The Davidsonian

Wayside: Katie St. Clair in Conversation

Gretchen Upton ’26 (She/They)

Assistant Professor of Art Katie St. Clair exhibited her “Wayside” installations in the VAC in late September. When I first walked in, about five minutes early, Katie St. Clair was talking to a group of middle school students. “Has anyone ever walked in a bog?” Shaking heads, the kids were curious and looking to their friends. “It’s a lot like walking on a water balloon,” she told them, moving her hands with a sort of buoyant rhythm. St. Clair is surrounded by her work, sculptures of debris once-suspended in ice above a yellow, cluttered canvas. She will be walking the group through her installation process in a few minutes, but now she is just talking about the world and her experiences in it. The two conversations are nearly indistinguishable.

St. Clair is an artist occupied by impermanence, by movement and nuance, and her sculptures hold these truths tangibly. The basic process: fill any half-sphere container (say, a baffle for keeping squirrels from a bird feeder) with whatever is available to you. For St. Clair that could be bones, weeds, a bird’s nest, it could be caution tape, cigarettes, plastic from the beach. The materials are selected intentionally, and in each final sphere is a clear thoughtfulness, a consideration of the world it was born from. One of the observers asks St. Clair if the presence of plastic in her work has made her more environmentally conscious and she pauses. It’s important to her, she tells the crowd, to keep a clean and healthy planet, but she’s not a saint and she won’t pretend to be. A big part of her work is understanding the role she plays in this accumulation of waste, and to move away from that moment of judgment to find the beauty in it. She talks about the interesting colors, shapes, and textures man-made waste can have, the way it compliments and contrasts with nature, how it serves a different (and important) role. Even the colors she uses have both natural and synthetic origins—some from rocks, walnuts, and bugs, some from a factory—and this, too, is intentional. I loved this aspect of St. Clair’s work. If we are making art as a reaction to our environment, why shouldn’t we be honest about it? When did we decide that we could not hold both beauty and harm at once, that the synthetic and natural world were not innately one?

The half-sphere molds are filled the rest of the way with water, she adds pigment and freezes them. The finished shapes are then carefully selected and paired, and St. Clair drills a hole through the center of each. She threads a wire through both sides, a small loop at the bottom, and places a stick through the loop to suspend the sphere. It’s a simple process, easily reproduced. She stresses this accessibility to the crowd – her materials are cheaply sourced, most of them you probably already have. She fills in the gaps between the two half- spheres with more natural and synthetic debris, sprays the ice with water and adds a little more dye to the outside. A canvas will sit beneath the ice as it melts in the gallery over the next 24-36 hours, dripping dye and debris, with some of the items catching and remaining suspended. But the melting ice, being itself a natural process, is subject to a lot of variables. If more people are in the gallery, the ambient temperature is higher and the ice will melt faster. If the air conditioning is blowing above the sculpture, it will spin, impacting both the melting rate and the drip pattern. All of these factors are part of St. Clair’s philosophy of creating art that is heavily informed by the environment it exists within. None of her pieces could have happened anywhere else. They can’t be reproduced and they aren’t meant to be sold. Her work, then, becomes a rejection of consumerism, an indictment of possession, and an expansion of her goal to embrace the world as it is.

The walls surrounding her sculptures are covered in paintings, all informed by the same place the debris was collected – in this case, Ireland. Standing in the middle of the room, you’re struck with a feeling not unlike walking in a bog. This stunning expanse of life in motion, and beneath your feet, the give and push of a water balloon.

Gretchen Upton ‘26 (She/they) is an intended global literary theory major from Shreveport, LA. They can be reached for comment at grupton@davidson.edu.

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