In this interview, New York–born painter and digital artist Katherine Buglione opens up about her inspirations, creative process, and journey toward making a career of art-making. From her fascination with Egon Schiele’s self-portraits to her collaborations with musician Keith Zarriello (The Shivers), Buglione’s unique artistic vision is intuitive, unsparing, and emotive.
Brady Walker: Your website’s personal bio says that you were heavily influenced by expressionist-era painters. (That’s also one of my favorite art scenes in history.) Are there any particular artists that especially resonated with you?
Katherine Bulgione: When I was taking one of my first college painting classes at 19 and came across some of Egon Schiele’s self-portraits, I remember feeling like an artist who I knew was dead was looking me right in the eyes. I’m not sure how else to describe it, but it was a remarkable feeling. So for me, that about Schiele’s work was emotionally significant, but it also struck a chord with me stylistically.
At the time (and also now, at age 32), I think I had some awareness that I didn’t have the skill or the eye to paint or illustrate in a photorealistic way, but I knew in some basic sense that I was able to make marks that evoked emotion, especially because I could still make them look like people. I guess something about Schiele’s use of thick lines and empty space, combined with areas of heavy detail in his paintings, just moved me and met me where I was at the time in more ways than one.
I knew there were parts of the face and body that I could paint pretty well and make look realistic, and other parts I couldn’t really do that with. I knew as a teenager that I was never going to be a photorealistic painter; I just didn’t have the eye or the talent for it. But I could make marks on a page that could still look like someone and seemingly make other people feel something by expressing my emotion in this way. And I guess that’s where that connection came from.
BW: Have you noticed any interesting patterns in your work as you’ve grown into an expressionist route?
KB: Well, I never actually paint or illustrate anything with the intention of trying to illustrate any idea or feeling, or make anyone feel anything in particular. I kind of just go for it, doing a lot of wet paint on wet paint stuff.
My objective has always been to make someone feel something. I’ve had people tell me that my art is creepy or upsetting, or that it must be a reflection of my inner state. Then I wonder, is that a reflection of my inner state? Am I creepy and upsetting? I’m not trying to make someone feel upset or creeped out.
I once received a DM on Twitter from a musician I admired, who said it was unfair to force people to feel my inner turmoil through my art. That sounds intense. I’m not trying to force anyone to feel anything, but I question if my work is creepy or not. Sometimes I think I should lean into that more because anything I do that intentionally deviates from my natural style ends up being bad, maybe disingenuous.
BW: What do you feel when you look at your own work?
KB: I don’t know. I often have an inclination to think I should have done something a little differently or added more detail. But I don’t think I’ve ever looked at a past piece of my work and not known when I did it.
My work definitely evolves. I can look back at something I did in college in 2010 and feel like I’m a better painter now, but I can also remember sitting in the room I was in when I made that piece. So maybe that’s what it is for me. I can appreciate the times and acknowledge that I’ve grown since then. I wouldn’t say my work makes me feel sad or creeps me out; it’s more like recording my memories.
BW: You tend to use a muted, earthy color palette. What mood do you hope to evoke with the limited color choices?
KB: This is less intentional and more a matter of personal preference. In short, I don’t think bright colors look as good. At the same time, most of my portraits have highlights of brighter colors (blues, purples, greens, reds) that may not seem to “naturally” appear on human skin at first glance. If you really look at someone’s face close up, though, you’ll see all sorts of blotchy colors blending into each other.
To be honest everything about my painting and illustration style is about a 50/50 combination of things I learned as a teenager or college art student and stuff that is just self-taught trial-and-error, the compilation of layers and layers of paint and discovery.
BW: You collaborate with Keith Zarriello of The Shivers. I acutally interviewed him for an unpublished Paper magazine feature back in 2012. How do you two influence each other in the course of creating a piece together?
KB: Keith and I have collaborated on several pieces, the most significant so far being FOLLETTI, which is a series of animated digital portrait paintings, each of which Keith composed an ambient musical score for.
I think that separately, Keith and I are both artists who value sort of toiling away at our craft in solitude, maybe to a point of being more “generally misunderstood,” so there was a camaraderie in that. Ultimately because we’re both such sensitive people who try to communicate emotion with our work, the marriage of visuals and sound seemed like a natural merging of the minds.
But with both FOLLETTI and other collaborative pieces, it was more intuitive than methodical. By that I mean, typically I would complete an animation and then Keith would score it with music, but occasionally the music would come first and usually if they seemed not to work well together, we’d agree that something seemed off and would make adjustments accordingly, either sound-wise or visually.
BW: You also do your own music for certain animations. Has the collaboration run its course, or is there a case-by-case whether you compose or Keith does?
KB: It’s case-by-case; some of my art is simply my own work, and though I’m not a musician, I enjoy making sound. I do think that an art piece that can incorporate more senses than one can make the viewer feel a little more. And the artist can express a little more. It’s more energy and collective pain and love shared.
The music for FOLLETTI was ambient sound — actually it was created using physical loops on a reel-to-reel tape machine, and then the audio was digitized. The music fit that collection really well, but we always wondered if we could utilize Keith’s songwriting talent more in terms of our collaborative stuff.
I’m currently working on animating a music video for a Shivers song called “Alien.” The song is coming out on April 14th and the video will be released in June.
BW: Who’s Dominic? I’ve seen a couple of pieces featuring Dominic, maybe like five or six.
KB: Dominic is my son.
BW: Oh, fantastic. How old is Dominic now?
KB: He just turned five in January.
BW: Mazel tov. How often do you draw Dominic?
KB: A lot, definitely. I use actual photos of him as reference for little animations and stuff quite often. My first NFT collection of digital portrait paintings were based on these folkloric characters that look like elves, but they were all little boys. I definitely used his likeness in making the characters for that collection.
BW: That was the one you did with Keith, right?
KB: Yes, yeah.
BW: What do you think of as the optimal viewing experience for your animated Isola pieces?
KB: Ideally, it would be as immersive as possible. Sound and visual is a given, but I’ve always imagined multiple faces being projected on every wall of a dark room with surround sound. I’d like to be able to pull that off someday as an exhibit.
BW: How do you animate your work? Some of your IG animations are stop-motion, but the Tezos Isola animations are pretty complex-seeming.
KB: Any formal education I have related to art has to do with painting and illustration. My initial interest in animation actually started with frame-by-frame illustrations, and sometimes I build puppets and do some experimental stop-motion stuff.
What you’re seeing with the Tezos animations and also with FOLLETTI is a single digital portrait painting (my digital painting has also been quite experimental), which I “animate” using a motion capture program and my own face once the painting is finished.
BW: Jerry Saltz left a flattering comment on your Instagram. As an art writer, he’s a personal hero of mine. How did that feel?
KB: I was surprised and wondered if it was a mistake. I felt flattered. I would love to meet him in real life. I think I had commented on another artist’s photo on Instagram, and he saw my comment, then he must have looked at my page. He doesn’t actually follow me, but the fact that he went through some of my art, gave me a few likes, and commented was touching.
He commented on one of my guest check portraits, which are these portraits of people I drew in my restaurant job. That whole collection became a tribute to people who are keeping on, working at their day jobs while pursuing their careers, and not giving up. So it really meant a lot to me.
BW: How often do you draw? The Guest Check series seems to be almost like a journal. Is this a daily thing or just when you’re working?
KB: It started more as a compulsion. I always describe my art as a compulsion. Working in a seasonal restaurant in Florida, I began drawing portraits during the slow times last summer. I started doodling from photos on my phone, including one of my son and one of Keith, on the back of the guest checks where there’s cardboard.
A friend suggested trying the front, and so I began drawing over the lines like I used to do in my school notebooks. I did it whenever there was downtime at work. After realizing I’d made a few good ones, I began bringing them home, adding paint, and only using the blue and black Bic pens available at the restaurant. It turned into a full series.
BW: Who are the people in your portraits?
KB: They’re all people I’ve come into contact with at my restaurant job in some capacity. A few are coworkers or people I’ve sort of gotten to know. Many are total strangers.
BW: How often do you finish a portrait?
KB: This totally depends on the size and medium. I usually work on stuff for a lot longer than I think it will take me. With a larger painting, days or weeks. With the Guest Checks, it varied a bit… over the course of about a month, there were days I think I did three in one day, meanwhile certain Guest Checks I’d work on for several hours over the course of a day or two. I can’t really say why, it’s just how it happens.
BW: As an artist who works primarily in physical mediums, how do digital art and digital distribution fit into your creative practice?
KB: I’m super attached to the physical process of creating art. I like to feel it in my hands. At first digital painting felt weird to me and the only thing that made my brain sort of get it was just to hold a stylus like I would a brush or pen and work in a “similar” style. Digital distribution, however, has been very significant to me.
After college, I didn’t pursue advertising or graphic design, and being a painter seemed unrealistic. I never broke into the New York art world, but I always made art. The notion of making art that I want and selling it as a digital token and asset, ideally with the physical art included, was significant. I’ve made more money selling my art as NFTs in the past year and a half than in the 30 years before that.
BW: For someone who’s so prolific, how does frustration manifest in your creative practice? What strategies do you use to get through or around it?
KB: If I’m prolific, it’s because I constantly create. There’s dedication, but it’s also a compulsion. As a kid, I’d make sculptures from sticks and string if that’s all I had. Sometimes it feels like a curse or a sickness, but I’ve never experienced a lack of desire to create. Much of what I make, I give away or discard, otherwise I’d be living in a museum of puppets, paint, and creepy crafts.
In all seriousness, every “good idea” I’ve had in art hasn’t just popped into my head. It’s always when I start creating something without a plan that something clicks, and I pursue that direction.
BW: Can you describe your involvement with crypto art? Are you an active collector? Are there any art communities you’re involved with?
KB: For the most part, I never had the money or the brain to get into the PFP stuff. I’m here for the art. My collection is small but I collect from artists whose work moves me and I plan to continue to operate that way.
BW: What advice would you give your 20-year-old self about making a career out of art?
KB: It’s okay if people don’t understand you and think you’re weird. Don’t change the pure parts of yourself. Someday you’ll be the coolest person in the room.