Artist Cindy Kane: Politics, nature and the written word

A detail of the collaborative work of Cindy Kane and Pam Flam. — Photo courtesy of Cindy Kane

Just about everything in Cindy Kane’s Tisbury family home is personalized with her aesthetic: a huge beautifully preserved wasp’s nest that hangs inside the back door, a wall-mounted feathered doll, artwork by daughters Tova and Nelly Katzman, a candelabra made of rebar rods that is suspended over the round wooden table handcrafted by her master carpenter husband, Doron Katzman. Even the clutter of colored clogs and sandals under the bench in the entryway takes on an artful appearance. Ms. Kane and husband have created a creative oasis, a sanctuary that reflects their artistic sensibilities.

“I think living in a natural environment is not as stressful as an urban environment,” she says. “It gives you time to reflect…I’m not inspired by the Island’s landscape as much as a landscape painter might be; but I’m inspired by the quality of life that’s here.”

Ms. Kane, a tall, reed-thin woman with a calm presence, consistently integrates the political and cerebral with the artistic. Soft-spoken and unassuming, one might easily miss the intensity and conviction that is so perceivably revealed in her work, and like a steady hum that emanates from her.

With quiet ease, she talks about her various artistic themes: “I think you have to have a visual language that you go back to again and again. For me, it’s largely politics and telling stories…Some of my paintings are about boundaries and anxieties. A tsunami lives in my psyche — a whoosh that moves from left to right.”

Her current show in the conference room of the Chilmark Library is a collaborative project with Pam Flam, who by sewing separate fabric pieces together, created a 27-foot long banner of color and pattern, a quilted ground for the multi-media images Ms. Kane painted on the magazine covers of the New York Review of Books – “A kind of tribute to a dying industry,” Ms. Kane offers almost as an aside.

Most all of her projects – usually incorporating the written word – are saturated with meaning: “The Helmet Project” in 2009, 50 military helmets covered with the notes and paper memorabilia of war journalists; “Artists Responding to War: A Conceptual Quilt,” a wall-sized installation in which she enlisted 40 artists who created separate tiles, and contributed all the proceeds to Oxfam for war and famine relief; “Mapping Writers,” collages out of maps and the manuscript notes of writers including Ward Just, Geraldine Brooks, Tony Horwitz, Rose Styron, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, and Jules Feiffer; and “Migration,” a seven-foot square painting using stylized black figures to create patterns like hieroglyphics.

“I’m interested in graphic novels where each section tells its own story as part of a single narrative,” she says.

Her work seems a natural extension of her life experiences: separate sections that lead to a whole. Moving from Washington D.C. to Texas when she was a teen, she attended high school at night, hitchhiked around the country at 19, joined the National Park Service to work in the Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park, moved to Paris, then to Berkeley, Calif., where she worked in an art supply store, and in the 1980s, in New York, worked as a studio artist.

In 1996, married to Mr. Katzman, the family lived a houseboat in New York’s Hudson River 79th Street boat basin. By then, the self-taught artist was long established with art galleries from San Francisco to Manhattan. In 1996, the family moved to the Vineyard — a decision of impulse and intuition.

“That’s what an artist does,” she says, referring to her creative processes, “act on impulse.”

And here, in the roof-top studio of the garage she transforms maps, birds, toys, feathers, natural artifacts, sheet music, pages of her daughters’ homework, and meaningful clutter into layered paintings.

“I almost never work on an empty white canvas. I find it very intimidating,” she says, adding, “I’m very project oriented, so I work with very schematic concerns. I wouldn’t want to put limitations on myself by just working with one thing.”

It would be difficult to imagine Ms. Kane repeating herself in creative expression. Her show in Chilmark with Pam Flam (“an amazing quilter”) is a dramatic demonstration of her style and invention; a glimpse onto the enigmatic mind of an artist.

The artistry of Cindy Kane and Pam Flam on display at the Chilmark Library through September 1.