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Artist in the Office Interview: Katherine Dunn

April 13, 2010

Katherine Dunn is a painter, illustrator, pie maker for peace, and a farmer.  Her first book, Creative Illustration Workshop: Seeing, Sketching, Storytelling, and Mixed Media will be out in November from Quarry Books.

Why did you decide to go out on your own towards a full-time painting and art career?

I had worked in a variety of design related firms in the marketing capacity [architecture, design and ad firms]. It was good experience, but there was always something missing, and after a time, although I did well, I’d get antsy and move on. I was watching Bill Moyers interview Joseph Campbell, and he talked about the responsibility we all have to do what our passion is, to follow our unique path. I decided the next day to be an illustrator. Within 6 months, I had quite my job and was, an illustrator. [1996]

Were their things you had to change about your life in order to quit the full-time job and dive into freelancing?  Did you scale down your expenses or change your lifestyle?

Yes, I sold the condo I was living in, and bought a $60,000 house, of 400 sg ft. It was my first house, it was in a good neighborhood, but it allowed me to have a small monthly mortgage. I’ve always lived frugally, so that wasn’t much of an issue. I’m a homebody too, so I worked into the night. It was a long time ago, but I would say that I did have some hurdles to get through to sell the condo – in that I had parents that thought it might be a mistake, that thought, “You’d be going down scale if you do that”, etc. But I remember I was SO intent on my goal, I just plowed ahead. I also remember I had to buy clothes at the Goodwill for awhile! And I guess that’s trendy now [I still by buy our farm coats and such there if i can]. For the first few months as I built my portfolio, I had a few good jobs from Marshal Fields, and I also did about 3 months of freelance prop styling since I had so many contacts. But after that,  I was ok.

Were there things you didn’t expect about freelancing?  Pitfalls?  Bonuses?

Hmmm…I think the only thing about freelancing that people need to be aware of, is you are always working and you are always looking for another job. The minute one job ends, you bill it, and there isn’t a new job on the back or front burner, it can create anxiety. It took me a couple years to overcome this. However, I also had a nest egg I managed to build up from a couple big jobs, and selling that little 400 sft house after 2 years. I think some people will not do well in that part, others will. I’m a self entertaining unit, lived alone most of my adult life until I married at 44, so I was used to scheduling my own time, and I loved that freedom. Still do.

Were there any issues about doing your art for a market?  How did/do you stay inspired and motivated?  Did it hinder you as an artist at all?

I think this is a learning curve, and a personality thing. In the beginning, stuff gushed out of me, but a lot of it wasn’t really easily applied to any given market. Some thought I was to fine art, fine art thought I was too commercial. Paint what you know. If I get uninspired, I take time off for a day, or two, garden, do other mediums. I usually work through it. I’m 13 years older now than when I started, I’m  50 ! So my perspective on my art and career is different .I moved from city to farm, from Mpls to Oregon, so many things have changed. Sometimes, you get  hired to do something that you might not have sought out, but I try to sit down and say “How can I, individually, put my mark on this?” That’s part of the job.

What worked best for you about freelancing?  What was hard?

Freedom, freedom, freedom. Nothing is harder than working in a cube, and commuting, so freelancing has no real ‘hard’ for me. Life is hard. But I get to do want I’m gifted at and love, so the hard moments of life are passing clouds.

I know you’ve expanded your work life to include farming, which isn’t a job you can ever really slack on or just leave—how do you make time to do your artwork?  Are there times you just don’t get to do your painting?

I think of the farm as my life, not a job, but it is my daily work, just as art is, or sewing, or selling the lavender, or making bread so we can eat. It’s all intertwined. I know that sounds like a magazine article on wellness, but it really is – You hit the nail on the head though, I do not paint every day anymore. I do not paint into the night. But I’m not sure I would be if I were single and living alone. Like many artists, I am easily intrigued by much, and my biggest personal challenge is to focus, but that focus has to change daily. If I have an illustration project, I set a schedule and it takes priority, but when I’m just working on my portfolio or painting personal work, I set a daily goal – otherwise I can spend too much time on the computer – which I do!! I have to be on the computer to keep my sites fresh, to write, to maintain the farm store.

But after I settled on the farm, after say, 2006 /7 [we moved here in 2004], and I was able to focus more, I find I get a lot done in shorter spurts.

Do you have a set schedule?

Sort of. Depending on the season, since the farm can dictate changes, depending on if it’s harvest time for fields, vegetable time, lambing, horse season. I get up by 7:30 [ok, usually, I LOVE my bed], quick email check, out to do barn chores for 30 minutes. In warm weather, I work more in am with animals. Back in studio and work at studio stuff in afternoon. I often sew in the late afternoon a couple times a week to add to our farm/lavender products. I usually am doing something until at least 7pm in studio. If it’s summer, I often do field or barn things then. We eat late [bad, bad, bad, I know]. Weekends, we usually 95% of the time are working on the farm.  I will gestate in early morning about projects while I lie in bed.

The thing about the farm – it’s a living, breathing entity. While as romantic as people want to make that , it’s like romanticizing having a baby. It takes time, energy, thought, money and sacrifice. There always fences to mend, etc, and I have learned to ‘calm down’ after moments of panic, and just prioritize between that day’s tasks, be it farm, art, store, animals, etc.

Any advice for anyone who is dreaming of being a full-time painter and/or illustrator?

Do it – if it’s in your heart, and it keeps coming back to you. Be realistic, but not fearful. If you really want it, you will live in a cheap apartment, or shack, or sell your metaphorical jewels to get what you need and want to start. If not, you probably didn’t want it enough.

And there is nothing wrong with going from freelance to a job and back to freelance- someone told me that once, and I think that’s true. Sometimes, you ‘need’ things freelance can’t give you.

Treat your art like a discipline. Whatever you put your intention, if true, and your energies and time, it will grow.

Thank you, Katherine!

  1. Susanna Fischer permalink
    April 13, 2010 9:26 am


    I just recently started reading your blog so I thought I’d say hi! I just read your post about breastfeeding and I loved your drawing of all the accessories… it brought back painful memories!!
    I have a seven month old baby and I stopped breastfeeding at twelve weeks (also something I thought I would never do, as breastfeeding is supposed to be easy, and all that, right??) Anyway, if I was really honest with myself, I just hated it, it was painful, I was miserable, I wanted my body back, and the baby was always hungry.
    Now, we are both fine, and in hindsight, it’s almost strange to think about how stressful I found the decision to quit. the problem is that (here in the UK, but I’m sure it’s similar in the US) formula milk is somehow presented as bad for your baby by the health professionals– when in fact, when you can’t breastfeed, it’s a pretty damn good alternative. A friend of my mother’s gave her son diluted cow’s milk when she couldn’t breastfeed, as that was the only available option in Hungary at the time!!!
    Anyway, I just wanted to share.. 🙂 Best of luck with Gus.
    I’m enjoying your blog
    All the best

  2. BarbS permalink
    April 13, 2010 4:11 pm

    What a great interview. I love how honest Katherine is about the need to make sacrifices when you step out on your own. For some, that is so simple but for many, they still want their $5 Starbuck’s latte or all their expensive toys or their big homes with huge mortgages or their Gucci bags. And you get a real sense that Katherine was very conscious in the choices she made…so her “sacrifices” weren’t really sacrifices so much as they were decisions to exclude some things in her life in order to include other things, things that were more important to her. When she described her farm and her painting as her life and not a job, a little light bulb went off in my head…ahhhh!!! I get it. What a great perspective. Many thanks for bringing us the interview. – Barb (P.S. My favorite pie…it’s a toss up between any kind of super-fresh fruit pie and the ridiculously sinful cherry-chocolate mousse pie I make.)

  3. June Lee permalink
    April 13, 2010 6:21 pm

    Great interview!
    I love my mom’s apple cranberry pie with ice cream…mmmmmm!

  4. Morgan G permalink
    April 13, 2010 8:05 pm

    Really enjoyed the interview! I’ve been a lurker on your blog since I worked in an office and spent hours on the internet….now I’m in grad school studying Drama Therapy and can’t be happier. However, I love your emphasis on being creative everyday–whether at a job you love or a job you hate. Also, my favorite pie would have to be strawberry rhubarb! Mmmmmmm.

  5. Greg Benzon permalink
    April 13, 2010 9:00 pm

    Terrific interview – thanks! And it’s hard to beat a good olallieberry pie. YUMMMMMMMMM.

  6. April 14, 2010 12:58 pm

    Hey Summer! What a great interview – some great advice included. I really liked BarbS’ comment about how Katherine’s sacrifices weren’t really sacrifices, but a decision to exclude less important things from her life. Hearing it put that way really lit a bulb for me. It was one of those Oprah “AHA” moments ( it’s the first time I actually had one). That really made sense for me & I am going to try to incorporate at least some of that thinking into my daily life. Thanks Summer, Katherine, & BarbS! As for my favorite pie – how can I choose?! Pie is probably my favorite dessert and I really haven’t found one I don’t like (well, except mincemeat). I guess my “pie goal” is to try them all & savor the best parts of each one (even mincemeat, I guess ;->).
    – Mare Freeborn
    PS – I know I won last week, so you don’t have to enter me in the contest again – I just wanted to let you know I enjoyed the interview. Can’t wait to read “Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man”! I’m so looking forward to it!

  7. Sarah permalink
    April 14, 2010 2:55 pm

    When I was a child, our gorgeous, half-wild banty hens would sometimes allow us to find their eggs. One day, my father and I began to wonder if those eggs minded being made into lemon merangue pie. (my pie crusts are better than my spelling, I should add; Pie crusts are extremely serious business in my family; my grandmother and great uncles had fierce competitions about who would win the blue ribbon for pie at the fair every year.) So, we decided that for such a noble cause, no egg would mind becoming a merangue. Thus, in our family dictionary, lemon merangue pie and noble causes became synonyms. (all other pies were just ’causes’) So… my favorite pie is, of course, the noble cause!

  8. Amy in Minneapolis permalink
    April 14, 2010 5:20 pm

    Thanks! This interview came at a perfect time for me as I just re-entered office life after SEVEN YEARS of supporting myself as an artist. It was an amazing, inspiring, exhausting, bankrupting experience and I’m so glad I did it. But one day I saw myself getting that cash advance on the credit card to pay rent on my studio apartment and buy a week’s worth of ramen, and I realized something needed to give! Now I choose HEALTHCARE, ZERO DEBT, time for a RELATIONSHIP, HEALTHY FOOD and the SHEER JOY of going to work carrying nothing but my little lunch – as opposed to the 300 lbs of clay and a dozen half-empty cans of paint that always spilled in the backseat! And guess what? When I’m home I have time/space/energy/resources to MAKE MY OWN ART not just what someone will pay me to make. I mean, clearly poems & puppets are necessary to the survival of humanity, but try to make a living from it! Possible, but YIKES! And time to make pies should not be undervalued. My fav: Carribean Dream Pie from the Moosewood Cookbook. If you’re ever in Mpls swing by for a piece as a thank you for your life-line of a blog!
    Thanks, Amy
    Database Analyst by Day
    Poet, Puppeteer, Stiltwalker by Night (and By Day, if I think they’re not looking!)

  9. April 14, 2010 7:50 pm

    Wonderful interview! I love your blog! I am a writer and wanna-be farmer though I work full-time as a chemist. I’m leaving my job in the near future to pursue my passions so it is AWESOME to read about people who go after their dreams. And survive!

    I’m going to have to go with the basic apple pie for my favorite. But it has to have one scoop of slightly melting vanilla ice cream sitting on top.

    Thanks for your inspiring blog!


  10. April 15, 2010 5:08 pm

    So very nice of you to give me a plug for my book, Summer. And I sort of sound, in the interview, like I know what I’m talking about….sometimes I guess I do, sometimes not. Cheers to everyone and your great blog…and book.

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