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In conversation with Kathleen Gilje

We began our discussion with Kathleen Gilje hearing about her experience in Soho during the COVID-19 quarantine, but ended up traveling around the world in the stories she shared with us about her artistic process.


Susanna and the Elders, Restored, 1998 with X-ray


To hear the audio version of the interview click here.


Marjorie Martay–


I'm talking to you, Kathleen Gilje, who is a friend and a phenomenal artists. She's also is trained as a restorer of old master paintings. I'm very much interested in hearing from Kathleen how she is dealing with the health crisis right now. But I also think she's doing some very exciting work and we'll hear all about that as well. So in terms of what I would love to know, Kathleen, is how you have been dealing with being in New York City– specifically in the Soho area during this health crisis. What are the things that you've been dealing with on a daily basis?


The Text Message after Pieter Pourbus’s Portrait of a Married Lady of Bruges and Images from Keith Haring, 2013, Oil on linen, 19 1/2 x 17 ¾ inches


Kathleen Gilje–


Well I've been staying in and as suggested, and of course I paint every day. I have ventured out a few times, but with a mask and gloves. In the area that I am, in Soho, there are just no people. It's completely quiet and no traffic, no cars. Which is very unusual because I live on Broome Street, which is an extremely noisy street. The only thing I really hear are ambulances and I hear them over and over and over again. Every time I hear an ambulance, it's sort of like my heart goes in my throat. It's almost like in another world, all the stores are closed and some of them are even boarded up, like doomsday and it's a very disheartening feeling... So I have ventured out, I actually went running on Sunday along the river with a mask and I ran along the river. It was so strange because it was a beautiful day. All the flowers were blooming and it didn't seem like this kind of surrealist virus had taken over everything... At night at 7 PM, people open their windows and many people have left Soho, so it's quite empty. When you look out at night, you look at the lofts, their lights are out. Many people who could have gotten out, got out of the city, but still at seven o'clock people clap. Even though they don't see a lot of people, you hear them, you hear them around the corners, you hear them everywhere. You hear the cheering and the clapping for all the people that are doctors and the nurses and the people who go and do their jobs every day– who expose themselves to the virus. People clap and cheer because people are so grateful.



Marjorie Martay–


It's so heartwarming that the city is doing that– I think it's incredible. You're absolutely right– all these health workers have done so much to try to help all of us and it's very important. We should have such esteem for them.



Portrait of Arthur Danto as the Bust of Socrates, 2005, Oil on linen, 37 ¼ x 31 ½”


Kathleen Gilje–


And even the people who just drive the buses... We have to clap for everybody because people are trying to keep it going. It's amazing.


Marjorie Martay–


I'm curious, how are you dealing with, you know, doing meals in your house and bringing in the family together? Are you a cook or a baker?


Kathleen Gilje–


I am a baker. I haven't baked that much of late, but so we're in a loft. My husband's a sculptor, Robert Lobe and my daughter Jasmine, who is a writer, the three of us are here together and so we kind of all are doing our own thing.


But at night we have a very nice dinner. We take the time. There aren't many, there are no real supermarkets down here. So my husband has been doing the shopping and he, he actually has a studio in New Jersey and he has the truck and he goes at the hours, designated hours and he goes to the supermarkets and buys food. So he's been the source of our food. And because parts of Chinatown have closed down, so many places have closed down that it's really difficult eating to get basic stuff. And he's, he, I lived in Italy and I learned about food having lived in Italy and when we first got together, Bob and I was the cook, but now he, he's sort of taken it over because it says it relaxes him. But but we have really, we try and have very nice dinners. We don't bring out frozen dinners or anything like that. We really like, I've made a bolognese sauce tonight. We try and sit down and take the time to be together, because it's one of the few things that we can still do within our loft. It's a great way to bring the community together. It brings the people you love together in one place. We support each other in a very anxiety provoking time. And then I also try and paint during the day, but I should be much more productive than I am. I just find that the whole feeling of the of the world is very distracting. I just do the best that I can.



The Birth of Tragedy after Giuseppe de Ribera’s Drunken Silenus, 2013, Oil on linen, 69 x 88in


Marjorie Martay–


How has your work been affected by this? I know it's difficult to paint, but is there something that you're working on?


Kathleen Gilje–


Well I'm working on a painting, "The Blind Leading the Blind" by Pieter Bruegel. As a conservator, I was trained in the Museum of Capodimonte in Naples. I lived there for a lot of years and this is a painting that I very often saw and I walked by. Something drove me to do this painting. I began it before, before the pandemic so intense and it's really a kind of apocalyptic painting. The original painting done by Bruegel is in Capodimonte (where I was trained as a conservator)– done in 1568 and was done at a time that was extremely troubled. It was a time filled with hatred and he actually did it in a material that made it sort of dull and the color is difficult. It was actually time where there was the Spanish Netherlands and the council of troubles. There was persecution and executions of the Protestants. "The Blind Leading the Blind" comes from the gospel of Matthew, and it's where Christ refers to the Pharisees as misleading the populace. So it's a very old story. In the painting, there are six men and they're walking along, they're all blind. Each of them are holding onto a staff, each a different staff– they're connected. The first one falls into a ditch and therefore they all go down. They all fall down.


"The Blind Leading the Blind" by Pieter Bruegel


My painting is much larger, I changed it in many ways. It's larger, it's oil on linen, it has six figures, but I changed one of the figures to a woman who is in a blue business suit. The figures are changed and the heads are taken from images of religious zealots and hatemongers and rallies with the same sort of "hating the other" kind of feeling. And they too are all doomed to fall. There is a sort of respectable man in a business suit and an attaché case with a pretense towards high fashion. The figure that falls into ditches in high fashion, Burberry pants. And so it's all been made very contemporary. The second figure falls, and is not painted yet, but will be tattooed. The landscape has changed. It's against the city skyline and against the Capitol. The colors are almost acid, unpleasant and the trees are dying– so it's also dealing with the environment. There is a single flower at an iris which in medieval times meant a message of sorrow. So like I mentioned, when I went running the other day and saw the flowers, it's those flowers that don't seem to know there's a virus out there and it's spring time. The iris is a springtime flower so it just seems so important to keep the symbolism. In the front, it's a squeaking pig with a knife stuck in it and it's from another painting– it's from another Bruegel painting, "The Land of Cockaigne" and it is a mythological land of plenty. Bruegel created this mythological land of plenty. It has a total spiritual emptiness and a gluttony and a complacency. And... It just seems that we are a land of so much and here we are. We can't even get masks for our doctors and we can't take care of our population. To me, there's a very strong correlation. I began the painting, don't ask me why or how, but I began the painting even before this all happened. It was like something that was inside of me brewing and I can't even give you a decent explanation.


"The Land of Cockaigne" by Pieter Bruegel

Marjorie Martay–


Interesting. Sometimes it's intuitive– why we do things and it just happens. Who knows? Maybe the universe was sending you a message subliminally and you had to do it.


Kathleen Gilje–


Right, but the painting I'd done before it also had a kind of a message to it. So it was brewing even in the painting that I completed before it that was a painting after Sophonisba Angussola who is a woman painter from the 1500s. She was really quite a wonderful woman painter. She painted three children and a dog, and I repainted the painting, but I changed the children to be Mexican or Guatemalan and put them in with embroidery and jewelry. I changed their features so people would look more Mexican. I changed the fan to be a bouquet of black roses, which is a sign of sadness. They're against encaged in like on our border, children caged in with a fence and a barb wire top with a sky that looks scary and frightening. So that was the painting I did before and I was on my way it seems–this is the second in this direction in my work.


Painting by Sophonisba Angussola

Marjorie Martay–


Interesting. That's also what I saw with work that you were doing about young women– the 12 paintings that you did about being a girl, which is based on 12 separate panels that you did. What was the genesis of that idea?


"About Being A Girl" Series by Katherine Gilje

Kathleen Gilje–


I was interested in how the young generation today deals with all the differences, the media, the internet, how they related. So I decided to do interviews with young women. I went out and did hundreds of hours of interviews. Most of them start off very simply. I knew that if I listened to what was important to them– if gender was important or race. If I just allowed these young women to speak, that they would discuss what was important to them. In the end, I did 12 paintings. Each painting is theme based and it's based on this idea of Cesare Ripa who did a series of works in the 1500s that were both symbol and figurative representation of the symbol. The figures in the paintings are invented. They are taken from 19th century paintings and photographs and the body themselves are from artist studio models. So, I dealt with different subject matter. I dealt with politics, I dealt with gender identity, with beauty, with love, with aspiration to be exceptional, with bullying– all these different subject matters 12 and all. They're basically figures and they have texts in the paintings that are actual quotes that I took from these young women who opened up and talked about their feelings and their lives.


"About Being A Girl" Series by Katherine Gilje


Marjorie Martay–


I'm curious– initially, why did you decide to do this project and what were you trying to accomplish with it?


Kathleen Gilje–


Well... I heard so much about how terrible everything is that is going on on the internet and how people were bullied and I thought– my God, how does a young woman deal with this? This is kind of an abstract thing where people can really say and write terrible things to try and hurt you. So I thought initially that this is what I would be dealing with– one story after another. But, what was so amazing, is that when I started speaking with these women, they wanted to speak about their optimism. It's a beautiful thing. Young people are very optimistic. I thought that it was going to be maybe some horror stories, but instead it turned out to be stories about their feelings about things, sometimes their discontent, but more often, their aspirations. I spoke to a young woman of color. Her quote was really quite beautiful. She said when I was little, I didn't understand that I was much different, but I learned to see myself through other people's eyes and I learned that I had to be exceptional. So in the painting itself, using Cesare Ripa's iconologia, I have ivy growing up. I try and change the symbols to represent what the discussion is. I had a conversation with a young woman who told me that she wanted to be president someday, but had fears that her sex as a woman might hold her back. And so in that painting, I did the figure, not this young woman– this is always an invented figure– against the frescoes in the Palazzo Pubblico, which is "The Allegory of Good and Bad Government" done in 1338. All the qualities of good government were painted. All the virtues of good government were painted by stately female figures. So I painted the figures as a discussion of concerns about being a woman and being held back against these 1338 images of the virtues of good government– all as women. I thought there was a lot of irony in that.



"The Allegory of Good and Bad Government" by Ambrogio Lorenzetti


Marjorie Martay–


That's great. What made you decide to do an animated film with that?


"About Being A Girl" Video by Katherine Gilje


Kathleen Gilje–


Well I had hours and hours and hours of tapes. When you listen to these young women speak, and if you hear what they say, it was so powerful. I had done these 12 paintings and you see them– they're up, they're almost like fresco themselves. They could cover a whole room and each is a story unto itself. But the source, which were the voices of the young women, talking about their thoughts and ideas– they were so beautiful. If I had tried to hire an actor to say these things, they could never have done it. They were so sincere. So I thought, how can I bring these two together? I sat down and I listened. I pulled out of these hundreds of hours of tapes, what I would call gems of really beautiful conversation. I had to make choices, and I put together an audio of about 11 minutes. Then I used the imagery of my paintings, and put them to voices of the young women. I hired two professional animators– I knew nothing about animation, but I knew what I'd like to do– to just slightly move the figures so that when you heard these voices of these young women talking, the figure made a gesture, a slight gesture. Tilted the head, made a movement, or the background made some movement. So there was bringing together–the paintings, the movement (which is a little bit shocking at first), and these quotes from the discussions with these young women. I started off with beauty and end with, I want to change the world and I'm going to. It's a voyage. It's a voyage through their truth, through these discussions I have with these young women.


"About Being A Girl" Series by Katherine Gilje


Marjorie Martay–


Well, I think it was extremely well done. Very, very powerful. You even were awarded a Pollock Krasner Grant to complete the project?


Kathleen Gilje–


Yeah, I did. I got a grant. I'm very, very grateful I got the grant because it cost more than I thought– but I think that's like everything in life. I went full force and I worked with two young wonderful women who were committed to the project and my assistant, Gigi, who's been my assistant for like 19 years. It was real teamwork. I was very fortunate to have these wonderful women to work with me.


Marjorie Martay–


Well, I only hope that these panels, these 12 panels and this video will be seen at a number of major museums. What I want to end with Kathleen is how you sort of re-interpret, you reinvent, you revise symbols from the past to really confront issues of race, class, gender diversity, social issues– now especially in this health crisis. I want to leave with the woman you spoke to that was so optimistic and I only can hope that we will all take that word to heart and continue to be safe and be optimistic for our future.



"About Being A Girl" Series by Katherine Gilje


Kathleen Gilje–


I think it is in the hands of youth and that there's always a sense of coming back with good strength. I hope what we're going through now, that we have change. Not only optimism, but we see a change.

I hope that we take very seriously–whether it's a virus or whether it's an environmental problem or tragedy that there are no such thing as borders. There is no such thing as nationality. It's the world. I hope that this will make a more positive future– that all this sadness will make a more positive future.

Marjorie Martay–


I could not agree with you more and I want to thank you for being part of this.


Kathleen Gilje–


Thank you, Marjorie so much. It's my pleasure.


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Please see the rest of Kathleen Gilje's work on her website: https://kathleengilje.com/home.html


"About Being A Girl" Series by Katherine Gilje


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