Kate Bingaman-Burt, Outlet
Full disclosure: this post has taken me four months to write. Understandably, you’re probably asking how an article of no more than a dozen or so modest-sized paragraphs took that long to compose. I’ll give you a hint as to my work ethic:
I block off an entire evening to write, cozying up on the couch with my laptop, voice recorder, and notes, eager to transcribe the previous evening’s conversation with illustrator and educator, Kate Bingaman-Burt. I’ve been jittery all day, impatient to reproduce her ideas, her advice and opinions, translating it to my perspective, through my writer’s lense.
But I stare at the blank document, dazed with the possibility of how to begin, and at a loss for how to proceed. An evening structured by the intention of work shifts to frustration: How could I have forgotten how to write?
And so I distract myself, searching for and creating noise with interest in things that only work to pull me away, saving me from the moments of irritation and chagrin, the anxiety of failure that writing brings. Everything, then, becomes avoidance, busying myself with work, with play, with all that seems to hold meaning, pulling me away from the single most significant thing in my life: writing.
Throughout all of it, I’m thinking about writing. Every. Single. Second. And continuing not to write.
This gets at the paradox of creativity. Despite loving something so much that we want to dedicate ourselves to it each day, this very same thing somehow becomes our greatest fear, filling us with doubt, submerging us in dread. Writing can make me feel inadequate, incapable of anything artistic or otherwise. But it can also make me feel beautiful, feel special and unique, like I have something to say, something to teach. Something to give.
When I finish a piece of writing, I feel like I’ve come out of an artistic-stupor, dizzy and disoriented. I don’t remember anything, rereading sentences with a confused sort of awe. Is that my voice? Do I have those thoughts? Can I articulate what I see and understand with such finesse?
But it is me, and it’s the most beautiful emotion I’ve experienced to know that I’ve reached out to others with my words, sharing myself in this way. And I guess that’s what I’ve always envisioned for my blog, a platform, and space for sharing, for moving across artistic boundaries and seeing the artistic possibilities of us all.
But in most of my interviews, I’ve focused on place. I’ve centered in on how people interact with, create, and are a product of, their surroundings. I’ve situated this in Paris, landing it now in Portland. I’ve seen creativity for its cultural element, for what it contributes to the surrounding social fabric.
However, in interviewing Kate, I’ve thought about creativity in what, at first, seems a narrowed context: Questioning creativity as it lies in the individual. But I realize the abundance that exists within our artistic and imaginative impulses, prompting and persuading us, expanding our interaction with who we understand and discover ourselves to be.
So with this interview, the focus of the blog has shifted, becoming instead an investigation into creativity, into the different ways it manifests itself in our world, and what it means to lead a creative life. Because, for the last few months, I justified my belief that I was no longer capable of writing by my conviction that I was not a creative person, that this life was meant for someone else, not myself.
Convinced that I am someone else apart from writing, I’ve fallen into esoteric fits of existential questioning, believing that I could be happier without my thoughts. I’ve learned though, that this wouldn’t be happiness, but emptiness, robbing me of the belief in beauty and love of possibility that has always been inside of me.
And so, though I love Kate’s work and art, I see her first as a teacher, understanding the word with a stance of initiation, someone capable of leading out what already exists within the individual. The conversation lasts no more than an hour and a half, but I’m convinced, now, months later, that it’s one of the most influential discussions of my life.
Kate and I talk about process, we talk about discipline and accountability. We discuss how that thing (writing, illustrating, painting, designing, whatever) intimidates you, eats at you, terrifies you. And then, we talk about how you just do it, and how it becomes fun.
But first, we talk about consumption.
We meet at Outlet, Kate’s studio space that proves its multi-functionality in holding events, hosting workshops, supporting pop-ups and housing Barbara the Risograph -- a favorite tool for copying and screen printing. Outlet is the product of Kate’s sabbatical from PSU, where she teaches courses in graphic design. The space is abundant with color, a blend of hues and varying vibrancies culminating in the mass of work Kate has accumulated and inspired: Outlet is a beautiful display of her and her students’ art.
I think of what the collection says about Kate. Playing the dual roles of artist and educator, she’s developed a trust, a confidence with her students, establishing herself as the medium through which all art, all previously-hidden observation and emotion, can gain expression.
But to become the vehicle by which others gain representation, your own creative foundation must be built.
Following undergrad, Kate worked as an in-house designer at a gift company in Omaha, Nebraska. Thrown into a world of trade shows, exhibition halls, and artificial shopping environments, Kate witnessed a physical display of the human emotion tied to material goods.
“Exhibition halls are crazy, busy and loud. But because I was usually by myself, I could watch, taking note of people’s behaviors, of their reactions and responses to what others were selling.”
Kate goes further, reflecting upon this excitement and activity. She describes its sustained, gradual build, all of this developing until it reached a climax, moving into an equilibrium of white noise. The sounds and scenes blend into one another, their intensities becoming equal, no longer defining individual, separate events, but rather the collective, cultural practice we’ve created: unnecessary consumption.
I meditate upon the consumption Kate describes, thinking about the desire it attempts to satiate. But approaching this from a creative standpoint, I understand consumption more clearly in its ability to substitute focus, shifting our center from individual creative responsibility to consumption’s standing in place of our own production. Consumption, apart from moderation, apart from inspiration, is only distraction.
Kate takes me further in her progression: “After a couple years of working at that company, I went to graduate school, where I became really interested in uncovering the stories behind our stuff. The emotion tied to objects and why we buy the things we buy.”
Kate would go to stores and yard sales, interviewing people about their purchases. And while she was learning about the psychology behind consumption, she began to develop a system with her work, creating a rule structure that kept her moving and making.
“It was then, while I was interviewing and shooting photo, that I devised my work schedule, because I recognized that if I wasn’t making stuff, I was overthinking it. And then I wouldn’t make anything.”
“I started with these simple calls to action, and I would say to myself, ‘Okay, you’ll go to Target every Saturday for two hours and you’re going to talk to people and shoot for four weeks.’ And because it felt official, because I felt accountable to something, I would do it.”
And this system became the start of another project, Kate’s illustrated documentation of three years of her daily purchases.
“As I was shooting in a thrift store, I was also shopping for a couch for my studio. I took a picture of the couch, and immediately, that same intentionality came through: ‘Okay, I’m now going to photo-document every single thing I buy for the next two years.' And that’s when things took off.”
Kate made a website dedicated to the concept, and she laughs as she reflects upon the low-tech platform. Quickly, the site became a community, with people submitting essays about their favorite objects, everyone connected by the mutual dip of emotional investment in the inanimate. It was fun, instilling her with the excitement of creativity, of identifying a niche and exploring it. But always, she felt the pull of something else she wanted to do.
“I wasn’t illustrating, I didn’t feel comfortable with it yet. I was a designer and photographer doing art shows and making work about design, marketing, and human emotion. It wasn’t until I decided to draw all of my credit card statements until they were paid off. That’s when I started drawing.”
The project began in 2004 when Kate was teaching at Mississippi State. She had $24,000 in credit card debt -- a secret she’d kept to herself.
“So I made another system of rules: I decided to take something that was really painful for me, my credit card statements and my debt, and pair that with something else that was really painful for me: drawing. I was going to combine them and turn it into my next project, where I would handwrite all of my credit card statements and share them online, holding myself accountable.”
But similar to the shared discussion of objects, people began emailing Kate their own credit card debt, connecting across a medium of exposure.
“Being transparent about my debt, I became a lot more vulnerable, and I found that, when I allowed myself this vulnerability, other people were more open to being vulnerable with me.”
Maybe then, that it is in our vulnerability that we create art.
“From that, I began to realize that I liked making marks and lines and I liked the meditative process of sitting down with something as mundane as a credit card statement and trying to make it beautiful. I took a break from drawing something that I buy each day, and I actually really missed that simple visual journaling of my life. I’ve picked it up again, and I’m happy to be back. I describe it as my comfort food of illustration. It feels good. It allows me to remember what I did today. It’s like a diary, a bit, or a journal. It's giving myself twenty minutes to draw something that represented my day, committing it to paper and having it as an archive. I really like that action. I like that gesture a lot."
Our conversation ends, and I say goodbye to Kate, leaving Outlet feeling something that’s more than inspired.
I feel energized, awakened to the possibility of not only what I can learn and absorb, but of what I can contribute. I understand my consumption now as something cyclical, something moving along the ebbs and flows of consuming art and creating it. My writing is my connection to others, my act of reaching out, of both asking for and giving. Writing is how I understand and process, communicate and love. We exist in our creativity, constructing personhood, erecting humanity.
I fall asleep with satisfaction, satiated with what I offered the creative world, and I think about the Kate’s most haunting, beautifully resonant words:
“I always feel better if I’ve made something.”