Interview: Katy Schmader

First a photographer, and now a collage artist working in paper, Katy Schmader integrates the two media through meticulously executed, abstract landscape collages. Those collages explore the connection between the tactile traces of a physical environment, an art-historic tradition of landscape aesthetics, and a potentially new system of culturally relevant landscape semiotics. 

At first encounter, any natural environment that is unmarked by human influence constitutes a diverse tapestry of visual information, but one without consciousness — created by, and existing in, a vacuum of human irrelevance. 

Humans then fill that vacuum with a mixture of contexts, concerns, and utilities that we already bear. And as we do, those once very raw environmental aesthetics gradually become processed and appropriated into a thoroughly well-developed system of visual vocabulary, and visual trade, which is then accessed and encountered daily by inhabitants of a very complex culture, and those inhabitants have little connection to, or deep awareness of, the natural origins for those aesthetics. 

And with each applied use, as those aesthetics become further integrated into our cultural consciousness, and further distanced from their origins, they begin to take on new meaning. They begin to signify our ability as a species to extend our concerns, and our humanity, to encase in our own sentiments whatever it is that we encounter. And in the grandest sense, this is what connects humanity to every ecosystem, and, in doing so, represents a higher practicality, and higher responsibility, for human consciousness. 

Each collage is comprised of paper that has been dyed with natural, earthly elements, striped and torn, boiled, burned, waxed, crumpled — and then flattened. The resulting strips are then pressed together to create an intimate landscape. Inspired by ancient wood blocking techniques, collages are carefully crafted to create the ‘block’ from which an edition of prints is created. Substituting the press for the scanner, the piece is manipulated and blown-up creating a new relationship between block and print — one that when exhibited together allows for cross examination.


You mention that you were initially a photographer. What inspired you to start working with collage? 

I found myself spending less and less time with my camera; only being able to shoot when I was traveling. Those trips were few and far between, but I was restless to create. The collages evolved out of some simple experiments with paper. I was fascinated with the way paper pulled apart and the way different materials absorbed dyes.

I’m not sure I would have come to this process without my love for photography and the scan was definitely a happy accident that evolved from documenting my work for my website. I was really unhappy with the way the camera was creating space in-between the layers; the scanner created this beautiful one-dimensional piece that hid the layers of the collage.

I still consider my process to be very photographic. In many ways, the original landscapes are similar to a photographic negative in that they represent a first step in the process —  one initial set of limitations. From there, several potential expressions can still be coaxed out of the original collage in order to create a final print. It extends the creative process one further step, in much the same way photography breaks down into a shooting component and a printing component.


How does each piece come to life? Tell us about your process and visual inspiration. 

I draw inspiration from my travels and existing landscape — iconography and familiar forms. Whenever I travel I document the landscape, sketching mountains and recording color palettes. On a recent trip to Arizona and Utah, I pulled over the car to collect red dirt; the color was like nothing I had seen before. That soil is now a crucial part of Collage 20.

As much as I would like to say I have an organized process, my favorite pieces usually come from a frenzy. The process is definitely a combination of planned and considered landscape memories with sparks of chaos. The best moments come when I am staring at an apartment floor full of paper I’ve dyed trying to find combinations that work.  

Each piece starts with preparation. I need a variety of paper to play with — different colors and textures. There are whole studio days where I haven’t made a piece at all,  sometimes I’m pulling away fibers from a found piece of cotton-based paper, other times I’m sitting over vats of vegetable dyes waiting to get the color I need, but this time is the most crucial. 

After experimenting for a couple of days with new paper, new dyes, or new mediums I pull all the paper out onto the floor and I organize. I’m looking for cues - a particular color that fits within the landscape I am building or a particular line that mimics a landscape from my travels.

Collage 30_detail.jpg
Collage 30.jpg

What is your favorite part of your studio practice?

The very second the raw image appears on my computer screen after scanning. This is the moment the piece comes to life. That’s the victory dance moment.

The scanning process can really make or break all the work I have done leading up to that moment. A lot of failed pieces looked great before scanning, and never make it to the next step. 

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Tell us about your thoughts on risk taking and experimentation in your art? 

Some of my best sparks of creativity came from horrible, awful, stupid ideas. I can’t tell you how ridiculously embarrassing those ideas were in hindsight — I tried recreating a shark tunnel out of hula hoops and plastic once — seriously bad idea, or maybe just horribly executed. Or both. 

I won’t say the moments of failure are not the most frustrating, god-awful moments because they are, but I never have the breakthroughs I’m looking for without first being frustrated with where I currently am in my process.

Collage 20_detail.jpg

What are your favorite hobbies and activities outside of the studio?

If I’m not in the studio, you can probably find me curled up with a book and a cup of coffee. I try to read as much as I can in between my day job and studio time. I’m in the middle of several books on Texas botanicals right now.

I love to travel and explore new places, but there is a lot to take advantage of here in Austin well. I spend my weekends swimming at Barton Springs, hiking local trails, and stuffing my face with Tex-Mex.

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Please share a tip or piece of advice that helped you as an artist. 

“Hang in there.” Rejection is hard and it happens a lot in our line of work. It’s really important to keep your head up and keep at it. I know that is a cheesy inspirational poster; those posters wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a little bit of truth to them.

What are you currently working on? 

I have a couple of shows coming up in the next couple of months so I am spending a lot of time preparing for those. 

I’ve also been working 3-dimensional lately; larger cylindrical paper pieces inspired by ice cores. I am really excited about them.