Tiny Atlas Quarterly

An interview with artist
Klea McKenna

Field-Work: fine art in the field
Curator Aimee Friberg talks with Klea McKenna

Kona, Hawai’i

In October I visited the San Francisco-based artist Klea McKenna in South Kona to document her process and learn more about the context of her work as it relates to that landscape. It was gratifying to experience South Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii, in such an intimate and local way. Tiny Atlas founder Emily and I joined Klea as she made large-scale photograms in a tucked-away slice of the jungle on her family’s property. Klea uses experimental methods of analog photography, such as hand-made cameras, outdoor photograms and folded photographic paper, that allow her to record an imprint of a particular place without use of a traditional camera or lens. This direct correlation between landscape and the exposure of light results in work that is compelling, unexpected and based in phenomenal experience. Below is a conversation from my time with her there.

Klea, you grew up here on the Big Island in South Kona and also in Sonoma County, California, correct? What years were you in Kona and which were you in Sonoma?
Yes. My family moved back and forth, but long periods of my early childhood were spent on the Big Island, up until age seven. After that we were mostly in California, in West Sonoma County, but we continued to spend time on the Big Island. As I got older my dad lived in Hawaii and my mom in California. But throughout all these changes my family has always hung onto this piece of land. This simple off-the-grid house my parents built in the late 1970’s is the same place we always come back to.

As we talk about place, specifically this incredibly lush property we’re on that your parents cultivated, I’m noticing parallels between the brightly colored flowers, birds and the general intensity of chroma around us to the saturated colors in some of your work.
The period I remember most in this place, which was very formative, was age 5-6-7. At that age you are just becoming aware, and as a visual person I think whatever you are seeing around you becomes imprinted into your mind’s eye. For me this was the drama and intensity of this extreme landscape, the huge dripping plants in the forest and the black lava fields and the glow of the volcanic crater. We were living here in 1983 when Kilauea began erupting again (and it’s continued ever since) so we lived with a keen awareness of the nearby volcanic activity.  I think my first conscious experiences of landscape were not at all about pastoral beauty (as it’s so often depicted), but rather about the drama and volatility of landscape. So much of my work springs from that perception.

You and I have also discussed growing up in the 80’s, how the colors of our time continue to influence our taste - can you speak to this?
Oh absolutely, the cultural backdrop for all this was a fairly wild bohemian subculture of the early 1980’s.  Just as I mentioned about the landscape, I think the aesthetics of that time, the saturated colors, patterned fabrics and even my mom’s wardrobe seeped into my subconscious.  I’m not saying that everything in art-making comes down to personal history, but the older I get the more I feel it’s all inextricable.  It’s like a sort of synesthesia. For me those colors and forms are linked to certain emotional moments, so I could be reworking them endlessly as a way to untangle it all.

Your parents were ethno-botanists and were involved in early research with psychoactive plants - could you speak to this?
I can speak to its impact on my work. It gave me a very particular worldview; specifically that nature is animated, almost personified. It’s a fundamental perception in some cultures, but obviously not in ours. This can have all sorts of implications in how we relate to our environment, but I’ve found it also affects the way a viewer perceives landscape and even its depiction in art. I sometimes have to remind myself that not everyone around me shares this view and in a sense, in my work, I’m translating.

When did you begin to notice the importance of place on your artwork or practice? Have you always incorporated the landscape into the work you make?
I’ve always worked with landscape in one way or another and I often work in response to a particular location, piece of land or building that either I have a personal relationship to or that has an interesting collective history. About six years ago, as I veered away from representational photography, I found that the specificity of location became important to me. It served as a generative prompt for me as well as a way to anchor images that in some cases were almost entirely abstract. After making work in California for several years it suddenly occurred to me that I had another intimate landscape that I had set aside.  I had hardly been back to Hawaii in the decade since my dad’s death. So about two years ago I gathered up all the photo paper, film, and light-sensitive materials I could possibly negotiate through airport security and headed out there with an artist friend to make work for a few weeks. That’s led to several subsequent trips and the work I’m currently making.

Your work is primarily in the photographic medium without use of a camera or lens. You make photograms both in the studio and outside, exposing the photographic paper directly with light and material. Metaphorically, the lens we look through in life shapes our view of the world we live in. I’m curious what it means to you to make photographs without a lens. Is this something you’re considering in your work? 
I suppose the lens is a mediator and in a photogram you’ve removed that middleman. It’s a direct light-to-paper process and the light source can be anything from moonlight to a flashlight. What I love about photograms is that the process demands a direct physical interaction between the medium and the subject, in most cases they’ve actually touched and the subject has left a mark. The resulting image is less a picture of something and more a recorded imprint.  All actions leave marks; scars, fingerprints, tracks in the road, etc. and in this way photograms can be very performative.

Have you always worked within the medium of photography? Do other mediums interest you?
Yes, I have been very loyal to photography even while pushing the envelope on what constitutes a photograph. I’m certainly interested in other forms, in working with fabric, in making images that are more sculptural, but I wouldn’t say other mediums.  You see, I’m in love with light-sensitivity. So even as I imagine future projects that range more widely in form, they still are rooted in the possibilities and limitations of light sensitive material.

Tell us about what you’re working on now.
Right now I’m working simultaneously on several threads of work that each began in Hawaii. Some can still only be made here on the land (such as the nighttime photograms of huge tropical leaves), while others have expanded geographically.  Now that winter is coming in California I’ll be working on an ongoing series called Rain Studies (weather permitting).  While the process I use is challenging and wildly unpredictable, the pieces are quite simply photograms of rain made outdoors at night on black and white photographic paper. This way of working has a high failure rate, but it’s the risk and the thrill and the curiosity about what each storm will look and feel like that keeps me at it. There’s an aspect of all this work that is about translating experience; the feeling of standing in the pouring rain in total darkness.

What is your current relationship to Kona? How has your sense of this place shifted over the years, or has it?
In the last two years my relationship to the Big Island has transformed because it’s become a source of inspiration and a place I go to make art rather than just a part of my past. And I’ve brought my husband here twice now and really enjoyed revealing it to him. When I was a little kid this place was really raw and wild and now there is a lot more development and tourism around Kailua-Kona. But honestly, South Kona hasn’t changed all that much, the lush foliage still swallows everything up and there’s still a sense of lawlessness here.

What are some of your favorite spots to visit on the Big Island?
Oh, man. Volcanoes National Park is an obvious one, it’s so incredible to gaze into the caldera or hike the Kilauea Iki Trail across a cooling lava lake.  There are few places on earth where you can experience an active volcano in this way.

There is a great swimming spot the locals call the Blue Lagoons at the north end of Kiholo Bay, where you can swim with turtles right off the lava. But, good luck finding it! I seem to wander a different way each time I go there.

My absolute favorite Hawaiian food is pork Lau Lau from Kaaloa’s Super J’s just south of Captain Cook.  I crave it. And the aunties who run this place are wonderful.

Have there been any new discoveries on this trip?
Creatively, yes. I’ve found that I’m interested in making work that is incredibly detailed, restrained and has a kind of crystalline clarity and then also in making work that is the absolute opposite, totally loose and colorful and “over-the-top”, but I’m not interested in anything in-between. I want to inhabit those extremes right now.  On this trip I went to the observatories at the top of Mauna Kea for the first time and saw a whole new extreme, almost lunar, landscape that exists on this island.

Anything else you’d like to share or comment on?
Thank you Aimee and Emily for making the trip out here and letting me be your guide for a few days!

Thank you, Klea!

Klea McKenna’s work is featured in the group show Unseen on view currently at CULT / Aimee Friberg Exhibitions

See more of Klea’s work at KleaMcKenna.com