Amsterdam-based artist Kathy Ager: Freelance graphic designer and painter
Kathy Ager is a Canadian-born artist based in Amsterdam. In her current body of work, she braves the mind’s basement, ventures into the heart’s deep dark woods, plundering pieces of people and things she encounters. She challenges the viewer to face the discomfort and to see the beauty and power in letting yourself feel. She describes subjects such as dead animals, which frequently appear in her paintings, as the intimate and tender offerings of our nature which are subjected to the subtle brutality of consumable, disposable modern life and love. Sometimes strikingly eery or underlyingly violent, her works are crafted in a way that is original and appealing to the eye, and in a way become her weapons against the pain of letting oneself be vulnerable.
What's life been like since you graduated from IDEA School of Design?
It's been almost 11 years since I graduated from the program! It's been amazing though. When I went into the program, I had no idea the freedom and opportunities it would bring. I'm now living in Amsterdam, freelancing part of the time as a graphic designer, and making paintings the rest of the time.
What type of projects have you been working on?
The first couple years out of school I was working at Karacters (now called Twice) within DDB Vancouver. I worked mostly on packaging and branding projects and it was a great place to start out as a junior designer. In 2009, I moved to Barcelona and subsequently to Amsterdam where I worked in a design studio focusing on branding, packaging and retail store design. In 2012 I went freelance, accumulating clients both in The Netherlands and back in Canada, and mainly focusing on corporate branding and print design.
How do you market yourself? Is word-of-mouth a major source of clients?
All my clients have come to me through word-of-mouth! I've never marketed myself. Something I've heard from clients is it's not always easy to find reliable freelancers who do good work and deliver on time. I've tried to keep a good track record with those things and it seems to have paid off.
Tell us about your recent transition into painting
Over the last 3 years I picked up painting again. I'd painted a little bit in IDEA, and was really encouraged by Kiff Holland, but hadn't touched it since. I've been working at it in my spare time between design work, as well as taking off to Lisbon or Barcelona for months at a time to paint and live life. Recently my paintings we picked up by Booooooom and Pow!Wow!, which then led to getting gallery representation in LA. So far 2018-19 is looking busy with group shows around the US and a possible solo show in LA in July 2019!
Tell us more about your group shows around the US and your recent show with Girls Are Awesome
I'm now represented by Thinkspace Gallery in LA. The first group show in the US will open on June 9, 2018 at Antler Gallery in Portland OR, curated by Thinkspace. I'll wait on announcing the rest until closer to the dates, but they'll be around LA, Miami and Honolulu. The Girls Are Awesome show was in Berlin at the Bright Tradeshow, and will likely come to Amsterdam, location still to be determined.
What advice would you give people considering applying for IDEA School of Design?
The program can be hard work but it's such a great foundation for a career in the design industry. Since living in a few different countries, I've noticed it's not so common to get such a well rounded education – learning to go from concept all the way to preparing your work for production. Also, at the time I was in the program, it wasn't a requirement to have any kind of internship experience. I searched out my own intern work by contacting Color Magazine (the Vancouver skate magazine that is no more!) and worked with them on evenings and weekends and in the summer before 3rd year. It was definitely worth the experience.
We are now a 4-year Bachelor of Design program with eight-week student practicums.
Sounds like there's a great focus on gaining work experience in 4th year. Having some experience under your belt gives you more confidence once you actually graduate. Try getting something close to what you imagine you want to do when you graduate. I thought I wanted to work in magazines, therefore I convinced Color to give me an internship. I ended up working in branding but it was worth the exploration.
Does your previous degree in Anthropology and Geography influence your work?
I think my degree in Anthro and Geography helped me in the sense that it expanded my realm of knowledge interest and I continue to be curious (nosey!) about people and things. It was also great for self discipline - the IDEA program requires a lot of you outside class hours, and both freelance and painting are fully self-initiated. If I wasn't putting a fire under my own bum I'd be nowhere!
In your recent Girls Are Awesome interview—Kathy Ager: “Most of My Paintings Are Like a Peek Into My Dark Basement”—you talk about doing “the right thing” and following the more solid path of graphic design. What advice would you give aspiring artists/illustrators who are torn between the two?
There's no right way to go about it and everyone's situation is different. For me, despite feeling like I had a talent for painting, I couldn't see myself taking the artist route right out of school. I didn't know what I wanted to say with my paintings, and I think that's important when it comes to art, even if it's only something you're saying to yourself in your living room! So I did the logical thing and took the graphic design route. It's given me such freedom and it's such a solid skill to have, so I think it's important to keep it in your back pocket. Meanwhile, if you see a path as an artist or illustrator you want to take, no matter if it's straight out of school or 10 years later, do it. Work at it hard, even if no one is watching. Make things happen for yourself. I was a part of a group show in Lisbon which was independently put on. We got a lot of press and it was a blast. After that I submitted my paintings to some art blogs which is how I was picked up by Booooooom. The resource I used to harass all the art blogs is: How to get your work featured on 45 of the best art, design and photography blogs and from there things took off!