Reclaiming the Identity of the Witch: A Conversation with Katy Horan
Katy Horan is a storyteller at heart. Her work, dark and unsettling, incorporates paint and mixed media, muted tones, and intricate designs to reimagine female archetypes, including spinster, widow, crone, and witch. She plays with fragments, juxtaposing the mundane with the fantastical, the horrifying with the lovely, and finds inspiration in folk art, fairy tales, ghost stories, and costume history.
Katy has always loved illustration, but early on in her career, she found it difficult to break in to the business of book illustrating. Her work was rejected by children’s book publishers for being too dark. She focused on fine art instead, showing in galleries on the East and West coasts and in Austin, where she lives now. Last year, the opportunity she’d been hoping for finally came along, and she paired up with author Taisia Kitaiskaia to illustrate Literary Witches, a series of fictional vignettes about powerful women writers. The book will be released from Seal Press tomorrow.
I caught up with Horan to talk about her beginnings as an artist, her creative process, and what it was like to work collaboratively with a writer.
The Rumpus: What about illustration, in particular, has always interested you?
Katy Horan: I like drawing faces, which I think is the basis of it. I like characters, stories, and folklore in particular. I’ve always just loved narrative, and characters, and creating worlds that you can get sucked into.
Rumpus: An early turning point for you was illustrating the banshee for Jacob Covey’s Beasts! Book One anthology. You said back then that the banshee was a good example of the “sacred feminine” because she takes three forms: young maiden, divine mother, and old crone. Can you talk about that turning point?
Horan: As subject matter, I’ve always loved witches. I always wanted to be a witch. I was always obsessed with them in a certain way. This is so cheesy, but I listened to the audiobook of The Da Vinci Code, and that’s where I first heard about the “sacred feminine.” From there, I did some research and started learning more about goddess worship, and Paganism, and Wicca, and where all of that comes from. The turning point was that I had been reading about the banshee, and I pitched that to illustrate, so I got to do it. The thing I loved about it was the maiden, mother, [and] crone. Those are the three phases of the moon. I even have the symbol for it right here [points to a tattoo on her arm]. It’s crescent, circle, crescent. It’s very big in Wicca—but I’m not Wiccan, I just like it.
Rumpus: Since the mid-2000s, I’ve been struck by the distinct style and dark, folklorish subjects of your work. How did your style develop?
Horan: It took me a while. I’m guessing the work you’re talking about seeing was masked figures in the woods doing witchy rituals and stuff. Clare Rojas was a big influence, and I was definitely being very derivative of her at the time. To younger artists starting out: starting off copying something you love, and figuring out how to make that your own, and breaking it apart, is a great way to find your style. I had these stages of getting there. It was weird. It was like the breakthrough just came.
Rumpus: You were out of art school at that point?
Horan: I was three or four years out, but that whole time, the work I had been doing was all very narrative, and it was all telling made-up stories that came from my head. I wanted to create these ambiguous vignettes that invited the viewer to interpret what was happening, because I honestly didn’t really know. Oh, I want a lady, and she’s got a chicken, and there’s a girl riding. I just wanted to put these pieces together and see what people came up with.
Rumpus: You once said, regarding the question of femininity in your work, “I’ve never been interested in cultural or social commentary. Even when I’m investigating ideas of femininity, it’s not overtly critical.” How has this changed in the past ten years as you and your work have evolved?
Horan: It’s funny that I said that. I always was a feminist, personally. I don’t think I realized at the time that the ideas I was playing with were feminist critiques. Now I definitely look at it all and think, Yeah, it is. Especially with Literary Witches. One hundred percent, this is a feminist presentation. We are celebrating these women. The intention is fully feminist because we are presenting these women writers specifically because they need to be seen. And also, I’m very interested in reclaiming the identity of the witch. Because so many people still think of a witch as a child-eating hag, where a witch really is a woman of her own power. It’s one of the most feminist symbols.
For me, that’s the main thing. For the past few years, I have been a lot more aware of the fact that my work with witch imagery, and especially my work with painting older women, oftentimes naked, is distinctly feminist and intentional. The work may not be a critique, but it’s a commentary. I think when I was younger, I didn’t realize that.
Rumpus: Your daughter is two and a half now. Has being a mother affected your work or process?
Horan: It’s funny, I don’t know yet. [But] being a mother has released a lot of the pressure on just my work. My work isn’t just the only thing. I used to be obsessed. I had a very codependent relationship with my work. Now, it can’t be the number one thing. They split the bill, honestly. Of course, I’ll drop my work to go be a mother, if I have to, but when I can split the time, I do. It makes me better on both sides. There’s not all the pressure on one or the other.
I think it’s a recommitment to my daughter, to feminism. Although, I was pretty feminist before her, too.
Rumpus: Are there other artists in your family?
Horan: Yes. My mom, she’s a lapsed artist. She studied art. I never actively really saw her drawing when I was growing up, but I would find her sketchbooks from when she was younger, and they were wonderful. She drew really, really well. She never practiced, but she had it. Her father, my grandfather, was a paleontologist and a folk artist. He made these fossil remains of mythical creatures that were these big slabs of rock with these bones of fairies with wings, like skeletons with wings and mermaids. They were magical to grow up around. Then my step-grandmother, who was the only grandmother figure I ever had, was French-Canadian, and she was a witch. I don’t know if she would say that, but I’m going to say that, and she was an artist. She did stained glass, and she made jewelry, and she read tarot cards, so I actually can blame a lot of witch stuff on her, for sure. Then they got divorced when I was about fourteen, and she split, and I never saw her again.
Rumpus: I wonder if she knows about your work.
Horan: I don’t know. I’ve googled her. She lives out in California. She has a little crafty art store. My dad’s mom painted, too.
Rumpus: What led you to becoming an artist?
Horan: I think I was definitely born with it. My inclinations from a very young age were to draw. But I don’t think I would be the artist I am now if I hadn’t have gone to RISD. Before [that experience], I didn’t know what was possible. I didn’t realize you could just be an artist. That was huge. It was like Harry Potter going to Hogwarts. If I hadn’t have gone there, I don’t think I would have the bar I have now for my work or my work ethic.
Rumpus: What do you tell people starting out about what it takes, regarding the pressure to Do What You Love when the bills still have to get paid?
Horan: First, I only started to make a living when the illustration for Literary Witches started coming along. So, very recently. [Before the book deal], I would make money here and there off of paintings. The truth is, if you’re a fine artist, and you just want to sell work, there is a tiny, tiny percentage that can actually do that. I know a lot of artists, and most of them teach or have other jobs.
What I would say to young artists is to learn a trade. Become an electrician. Something that’s not soul-sucking. You’re always going to get work, but it probably won’t grind you down, and hopefully you’ll still have time to do your own work.
Rumpus: It’s not all rainbows and butterflies.
Horan: I wish the inspiration came like that, but it doesn’t. There’s so much of the actual day-to-day work of doing it. Literary Witches, by the end, was just labor. Because I had to get it done. At the risk of being super cheesy, I’m going to quote Chuck Close: “Inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work.”
I think that this idea of waking up, and having great ideas, and it flowing… That does not happen. So much of it is flying blind. It’s hard to do it every day, but it’s also a good problem to have.
Rumpus: You’re open on social media when you go through a dry spell.
Horan: Yes, every once awhile I have to cry out. I went through a phase the last few weeks where I honestly felt like I forgot how to paint. My brain just wasn’t aligning with what I was trying to do. That’s a funny thing about when it is what you do every day.
Rumpus: How do you ride out less productive phases?
Horan: Oh, my gosh, I don’t handle them well. I freak out. That’s why I go on Facebook. I go for that shameless reassurance from everyone else. It’s funny, because clearly everyone else needs it, too, because they all jump on like, “Me, too. Auuhghh.”
I just make moves, even though I don’t know if they’re the right ones. I had to stop working on this one thing that just really was not coming together. I had to put it away. That was good, and I went back to my books, and read some ghost stories, and took some notes, and started drawing in my sketchbook. I think that’s kind of the classic response—just go back to the sketchbook, go play.
I’ve been doing this for so long that every single thing I make is for something. It’s either for a show or for a book. There’s no time to play. Everything has to become product, and that’s bad news for art-making. I have to force myself to go and goof around. But if you do that long enough, that inevitably will lead you to something.
Rumpus: You’ve also been pretty open, too, about dealing with mental illness. How has being medicated affected your creativity? There’s the romanticized idea of the tortured artist, but also the fear that medicine might be “unnatural” or dull the impulse to create.
Horan: I would love to dispel that fear! Recently I’ve seen some stupid stuff on Facebook about this. Med-shaming. It makes me furious because my life is saved by the medications I take. I would say that the way it impacts my creativity is that if I am stable and sane, then I can be creative. That’s sort of the thing people don’t understand. People who are super depressed, or super whatever (maybe with the exception of someone who’s really manic) aren’t making work. They’re not making beautiful work when all they’re doing is laying in bed and feeling hopeless.
Medication, if it works for you, can bring you back. It’s not changing you, it’s bringing you back from something horrible, from serious pain. My medication allows me to work. It allows me to be creative. It allows me to be a mother and it allows me to live. I think the only negative interaction between my Bipolar II and work is when the work is super stressful. Stress is a huge trigger. Big deadlines can override my meds and send me into a relapse.
Rumpus: With Literary Witches, you partnered with Taisia Kitaiskaia to illustrate the book. How did that happen and what was that collaborative process like?
Horan: It was amazing. Taisia found me. She liked my work on Instagram.
She’s here in Austin, and she was a Michener fellow. She had this advice column on The Hairpin called “Ask Baba Yaga.” She is Russian. She moved here when she was three.
In December 2014, I think, she had an agent interested in doing a book of “Ask Baba Yaga.” So she just contacted me. I’ve been waiting and hoping for a book opportunity for years. I was like, This sounds great! I didn’t have anything else really happening, so I started making sketches for it, and as I was making sketches, the agent dropped out. Taisia then was like, “Maybe we should meet up and do something else.”
So Taisia and I got together to see what else we could maybe collaborate on. She was like, “You know, I have this idea for a tarot card of notable or great women writers as witches.” I was like, “That’s pretty cool! Why don’t we just play with that?” She contacted Electric Literature’s Okey-Panky and they said they would be happy to publish five of them.
Rumpus: It was all over Twitter…
Horan: Twitter went crazy. All these writers loved it. The literary world got really excited about it. It wasn’t long before Adriann Ranta, our agent, contacted us and said she wanted to make it into a book. This all happened really fast. We did a proposal, sent it out to a bunch of publishers, and got I think two offers, We went with Seal Press. It’s a feminist press. Then we set to work.
Rumpus: Had you collaborated with a writer before?
Horan: I’d never really collaborated with anyone. I always felt like I didn’t know how. I was like, I just want to be alone, make my own decisions. But her writing was so beautiful. I was inspired by it.
Our process was to write this long list of who could be a literary witch, and we’d get together, at The Steeping Room, and we would try to whittle it down. We’d have discussions over so-and-so’s witchiness. We had to make a lot of hard cuts, but also wanted to be inclusive; that was really important to both of us.
Rumpus: What were some of the criteria?
Horan: The first criterion was that it had to speak to Taisia, because it started with her words. There also had to be a strength or a feminist importance there. We weren’t doing Danielle Steel, you know? There had to be a gravitas, a seriousness.
Rumpus: Did they have to be dead?
Horan: There are some alive. We did Toni Morrison, and that’s my favorite illustration. It’s scary. If she sees it, I really hope she likes it!
Taisia would write her part of it, and then send it to me. If it was a poet, I could read all the poems. If it was a short story writer, I could read a short story to get a gauge of their vibe, or their imagery and themes. If they were a novelist that I hadn’t read, that was really tough. I would go try to find CliffsNotes online to find the common imagery in their work. I would try to cobble all that together into an illustration, into a portrait. I usually had about a week to paint each one.
It was hard. It was breakneck. But it was a really easy collaboration. The only time we disagreed was on who to include and who to cut. By the end, when it came down to five people and we could only choose two, that was tough.