Interview With Kate Brandes

"There's a simplicity in nature, that, if you bring that to your artwork, it's what makes it sing."

--Kate Brandes

"Winter Trees" watercolor by Kate Brandes

I pour steaming hot tea from a red teapot, and pass the mug across the table to Kate Brandes.  The morning sunlight shines brightly into the peaceful house.  We sip our tea, and I smooth out a blank notebook page, ready for my first "Artist Interview."  I smile at Kate.  She is a slender, dark-haired woman with large blue eyes and a quiet, dignified demeanor.  She smiles back at me, shyly.  I turn on my recording devise, and we begin the interview.

Kate Brandes has worked as a geologist and environmental scientist for twenty years.  She works for the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, where she is currently focused on improving local ecology using native plants in small public and residential gardens.  Over the last seven years, she's developed skills in fiction writing and painting.

I have transcribed most of the interview below, but if you wish to hear it in its entirety (about 18 minutes), you may:


LAUREN KINDLE:  This is october 5, 2015.  "Tea with Kate Brandes."  My very first artist interview.  So Kate, just to tell people a little about yourself, just say a little bit about who you are.  Where do you live, where is your studio, what makes up your day to day world?  Pets, kids, friends, partners?  That kind of thing.

KATE BRANDES:  Ok, I live in Riegelsville.  and I live with my husband David and my two sons Owen and Sam.  And I paint in a room in my house that operates as my office for my work, my paid work, and my writing space, where I'm working on two novels at the moment.  And then also my painting studio, so it's kind of a chaotic--

LK:  All in the same room?

KB:  All in the same room. yup!

"Winterberries" watercolor by Kate Brandes

LK:  And what would you say an average studio day is like?  or if your days are varied, what is an average week like for you?  How do you divide your creative time and your responsibilities?

KB:  Mmhmm... It changes week to week.  I would like to have a schedule, and I try to have a schedule, but it's always in flux.  and it's in flux because my work changes.  I have a very busy spring and a very busy fall.  The creative time is just crammed into the spaces that are available.  And sometimes there's more space and sometimes there's less.  And if I can try to get a schedule going, which is a little easier right at this point in my life, right at this season, then I do.  

LK:  What are you working on now, artistically?  What are you most excited about?  Confounded by?  Obsessed with?

KB:  I'm most excited about our project.  

LK:  Yeah, me too!

Kate's watercolor painting of "Audy" from our  Intersections project .

Kate's watercolor painting of "Audy" from our Intersections project.

KB:  I really feel super energized by it, and I'm so excited to be working with you, another artist.  I think, this is...I've never done that before!  And I feel like it's pushing me to do things that I wouldn't otherwise do and I just feel that I think about it a lot, so I love it.  I've also just had more time for my writing world recently, and I have a new idea for my old novel that I'm excited about, and new ideas for a new novel that I'm excited about, so I feel like, right now my creative life is sort of brimming.  And i'm excited.

LK:  I love that.  "Right now, my creative life is brimming."

KB:  Yeah.  I would just love to do it all the time, but of course, there are all these other things that are important too.

LK:  There are these seasons, you know.

KB: Yeah, exactly.

"Murmuration" watercolor by Kate Brandes


LK:  What are some creative projects or topics that have excited you in the past, and, do you see any connection, path, or story connecting these different interests, leading to where you are today, and additionally, can you see it going into the future in any direction?  Or imagine it?

KB:  Well there are certain topics I am drawn to, like I'm very drawn to, I don't know, I always describe it as "Charlie Brown Christmas tree people" I guess, you know?  I'm drawn to the concept of abandonment and the concept of imperfections...I think the idea of vulnerability is really important.  That's where I feel like I could use the most work, like being more vulnerable in my artwork, whether it's painting or writing.  I think if I could do that, I would improve a lot, in both areas.

LK:  Well, we're doing that

KB:  We are!  But it's good.  I need to be pushed in that direction.  So that's really important, I think.  Yeah for me, it's like, for anyone, it's all about trying to face your fear.  Right?  Your fear of not doing it right, or not doing it well enough.  


"Abandoned Fruit Stand on Old National Road" watercolor by Kate Brandes


LK:  Do you feel like through your life, you've been facing different fears?

KB:  My whole life I haven't really identified myself as an artist at all.  It's only the last year, even, I would say, and I've been writing for much longer than I've been painting, but I've always been like, "oh, this is a hobby." I still say that.  And it is sort of a hobby, but it's also something that I feel like I'm not really a whole person unless I'm doing.  I feel like I'm a much happier being.  

LK:  What kind of things do you do when things aren't going right, or if you're having a fallow period, in making or in thinking?  Do you have things to help you deal with that?

KB:  I walk.  I walk for really long ways.  I've always done that  And I keep cards in my back pocket, or my phone, and I take notes on my phone, just talking into it.  But that is the best thing for me to unloosen whatever's stuck.  And mostly that's true with stories.  With writing.  With painting, I haven't been stuck yet.  I sort of flail around and find something, but once I find it, then I don't have trouble working on it at all.

LK:  Like us driving around the West Ward in circles!

KB:  Exactly.  I know what I like when I see it.  I have to trust that more, because it's true.

LK  I think I had a whole entire novel come to me on a walk once.  I ran home, I was like, "Oh my God!"  I had to write it down.  It was crazy.

KB:  Yup.  I have solved so many problems in that way.  And not only novel writing, but even thinking creatively about my job, you know, there's some issue, or problem I can't solve.  I've thought about getting a treadmill at my desk, because that action, you know?

LK:  Right.  I wonder if that would be the same as going out into the world?

KB:  Somehow I don't think so.

LK:  It seems doubtful.... 

"5th and Ferry" watercolor by Kate Brandes


LK:  How do you sustain yourself so that you can be creative?  What sort of things do you need to make time for in order to be an artist or a writer?

KB:  I'd say the most sustaining thing is time, allowing enough time, because it takes time if I feel like I get too crunched, it's really hard to---

LK:  So with a job and two children and a husband, how do you make that happen?

KB:  Well, my kids are in school, so that helps.  And my job is busy sometimes, and less busy other times.  so it's all about cramming it in.  But there's also enough time to have coffee on the porch in the morning, in my life right now, and that hasn't always been true, and that's really important for me.  Or to go on walks.  Because those quiet times are essential for creativity.  I think for anyone, really.

"Barn Door" watercolor by Kate Brandes

LK:  What advice would you give to an artist just starting out?

KB:  Yeah I mean, I would just say, "Go for it!"  That's what I would really say.  People talk to me a lot about how they wish they would do things or they feel like they could write something or they feel like they could produce something like artwork, or they were interested in that when they were young, but they don't have time.  And I just heard somebody say something along the lines of like...."You feel like you're busy, and you're really just afraid."  And I think that is so true.  It's been true in my life.  And I think again it comes back to, you can do whatever you want.  You're not too busy.  Maybe you are, but then, you have to change things, in order to honor that.

LK:  "Where there's a will there's a way."

KB:  Right. and it requires sacrifice, I guess on some level, but...

LK:  No, I hear you.  I think that's true.  I mean, when I had babies, I really did feel like I was too busy...

KB:  When I had babies, I was too busy!

LK:  But eventually as the kids got older, I think that became an excuse.  Really, I was just afraid.

KB:  Yeah.  It's true for anyone.  It's true for me still.  You know, like, on some level.  We're all just trying to do the best we can.  Face our fears the best we can.


"Lucky Three on Sitgreaves" watercolor by Kate Brandes


LK  On your website you say "There are parallels between nature, painting, and writing."  Can you elaborate on these parallels?"

KB:  Well, I think there are so many parallels between the arts just in general....I know a lot more about writing than I do about painting, just because I've been doing it longer, but you know, white space on a page, lights and darks and those concepts, are so true, in writing, as well as they are in painting...  In character, in theme...a one dimensional character is really boring, and not realistic and not interesting to read at all.  Just like a one dimensional painting would be the same way.  That balance of light and dark.  And sometimes it's more dark, two thirds dark, and one third light...or vice versa.  People are like that too.  It's just about being truthful on the page no matter what you're doing.

LK:  Right, and how about nature?

KB:  Nature is the same in so many ways.  There's a simplicity in nature, that, if you bring that to your artwork, it's what makes it sing.  There are some ways, I think of it as landscapes...  Because that's what I think about a lot.  I think about repetition in landscapes.  That's what holds a landscape together to the human eye.  The same thing is true in our work.  The same thing is true in writing.  You need to repeat a certain theme, in order for the writing to hold together.  ...

"House and Sun" watercolor by Kate Brandes

LK:   It seems like this is a rich area we could explore further.  Let's keep it on the back burner.  My final question is about your medium...what is it about watercolor that appeals to you?  And how does it help you to say what you want to say?

KB:  ....I feel really challenged by watercolors.  I feel like I could just study them for the rest of--and maybe I'll change my mind in a year, but I feel like I could study them for the next twelve years and not understand them fully... I feel really satisfied and happy with them, right now.  I don't feel like I'm wanting something else.  I love that you can layer them, I love that you can, that there's a transparency to them, that the light shines through them.  I think I'm really attracted to light.  I've always loved, been star-struck by the light in the sky at any given moment.  So I love that that's true with the watercolors, that you can do interesting things that way...  

LK:  Well, thank you for this wonderful interview.  Let's go outside and paint!

KB:  Sounds good, sounds good.

Myself and Kate Brandes, outside painting in the West Ward, in Easton, PA.

Confession:  I have borrowed many of the interview questions from the blog of one of my favorite artists, Angela Fraleigh.  On her blog, Angela often interviews artists, and I LOVE reading those interviews.  Her interview with Ann Toebbe is one of my favorites.