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Being Your Own Hero: Kimberly King, Summer Featured Artist

Multidisciplinary artist Kimberly King explores mythology from different cultures and synthesizes her research by creating drawings, prints, and ceramics grounded in traditional techniques. In a recent interview, we discussed her background, inspiration, and goals for her artistic practice.

Kimberly King in her lower level studio at 52 O Street Studios

As a child, Kimberly King was always creating. When she was six, a neighbor dropped off a box of unused art supplies, and her days were spent painting and drawing, learning from TV and using anything she could get her hands on.

Her creative instincts were further nurtured by her mother with frequent trips to the DuSable museum on the South Side of Chicago. Margaret Borroughs, artist and founder of the DuSable, ensured that the cultural impact of African Americans on the American landscape had a place to be honored through art and education. Borroughs's prints utilize negative space to create value, and through their subjects they honor the legacy of Black people. Both technically and conceptually, this work that she saw as a child continues to be an inspiration to King today.

King moved to Washington D.C. as a teenager to attend Howard University, originally planning to pursue a degree in African American studies. While she had been making art since childhood, at first she hesitated to pursue art in college, reasoning that she knew she would always be an artist, and getting a degree just to confirm that didn’t seem necessary. At Howard, she took as many studio classes as she could and eventually graduated with two degrees: a BA in African American Studies and a BFA in studio art.

While her BA gave her a solid foundation in critical research and writing, her BFA program trained her drawing, painting, printmaking, and ceramics. The two disciplines are interwoven into her current practice, which is rooted in traditional techniques and research into culture and mythology. She is particularly drawn to the way that different cultures represent strong women as goddesses, and how these myths evolve over time.

Three of her recent pieces demonstrate her process. Taking the figure of Artemis, King begins first with a charcoal drawing. Then, she reworks the drawing, adding to the background and refining details. Finally, she translates the drawing into a print. Moving between media allows King to explore the different possibilities of modes of representation, similar to her research process that uncovers different names, origins, and cultural treatments of the same essential goddesses.

Two drawings and a print inspired by the warrior goddess Artemis

In describing her Warrior Goddess drawings, King makes it clear that the figure is like Artemis. King’s work explores how myths are more archetypes than fully formed characters. Artemis, for example, was a Greek warrior goddess who was likely inspired by goddesses from other cultures in Northern Africa. Depicting strong female bodies also ties her work to the present, as King is inspired by contemporary female athletes. She cites Serena Williams as a powerful woman who is often criticized for the way her body looks - “but she’s strong.” King emphasizes.

The study of how myths evolve is also a study of human resilience. As a student at Howard, King first encountered the seminal Flash of the Spirit by Robert Farris Thompson. Thompson illustrates how contemporary American and Black culture is rooted in African culture and mythology that was brought to the West by enslaved people. Central to Thompson’s thesis is the idea that enslaved people found similarities between their own beliefs and the beliefs that were forced upon them, and they wove them together as an act of resistance to maintain their own identities within a framework of repression. “While they were forced to worship the Virgin Mary, for example,” Kimberly explains, “they were really worshiping Oshun or Yemayá.” By drawing attention to the similarities of goddesses in different cultures, King is performing a similar act of defiant translation.

Depicting her goddesses as Black women is an intentional choice, as well. “For a while I was scared to make my subject Black people.” she explains, “People told me I was going to pigeonhole myself. But, I can’t help it. It’s only recently that we see Black people in commercials and on television. Coming from a time where it wasn’t prevalent, there’s still a need to illustrate these kinds of stories”

Studio view with King's printing press and works in progress in the background

As an artist, King is no stranger to fighting to triumph over obstacles. She has been teaching art in DC public schools for almost twenty years. She finds it rewarding, of course; but at the same time, having any full time job while maintaining a studio practice can be draining. “After working all day, how much energy do you really have left to nurture and express yourself? Sometimes I just didn’t get sleep,” she laughs, “People would say oh, you’re so relaxed and calm! No, I’m just tired!”

Raku ceramics with lotus flower motifs

Teaching different subjects over the years has influenced her practice. While at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, King taught exclusively printmaking. During this time, the focus on a single subject allowed her to explore printmaking in depth in her own practice. Currently, she teaches ceramics, which also gives her the clarity and focus to streamline her practice. She finds ceramics especially rewarding to teach because it has an immediate effect on the students: “Clay is the type of thing that pulls you in. If you’re awake, and your eyes are open, and you’re touching it, then you’re engaged.” In her own ceramics, which are often fired in the traditional Raku technique, King turns to nature as an analogy for life. The motif of the lotus flower is used as a metaphor for triumph and survival. “The lotus flower, like any plant, has to grow through the muck.”

Her advice to younger artists? “You need mentors. You need people who can share their methods for a successful career. As an artist there is no set path, but I do think there are steps you take that help to push it along. And,” she adds, “ it takes longer if you have to go to work everyday.”

Nala and the Amaryllis, print by Kimberly King recently awarded in the Peggy Doole National Small Works Competition and Exhibition

Recently, King has had her hands full with different projects. She was one of seventeen artists commissioned to make ceramic vessels for Nekisha Durrett’s public art project Queen City, a monument to the Black community that was forcibly relocated for the construction of the Pentagon. Seventy of King’s vessels are included in the thirty-five foot tall public art installation in Arlington, VA. Also this year, one of King's prints, Nala and the Amaryllis, was included in the Peggy Doole National Small Works Competition and Exhibition.

Moving forward, King is focused on pushing her work towards conceptual unity. While she works in a variety of media and studies a variety of cultures, her research provides a single theme to work with. Artemis, Nike, Oshun, Yemayá, Iris, and Auset all have one thing in common: they represent the powerful femininity that has been a source of inspiration for women throughout history. By translating these figures into modern-looking bodies, King creates the representation she was always looking for. In her words: "it's about being your own hero."

To learn more about Kimberly King and her work, visit her website here.

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