I began making the images shown above over 25 years ago. I had just finished my Master of Fine Arts degree at Bennington College in Vermont where I had learned to make sculpture. Bennington required graduate students to select a second discipline and painting had been my primary one so I chose sculpture as my second. Soon, I fell in love with sculpture more than painting and ended up making a show that was predominantly sculpture for my thesis work. It consisted of huge welded steel pieces that I covered in concrete, wax, pigment, and other materials. Here are some photos:
When I graduated shortly after the show came down, my sculpture teacher and the sculpture technician convinced me that I would probably never show this work again and that it would be very difficult to store, so they destroyed it. It was heart-breaking to me, something I still feel misgivings about, yet it was a significant reason I began the series of tiny paintings I now call “Illuminations.”
I moved to New York City right after graduate school and no longer had the facilities to make large sculpture. I was disillusioned by the prospect of breaking into the art world, disheartened that my graduate education had not led to something more solid as far as a career, devastated by having lost all the work I had spent the past year making, and unenthused by much of the work I was seeing in New York galleries.
These tiny paintings were my reaction. They were an attempt to strip away everything I had learned in school, which I began to feel had suffocated my own voice and had confused my intentions about why I was making art in the first place.
Well, one thing led to another, and these little miniature paintings have become perhaps the most important work I have yet accomplished. They became a cottage industry for me, morphing through several different transformations in format and materials, becoming a variety of different products from plaques to tiles, to prints, to cards, and books.
All along this journey, I have had a strange relationship to this project, feeling at times that it was too mainstream for my more esoteric artistic tastes, or thinking it to be too sweet and inspirational to be considered serious art. Yet, over the years I have probably made and sold more than 30,000 of these images. Numerous people have sent me letters thanking me for making work that struck a chord for them, and many people collected all the images I made, sometimes over the course of years.
I have received numerous commissions for versions of this series, including a hallway lined with a larger version of these images at the adolescent psychiatric ward of Children’s Hospital, Colorado. It was a great honor to make work that might brighten the world of a kid in that place and I was greatly touched and humbled to visit there as the commission unfolded.
Robert Redford bought my little plaques, many others have copied them (the highest form of flattery according to my mother), and making them allowed me to be a stay-at-home single mom to my daughter for many years. At one time I supplied these little plaques to over fifty retail outlets across the country.
All of the images I made for this series were consciously chosen as qualities that I identified as “good” because that was my way of changing what seemed so negative in most art that I saw and the conditions I struggled with in my own life. They became a kind of self portrait wherein I put myself into the situations that I wanted. Now I can see that they did in fact help me to realize my dreams.
One of the greatest of those dreams was to return to Vermont, and now that I live in Vermont again, after 25 years away, I see that these little pictures helped me on my journey to create the life I wanted and considered to be good.
So, my story is one of turning lemons into lemonade, or of finding ones way through a difficult time by focusing on solutions rather than problems, and keeping the vision of those solutions firmly in mind.
I have written a great deal more about this process, which I believe has become muddied in the collective mind by seeing the so-called “positive thinking” movement as an irresponsible way of avoiding misery or problems. In the book I have written about this journey I discuss my experience and explain the line of reasoning that I found helpful in my quest to better myself and my world. My book can be pre-ordered here: Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds: Illuminations of the Good Life
Because of the recent pandemic, I am planning to share my work on this blog with anyone who might enjoy it. I am going to post one image a day for the first week or so, with accompanying text, then possibly stretch that out to one image a week, depending on the response.
Please respect my work by not printing it in any form and if you share it digitally please make sure you credit me. This is a gratuitous offering, but any support is greatly appreciated. You can purchase prints, notebooks, plaques, and my other handmade wares here: Kate McPhee Studio You may also donate to this project via PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org All your patronage is greatly appreciated.
Here is a preview of the first nine images so you can see what’s coming. Each day I will post text to accompany the image meant to inspire your own thoughts about the quality being presented. These are meant to remind– or illumine– qualities that are available to our human experience. These blessings already are, they simply await our recognition. Tomorrow I will post some suggestions for how to keep the thought of these positive qualities in your mind as we all come together to heal our world and ourselves.