Interview: Kay Healy

Through her drawn, screen printed, and stuffed fabric installations, Kay Healy investigates themes of home, displacement, and loss. Healy is an artist and educator originally from Staten Island, NY and received a BA from Oberlin College, and a MFA from the University of the Arts in Book Arts and Printmaking. Her 350 square foot screen printed installation Coming Home, was purchased by the Pennsylvania Convention Center in 2016. She completed Lost and Found, a 1,000 square foot digital and screen printed fiber installation for the Central Library of Philadelphia. This project was supported by the Independence Foundation’s Fellowship in the Arts, and was based on stories of lost objects from interviews of over forty people from Philadelphia and the surrounding area.

Healy has had solo exhibitions at the Gallery Septima in Tokyo, Japan, the University of Alabama Huntsville, the Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts, the Philadelphia International Airport, the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and a number of other national galleries.

She was named as a West Collects winner, and a Fellow in the Center for Emerging Visual Artists’ (CFEVA) Career Development Program. She was previously the recipient of the Leeway Art and Social Change grant, which funded a yearlong body of work based on interviews of refugees from Southeast Asia, and the NewCourtland Fellowship, which supported a teaching-artist project with senior citizens in Germantown. She lives and works in Philadelphia.

Tell us a little bit about your story as an artist.

As an undergraduate student I was interested in architecture and art history, but never considered becoming an artist until I took a required studio class my junior year at Oberlin College in Ohio. I was very inspired by visiting artists that gave lectures at the school including Pepon Osorio, Andrea Zittel, and Allen McCollum. Pepon Osorio, who teaches at Tyler, was especially influential because I loved the way his artwork connected to communities and social practice. After graduating, I took courses at Hunter College, where I learned more about ceramics and installation with Sana Musasama and went on to receive my MFA in Book Arts and Printmaking at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. 

I have lived and worked in Philadelphia since 2006, and after graduate school, I worked in a number of nonprofit organizations while continuing my studio practice. I was Associate Director of the Cultural Arts Center, a center for adults with intellectual disabilities and the Education Manager for Philadelphia's Magic Gardens, a visionary art environment of mosaics and found objects created by Isaiah Zagar. Both of these positions increased my interest in folk and outsider art, as well as immersive, community-based artwork with strong narrative elements.

When did you get interested in sewing? Were you always drawn to textiles or did you explore various mediums in the beginning?

I am trained as a printmaker, but I like to work with a broad range of media. I rarely create printed editions, and prefer to use my screen prints to experiment with the multiple. I began creating life-sized prints in 2008, and started printing pieces on fabric in 2010. 

My mom grew up sewing her own clothing, and taught me the trapunto method, where you quilt two pieces of fabric and stuff the piece from the back, creating a bas-relief effect. I enjoy the flexibility and texture of working with fabric, and in addition to the screen printed fabrics, have been drawing, painting, and sewing one-of-a-kind fiber pieces. 

I have also been experimenting with vintage clothing and found objects, and have been making more three-dimensional suspended work using armature wire and monofilament (aka fishing line). In the last few months I have started working with clay again, and am combining ceramic and fabric in some of the new works. Like working with fabric, I love the initial malleability of clay, and while it is very fragile once fired, the details and evocative texture you can achieve with clay are extremely appealing to me.

What do you hope the viewers take away from your art?

I hope that viewers are aesthetically drawn into the work and then investigate it further. Many of my projects involve interviewing other people and recreating objects and imagery from their stories. Lost and Found was a 1,000 square foot installation that I created for the Philadelphia Central Library. This life-sized installation showcased quintessential Philadelphia row homes inhabited with over 90 three-dimensional screen printed, stuffed, and sewn objects. From armchairs to frying pans, side tables to Teletubbies, each piece was based on a person’s story of an object that they have lost and wish they could still have. In conjunction with the installation, WHYY’s Peter Crimmins recorded and created audio for viewers to hear sixteen of the interviews firsthand. While I know that not everyone has the time to delve deeper into the work, I hope that those that do find the stories behind the pieces compelling and can personally connect their own experiences with the themes of home and memory within the work.

What goes into creating each piece? Tell us about your inspiration and process.

Many of my projects begin with interviewing people about their experiences of their childhood homes or cherished objects. I have interviewed many different people including senior citizens, Southeast Asian refugees living in Philadelphia, people who were formerly homeless, and Japanese Americans who were interned during WWII, children, teens, and the general public. 

After the interview, I make smaller sketches that I translate into life-sized drawings on paper. Sometimes I transfer the drawings onto screens using photosensitive emulsion and screen print them onto fabric. More recently, if I am only making a one-of-a-kind piece, I use a light table to trace and paint the image onto fabric. I then sew the piece to a backing fabric and stuff it with Polyfil. For my stuffed animation pieces, I put in armature wire in order to be able to manipulate the object. 

Your work has been exhibited in impressive public places such as airports. What advice would you give other artist looking to expand their practice?

My main advice, especially to recent graduates, is to apply for exhibitions. While in school you are given deadlines for projects for exhibitions and critiques, and that is often the motivation you need to complete a piece for public viewing. Once out of school, while it can be liberating to have the time to play and experiment, it can also be easy to lose momentum without an external deadline. Exhibitions have always given me the motivation to buckle down and complete projects. I have found a number of exhibition opportunities without fees through,, and CFEVA's newsletter, and many schools have opportunities for alumni to showcase their work as well. 

What's next for you and what do you hope to accomplish within the next year? 

I have a few group exhibitions this summer in Montreal at Galerie C.O.A. and Abrams Claghorn Gallery in California. I am also very excited about a three-woman show at Moore College of Art with Erin Riley and Sophia Narrett. The exhibition is part of Philadelphia's CraftNow consortium, and I am looking forward to seeing our work together. 

I am completing a second NewCourtland Fellowship with CFEVA this summer and will be doing a ceramic and fiber project with the seniors and college students at Germantown Home. I have also been experimenting with stop animations of my pieces, and I'd like to expand upon that part of my practice over the next year. 

Share your favorite quote or piece of advice. 

I saw Ann Hamilton speak at UArts in Fall 2016 and she described being a student at Yale when Laurie Simmons visited. In her lecture she told them to never to wait for the right space, or the perfect equipment, or the grant, or the whatever, and to just make the work.