Alex Porco in Conversation with Katherine Sehr: I’m Drawing a Language

[22 May 2014 – 3 June]

Alex Porco (AP): I’d like to start by asking you to discuss the physical experience of making your artwork. Each drawing is the accumulation of small lines and swirls on large pieces of paper. It takes time to work on such an intimate scale; and, therefore, I imagine, it is a physically and psychologically exhausting process— an extreme expenditure of energy over a long period, depending on the size of the paper. 

Katherine Sehr (KS): It takes everything in me to produce the large-scale drawings. To address the physical nature of the process, I work on the floor. My knees are on a decorative throw pillow, which has flattened over the years. But I still use it. There is a constant up and down that happens. I am forever falling to my knees in a fit of productive energy and then bouncing up off of them in order to rest. It is very hard, therefore, to calculate just how much time goes into making them. There are so many starts and stops.

AP: You work with some really large-scale paper (as well as smaller sizes). But, in each case, what’s fascinating is the rhythmic movement between the large scale of the paper and the minute form of your marked lines, circles, squares, squiggles, and glyphs. Your description of a “constant up and down” suggests a rhythm in the very making of the drawings, too. Can you say a little bit about paper size, and how it changes your artistic experience of making the art— or, even, how the paper size occupies a large space in your work environment? (I know you’ve described, elsewhere, the “manic” energy necessary for the bigger works.)

KS: The bigger the paper is the more likely I am on the floor working on it. I have worked on the couch as well with some medium/small-sized drawings. I work in a live/work space as part of a federally funded program called Artspace. It provides me with a wonderful loft in the heart of Buffalo, NY.


I work throughout the day and into part of the evening. I just quit my day job to work on my drawings full time so I am still getting used to a set schedule. Anyway, when I work big or small I come in from every direction. There is no top or bottom to my compositions until it goes to framers and I am forced to come up with a top and bottom.  Its like they are so big and I am so in them that I have no direction. Below (Figure 2) is an example of the biggest piece I have ever done. It measures 50” x 120”.

Figure2(Figure 2)

I do tend to work on a smaller scale than the work I did back in 2007 and 2008. At that time I was completely manic and suffered from Bipolar Disorder. Since then I have been medicated and find it very difficult to produce large-scale drawings at such a pace. I can produce them. But since I am not crazy anymore it takes a little bit longer.

AP: First, from a technical perspective, can you describe the kinds of colored markers and paper you use? Second, I am fascinated by the multi-directionality of the drawings— the lines really do spiral every which way. In a video showing you at work, you demonstrate how larger lines move outward and, then, you return, intuitively, filling in blanks as necessary with smaller doodles. There seems to be a push-and-pull rhythm at work, which is especially interesting because one analogy you’ve suggested for your work is dance. What’s the relationship of the drawings to dance?

KS:  I like to use Micron Pens, Sakura’s Gelly Roll Pens and Faber-Castell PITT Artists Pens (in brown). I only use white Stonehenge paper, which comes on a roll measuring 20 yards wide by 50” high. Sometimes I buy it by the sheet in which case each sheet measure 30” x 44”. I have done work on earth tone papers such as beige and off white.

The relationship to dance is the rhythmic movement, directional movement and also the improvisational aspect to the drawing process. There is a freedom in both. But there are also rules at the same time. I have been dancing ballet since I was nine years old and in ballet, there are rules but there is also freedom. Like ballet, where your feet must always be pointed, your legs and feet turned out, etc., in my little world of drawing no line can be over a certain length, all the spaces have to be just so and the pen tip has to be a certain width. Like dance, the line skips over and swoops under other lines, flies up and curves down, rotates, revolves and loops.


AP: What determines your color choice and, more importantly, the movement between colors? I am especially inclined to think about your drawings in terms of Josef Albers’s color theory— that is, colors in relation (spatially) but also in duration (temporally), and that’s integral to the intensity of the work.

KS: My color choice is really dependent upon the manufacturer of the pen. I usually tend to use jewel tones or earth tones. Neon ink is not archival and therefore I use that sparingly. But I still use it. The movement between colors was an accident (at least in the example below). I was intending on doing a black and orange drawing. That is a block of black and a block of orange but I picked up a brown pen by accident while working in the Black (Figure 4). The result is seen here:

Figure4(Figure 4)

That set the tone, so to speak, for the rest of a series that would be shown in my 2014 solo show called The Linear Truth. This was not the first time I did this blending of two colors. It showed up in the work in 2008 as well.

The thing I have to remember about my process and the color is that everything is diluted by the white background so many of my pieces read as pastel even though it’s a dark maroon that I happen to be using. Black reads as gray, red as pink.

AP: I’d like to stay on the topic of color for a moment. To borrow a metaphor from music, there’s a visual syncopation happening in your work: the macro rhythm of the colors on the paper as a whole (e.g., movement between two or three colors, going down the page, as in 2013’s “Blue to Green” and “Purple to Red,” or across the page in strict columns of varying length, as in your work from 2009-2010) is happening against the micro-level of the small-scale lines. The relationship between the two is most dramatized and blurred, of course, precisely at moments when they meet— notably, the border between colors or as one color fades into another. Can you talk about those borders? Sometimes the border between colors is strict and linear, like a grid. Other times, the colors fade into each other. In addition, often, the colors are asymmetrical, with one color occupying more space on the page than another. This is an essential element, I think, of the rhythm of the drawings.

KS: There are two types of color compositions that I choose to use. I use the columns of color or blocks of color (Figure 5) and the fades, which I began in 2008-2009 (Figure 6). I guess I can refer to Barnett Newman here. I was producing drawings on a large enough scale that I wanted to suggest infinite space beyond the borders. I wanted something to happen within these color fields. I wanted the bars and stripes to work like that of music. The faded pieces were probably an homage to Rothko at first and then something I just kept doing. I find them much harder to do than just hard edge borders. You have to keep a balance between the amounts of color to put into one area and then you have to carefully weave the other color into that area. You can’t favor any color over the other. It’s a delicate dance.

Figure5(Figure 5)

Figure6 (Figure 6)

Figure7(Figure 7)

AP: I’d like to step back for a second and discuss the process that led to you arriving at your signature drawings. I know you studied art at the University of Buffalo (UB) and then completed an MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). Can you identify some of the steps— even if staggered or accidental, at the time— that led to these mature works?

KS: The drawing actually started while I was attending UB in 1999. I first started in my sketchbook and then on register tape. I liked the register tape because it referenced Chinese scrolls (Figure 8). At the same time I was painting the backs of trucks from photographs.  I was fascinated with their grid formation, rusty landscapes and this idea that they were both mobile and a container (Figure 9). There were many other philosophical reasons I was painting the backs of trucks but I’d rather not get into it here.  Anyway I then started to paint the “doodle” onto the photo realistic trucks. One day in graduate school, early on in my program, my adviser asked, “Well, what is it going to be trucks or doodles?” I decided to go with the doodles because I enjoyed them more and I really didn’t LOVE trucks that much.

Figure8(Figure 8)

Figure9(Figure 9)

Here is a painting that I did using acrylic, oil and house paint (Figure 10). I think this was the true beginning of my mature work. There is a push and pull quality to this. The first signs of an illusion. It also deals with randomness versus order.

Figure10(Figure 10)

AP: Finally, like many artists, you keep a series of notebooks, free spaces to test out ideas, privately. Your notebooks, however, mix visual elements or visual ideas-in-process with text (e.g., quotations from art theory, your own thoughts, poetry, etc.). Discuss the importance of these notebooks to your creative process. Also, I wonder— given the proximity of the visual and textual on the notebook pages— if that accounts for the way in which your lines and swirls evoke or resemble a language.

KS:  I used to keep sketchbooks. I have two that I will show here. The first one I’d rather not show the writing in but rather the small doodles that I thought were relative to my current work (Figure 11). Below is also a more illustrated doodle with some sort of piece of canvas and some dried leaves (Figure 12). So it was really part of a collage. I also like that an inch or two into the doodle, at the top, it says, ”Should I keep going?” I think that is pretty ironic. Anyway, the doodles are just that. At the time I was figuring out stuff.  Life. Philosophy. Self. I was very much influenced by some travels abroad that I had taken when I was 15, to China. I was also studying Chinese art history. Calligraphy is obviously an influence to me. So was/is Buddhism.

Figure11(Figure 11)

Figure12(Figure 12)

The second sketchbook also incorporated text and image (Figure 13). I think this was more of a sophisticated and successful (even though I utilized rubber stamps and it’s a little crafty) attempt. I was in grad school at SAIC and I was learning about paper, pens, bookmaking, wheat paste, PVC, etc.

Figure13(Figure 13)

I definitely think that my writing in these books influences my drawing. I used to write a lot. Some of it thoughtful, some of it not so much. Now I simply draw. But when I was developing my own visual language I needed to do all that writing. I needed to figure things out. Even if it was to just test out mediums or remember a quote. I took time in my books, and everything had to be thoughtfully printed, well designed and important to me.


Sehr-artist-photoKatherine Sehr is an artist residing in Buffalo, NY. She attended the University of Buffalo, majoring in Painting, graduating in 2000. She then went on to get her Masters in Fine Art from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, graduating in 2005. Sehr has exhibited her work in Buffalo through the Nina Freudenheim Gallery since 2008. She has work in the permanent collections of the Albright Knox Art Gallery and The Burchfield Penney Arts Center, both in Buffalo NY. Nationally, she has shown in Santa Fe, NM at Dwight Hackett Projects, Art Miami as well as smaller venues in Portland, Connecticut, and Minneapolis. Corporate collections include First Niagara, Hodgson Russ, and Damon Morey. In 2008 she was awarded “Most Interesting Artist Under 30” as part of Best of WNY, Buffalo Spree Magazine. And in 2007, she was awarded The Sheila Whalen Memorial Award for Best Drawing, awarded by the Kenan Center in Lockport, NY.

SONY DSCAlex Porco is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He specializes in twentieth-century poetry and poetics. He received his Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Buffalo.