PROFILE-November + December 2009
By Peter A. Smith
Photographs by Nathan Eldridge
Artist, craftsman, designer, carpenter, mosaic maker
Except for a few blotches and the almost imperceptible, asymmetric patterning, Joe Kievitt’s latest drawing (Untitled ink and watercolor on paper, 2009, 10” x 10”) looks, at first glance, like a series of digitally manufactured plaid swatches pasted around a perfect heptagon. On closer inspection, it’s clear that Kievitt has spent hours obsessively drawing the lines and delicately coloring the image— all by hand.
“There was a time when I would have trashed that piece because of the blotches, but I think it actually works by showing a certain humanness,” Kievitt says. “In certain rug-making traditions, rug makers always include a mistake. The belief is that only God is perfect. To make a perfect rug is either disrespectful or not human. I’ve been trying to make work that is flawless and that’s a problem. I’m trying not to be restricted by that approach. Perfection is a worthwhile quality, but not at the expense of taking risks.”
Kievitt’s studio is on Romasco Lane, a street tucked into Munjoy Hill in Portland. The front of the studio has the wide-open feel of a warehouse; the back rooms have the lived-in feel of a home office. The entire studio shows a clear appreciation for craftsmanship and care. Even the Schwinn bicycle hanging in the hallway has been outfitted with a leather saddle and customized chrome lights.
The right side of the back room has a drawing table, a couch, and a computer. A pair of wooden work tables that Kievitt built himself stands on the left. On the top of the back table is a tool he invented for cutting tape into thin strips—as thin as a 32nd of an inch—using a box cutter. Kievitt uses tape of varying widths to map out the white space in his drawings, and around the tape, he paints slivers of color from a palette of 27 custom mixed inks. “It’s almost like the pigment is coming underneath the mark from the paper itself, as if it’s backlighting the watercolor,” he says.
The drawings are adaptations of designs he found on some quilts he picked up recently. The patterns twist in ways that would be impossible to recreate with either a sewing
machine or a computer. Still, as hard as he tries to exert complete control over the process, liquid paint is unpredictable, and since there’s no erasing, no sanding out, no screwing up, what’s done is done, in short, illuminant lines. “I like the fact that you can’t paint over it. You have to be really careful, which becomes a defining aspect of the work.”
Kievitt was born in Belfast in 1968. His family lived on 100 acres in Northport, and he drew deer, snakes, porcupines, Star Wars—absorbing the natural and technology world—until the Kievitts moved to Cape Elizabeth when he was 10. He stopped drawing. It just wasn’t something cool for boys to do. Only after graduating from high school and going to college for a year did he start making art again. He was back in Maine, working on lobster boats in Casco Bay and painting natural landscapes and seascapes.
Portland was his home and his studio from 1989 to 1993, when Kievitt graduated from MECA (then known as the Portland School of Art) and moved out to San Francisco. He lived South of Market in a warehouse. At first he worked at a shop, framing Joe Montana posters, until he landed a job as a preparator at Campbell-Thiebaud Gallery. “Paul Thiebaud would say, ‘Load up my van with $5 million of art. See you in Seattle next week,’” Kievitt says. “He would also give me the gallery credit card, told me to stay in really nice places, and pick up a new suit because we were going to meet with clients in Seattle.”
Kievitt left in 1996 to go to Parsons School of Design. New York was exhilarating. “We would make a list of visiting artists we wanted to see,” he says. “We would write to them and most of them would come and lecture and give crits.” He heard from John Curran, Amy Sillman, Elizabeth Peyton, David Deutsch, Sean Scully, Sean Landers, Jerry Saltz, David Humphrey, Byron Kim, Richard Tuttle, and Glenn Ligon. New York was also exhausting. “You pull to the side of the street to drop off a piece of artwork and by the time you come out of the gallery, you have a $200 parking ticket.”
He showed his charcoal drawings at Campbell-Thiebaud from 1999 to 2001 and then at Miller Block gallery in Boston from 2001 onward. The drawings depicted detail, abstracted leaves and plants, alternately appearing like Asian scroll paintings, woven textiles, or tiny maritime life slipped under a microscope.
Then in 2001 Kievitt moved back to Maine. His first year back, the Portland Museum of Art selected a drawing for its Biennial and purchased Sea Grape Tree #2, charcoal on paper, 2000, 44” x 41”. He began looking for ways to make images with new mediums, and in 2004, he began installing botanyinspired tile mosaics: leaves on a wall outside the Kennebunk Elementary School, trees inside a Rhode Island courthouse, and Asian-inspired plum blossoms at the South Seaport Hotel in Boston. The mosaics translated his drawings, like tile drawn onto vast expanses of white wall spaces.
“I was working a lot of carpentry and not finding time to be in the studio,” he says. He began to focus less on charcoal and more on abstracted ink drawings, showing first at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art and then in New York City. “I was in ‘Drawn from Maine’ at Nancy Margolis Gallery with Andrea Sulzer, Anna Hepler, Justin Richel, and a few other artists. I was excited to be connected with the artistic community in Maine in a way that I hadn’t been before. I kind of realized that there were a lot of good artists here. It was not just a nice place. I just realized that there were a lot of good artists here and a certain cultural sophistication.”
At his open studio and art sale in December 2008, the studio felt like an underground show. The studio smelled of drywall, and the freshly painted walls had work from dozen artists, including Gideon Bok, Mark Wethli, Petra Simmons, Sage Lewis, Noa Warren, Cassie Jones, and Jeff Kellar. Most of the artists came, and hung around the space and a metal washtub full of beer and ice, like a human mosaic of artists drawn from Maine. And drawn to Kievitt’s world in Maine, too.
Earlier this year, three artists on scaffolds helped install Kievitt’s latest public art installation: 64,000 multicolored tiles on 2,000 square feet of wall space outside the Hudson Museum at the University of Maine–Orono. Kievitt stood at the center of the room, bent over a table with diagrams, mathematical annotations, and a precision model of the multicolored, microscopic vision of intersecting lines and circles. The project has been an artistic risk: it’s his first full-scale of abstract tile mosaic. Kievitt looked up from the design at the actual mosaic. “Despite all the unknowns,” he says, “it’s weird how much it looks just like the model.”
From top: A drawing that Kievitt was working on when he applied for the tile mosaic project | A recent drawing by Joe Kievitt. | Detail from tile mosiac in the lobby of the Collins Center for the Arts at the University of Maine–Orono
30 Romasco Ln. | Portland | joekievitt.com