Winging It 

The natural world—especially our feathered friends—inspires the work of Kathryn Spence, MFA ’93, but her art has plenty to say about the human environment, too.

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Deep knowledge and scientific precision underlie the seemingly effortless grace in the art of Kathryn Spence, MFA ’93 

By Glen Helfand 

Kathryn Spence Is an avid birder. For her, the activity entails focused observation of nature and being awed by what she discovers there. “What could improve upon a real bird? How is it possible that these things actually exist?” she ponders. This passion is made visible in her work, though you don’t have to know an owl from an osprey to be inspired by Spence’s pieces. In her sculpture, drawings, and installations, she has the uncanny ability to represent the spirit of animals using ordinary objects and unlikely materials scavenged from thrift stores, city streets, or wherever.  

“I don’t come at my work from a religious perspective, but these creatures have a genuine force,” she says. “I want to work on a piece until it becomes something approaching ‘real,’ close to being alive. What was once a pile of scraps has now transformed into this other thing.” 

Since earning her MFA at Mills in 1993, Spence has shown her art in dozens of gallery and museum exhibitions (she’s been represented by San Francisco’s Stephen Wirtz Gallery since 1996). Institutions including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Oakland Museum of California, and the Microsoft Art Collection have acquired her work, and she has held residencies at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. 

Her studied yet free-range approach is fully apparent in her solo show, Kathryn Spence: short sharp notes, rolling or churring whistles, clear phrases, on view at the Mills College Art Museum through December 12. “There’s something very smart and intriguing about the way she transforms everyday materials into something so recognizable and immediate,” says Museum Director Stephanie Hanor, who curated the show. “And I think there’s a great deal of interest among contemporary artists in this process of taking items normally meant for some other purpose and adapting them into art.” 

The show is not a career survey but rather a snapshot that contains elements that have appeared in Spence’s work over the years, as well as two new large-scale pieces—all of which have been influenced, in some way or another, by her out-door experiences and ecological interests. “I have always been interested in nature,” she confesses. “I find it so interesting and profound to witness these natural processes that go on outside of human involvement and control. 

“When I began birding, my interest was greatly heightened. I got binoculars and began to look and listen so closely to birds, and layers and layers of detail came into view. I wanted to learn more about habitats. I wanted to learn all the plants the birds use, and about butterflies and bees,” she says. On the grounds surrounding her Glen Park apartment in San Francisco, Spence has planted a native garden that provides endless inspiration. “It is so satisfying to see the wildlife come to the plants they like. What is seen varies so much with the seasons and the migration.” 

This keen attention to the rhythms of nature leads her to a quirky but scientific approach. Her installations often resemble a workshop or laboratory where experiments are constantly evolving into the representation of living things. In conversation, she refers to a tension between knowing and not knowing—an appealing, slightly edgy state of flux.  

“There is such a strange dislocation between nature and the more controlled, self-conscious world of people and culture,” she says. “This dislocation is something I constantly wonder about.” While clearly an environmentalist, Spence’s work is more about allowing viewers to look at the world from a unique point of view rather than making specific lifestyle prescriptions or overt political statements. 

Early on, Spence was recognized by critics and curators for covering toy stuffed animals in mud, merging a sense of natural history with childhood nostalgia while eradicating any sense of cuteness (no pink kitsch is visible here). Over time, her work has evolved steadily from such discrete sculptural objects to complex installations, such as the expansive centerpiece created for the Mills exhibition. Extending some 30 feet across the museum floor, the installation’s modular sections display hundreds of elements. 

Born In Germany (her dad was a dentist in the military) and raised in Colorado, Spence earned her BFA at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The quality of the physical and academic environment at Mills drew her to Oakland to pursue her MFA. “Mills had a good reputation and offered a small program with large studio spaces,” she explains. “There wasn’t the constant overstimulation that I felt at some other art schools. Mills felt like it was less about fashion and more about developing work in a quieter way—and that felt right for me.” 

Interactions with faculty members working in various media also contributed to the development of her work during her time at Mills. “Ron Nagle would have one opinion—he was the object guy—while Catherine Wagner would be looking at the table where I constructed my objects and suggest I photograph the whole thing,” says Spence. “Anna Murch, with her background in environmental and public art, was really helpful. She referred to my collection of accumulated scraps as ‘bits.’” 

“I used to just make objects,” Spence says, “but now I feel like I make drawings with objects.” Indeed, her work gains its formidable strength through accumulation. In this case, rough but surprisingly lifelike bird sculptures combine with tidy bundles of coarsely cut rags, pages of field guides, unspooled thread, and random scraps found here and there. Muddied toy rabbits sit next to an amorphous pile of similarly hued materials; it’s difficult to tell if the objects are in a state of formation or decomposition. A bottle of metallic sky-hued nail polish is set within the array, almost out of place in its plastic glamour.  

The organic and synthetic materials, carefully placed at various densities, suggest ideas about land use and animal habitats and present an artist’s view of the uncomfortable merger of nature and culture. Spence refers to the piece as describing our “divided-up world.”  

Her sincere concern about the environment feeds directly into her studio activities as well—she hates to waste anything. In order to construct sections of the new sculpture, Spence cut up her old worktable and incorporated wood scraps left by a former studio mate. “I didn’t want to buy anything new,” she admits. She is a regular at SCRAP, the “creative reuse center” in San Francisco. “If I’m making a screech owl, I’ll look for particular materials—which might be a men’s jacket with certain stripes.”  

These screech owls also make an appearance in the installation. Perched on poles as if to survey the landscape around them, the birds are surrounded by open field guides and various scraps of printed matter, the black and white of which uncannily resembles the owl’s markings. Stephanie Hanor describes such groupings in her catalog essay as a “kit,” and Spence affirms the down-to-earth spirit. “This is what you need to make an owl—if you were me,” the artist quips.  

“I am usually around other artists, so as I became more involved with birding it was interesting to experience the way science-oriented people interpret and relate to the natural world,” says Spence. “I think birding gives a person time and access to what is out there, which is endlessly rich and fascinating.” It’s a wonderful sentiment, and one that just as aptly describes a possible experience of her work.