The winner of the ninth annual Barbara Smail Award is an artist whose normal work could not be created in any of Burlington City Arts’ studios. That’s because Kat Clear welds steel sculptures, usually at very large scale. But she is “excited about using the print facility over there,” says Clear. “After receiving the award, I got on the phone with [retired art prof] Bill Davison — I studied with him at UVM and had a great experience printmaking.” In fact, Clear says she’s attracted by what printmaking and metal sculpture have in common: “They’re both process oriented, and that validates the experience for me.”
The Barbara Smail Award, established by family and friends of a beloved Vermont painter who died in 2001, is granted each year to a “mid-career Vermont-based artist who has a desire to expand his or her creative experience and has displayed an enthusiastic support of his or her peers,” explains a BCA release. It grants a $1000 stipend and use of all BCA facilities for a year. The term “mid-career” has been broadly interpreted; Clear is only 31, while some previous winners have been in their sixties.
In any event, Clear certainly has expansion in mind. The artist, whose metal works around Burlington include innovative bike racks, a 40-foot quilt-like wall sculpture called “Fabric of Life” for the hospital and signs for such businesses as Bluebird Tavern, Burlington Electric and the Green Room, has also attracted attention with her “Whoopsie Girls” — 36-inch tall manifestations of flirtatious pinups. It was these sculptures that led BCA Gallery Committee member and painter Sally Linder to comment, “Kat works out of the comfort zone of many women artists, and yet stays consistent in her mission to present the feminine in a male-oriented medium.”
Indeed, Clear has in mind females of another sort for her next series of sculptures: circus performers. But not “freaks” such as the bearded lady; she’s thinking of characters like a sword swallower who also might be “the girl who sells the tickets, paints, wears a lot of different hats,” Clear explains — someone whose entire identity is defined by this unique subculture. “There’s this really rich community within the circus that doesn’t necessarily translate out into the world, except in their performances.”
And that, Clear believes, is akin to the experience of being an artist: “It never leaves you, and you can never leave it. That’s great, but I crave ‘normalcy’ sometimes … and then I get a taste and I just run.” She adds with a laugh, “I do plan on being an accountant in my next life, just to balance things.”
Meanwhile, she’ll be conjuring up objects made of heavy metal. The new circus works, Clear promises, will be edgier than her previous ones. “I use found metal and rusty metal to begin with,” she says, “but I want to push the work and make it even grittier.”
As for that circus theme, Clear acknowledges it’s been in the air lately — last year the Shelburne Museum presented an enormous circus-history exhibit; this week the Fleming Museum opens three shows on the topic. “I’ve been thinking about this for more than a year,” Clear says, “and now I feel like I’m behind the times.”
But, chances are, a female sword swallower or elephant trainer fashioned from rusted metal will give us a new take on the timeless art.
Check out episode 65 of Stuck in Vermont, in which Eva Sollberger visits Clear in her studio.