July 15, 2019

Kate Samworth is painting a version of our fragile world

Meet #Story19 speaker Kate Samworth, artist and an award-winning illustrator.

Looking at Kate Samworth’s illustrations, the first word that comes to mind is “imagination”. She’s drawing birds with huge beaks and long legs, walking on cracked earth. She’s drawing creatures with human faces and insect bodies. She’s drawing monkeys painting humans. However, at a closer look, Kate’s work is much more than pure imagination: it’s a journey both through the history of art and around our concrete, fragile world.

Kate’s first illustrated book, Aviary Wonders Inc., was published in 2014 and won the Kirkus Prize for Young Readers in the same year. The book creates a version of the future, based on the premise that the bird population on Earth is in perilous decline. But Alfred Wallis, the son of a timber magnate transformed into a bird lover during a trip to Brazil, has a plan to replace the bird populations of the world: he will manufacture the creatures himself. He establishes a company, Aviary Wonders Inc., which sells handcrafted bird replacements: part pets, part artwork, part automaton, presented in a catalog. The customers may combine the bodies, legs, wings, beaks, and tails using assembly instructions. After completing this task, they are taught how to make the birds fly and sing.

When she’s doing school visits, “especially for kids too young to be sure if Aviary Wonders Inc. is a real company or not,” Kate introduces herself as an employee of the company, giving them a sales pitch. She then describes in detail the work that goes into making each part of the bird, as well as the old Victorian house in upstate New York where the artisans live and work. Before settling on the catalog concept, she wrote several versions of the story, so the school visits are opportunities to present all the details that were omitted from the book. “My favorite part is the Q&A afterward. It’s so much fun to see them puzzling out whether or not the birds can be made and to hear them debate what qualities are desirable in a bird,” Kate said in an interview.     

The artist’s ideas come from „traveling, looking at art, reading, and day-dreaming,” she explained. Kate needs to be outdoors and see how other people live, she needs to be part of this exterior world in order to populate her own, interior world. Her experiences are very diverse: she did a tour of Europe as a bass player of a punk band, she translated for a hiking guide in Brazil, she volunteered on organic farms in Spain and Turkey, she goes bird-watching. Also, she is particularly interested in natural history museums and is the Enlightenment Era collectors who tried to put all living things in catalogs. She loves to listen to birdsongs, insect sounds, and marching bands in New Orleans. After she populates her world with animals, humans or combinations of the two, Kate creates scenes in the story. The process is similar to the ones film-makers use to develop their storyboards.  

“I am interested in nature and what the history of art reveals about our evolving understanding of the natural world. My paintings and wordless picture books explore themes of curiosity, reverence, and fear of our constantly changing environment,” Kate wrote as an artistic statement. Her passions for nature and environment are inherited from her parents: an artist mother and an engineer father. She was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee – a city surrounded by mountains and ridges -, but she grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC. As a kid, she enjoyed the works of Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss, and Richard Scarry, and later, she became excited about Edward Gorey, Barry Moser, Jon Scieszka/Lane Smith, or the Brothers Quay.

Kate studied painting at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts and earned a degree as a printmaking major from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (PAFA), where she teaches workshops. According to her presentation on the PAFA website https://www.pafa.org/stories/kate-samworth, her techniques – such as rendering form, perspective, and light – are shaped by the Old Masters and influenced by the darker aspects of Goya, Daumier, and Balthus.

Over the last twenty-seven years, Kate had numerous solo and group exhibitions and has illustrated a handful of books. Samworth’s painting and prints are exhibited in public and private collections across the US and abroad. She has recently illustrated a non-fiction book for adults written by Lulu Miller – a radio producer and writer who will also be a speaker at The Power of Storytelling -, which will be published in 2020. 

Kate Samworth is speaking at the 9th edition of The Power of Storytelling. Register here to meet her and the other amazing speakers who will tackle this year’s theme: Heal.