Kate Gray – Connecting the Seemingly Unconnected
Kate Gray is an intuitive creator, vivid storyteller and dynamic educator who combines the intensity of experience with a theatrical enthusiasm while retaining a depth of perception that is evident in her richly profound expressions.
Kate Gray is an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at Stephens College in Columbia Missouri. She has received numerous teaching and advising awards including Advisor of the year in 2014. Kate earned a B.F.A. in Advertising Art and a minor in Marketing from the University of North Texas. She recently received an M.F.A. in Graphic Design from Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA). Gray has more than 30 years of professional experience in all areas of the communication and design field. Her experiences include owning her own award-winning design firm – Add Design, designing for the Intel Corporation, and managing a creative team as the Assistant Director of Publications at the University of Missouri. In addition to her current involvement in higher education, Kate is an award-winning professional fine artist and is a signature member of Missouri Watercolor Society.
A GDW Interview with Kate Gray
GDW: How did you first become involved in graphic design or creative making? Did you have a mentor or some other contributing factor to your becoming a designer?
KG: I have always been an artist and creative. I remember converting my closet into a studio when I was nine years old. I removed all my clothes and placed a small table and chair along with all the markers I could find (even the dry ones) next to a groovy lamp so that I could see in the wee hours of the night. There, I created. No one provided me with direction, no one offered guidance – it was just my dreams, pretending to be bigger than a little girl in a tiny closet and me. In that closet, the style of work I created, was very graphic. It felt natural to me. I guess that is when my creative journey really started.
I was never blessed with an art or design mentor as part of my undergraduate or professional experiences. Looking back, I would have treasured such a precious relationship. The idea of having someone in my life who would have helped guide my creative journey would have been a wicked and wonderful gift. In fact, for years, I dreamed of finding someone who could help me make sense of why I could not follow the paths that everyone else around me was taking.
However, when I changed careers and started teaching, I found a mentor in the world of academics. She allowed me to see that my life’s experiences and creative gifts could translate into effective teaching and transform learning for others. She helped me realize and trust in the fact that I am talented, gifted, brilliant and smart. With her help, I started to understand that I can use my creative energy and talents to communicate and teach effectively, and to connect with people to make a difference.
I think that finding a creative mentor was one of the main reasons I longed to pursue graduate study in graphic design. As I started investigating MFA programs, I wondered if a single program could help me process the roughly gazillion questions I had about design, art and their integration. Once I started my graduate studies at VCFA, I discovered many mentors who deeply influenced my practice and me. I finally felt as if I was at home. The experience enabled me to understand clearly how I see the world, honor who I am and trust the worth of what I have to share with others.
GDW: how do you teach young-women graphic designers to be professionally assertive?
KG: You and I both know that being more assertive can easily be interrupted as bitchy or bossy. These are not strong assets in a collaborative-work environment. As an instructor, I would LOVE to explore more on this topic and ways I can teach my students the art of creative leadership.
I feel as if there is some fine line between the “table” and those of us that “sit” somewhere else in a company. “What is the difference?” – hmm… I traveled to Dallas this summer and met with 6-award winning design firms. The people I spoke with were the owners or creative directors of the firms. I did not meet with one woman. They are “there” but they are not in leadership roles. I asked one individual why he thought that women where not in leadership roles in the graphic design field. He pondered the question and said, “Women need to be more assertive.”
I think it is important not to force anyone into something that they are not comfortable with, but I do feel it is important to educate students on the nuances of creative leadership, so they can choose what role they play in this dynamic field.
GDW: Can you explain both the physical and intellectual processes that lead to your incredibly powerful mark making? Do you have a preferred medium?
KG: “Mark making” – that term had eluded me until I saw Pam Galvani’s work last year. I remember that when I saw her pieces during my second VCFA residency, I stood dumb-founded, breathless and perplexed but also motivated. I studied every line and shape in her work. I wondered how lines, shapes and colors could create such strong emotions. The power of the details and purity of the marks illuminated the creator’s confidence in an honest and explosive, yet quiet way. The confidence of this individual’s hand and heart made we want to cry.
I remember looking down at my own hands. I wondered, “What would I visually say if I was not so concerned with selecting the perfect serif or sans serif, kerning the crap out letterforms and making sure that letters all lined up perfectly on a rigid base line? What form would I create if I were to trust my own mark and translate the internal chatter of my soul into a visual and graphic narrative?
I shifted into full-on exploration mode and visited museums with one goal in mind – to examine and study the marks of the masters. As I walked from painting to paint, I asked myself, “What do their marks convey?” Focusing on this question helped me to see the artwork that I had studied for years in a new more personal way. I no longer saw the subject matter of a piece, but only the expression of a single line. I knew more than ever, that I wanted and needed to be more honest with my own work, and with the “mark” I was making, in order to leave a lasting impression. That is when my exploration of mark making started.
It has been an amazing experience to TRY and make the purest mark possible. I may never reach perfection – but for me, that is not the point.
When I started my masters’ studies, I would say I was a 100 percent a watercolor purest! Now, anything goes. But I try not to use the tools I am most comfortable with in my creative process – like watercolor paints, brushes and a small perfectly stretched sheet of virgin-white paper. These materials seem to instantaneously make me return to a mindset of how “things” should look – not feel.
GDW: What role, if any, does feminism play in your design work or your education curriculum? Do you think there is a different aesthetic to work created by women designers?
KG: This is a great question. It is also a huge question. As an artist, designer and instructor of graphic design at an all women’s institution – I am an advocate for women or – a feminist. Daily, I am shocked, inspired and moved by the power of my students. I am more than lucky to experience the amazing women I come in contact with everyday. I have the glorious opportunity to watch them grow. By the end of each semester, I see my students leaving a controlled learning environment with their shoulders lowered, chest raised, a sense of who they are and increased trust in what they know and think. It is a powerful experience to watch. I think that is the power of education.
To be honest, I hope there is no difference in the visual work that a woman creates versus work created by a man. Understanding this has been critical for me as I grow as a designer, artist and professor. Before I started my master’s studies, my graphic work was very masculine and my artwork was extremely feminine. I realized that to create better work for a specific audience, I needed to balance these opposing forces and embrace dualities. This realization has changed the way I teach graphic design.
The importance of this was reinforced last summer, when I visited with Brandon Murphy at Caliber Creative in Dallas while on a fact-finding graphic design mission. Brandon graciously agreed to meet with me and talk about what his award-winning design firm looks for in a recent graphic-design graduate’s portfolio. One thing he mentioned was that portfolios needed to be gender-neutral. He said, “I never know who will be walking through the door of my agency and what creative problem they will need to solve.”
GDW: What do you do to relax and take your mind off of design projects or perhaps the opposite, what helps you focus for your creative design work?
KG: I play. I date (creativity). I breathe easy and heavy.
I love nothing more than to walk into the studio and ask, “Who would like to go on a date with this amazing creative soul today?” Suddenly a tube of Vermillion “slinks” over, and says, “What did you have in mind, sweetie?” Out of the other corner of my eye, I see a strong, powerful and “to the point” spatula lurking in the shadows. What would happen if these two dynamic forces went on a date? Could it be pure fire or a burn out?
Off I go to find out. BAMM! It is playtime.
Playtime is also a moment when I do not care about anyone else but – me and what I want to make. As an experienced designer whose worth, paycheck and sustainability have always been measured by work I have created for others, producing work for myself is wicked hard and – critical to my existence, progression and development as a designer. So I play. I date. I do both of these things on my terms with a light heart that is full of passion and intensity. Sometimes the process allows me to breathe easy and at other moments, it is all I can do is to catch a breath. And oh yeah, a glass of red wine is often part of the process!
GDW: Will you describe one of your most vivid visual memories and how that memory may reside with you still?
KG: It was Sunday. I was seven. My grandmother’s farmhouse was filled with family and food. The table was set with only her best china. The sweating crystal water glasses waited until it was finally time for a family of farmers to sit, hold hands, pray and give thanks.
Burnt-umber pot roast led the parade of food around the linen-covered table. Hand over and hand, plates of food bounced up and down from one person to the next. I watched them all go by and patiently waited for the “magic bowl of Sunday love” to arrive at my place setting.
Finally, my tiny hands grabbed hold of the most delicious dish on the table – the Jell-O salad. The strawberry-cream-cheese Jell-O salad had made its way to me, and I was happy once again. It was beautiful – pink, red, white and shiny.
Years later, I look back on this vivid memory and clearly understand why it was so life altering. It was the color. Now, I know that this Jell-O salad was the perfect combination of PMS 199, 196 and 7499 – it was like eating heaven.
But my main inspirational source came after Sunday dinner was consumed, dishes put away and the sleep coma of Sunday afternoon had set in. It was then that I was finally free to wonder and talk with the Wind. With one step out of the Kansas farmhouse, the warm howling Wind greeted me. Step after step the farmhouse grew smaller and smaller as I distanced myself from my family. The uneven dirt road in front of me was endless, and I was surrounded by my wise friend – the Wind. The Wind was like a dear friend that, if I truly listened, could lift, elevate, and inspire me to see life from a different point of view and a higher perspective – other than my own.
As I walked the Wind and I talked and sang, and I pretended to be more than a seven-year old girl in the middle of a wheat conversing with herself. Finally, I asked the Kansas Wind, “Will I be great when I am older?” I waited. I listened. And then I heard the Wind say, “No. Being great is worth nothing. Being real is – well – worth everything. Being real is more than greatness could ever hope to be. Being real is being spectacular, and it will lead you to a road of endless happiness. Along the way, it is your job to find out what is real, and then become the real you.”
My graduate studies taught me many things, but the main thing has been – how to really be me. I am so lucky. Cheers to the Kansas Wind.
For more on Kate Gray, visit her website: kategraydesignart.com