Dragons and death watch beetles

Deciduous Dragon’s Offering, Kat King

Not too long ago, Kat King thought her artwork was actually coming alive. One of the dragon models that she’d assembled from leaves and husks and flower stems seemed to be moving on its own. When she got closer, she realized small insects had hatched and were emerging from the pods and husks she’d found in wooded tracts not far from her home in Chicago. She fetched a pair of tweezers and pulled the burrowing bug out of her dragon and was astonished to realize this was an exotic insect she’d just happened to read about: the death watch beetle. A little fumigation solved her problem, but the resonant mystery of the event wouldn’t die.

What made this episode so bizarre was that a short while earlier she’d gotten the word paradox stuck in her head and couldn’t get it out. So she looked up its definition, and it led her to a Wikipedia entry on paradoxical or cryptic animals.

As she tells it: “I found centaurs, griffins and serpents, snakes, and then dragons and then, after that, there was something called a death watch beetle. So, not long afterward, I . . .  noticed little brown bugs were emerging from my assembled dragon.”

“Let me get this right. You had these insects living in the models,” I said.

“Especially the dragons. The pods must have had these things in them. There are various types of death watch beetle. There are these little innocuous ones and there is a whole spectrum of them. They live in rotting wood or plant parts. They have these sinister connotations for people. They are associated with long summer nights when you can’t sleep and you hear this ticking in the walls. If you’re in an old house, these bugs can get in there and start clicking. It’s kind of eerie. I didn’t really see these things until after I looked up the word paradox, which led me to the dragon and then these insects. They were not there (at first). I did not see evidence of them until the models were configured as dragons.”

It was incredible to her that her research led her through the subject of dragons to death watch beetles and then, in her actual studio, her work recapitulated this process. It led her through the construction of a dragon, followed by this encounter with the actual beetles. Similarly, in her work, she follows subconscious promptings and instinctive choices that work their way to the surface through her intentions. She ecognizes what she’s making only as it emerges. She didn’t start out to be a dragon artist. She simply began collecting plant detritus, assembling it into the shapes, letting the work be what it wanted to be, as she puts it, and at some point realized she was making shapes that reminded her of the imagined dragons she’d loved as a child.

Listening to her talk about her work process, work heavily influenced by early 20th century surrealism, reminded me of Andre Gregory’s life story in My Dinner with Andre, where real world coincidences merge with a mind that’s become totally vulnerable to its own waking dreams. Kat’s stories aren’t quite as exotic as Gregory’s, with his hallucinations and incredible tales of coincidence, but her work as an artist develops her influences into a style that’s totally her own, based on improvisation and experimentation. And like this coincidence with the beetles, where mental processes seemed to be echoed and duplicated in the physical world, she balances random collecting with an effort that integrates everything she finds into her art. Her activities alternate between a sort of hunting/gathering, going on sweeps through her environment looking for the building blocks of her vision, and then she assembles, modifies, colors, and finally does a conventional color drawing of what she assembles as a physical model. The drawings and the models extend the same duality of her encounters with coincidence: a real three-dimensional assembly corresponds to a flat drawing of a totally imaginary creature. Yet what’s real, in three dimensions, is also imagined. There’s a head-spinning, Mobius-strip tension between real and imaginary, mental and physical, here that seems to fuse one realm into the other. It’s the fundamental tension in all of art: between representation and reality, between the symbol and what’s symbolized, the signifier and its meaning. Yet with Kat’s work, that dialectic seems to get geometrically more complex.

I had a great conversation with her a couple of days ago on all this, just before the reception for her new solo show at Viridian Artists:

Kat King: The subject matter in the drawings actually comes from 3D models. I use models the way you would use a figurative model.

You’re working from life, in a sense.

Yes. I’m fashioning my own still lifes and giving them a quality of animation. From there, I will be drawing from them, take pictures, or sometimes include fresh floral elements in the photographs, for a contrast between the dried structures and the fresh petals. Sometimes I’ll work with the image digitally and when I decide on a drawing, I’ll include a large black and white image file that I have printed out as an Oce print, a large-scale print on paper. Architects use it. I’ll go to Fed Ex. I’ll do it to the scale of the drawing, then washes of watercolor and/or acrylic, and then I will put it on a light table and do a cartoon of the image and then put the print aside and start working on the drawing with ball markers, because they emboss the surface of the paper. I usually start with acrylic first because it isn’t water-soluble when it dries. The ball marker, since the paper is embossed, that mark stays and the other media sits on top. It’s kind of an intaglio. Dry media is put over the impression made by the ball marker. That mark stays and the other media sits on top at the upper edge of the depression the pen makes.

You start off wandering, looking for detritus?

Yes, I’m always on the lookout. If I travel to Florida, I look for unusual palm fronds or the detritus that falls from palm trees, sea grape leaves. I take those and pack them up and mail them to myself or bring them back when I return. It’s stuff that catches my eye. Sometimes other types of detritus. Little metal scraps and things like that. I’ll put them in bags and store them. I’ll start making models. Sometimes they are these dragon-type models. Sometimes more abstracted . . . l models. Like the Divas. I’ve done them also from 3D models.

With Diva #2 you have one of these little lantern plants. They dry and turn orange.

Yes. The other structure is a puffy plant I got at a farmer’s market. People use it for decoration and I was told it dries out very well. I bought a couple stems and let them dry out. You’ll see little bulbous ends on it. I create these little beaded rounded edges.

It looks like a deep-sea fish or maybe something on a cellular level.

When I start altering these things they take on different connotations. I’m just working on and reacting to shapes and surfaces and not trying to formulate anything in particular.

It’s improvisational.

Yes. Once the 3D model is completed, it’s presto, there it is. That’s what happened with dragons. It emerged without my planning it. I don’t have a set formula for how to make them.

It’s instinctive.

Right. One of the dragons is a 3D digital print. I took one of my dragon models apart, and the guy I work with, Harry Spell, a sculptor and scientist, who also owns a foundry. He does cast bronze and things like that. He helped me with the 3D scanning. He told me to take one of the models apart and spray the model with white gesso. We scan these parts of the model into three files: they are recorded three-dimensionally. They were scaled up to a size that would accommodate the printer in Rockford, Illinois. The separate 3D files, the wings, the front part of the body and the back part of the body. Those were stitched together on computer and the image was taken to the printer and the printer took the file apart in a couple of ways. The printer only builds a model in a 12″ x 12” area. We rely on Mike Cobert, of Eiger Lab, in Rockford, IL, to do the 3D printing.

When you say printed, describe what’s going on.

The file is fed into the printer and then the printer starts and you see the image emerge from the ground up.

What is it doing at this point, using plastic?

It is. Plastic particulates. These printers can print in all kinds of particulates: metal, plastic. (See video for how it looks as a 3D model emerges in this machine.)

It’s a hologram. A physical hologram, kind of.

You could say that. Auto parts can be made this way. It’s a very interesting technology.

You’re fabricating more than printing.

Yes, this is 3D.

You’re creating a 3D model.

Yes. Since I have the file now I will create different elements. If I want to change the style of the wings I can for example. Change the shape of the body. Create a new dragon.

Sculpting with the computer.

Yes. Ultimately I want to get my own 3D scanning set-up. It might be possible for me to do this in my studio for $500 to $1,000. For the printing I could farm it out. I’m into this now. It’s like getting a taste of crack cocaine

(We both laughed at that.)

I’m into this now.

That’s great.

There’s still a hands-on aspect. I added a few elements by hand. The print-out doesn’t define the teeth sharply enough. It doesn’t have the fang quality. So I got some actual thorns for the teeth. The eyes I hand-made those from glass beads.

Does the dragon have any significance to you or is it just that the organic forms coalesced into these shapes and you recognized it as a dragon. it was a subconscious thing.

I have to admit it just sort of suggested this but I have done dragons before, years ago. When I was a kid, I did a comic strip involving a dragon and occasionally I did imagery, but it came back in this form. I wasn’t saying, make a dragon out of plant detritus, it just sort of . . . there it was. I recognized it and went with it.

Is your association with dragons more Asian than European?

Yes. In the East, dragons have a much more positive connotation. In the West, it’s more negative.


When I was a kid I wanted to be one. If I could be a dragon, I would not be vulnerable. I would be able to vanquish enemies and protect people I love. I did realize how some dragons seem to have positive connotations and some negative. Some of mine seem very benign and some become very fearsome. I just let them develop as they want to develop.

It does seem in the Asian tradition they symbolize fundamental powers of nature.

It has something to do with mountains too. I’ve been to Korea and the mountains, you can imagine a dragon just under the surface of the topography.

With the drawings, what do you do with the surface? Describe the surface and what you do with it.

Deciduous Dragon’s Offering is complex in terms of surface.

Describe what you did to the surface.

I did the cartoon tracing to get the scale right and I immediately toned down the surface of the paper except for the figure and I started working into the figure with the ball marker, if you can see any thin lines that the marker makes, and it creates an embossment. On the dragon itself I just went into it with pencil and rendered on top of the ball marker. The ball marker isn’t covered by the pencil. I went in next with pastel, finishing it off that way. The ball marker gives a sense of depth. I worked with the ball marker to produce the detail, the fine detail and then everything is added after that.

The mediums settle into the grooves?

The medium from the marker settles into the groove, but when I work with colored pencil or pastel, the ball marker marks don’t get obliterated; the groove preserves that fine detail and I can work with other media on top of it. It slides over it. If I press hard it will obliterate the embossed mark. The areas around that thin mark catch the later media.

Like a gravestone rubbing in a way. It snags on the edges of what’s recessed.

Yes, like an intaglio.

It has the precision of line you would see in a print, an etching.


Who are your influences? Your work reminds me a little of animation.

I did do animation shorts while at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle Campus- but not in any formal class ion animation,just on my own. When i transferred to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I tried a class in animation but had a that run in with the full time prof teaching animation and never took an animation class again. I regret that I didn’t take animation classes from Byron Grush, the prof who taught animation on Saturdays. I would have stayed with it longer. By the way, while a student, I did do animation as a part time worker during at Goldscholl Associates in Northfield, IL. Eventually, I got an MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I think I’m going to start getting into animation again.

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