Artist talks life and work, from portraits to magazines
ASHFIELD, Mass. (AP) — The New Yorker recently described her as an artist who “grew up in Hong Kong and now lives in the Berkshires.”
Actually, Gayle Kabaker lives in Ashfield, which everyone in these parts knows is not really in the Berkshires; you can almost see and feel the collective eye roll for that Manhattan-centric misreading of western Massachusetts’ topography. It’s like a real-life version of the famous 1976 New Yorker cover “View of the World from 9th Avenue,” which satirized the self-absorption of New Yorkers, with a “map” showing Manhattan streets at the center and thin, bland strips of territory elsewhere marked “Nebraska,” ″Los Angeles,” ″Pacific Ocean,” ″Russia” and a handful of other places.
But Kabaker, a longtime freelance illustrator and artist, is willing to cut the famous magazine some slack. After all, the occasion for her notice, in the March 11th New Yorker, was a short interview that accompanied her colorful cover for the issue: a woman cross-country skiing in a snowy field, three dogs dancing ahead of her and hilly forest in the background.
“I might’ve said I was from the Berkshires,” she said with a rueful smile during a recent interview at her home. “I don’t know — it doesn’t really matter.”
But regardless of where the New Yorker editors think the Berkshires are located, Kabaker is pretty well established with the magazine. She’s now published five New Yorker covers (four since 2017), including her iconic first one: two loosely drawn female figures wearing summery wedding dresses, standing close together and jointly holding a bouquet of flowers. That June 25, 2012 image debuted just as New York state marked its first anniversary of having legalized gay marriage.
There may be more covers to come for Kabaker; she’s submitted a number of pieces for consideration for an upcoming summer issue of the magazine, and she’s been sending pieces to the editors off and on for several years.
But her work ranges far beyond that. Kabaker, who recently celebrated her 60th birthday, has been a freelance artist for over 35 years, creating a range of material — illustrations, drawings, animation, graphic designs — for varied clients and publications in the U.S. and abroad. Using acrylic gouache, she creates mostly small, impressionistic portraits of people, travel scenes, and quiet settings that can alternately radiate a sense of peacefulness, humor or energy: a woman with a dog by a poolside; a young woman meditating, a beatific smile on her face; the jazz-pop group Lake Street Dive performing at the Green River Festival.
“To me, the messier I can be, the better,” she said as she began working on a new painting, mixing water with her dabs of paint and filling in the background of a sketch based on a photograph. “I don’t want it to be too precise — I want it to have a very rough, funky feel.”
Yet those illustrations can also take many hours of work, including on occasion some digital editing. And her work can be more detailed, such as some illustrations she did during a “working vacation” in Bali in February. She’s done many illustrations over the years for travel companies and always takes her sketch book with her on trips. That work can in turn lead to other assignments; she says an art director who saw her Bail pictures “asked me if I’d be interested in doing a line of tropical (themed) stationary.”
Kabaker, who was indeed born in Hong Kong — her father worked for Voice of America, the U.S.-backed media agency that serves as the federal government’s source of international broadcasting — also grew up partly in Japan before her family moved to the United States when she was in the eighth grade. She later graduated from the Academy of Art in San Francisco and for several years did fashion illustration.
But though she’s still interested in that — “I like beautiful clothes,” she says — Kabaker has long since immersed herself in the arts, as has her family. Her husband, Peter Kitchell, is a photographer, architect and printer (and at one time a painter), and their daughter, Sonya Kitchell, is a singer-songwriter who first performed publicly as a grade-school student. Their son, Max Kitchell, studied industrial design at the Parsons School for Design in New York and currently works as a consultant in the food industry.
Music is a particular inspiration for her art: Kabaker is a regular at Greenfield’s Green River Festival, sketching the crowds and the performers, and she says she’s also done some concert productions with Jim Olsen, the Green River producer and the president of Signature Sounds Recording in Northampton.
“I’m good at networking,” she says with a laugh. “And I love painting music performances, theater, dance, just the arts in general.”
And living in Ashfield — she and Peter moved there in 1987, to property that’s at the end of a dirt road, with deep woods on three sides — has also fueled her artistic juices. “I just think it gives me the peace of mind to be creative. Being in a really nice setting — and it’s beautiful here — kind of lets you get to a place where you can harness that energy.”
Not that being in a quiet, rural setting is all that detached in the era of digital communication. As Kabaker chatted at home during a recent interview, her cell phone chimed repeatedly as texts arrived.
“Well,” she said, “I am always looking for that next job.”
Using art to make a difference
Given the breadth and volume of her art, it’s funny to hear one detail about Kabaker’s past. She says she took up drawing as a young girl and sensed she had some talent at it, then benefited from a good junior high school art teacher, with whom she’s still in touch. But high school wasn’t as fruitful when it came to mentors, and she says she got a D in art as a senior “because I turned in everything late.”
Still, she made her way into art school in San Francisco and got especially interested in using acrylic gouache for her paintings because a friend of hers used it “and I loved his paintings and wanted mine to look like his.”
Over the years, she developed an especially good artistic bond with Sonya, who’s now 30 but who as a young girl and a teen served as the subject for many of her illustrations, including some Kabaker did simply for herself or the family, such as one of Sonya in a swimming pool; in it, she looks up at the viewer though sunglasses, her hair flowing behind her in the water.
Kabaker also spent time on the road with her daughter and her teenage band, serving as her first manager and also offering help and advice when Sonya received national recognition, including multiple TV interviews and televised performances, at age 17 with the release of her album “Words Came Back to Me.”
“Sonya and I have always had a good artistic connection,” says Kabaker. The two have worked on some projects together, such as a series of animated illustrations Kabaker designed for one client that included a short musical soundtrack composed by Sonya, who today lives in New York City, where she performs and also teaches music and produces music for other artists.
Kabaker got interested in submitting cover designs to The New Yorker about eight years ago, after Françoise Mouly, the magazine’s art editor, published a book called “Blown Covers” that presented many cover designs the magazine had considered but didn’t use. Mouly also started a blog, with the same title, on which she opened a contest for people to submit cover art proposals for specific themes, from which weekly winners and runner-ups would be picked (somewhat like the magazine’s “fill in the caption” blank cartoon contest) and posted online.
Kabaker’s design celebrating gay marriage became the first “blown cover” to make it from the blog to The New Yorker, though Kabaker says she was pretty much on tenterhooks through the process. She found out through a friend that her design had been one of the “Top Ten” for that week on the blog site, and Mouly later emailed her to say her design was being considered for the gay marriage issue, in late June 2012.
“But then five or six weeks went by and I didn’t hear anything, and I started getting depressed,” she says. Then, suddenly, she got a phone call from Nadja Spiegelman, Mouly’s daughter — she also works on the blog site — who asked her how it felt to have her cover design chosen for The New Yorker’s next issue.
“I told her, ‘You’re the first to hear it, because this is the first I’ve heard of it,’ ” Kabaker says, laughing.
It was definitely an exciting moment, she adds, as were her follow-up cover selections, in January and September of 2017, May 2018, and now March of this year. And those selections have also prompted her to consider doing larger illustrations and paintings, and maybe experimenting with other materials like oil paint, to do “more fine art — the kind of thing you hang on a wall. I think that’s the direction I’d like to go.”
Another longtime interest is writing, and in the last year or so, she’s sold some short, first-person illustrated stories, including to Medium.com, an online forum for a wide variety of writing.
What’s equally important to her, though, is doing work that’s connected to issues such as equality, the environment (she’s a vegan) and civic involvement. For instance, for a January 2018 story, the Washington Post commissioned her and other female artists for images representing their thoughts on the one-year anniversary of the 2017 Women’s March. Kabaker’s illustration was a takeoff on “Wonder Woman,” showing a caped young woman in sunglasses, wearing a black T-shirt that says “Voting Is My Super Power.”
She’s since worked with a Greenfield screen printer to produce a line of T-shirts with that logo — Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and singer Michael Franti have modeled them — and a portion of sales go to organizations such as Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, Kabaker says.
And earlier this week, Kabaker headed to Washington, D.C. to attend the 18th Global Leadership Awards, an annual event that honors women leaders worldwide who are involved in issues such as human rights and political reform. Kabaker was commissioned by the event’s sponsoring organization, Vital Voices, to create portraits of this year’s honorees after the Vital Voices’ CEO saw her “Voting Is My Super Power” illustration in the Washington Post.
(Kabaker notes that a Haydenville filmmaker and composer, Michael Marantz, designed animated versions of each of the portraits that were to be shown at the awards ceremony, scheduled for April 24 at the Kennedy Center for the Arts.)
In a follow-up email she sent before she left for Washington, Kabaker said using her art for causes that are important to her “is my way of giving back, and attempting to make a little bit of a difference. Vitalvoices.org asked me for one line for the show I am in . tell us in one sentence how you’re using your ‘Culture (art) to shift culture?’ ”
Kabaker’s answer? “If someone learns about an important cause, organization, person or activity from seeing my art, or if it just made them happy for a few minutes, then I’ve done a small good thing.”
Information from: Daily Hampshire Gazette (Northampton, Mass.), http://www.gazettenet.com