Vermont Arts Council

Objects of Care: An Interview with Artist Kate Donnelly

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrust the work of the caregiver into the spotlight like never before. Nurses, doctors, hospice workers, and death doulas have become the most essential workers in the world, and the toll of their work among the gravest. This contradiction at the heart of care—that the wellbeing of others demands sacrifice—is no surprise to Burlington artist Kate Donnelly, who has put care under a microscope since long before the pandemic.

What kinds of labor do we consider “care” and why? What does the work of caregiving actually consist of, and what are its social and individual costs? How are women’s bodies in particular subject to the contradictions of care? Weaving film, choreography, sculpture, and research, Donnelly has been exploring these questions and more with a frank and unsentimental eye, and this work has earned her an FY2021 Creation Grant. Later this year, Donnelly plans to debut her latest project at the intersection of feminism and care in three forms: a collection of “Objects of Care,” a live, choreographed performance, and several short videos.

Donnelly is a master of time-based media. Through layers and loops of video, audio, and performance, she manipulates and challenges our perceptions of the world. Take her video Given Your Position, released in the fall of 2019, which engages with many of the themes she is exploring in her current project. The video’s montages include clips of repetitive, almost ritualistic movements overlaid with voices—Donnelly stacking and arranging chairs while explaining how to sit without sitting and how to breathe without breathing; two dancers with white baskets on their heads, marching and whirling until ping-pong balls spill from the baskets, while an ill woman speaks to her caretakers. The woman is Donnelly’s mother, and the caretakers are Donnelly and a family friend. The scenes mesmerize, confound, and illuminate.

Poised in a grazing position on a concrete floor are what appear to be the upper halves of two people wearing white hoodies, except the arms are legs, and the hair falling to the floor appears to be the strands of a mop head.
Still from video, work in progress. Image courtesy of Kate Donnelly.

Donnelly’s style should be familiar to acolytes of the Burlington art scene, where she has been working and teaching for over 20 years. She has been an artist in residency at the Flynn Center and at Burlington City Arts, who in 2013 presented Donnelly with the Barbara Smail Award. She is also the co-founder of Snake House, a nonprofit collaborative she leads alongside fellow Vermont artists Sumru Tekin and Thatiana Oliveira, whom she met during her time as a grad student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Snake House supports underrepresented artists through exhibitions, conversations, and events like Single Channel VT, a quarterly series launched in 2019 that explores time-based media.

The subjects Donnelly is exploring in her current project could not be more timely for society, or more personal for the artist. She spent the summer of 2020 providing hospice care for her mother in the Northeast Kingdom, and she is now part of the caregiving team for her father in hospice. Her new project is due to launch in fall 2021.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Desmond Peeples: Your work is often informed by research. The video vignettes in your current project are inspired by texts on “feminism and age, care collectives, and distance/proximity care practices.” What are some significant ideas from these texts that have influenced the work?

Kate Donnelly: I have yet to distill the ideas, but some things I am exploring with these texts include ideas of the family that move beyond possession (of children), bloodlines, hierarchy, patriarchy, and the nuclear family.

I am exploring how language works to fix women’s reproductive capacities as essential and sacred–and how this language serves to diminish or make invisible a host of lived experiences. I am interested in how something similar happens within the language of care. I am exploring the types of labor women’s bodies are expected to do, labor that is real, hard, painful, violent, unseen, underpaid or unpaid. I am exploring the labor of care and it’s conflation with the labor of love. I am reading about the costs, losses and benefits of this labor on those who perform it (mostly women) and on those who do not (mostly men) in Western Society. I am exploring the desire and need to care and be cared for, perhaps more acutely felt than ever in this period of isolation and separation, and the language of self-care in a capitalist system.

Important within these texts are issues of race, gender, age, illness and disability in relation to how we value, perform and receive care in the USA. Authors include Sara Ahmed, Claudia Rankine, Sophie Lewis, Sylvia Federici, Audre Lorde, and Maggie Nelson.

You also say this project is inspired by the writers Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler. Can you explain that connection? Which specific books have inspired this project?

Butler and LeGuin’s storytelling transports me into an unsettled and generative space. Is this now? Is it worse? The genre (science/speculative fiction) in their hands sharpens my focus on the gross imbalance of the here and now and reminds me of the importance of imagination and play in the effort to do things differently. Their writing is riveting and at the same time offers multiple points of departure which is something I aspire to do with my visual work. 

One specific book that inspires my current work is Ursula K. Le Guin’s Changing Planes. It is a clever conceit, the idea of traveling to other planes or dimensions, to other worlds, while sitting in an airport waiting for connecting flights. In one chapter, the narrator travels to a world, a social democracy, where the elderly are able to cast many votes during elections. This is because they have several selves–what we might think of as past lives I suppose. I love the idea of past selves remaining present, having agency, not relegated to a memory. How we care for and listen to the elderly is something I am addressing with this project (among other things).

Octavia Butler’s short story “Bloodchild” got me thinking about ideas of pain, especially the built-in pain inherent in having reproductive capacities. Butler’s prescient Parable of the Sower contributes to my thinking around family–the breaking of family, the family under stress, the building of family, inheritance, roots, possession, and the transference of affection, desire, and care.

Kate Donnelly stands in one of her Objects of Care, a conical white costume that covers the body from neck to knees, with white leggings worn underneath, and over the head a white stool-like object with many of a sort of tool or utensil affixed around the edge of the seat in a ring.
Object of Care: Uniform, 2021, wool felt, cotton, piano mechanisms, 40″ diameter x 75″ height. Photo courtesy of Kate Donnelly.

You’re a very collaborative artist, but you’ve spent much of the past year working in isolation—not only due to the pandemic, but as you cared for your mother in the Northeast Kingdom. How has isolation affected your creative process?

This is a tough question, because I am still very much trying to understand the layers of meaning for me and my work within the constraints of isolation, illness, care, and time to produce art. Add in the death of my mother during the pandemic and one reckons with the idea of no escape.

So many disturbances and contradictions exist(ed): I lived with my mother and sister in a place so remote and still, and yet it was the absolute center of the world, where everything that mattered was happening in full radiance and fury. During the months I cared for my mother (she died in late June), I slept but didn’t dream (unusual for me). I wrote but didn’t read. I recorded video and sound but didn’t review or edit. I made objects of care—soft, pillow-like sculptures of wool felt for specific body parts—and fitted them to my mother who laughed at their absurdity (but not uselessness).

Since my mother’s death I have come home to Burlington, out of one isolation into another (as the pandemic rages on). I have connected again to my larger community, which is wonderful. I dream again, read again, and am every day actively engaged in my current project. 

So, perhaps the short answer might be: The experience of being in isolation with my mother and sister enriched my process in still many unrealized ways. There are many ways of knowing, and this experience showed me the door to yet another one.

How have audiences responded to Snake House’s Single Channel VT series, and how has the pandemic changed your plans for the series?

Single Channel is a Snake House project. We were thrilled with the thoughtful exchange of ideas and perspectives shared at our first (in-person) event in the fall of 2019. We had scheduled our next two guest artists for March and July, 2020. The pandemic forced a pause on public happenings, and we re-imagined Single Channel as a virtual event.

In November we hosted a collaborative viewing and discussion online with Kristen Mills, and in February 2021 we (virtually) hosted NYC-based Lisa Crafts. In March we will host Montreal-based artist Sawsan Mahdi. Certainly in-person gatherings are missed and valued, but in the meantime through technology we have been able to connect disparate communities in a forum that can amplify and inspire ideas.

What age groups do you currently teach? And what is something your students have taught you in the past year?

I have taught all ages and currently work with small groups of children ages 6-13 (through my own program) and graduate students (through Vermont College of Fine Arts). I teach in my studio and the field—in person and virtually. 

When the pandemic hit, my classes with children were cancelled through September. In reuniting,  I was reminded of how being with them continually renews my sense of hope. Their attitudes and ideas about race, gender and disability remind me that we have in fact made progress.