Kathy Ager: “Most of My Paintings Are Like a Peek Into My Dark Basement”

We spoke with the Amsterdam-based artist about expressing darkness through still lifes a few days before she exhibits with us.

A dead animal wearing adidas socks, surrounded by french fries. A parfait of squirm-inducing white mice and doves with gummy worms peeking out—daintily finished with a cherry on top. A dangling ram’s head overgrown with luscious flowers that reads ‘everything you hold dear.’ If those combinations of items and symbols sound chaotic in words, they somehow logically fit together in painting. That’s testament to graphic designer-turned-artist Kathy Ager‘s skill as a creative enveloping pop culture and traditional European painting techniques with a hefty dose of morbid darkness. Over the past few years, the Amsterdam-based creative has been pushing herself to tease out her emotions through still life painting and techniques she’s picked up on in Europe ever since leaving her hometown of Vancouver behind. As a result, she’s quickly ascended in skill and reputation: she recently participated in a group show with millennial darling artists like Wasted Rita, and is showing her work this week at the Girls Are Awesome booth at Bright Tradeshow in Berlin.

In lieu of that, we decided to talk to Kathy about transitioning from graphic design to art and “envisioning herself in a community centre on Sunday mornings, surrounded by seniors.” Enjoy.

GIRLS ARE AWESOME: Hi, Kathy. Who are you, what is your background and how long have you been working as an artist?

I’m Kathy Ager – born in Vancouver, based in Amsterdam. I’ve been painting for the last couple of years now. I studied graphic design and illustration in Vancouver and have mainly worked as a designer for the past ten years. And before, that I did a degree in anthropology and geography.

How did you end up in Amsterdam?

My path to Amsterdam was super random. I originally moved to Barcelona: I’d visited a year earlier with my then-boyfriend while he was shooting with the Canadian skate team and fell in love with the mystery of the place. But my move in 2009 coincided with the worldwide economic downturn and Spain was hit hard. Unable to find a design job, my mom came to visit me in Spain and I joined her for her layover in Amsterdam before she flew back to Vancouver. The Netherlands was never on my radar so it was such a pleasant surprise. I’d been on the verge of moving back to Vancouver with my tail between my legs; instead, I moved to Amsterdam a month later. Life seemed somewhat easier here! Also, I have British citizenship through my mom, so that helps.

How did you get into art, and what have been the most defining moments for you until now?

There came a point where I just didn’t feel like I was doing what I was supposed to do. I’d been a graphic designer for years and I still like it, but it just wasn’t enough. There was way more I wanted to say. I discovered painting back in design school and was especially encouraged by my teacher Kiff Holland. But I’d always been one to “do the right thing” and I followed the more solid path of graphic design. Finally, I found myself sick at home for the good part of a year – partially stress-induced I’m sure! That’s when I got back into painting.

It started with just painting photos I liked. Safe things that I could practice with. But one time, I painted a still life and it struck me how much of a story could be told with objects and light. The first couple of still lifes I crafted myself were so personal and revealing, I was too embarrassed to show them to anyone at first (Lonely Hearts Club and Can’t Get High Enough). I’m a pretty happy person on the outside (it’s no secret that I love a good laugh), and these paintings were exposing something no one knew I had in me. But the process of crafting these messages and selecting the right combination of objects and titles gave me such a laugh and a feeling of empowerment that it felt like I was on the right path.

In the fall of 2015, I went to Lisbon for a couple months just to paint. It was the first time I showed up in a new place as an artist, not a graphic designer. That was big. The response and the welcome I received there was a big thing for me. It was the third time I’d dropped myself into a new city where I didn’t know anyone or speak the language. But this place was magical. I met some amazing artists and champions of my work and it’s become a sort of second European home, including a spot at the table with Portuguese grandparents for Sunday lunch. Portugal. It’s a dream.

In the last month things have really picked up in terms of interest in my paintings and the response I’ve received is mind blowing. Sometimes I wish I’d come to the art game earlier, but I’ve always been a late bloomer — I mean, I looked like I was 12 until I was 20, for god’s sake! I don’t think I was ready to say anything at a younger age.

In your latest series of paintings you’ve been mixing the classical with the pop contemporary. What is the most exciting thing for you about this combination and why?

Most of my paintings are like a peek into my dark basement. I feel like I capture this vibe through the use of classical lighting and composition — the darkness, the stillness, and the processing of the past and present. I tend to use the objects that surround me or that I see in my daily life and travels. I like the idea that my paintings have a time stamp — they seem classical, but the content tells you these are modern and specifically of our time. It’s this contrast that I love and find striking. I’ve also played a little with incorporating cartoon elements in some pieces. A lot of my paintings are about feelings of hurt and powerlessness and these characters add a passive aggressive, childish element – in a “just joking (not joking)” kind of way. But mainly I’ll be sticking to straight up “reality”.

Do you look a lot at other artists and their work, and do you draw inspiration from them in terms of creativity? Or is it more about looking for techniques and other practical stuff, like materials?

Yeah, definitely. Being in Holland, Spain and Portugal over the last 8 years, I’ve definitely been influenced by the golden ages of these countries. In a sense, these artists have been my teachers in terms of light, composition and mood. Some of my paintings are direct nods to painters like Juan Sánchez Cotán and Francisco de Zurbarán. In terms of modern artists, a year or two ago I discovered the painter Christian Rex Van Minnen. I have to say, his existence has been such a comfort to me. He pushes things so far in terms of the dark and grotesque that I feel more comfortable with my own darkness and letting others see it through my paintings.

In terms of technique, I’m considering taking some courses to learn more about the technicalities of mixing oil paints and application methods. I’m already envisioning myself in a community centre on Sunday mornings, surrounded by seniors. Living the dream.

You’ve been part of the Witches Brew exhibition in Lisbon. How did this connection come about, and how was this experience for you?

I’d connected with some Portuguese artists since spending so much time in Lisbon over the last couple years. Some of them were already working with galleries like Underdogs but there’s a great environment there for self initiated projects. A friend of mine decided he wanted to put on a group show with female artists and asked me to be a part of it. I was the only non-Portuguese artist in the mix and it was a great experience. Showing work alongside Wasted Rita, Kruella D’enfer and Maria Imaginario, to name a few, was a dream! It was the first time I’d shown any of my latest work and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Did I mention I love Portugal??

What is it that you want to work on and accomplish in the next few years?

I’m really at the beginning of things these days. I want to keep working within this direction I’m going with and see where it leads me. It’s the first time I feel like I’m really being true to myself and finding my inner power, and it’s mind blowing. This year, I’d love to be a part of some group shows and get my name out there for the first time in more cities (I have my eye on Amsterdam and LA at the moment.) The ultimate goal would be to have a solo show. I’d love to bring alive some of the objects that I have in my paintings — whether as sculptures or actual products — and create a world of my own.

Thanks, Kathy.