.

Waterfall, 2008-2013

Can you describe your creative process for us?

My creative process starts with my photograph, which I render in loose brushstrokes. Then, I build up the canvas with numerous layers of acrylic paint and gel to create fascinating 3-dimensional effects. Repainting luminous highlights on the uppermost surfaces, I continue to play with depth in order to emphasize the interactive quality of radiant colors. For my large-scale public artworks, I carry over this methodology of film layering to create hand-painted or digitally printed glass and mosaics that explore captivating interventions of reflective light. 

Your body of work spans various mediums, like acrylic paintings, installations, and even kinetic sculptures. What draws you to explore such diverse mediums, and how do they influence each other in your creative process?

I constantly challenge myself and experiment with new mediums and dimensions to avoid falling into a formulaic approach. I believe that sticking to one style for too long can limit my artistic potential. I work on a particular theme or painting subject for a few years, and then I gradually switch to new concepts to evolve my style. I have won several significant public art commissions that have allowed me to explore new dimensions. For instance, I collaborated with Mosaika, a well-renowned fabricator in Montreal, to translate my paintings into ceramic mosaic tiles. By working with other artisans to interpret my paintings into ceramic glazes, I gained valuable insights into my work. In another project, I partnered with Mayer of Munich to produce hand-painted float glass. The studio’s artisans know how ceramic glass glazes can be fired in a kiln and fused to the pane like stained glass. Collaborating with other people challenges me to see my work from a distance and new angles I hadn’t thought of before.

Chandelier, 2009-2013

Your temporary installations using recycled plastic objects have been showcased in various cities worldwide. What prompted you to explore this medium, and what message do you hope to convey through your eco-conscious artworks?

When I began the small-scale installations, I started using recycled plastic because it was readily available at home and in my neighborhood. I could collect it quickly at no cost. As I started working with the material on a larger scale, its environmental implications became more apparent. We are reminded of the vast island that has formed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, consisting of plastic refuse brought together by oceanic currents. 

I collect waste materials and disposable objects scrounged from neighborhood garbage bins, such as water bottles, muffin tins, cake boxes, vacuum-formed packaging, egg cartons, salad boxes, etc., and tie them together with monofilament into long strands or sew them into fishing nets. Over the years, the installation projects have incorporated the materials of the previous ones and have increased in size as the commissions become more ambitious. Corporate sponsors have acted as collaborators by contributing large volumes of material from their in-house recycling programs. 

The use of surplus garbage on a grand scale highlights the glut of plastic waste in our consumerist society and its long-term severe impact on our global community. 

I have created 22 site-specific installations made of recycled materials since 2001, giant waterfalls and chandeliers made of discarded plastic containers in Toronto, Vancouver, New York, Los Angeles, Monterey Bay, and Hamburg. From afar, they appear as diaphanous curtains or ornamental lights, while close-up, the viewer discovers they are single-use detritus. It is a strange disconnect to be enticed by a beautiful object only to acknowledge that it is environmentally harmful. This series speaks to the growing movement towards saving the planet from climate change. 

The Monterey Bay Aquarium in California hired me to create a permanent sculpture for their Fragile Seas exhibit in 2012. The ten-foot-tall, ten-foot-wide, two-foot-deep display case entitled To the Depths consists of recycled plastic tied together with fishing line. The piece aims to educate the public about how plastic pollution destroys marine life in our oceans and the importance of recycling or reusing household containers.

Mahayana Mirrors, 2023

Is there any of your work that has a story or stands out to you from others?

My works invite the viewer to go on a journey to discover the unseen, where hidden details often lay camouflaged beneath. They physically manifest the exploration of indistinct memories and the sensation of ephemeral, fleeting moments, which both lay in the liminal space between reality and imagination. I base my paintings on places I have visited and documented. 

“Mahayana Mirrors” is a work of art that draws inspiration from a Buddhist temple in New York City. The infinity mirror ceiling filled with lotus flower lamps inspired me to create a composition that juxtaposes different dimensions of the lamps. I started with paper collages, cutting and pasting my photographs of close-up details with more distant views and repeating the patterns of the lights and lotus flowers.

There is a new development in this new series where I am returning to the application of multiple layers of acrylic gel medium. This time, I concentrate thick areas of glimmering gel and paint in specific sections of the painting and create the rest of the image with thin glazes of color. Therefore, there is now a juxtaposition of thin and thick paint, which makes the painting more compelling. For some years, I have wanted to get away from the “all over-ness” of my thick gel paintings. I have finally found an innovative way to use the gel.

I built up certain sections of the paintings with multiple layers of acrylic gel medium and paint so that they stand out on the surface. I painted other sections of the image with thin glazes of paint so that, overall, there is a playful combination of thin and thick paint.

Milkweed Verbena (Ceramic Mosaic), Chester Subway Station, 2020

As an award-winning artist who has participated in many exhibitions, can you tell us about your achievements?

I have received grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, the Toronto Arts Council, and a People’s Choice award from the Nuit Blanche Festival in Toronto. My public artworks include art glass and mosaics for Toronto’s Chester Subway Station, as well as hand-painted glass windows for a condominium developed by Great Gulf and digitally printed glass for a condominium facade developed by Concord Adex. 

I have exhibited in both commercial galleries and institutional museums throughout North America, such as the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., the MacLaren Art Centre (Barrie, Ontario), the Art Gallery of Regina (Saskatchewan), and the Nicholas Metivier Gallery (Toronto).

My work is part of corporate art collections like the Bank of Montreal, Canada Council Art Bank, Ontario Hospital Association, Osler Hoskin & Harcourt, Royal Bank of Canada, Scotiabank, and TD Canada Trust, as well as many private collections worldwide. 

Looking ahead, what new projects or artistic directions are you excited to explore in the future?

Right now, I am designing seven large paintings for a building lobby in Toronto. A private asset manager has commissioned this project to enhance and enliven the building and attract new tenants. For this public art project, I am studying the architecture of the glass atrium, which will be depicted and reflected in my paintings, as well as the trees and sky outside. I will imitate the shadows cast by the lobby and environs in the artworks so that the paintings dissolve into the architectural setting and reappear in compelling ways.

Also, I am on a shortlist of five artists competing for a prominent large-scale public artwork in a building atrium currently under construction. Each artist must submit their preliminary design for a site-specific large-scale work and budget for the materials, methods, and installation of the piece. I can only say something more about the project once this competition finishes this spring. 

You can click here to review Katharine Harvey’s works.

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