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"I enter a place where, it's not a dream state, but it's a
Each drawing allows me to let go a little more and sink a little deeper into what you describe as the bottom of the pond. I don't let go easily so it takes a while to get there.The longer I draw, the closer I get to that place and when I get there,
the ideas look simpler and simpler. They are more truthful."
AP: Judy, by now your work has been widely exhibited. What response would please you the most?
JKM: That people react to my work with their gut. That they get this immediate enjoyment or pleasure from the work. That they don't analyze it or have to know how it was made. They just look at it and it makes them smile.
AP: In what ways are you doing exactly what you want to do?
JKM: I think I get to do more and more of exactly what I would like to be doing in my work. For some reason, it is easier for me to make decisions about what I would like to be doing in my work, and stick to them, than it is in any other area of my life.
AP: What defines doing exactly what you want to do?
JKM: Part of it, since I haven't been taking commission work these days, is being able to let one piece move into and influence the next one, more like being an artist. This is a rare luxury for a furniture maker. Commission work inevitably means going back to some idea that you have used before, maybe ten years ago. Now I can try something new and it will give me an idea for something I'd like to do next. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to do this.
AP: So an important source of your pleasure is being able to do exactly what you want to do, when you want to do it. What is it though, in the work process itself, that gives you the most pleasure?
JKM: Well, I would say that the biggest thrill is in that moment when you discover that your idea is actually going to work. You may have an idea that looks okay on paper but you have no idea if you can pull it off in three dimensional form and do it gracefully. Furniture making is such a slow process. You must have the ability to do a boring task for a long time. It's a requirement of furniture making to be able to do something like cover an entire area with dots, or do goldleaf or anything that is tedious. I know fron1 the time I start, this is going to take a long time and I'm just going to have to do it. I might spend a month and a half working on something before I know whether it's really going to make it. For example, with the sideboard, until I started putting those images on the front, it was just a green cabinet. I knew the color was right, I knew the proportions were right, but I didn't know whether the design would work. Sometimes you put those lines on but the way the wood comes through, the color is all wrong. You know you are going to have to go back and repaint the cahinet or make the lines deeper. You know it's not giving the overall feeling you are after.
AP: It seems clear to me that you have a very strong sense of what works for you.
JKM: That's intuitive.
AP: Yes, and so how much a part does the audience play . . where does your feedback come from? Does it come from you?
JKM: It's interesting. More and more, I can trust myself.
AP: You've become more and more successful. Does that have any impact on your work?
JKM: I was realizing the other day that I don't need as much feedback as I used to. I know more what I'm after in my work and I don't doubt it any more. Sometimes it's nice to get some outside influence. But for the most part, I'm not looking for others' opinions.
AP: Do you ever find that, for one reason or another, you stray into an area of uncertaintly intentionally?
JKM: Well, I try to as much as possible. On the one hand, it was fairly easy for me to make that wall sconce that looks like a bird or an angel. I seem to know how to make something that is accessible and pretty in that way . . . perhaps because my grandfather was a designer, my mother was a graphic artist and my father did a lot of designing . . . so that graphic ability runs in my family. Although it took me a long time to get to a place where I could put a graceful line down on paper, I know now that I can do something that is graceful fairly easily. What is hard for me to do is to make something that has an unexpected kind of aliveness to it. What I admire most in primitive things is that they are just coming from the gut instead of some kind of technical proficiency. That is more difficult for me to do.
AP: When you talk about primitive work, there is a sense that this is coming out of some deep place; this is real because it spoke . . . it has that connection. How do you direct yourself to that place? Or is it unconscious...you don't even have to think about it?
JKM: No, no, I do have to think about it, because if I'm not careful, I can let myself slide into the other thing which is too easy. So I have to remind myself to draw a lot and not to worry about making things look right, but only to ciraw in the most exaggerated way to get to an idea. When I start, my drawings are quite predictable and ordinary, so I keep drawing until I can push myself into a place where they are less predictable arid then what happens is that by gradually allowing myself to sink into a more receptive frame of mind, I enter a place where, it's not a dream state, but it's a mysterious place. Each drawing allows me to let go a little more and sink a little deeper into what you desc ribe as the bottom of the pond. I don't let go easily, so it takes a while to get there. The longer I draw, the closer I get to that place. And when I get there, the ideas look simpler and simpler. They are more truthful. Often, when I give up on an idea or a concept, that is when I get the real idea. I'll work, work, work on something and finally I'll say, "Forget this! I'm not even going to try. I give up." And at that moment, I get the idea.
AP: That's when you stop exerting your expectations on something.
JKM: Maybe that's why it's so pleasurable not to be involved in a lot of commissions. People often say, "Do anything you want." You know, "I like this piece, but do anything you want." But I know I can't stray too far from what they've seen. And probably something about my personality makes me absolutely zero in and not veer an inch from what I know that person wants. It's my desire or need to please.
AP: But in a way, honestly, when you give someone what they want, you also get something in return, because what you get is their appreciation, their gratitude.
JKM: Part ot the intent of my work is pleasing people. I mean, I don't make work that offends people. Well, I suppose it offends some people. But I don't make anti-social work or work that intentionally puts people off . . . a lot of art does that.
AP: It's true, and a lot of people think that's what art should be.
JKM: I want to make art that people love.
AP: I understand that and I appreciate that. I have nothing against pleasure. But as a Yankee, I think you would have a fundamental problem with pleasure.
JKM: Well, maybe that's where the furniture part fits in. That could have a lot to do with why I couldn't paint. I could not seem to justify the time I spent making things that had no function, that people couldn't use. The first furniture I made was very functional . . . the essence of form. It was extremely simple and devoid of any kind of frivolity. What I was doing was very sterile, what I saw around me was very sterile, but every once in a while I would see a small hope chest or something with a very intimate feeling ahout it. For example, a Pennsylvania Dutch box that was carved with a daughter's name on it. Very, very personal objects. I said this is what is needed, this is what I have to aspire to in object-making, this feeling, rather than a defined concept . . . more like a gift for someone that you love. Not an important piece of architectural history, just something special that you give to somebody.
AP: This gift that is this place inside you, can you try and find a way to approximate, to touch on the poetry that is in there?
JKM: I don't know if I can put this into words, but I think that there is something, like a universal chord that runs through everything, that runs through all life and that if you tap into it, then you can enjoy what you are doing and then somebody else can enjoy it too.
AP: It's as though you are saying your pond is spring-fed.
JKM: You reach into this place blind and grope around for the things that intuitively you know something about and everybocly else knows something about.
AP: Have you been able to go to a place in your work that you thought would not be possible?
JKM: For a long time I only conceived wooden shapes and forms, but recently they have become colorful. I don't think of myself as a colorist and that was something I had to work at. Now the objects are in color as I conceive them.
AP: What about the animal? Wasn't there a moment when you realized that those animals were a perfect alter-ego, that they were your perfect familiar?
JKM: What I knew was I wanted to animate the furniture, embellish it, make it more lively, bring it to life. But it wasn't necessarily going to he through animal forms. And yet when I imagined that, it sudderily worked. And that was an exciting moment and the beginning of a way of working that felt completely right.
AP: A lot of your animals have a kind of presence to them that makes them occupy the space in a certain way. It's almost like it's their space.
JKM: That may be because I try never to let them become too recognizable. The first time I carved an expression on the face of an animal, I realized...uh-oh, this doesn't make it. It looked like Mickey Mouse . . . too familiar. It wasn't until it got an expression that was mysterious enough to be nonspecific that it was a yes. That was a moment of discovery, knowing that the work has got to be ambiguous to draw you in.
AP: You seem to know when your drawings are right. You don't seem to listen to anybody else. And there is that place, and that connection. What you listen to is what makes your work magical. You don't have to put it into words.
JKM: In the same way that someone else can sit down and write a poem, I know I can sit down and make a pleasing shape. I just know what it is. It is connected to other pleasing shapes that exist out there, and when you see them, they give you a very satisfied feeling that everything is in its place. It is also very important to me to be able to make furniture which looks free and light. I feel that it is most important to have the physical execution look as though it took no effort.
AP: What about the lightness? When it works, what happens?
JKM: It feels like a lifting. The heaviness lifts away from it. It separates from me in a funny way. It is able to exist on its own. That doesn't happen until you are done and there are no more questions. It is like giving birth in a way. You nurture it until you know it can exist on its own.
AP: You have made it whole.
JKM: There is nothing more left for you to do, arid then hopefully it can give pleasure.
AP: In some ways it's like a little spaceship. It's gotta have everything there.
JKM: And if it can float on its own, you know you achieved everything that you tried to do.
AP: Does that lightness relate to something
JKM: It relates to the kind of choices I make when I go into a store or museum and look at pottery or other things. They are personal choices based on my own personal aesthetic: which tends towards things that have a little bit of humor. The things I enjoy are light in feeling and there is visually something a little naive about them. They tend to be playful and personal and they are somewhat subtle, they don't shout at you. Those are the kinds of objects that I choose to have around me. So when I make something, I try to imbue the object I'm making with the quality of the things I appreciate. They are the qualities I appreciate in other people and what I choose to surround myself with if possible. So I try to put those things in my work. I suppose they are ultimately about me, and the people who appreciate them are the people who like the same kinds of things.
With Addison Parks, Cambridge, 1994
Judy Kensley McKie was born in Boston, MA in 1944. She studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and earned a B.F.A. in painting in 1966. She was awarded Craftsman Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1979 and 1982, a Massachusetts Artists Foundation Fellowship in 1980 and a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award in 1989.
Courtesy of Pritam & Eames, East Hampton, NY, 1994; All rights
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