Interview with Kate Oliver, from Birch & Pine
Part IV. Women Working in Nature and the Arts
Mary: Meet Kate Oliver, artist and photographer. She’s also my niece, and I’ve been so inspired by her art and lifestyle, I’m going to introduce her to our readers as part of recognizing women artists who work with nature. I’m going to start the interview with one of my favorite of a series she did. I call it “nature girl”. Kate, this is a natural series with a girl in the woods. There’s a lot of simplicity and genuine beauty here. Tell me about this!
Update: Visit Kate’s Airstream project at The Modern Caravan.
Kate: Last summer, my now-wife, daughter, and I took a two-month road trip, starting by making our way west from the heart of the Bluegrass. I’ve spent quite a bit of time out West, but this trip, as all road trips tend to be, was unique in and of itself. We managed to drive through a tornado (quite literally through the funnel), descended upon El Paso and, by default, Ciudad Juarez–the pitch black nothingness of Texas suddenly glittering with thousands of lights, the border, another country and place so close it was undeniable–and everything felt strangely eerie. On the return trip, in the high desert, a girl in a little roadside diner, meant to travel and be anywhere but there, was wearing a faded vintage top and black jeans, and I didn’t take her picture. I was terrified, afraid to ask, and I regret it to this day. Beautiful and homely all at once, simple yet striking, she was one of those people that just should be photographed, because she was a force, a beacon, and likely even a mirage. Out of fear, I didn’t ask her, and I’ll likely never encounter her again. I often wonder about her, where she is, and hope she’s traveling in the Northwest, just as she said she wanted to.
Upon returning home, I gathered some serious gumption and was ready to ask if I could photograph others. I put out some vibes and had an incredibly beautiful and overwhelming response of women who were willing to strip down and find themselves in a place of vulnerability–but instead of photographing them within the safety and confines of a studio, I asked them to meet me out of doors…crawl in mud, swim in creeks, face the possibility of being seen and discovered. These women met me in different places and came from different walks of life and station, and each had their own distinct vulnerability and comfort level when I pulled out my camera. Some cowered and covered themselves, their breasts, with their arms or their sweaters, yet by the end of our time spent together, they were turning, grinning at the camera, opening their arms wide and running through fields of wildflowers and squishy deep mud. Each woman responded later, after I’d photographed them, about how beautiful and different they’d felt afterward, how raw and connected to the earth, how innately they’d found solace and hope in their nudity. I would like to continue this series at some point, but my creative spirit needed growth and change first, so perhaps one day I’ll find myself with these curious and lovely women again. At the time, it was what I needed–to find connection and beauty, and to relinquish my own fears simultaneously with my subjects.
Mary: Simplicity seems to be a lifestyle decision that you have made relatively recently. Definitely it has been coming for a while. Your art has been mirroring the minimalistic lifestyle you’ve chosen. What made you decide to head in this direction?
Kate: A long string of many days, days like beads, one after the other appear here, these meaningless days of striving for the unattainable, the life I cannot afford and don’t even truly want, but am told I must have, started to wrap around my neck–and there were so many beads that the string was long and needed to be looped, looped again and again until I was weighed down and feeling strangled. Within each day there would be vast arrays of emotion: jealousy, anger, bitterness, confusion, longing, desire. I felt continuous social pressure to have my life look more put-together than it ever could be. I found myself desperate and suffocated by these expectations and obligations for many years, and finally, alongside my wife–stated loudly and boldly that enough is enough.
One year ago we decided to let go of it all and pursue a full-time nomadic lifestyle and live with much, much less. I find it important, however, that we still create a home that is lovely and warm, this is at the core of who I am. Sloughing off the excess has enabled us to do so, and we will find a happy balance between a cozy, welcoming home and living with what we need, in a vintage Airstream that we are renovating ourselves.
I need to embrace my own realities: the mess that I am. I am unable to have a daily routine, and only thrive when I rise with the sun and sleep when it goes down, when I can schedule my days around creating, reading, being, watching my daughter grow and speak and love, holding my wife and being in her wonderful company. I need the access to the out of doors, and I’m happiest when experiencing new places, being where the power lines and buildings and city folk don’t crowd my views of the sun setting and rising.
I know that, for us in this decision to simplify and drastically reduce our living space from over twelve-hundred square feet to one hundred and sixty, to travel and find ourselves in the untamed landscape, to raise a strong and sure middle finger to the expectation of modern society, we will find peace and a life well lived.
Mary: You seem to be inspired by natural materials (light, wood, food, water, trees, shadow, people at their essence), and it’s a neat pattern that I hope we see more artists use as we enter an era of increased climate change, pollution, excessive resource grabs, and a general departure from the natural world as being meaningful. Have you been inspired by other artists, and, if so, whom?
Kate: I have consistently been inspired by various artists and human beings in my many years walking this great Earth, and my current inspirations can vary from year to year and day to day. I remember vividly the first time I stood in front of a Rothko painting, on a trip to the art museum in Chicago with my lovely grandparents, the first time I read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (while quite literally on the road for several months), the first time I saw photographer and stylist Beth Kirby’s haunting imagery, or Sisilia Piring’s Babes series, and, most recently, when I devoured the autobiographical account of Cheryl Strayed’s solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, Wild.
However, I find it of utmost importance to develop my own voice, whether in my writings or my photography, and while I think it’s impossible to not allow influences from others’ works to permeate our own, I find that the more I view, the more I read, the more expansive I am in my search for muses and inspirations, the easier it is to find said voices, as I am not fixated on one specific niche of work or a set group of similar creative individuals that would likely skew my perspective and inadvertently affect the outcome of my personal work.
I also look outward, to landscape, to nature, to love and beauty, as well as deep within my own soul, to help myself create. Lately I am tapping into some of the darker corners of my being to find myself in a place of honesty, transparency, and in many ways, healing, within my writing. I find that with that, my photography begins to correspond in turn, and I see my two strongest mediums working together in a powerful and transformative way.
Mary: What about family? Being from the same family, I know we have tons of excellent, shared memories. My parents–your grandparents–were often the conduit bringing us together–offering us, and many extended family and friends, a place to be together, laugh, and love. We are so fortunate to have had this experience. One part of it has been our treks to nature, such as hiking at the famous family reunion park: Turkey Run in Indiana. Up until his last year, my dad–your grandpa–went to Turkey Run, and even though he was ill and couldn’t do much, he looked around in awe at the trees, the sky, and I can still see that smile on his face. Do you have memories of these times, and did any of them spur your adult decision to appreciate nature more?
Kate: Absolutely. Those memories are held very dear to me, and quite honestly have propelled me to make more of them with my own daughter. As our family has dispersed, both physically and figuratively, I am realizing that I am no longer just one of the grandchildren, along for the ride. I am a mother and have an innate, almost desperate need to give my daughter light, love, and beauty that she will not otherwise receive in the ways I did, from my beautiful grandparents and you and your siblings.
Nothing feels better than time spent in nature, emerging muddied and worn and sun-kissed from a trail, and I want this for my little family with every fiber of my being.
Mary: Now I want to talk more about you. You are a mother, a wife, a daughter, a cousin, a sister, a granddaughter, a friend. You are an artist. You have been a professional photographer for several years, though you have moved from traditional family photography over to this new niche that I think is truly very beautiful and uniquely you. You’re also an interior designer, and you and your wife have gotten your hands dirty with wood-working and tearing down walls and painting. This seems like a great, fulfilling life. Feel free to just tell us about your life and your vision.
Kate: If we’re being honest here, and that’s my way, my life isn’t quite as fulfilling as it may seem: Right now we are working toward a goal (traveling) that is hindered in ways beyond our control (such as the sale of our house), and it can often feel crushing. However, there is a sweetness and such necessity in the waiting…in fact, I wrote about this today on my blog. Finding patience in said waiting is key.
My wife and I have worked very hard on our home and have been careful to respect the history of the house, while maintaining consistency throughout. Our house was built in 1947 and had been updated quite shoddily; within a meager budget, we have restored some of the house’s former glory while modernizing it. We hope someone will buy it and love it like we have. Our family was created here, although if we’re being technical, it’s not the first time we’ve lived together–we were dorm mates in college, where we met over ten years ago.
I believe strongly in living a life of intention…of having a home where people feel welcomed and loved and well fed, in whatever form that home may take. Currently, that home is a twelve-hundred square foot cottage with clean white walls and creaky wooden floors. It is plant and light filled, yet parked next to it is our next home, a 1957 Airstream Overlander that we’ve been renovating and restoring for the past several months.
Alongside my wife, I strive to find and create beauty in the everyday. For me, this means that I find beauty in the loaf of bread I’ve just baked, the way light catches on the rim of my coffee mug, of curating my home to speak passionately to my soul, filling it with articles that have deeply rooted meaning in some way…this takes the form of art, whether it be a ceramic mug from a potter, a piece made by a friend, my daughter’s primary weaving, a cutting board made by the lovely strong hands of my wife.
I am of the notion that a simple life doesn’t translate to the easy life, and my wife and I are not strangers to hard work. We have sweated, cursed, and bled for making our house a home, and for our new home, the Airstream.
Mary: Now on to the Airstream, and then I want to talk about Birch & Pine. You and your wife bought an Airstream, and you want to live in it. I’ve seen photos of you all building it up because right now it seems like it needs some work. What made you want to sell your possessions and adventure like this?
Kate: The Airstream, which we affectionately named Louise (after one of the most amazing female empowerment/road trip movies ever made, Thelma & Louise, seems fitting, no?), is a true labor of love. We have spent the past seven months tearing out her rotted guts to expose the aluminum shell and chassis, and my badass wife has even been in there with a grinder, cleaning up the metal chassis. We are currently in a stage of waterproofing, and are about to fabricate a new window and door from aluminum to replace some non-functioning pieces. We reinstalled a subfloor (marine grade plywood), and will soon be wiring all new electrical ourselves. We will be able to insulate the shell, reinstall the original interior panels, and begin the buildup of functional cabinetry and furniture with built in organizational systems, all of which I designed myself.
We are planning to be as eco-minded as possible in our rebuild and are refraining from many modern conveninences that are a resource drain. In place of a traditional recreational propane oven and stove unit, we will have a small wood stove for the majority of our cooking. We plan to have a composting toilet in the private bathroom, and eventually when we can afford to, we will be installing a complete solar system on the Airstream’s roof. Our goal is to be entirely self-sustaining. We get varied reactions to our choices, most of which are individuals being entirely appalled that we would want to live so ‘primitively’, yet there are like-minded folks who understand and support our choices.
We plan to live full-time in the Airstream and travel around the United States and Canada as much as possible, indefinitely. We have been planning this major life shift for one year and have spent countless hours researching, speaking with other full-time travelers, and beginning the tedious tasks of selling our house, searching for an Airstream (we originally considered a bus conversion but opted for a safer and more economical option and bought a new vehicle with optimal fuel economy and towing capacity), and editing our possessions down to only what we truly need.
Social media has played a massive role in connecting with others already on the road, and we ultimately decided on an Airstream because of the tight-knit community of Airstreamers out there. We found immediate acceptance and camaraderie amongst these travelers and loved the notion that we’d be a part of Americana, a physical representation of the great American road trip, within this classic mode of road shelter. Not to mention, the design is flawless and are so wonderfully light, ideal for traveling consistently. We specifically purchased a 1950’s model to take advantage of the lighter weight, which enabled us to purchase a smaller hauling vehicle with better fuel economy.
The projected finish date for the Airstream is May 30th, 2015…just a few short months away. We plan to travel this summer, with the hopes that our house will sell sometime between now and August (when my wife would have to return to teaching in the fall), and then we will be on the road indefinitely.
Mary: Birch & Pine is your brand, and it seems to reflect the lifestyle and art direction you are taking. Where did you get the name? Please tell us more about your art, where you’re headed, what you’re doing now.
Kate: When my wife and I reached our decision to downsize significantly and travel full-time, we thought it would be fun to start a blog about the process and, subsequently, the travel. We would photograph the landscape, the people, road life. This, of course, has morphed and expanded as the months wore on and we weren’t on the road as instantly (and laughably naively) as we thought. So we felt it would be best to create a lifestyle blog that could transition as easily as life changes, and as often as necessary. The name Birch & Pine was born out of several days of note-taking and conversations over coffee in the mornings and wine at night, and we settled on two trees: a tall slender birch, my wife’s favorite tree, and a soft, yet strong, pine. To have a name that represented our connection and devotion to nature made the most sense to us. We find the strength yet malleability of trees to be characteristic of ourselves as well.
We’d originally called ourselves something different entirely, but knew that it couldn’t carry us through years of sharing and growing. A major reason for traveling was to be influenced by the natural world in its many forms, and we both want to create in our respective mediums while traveling, and we want to share that work. We do hope to sell our work as well and have a shop name that is encompassed by our brand. One day we will settle again, and we hope that the blog and shop will help us become financially viable so we can continue to create for a living.
Currently, with my wife still teaching high school art full-time, I solely run the blog and Instagram. I have focused quite a bit of time on Instagram and have organically grown our following from zero to nearly three-thousand individuals in less than eight months. We hope that through this platform, in conjunction with the blog, we can share our story–the successes, the failures, the fears, the realities, the beautiful places and moments, and the stories of others we meet as well as a genuine unfolding of who we are, who we become, and the art we create along the way.
Already through Instagram, we have connected with so many incredible people–fellow travelers and future travelers, photographers, writers, and other creatives. In fact, we started an Artists + Makers series on Birch & Pine, where we feature one creative individual per month who is making exceptional work and is deserving of having their story told and their work seen. I photograph them, their work, and their studio spaces, and they answer interview questions in post. I love this series; it’s healing and teaching and truly educational. I hope to continue it while on the road.
My wife and I work exceptionally well together and understand our strengths and shortcomings and how we compliment one another. We are best friends, first and foremost–we have known one another for over ten years now. We became instant friends then and the love that has grown from that friendship is nothing short of beautiful. I fall more in love with her every day. We think that our ability to work together and pick up where the other lacks, merging our strengths, and the joy that comes from being, with one another will serve us well while traveling and running a business together.
Our shop will be curated by us and will feature our work, other artists’ work, and unique representative finds from our travels. Currently I plan to photograph landscape and people as a means of telling a story, and sell prints and books of the images–and Ellen is a talented woodworker, drawing upon her natural makers’ strengths to create functional yet beautiful pieces, such as cutting and bread boards, spoons, and knives. Much of her work is done by hand, which will come in handy (pardon the pun) while out traveling and without access to sources of power.
Mary: Thank you so much, Kate. It’s emotional for me to have watched you grow from a tiny baby to a young, inspirational woman who has such sustainable and meaningful aspirations, which parallel some of my own around the same age and even now. I am really looking forward to your visit to our place this summer!
Photos copyright by Kate Oliver.