If you’re an artist living in San Fracisco’s East Bay, you’ve heard of KALA. (For me, it’s always in capital letters.) KALA is an integral part of the Bay Area art scene and has been for a long time. Over the years, several friends have taken workshops there or have gotten into their artist’s residency program. And the idea of interviewing co-founder and director, Archana Horsting, occurred to me a long time ago. But with so many fascinating choices, I’ve come to rely on forces lining up according their own designs. And that’s what happened.
It’s been forty years since Archana and Yuzo Nakano co-founded Kala Art Institute. They describe it as an international workshop and forum for ideas. It’s a multi-faceted place that provides first-rate facilities to artists working in printmaking, digital media, photography and book arts. Their 15,000 square foot facility in West Berkeley houses an extensive array of equipment, a gallery, an art library and an extensive print archive.
KALA’s enduring presence in the Bay Area art scene has been a blessing. They currently serve approximately 25,000 people annually. In addition to their artists–in-residence program, there are over 100 classes and workshops open to the public; rotating exhibits in their gallery and in off-site locations; and on-going lectures, artists talks and special events. An artists-in-schools program provides curriculum-based visual arts education to children in schools in Berkeley, Emeryville and Oakland.
Artists associated with Kala over the years include Squeak Carnwath, Roy de Forest, Jessica Dunne, Bella Feldman, Enrique Chagoya, Zarina Hashmi, Barbara Foster, Sonya Rapoport, Peter Voulkos and William Wiley.
I had no doubt that Archana’s story would be intriguing, and was just waiting for that additional nudge from the universe. It came one day visiting the Berkeley Art Center. I was stopped by a framed piece in their foyer. “Who did that?” I asked.
“Archana Horsting,” Suzanne Tan answered.
“Wow! I love it!” On the spot, I decided the time had come. Most people probably know Archana for her role as Kala’s director. When an artist is also the director of an alternative space, a museum or some other art institution, it seems to mitigate against a career as a practicing artist. There are time constraints, but there’s also the universal tendency of categorical thinking.
Seeing that one etching at the Berkeley Art Center revealed Hostinq, the artist, for me and immediately I wanted to see more of her work.
The interview took place at her home in Emeryville and continued in her nearby studio.
When did you originally set up KALA?
We started in 1974 in a garage in San Francisco. Then we moved it to a storefront near Ashby BART at Fairview and Adeline for about five years. Then we lost the lease.
So you started KALA in San Francisco?
Yes. But just for six months. Then we realized the East Bay was more affordable and we would have more space and light. And I’d already found housing in the East Bay. So we moved over here. That was 40 years ago.
Anyway, there was a period of setting that up where I didn’t get a lot of studio time. So in the early 80s I started to reconnect to my work and I was stuck at first, because I didn’t want to pick up old things I’d been doing. I wasn’t quite sure of the path forward. So I just went back to the most basic thing of all, which is making a mark.
For me, it’s the most basic. I made a mark, and then I made another mark. Then I got to the point, almost like a water-witcher, of just waiting to let my pen tell me which way it wanted to go. I went into a very slowed down line and just waited for minute feelings of one direction or another. A whole series of drawings came out of this.
How long did that period last where you were working that way?
A year or two, something like that. And then everything that followed sort of came out of that period.
Now to me what you are describing is very interesting.
I have notebooks I can show you and collections of the drawings. Then I began to redraw from my drawings.
You were drawing almost like a water dowser, you said—paying attention to subtle…
To minute sensations inclining me to move, almost as if my body was telling me to go left or right or up or down.
And that’s really an interesting study, isn’t it?
Well it kind of goes back to automatic drawing, which my teacher in Paris was really into, Stanley William Hayter, who brought the whole surrealist tradition in Paris into his studio. That’s where I met Nakano and where we decided to set up our own studio in California.
You were in Paris at that time?
Yes. It was called Atelier 17
. Hayter started it in the 20s. He was an old Englishman there—in his 80s, I think—when we were students. He was a great believer in automatic drawing, but he didn’t mean extra slowed-down. He meant very loose. He always would recommend warming up exercises for finding your own gesture, like moving your arm around on the paper without lifting your pencil.
So you hadn’t done any automatic writing, or drawing, experiments on your own before?
Before Paris, no. And you know how strong the 50s was about having your own gesture. The whole Abstract Expressionist movement was about getting your gesture.
Hayter moved his studio to New York during the war years from 1940 to 1950. Jackson Pollock was a de facto student of his, and I think Hayter had a big influence on Pollock’s later work. Hayter was very strong about artists finding their own gesture and having a little more faith in their movements, and how that could come into their work. He also made us draw in ways we weren’t used to drawing. There were exercises like not letting two lines cross or always making circular lines. So those little rules forced you to draw in a different way.
He would take you out of your habits?
Yes. That was the idea. This line drawing here [pointing] relates to that drawing period.
RW: It’s beautiful.
Thank you. It was an iteration from those first, slow automatic drawings. I’d take the most interesting ones and use them for reference to make a larger version, which I’d do in oil stick. When I started working with oil stick, I was excited and thought, “Oh, I can play with this for a week or two.” But I’ve stayed with it. It allowed me to do things such as smudging, like we did in Kindergarten. After years of printmaking I had the ability in my hands to control tone on a plate. I knew very well how to move ink around and leave just what I wanted and not take off the rest.
RW: You’re talking about an education in touch and kinetic intelligence.
Right. I really started out as a sculptor, not a painter. So I thought about the movements I’d done for years in my printmaking. And with oil stick—that lots of people use—I discovered I could control the tone with my fingers and hand.
RW: What role would you say that sensation and the body play in all that?
I think quite a bit. I was using them as my instruments, as my way of getting to how I perceived the world. I think when you’re looking at somebody else’s work, what makes it interesting is if they let you walk in their moccasins and see the world through their point of view and how they perceive it.
RW: If the work accomplishes that, that’s a tremendous thing. But it’s a big question, right?
Right, it is a big question. Anyway, after I’d gotten Kala resituated, I went back to my own work and decided I had to start from the ABCs, which is why I started with a mark. It was my way of trying to find my own path again. So I did a whole series of just simple line drawings. None of this is very high-tech, but at the same time, I was finding my way through these different things.
RW: So this was a re-working of an earlier drawing?
Of one of those drawings that came from following my hand, probably around ’83. I thought this idea of smudging would disappear or get tiresome, but I began to see how it created warm and cool tones. I’m still exploring black and white over thirty years later, although I work in color, too. Here’s a small etching I did based on those little line drawings. And the etching you saw at the Berkeley Art Center was from that series also.
RW: It has kind of a tribal quality.
When you do them as etchings, the lines become indentations and come to life in a new way.
RW: That’s really strong. How do you feel about this piece?
Oh, I like it still.
RW: Do you have any reflections about why some things stay alive and others don’t?
Good question. Sometimes time has to pass. It’s hardest when you’re always living with it. But at the same time, they’re like old friends. Let’s go across the street and see more work.
RW: Okay. But I just wanted to look at this [a ceramic dog sculpture].
That’s a Gilhooly.
RW: I love it.
My mother, Ruth Horsting, taught sculpture at Davis from 1959 into the 70s. So Gilhooly was one of her grad students. I grew up in Davis. We came from Chicago, but I grew up in Davis in the art department.
RW: How old were you then?
Probably about ten in 1959
RW: And that incredible art department at UC Davis started about then, didn’t it? I mean when did Wiley and Arneson and all those people show up there?
I think Bob Arneson came maybe in 1960. They all showed up in the first two or three years. My mother and Dan Shapiro were hired the same year.
RW: Was your mother a ceramic artist?
She did a lot of bronze and welded steel, and various things.
RW: Okay. So you grew up in an art family.
Oh, yes. And all those people you hear about at Davis, if they had kids, I was their babysitter. So I hung around. But I couldn’t really go to Davis as a university student. It was just too close to home. I knew these guys. I knew what they thought. I was around when Arneson was making little finger typewriters.
I’d already seen all those things. So I found it really difficult to build on a lot of satirical art, which I loved and enjoyed; that’s why I went to Europe. I needed to get back to the roots of what art was in order to find my own path. I couldn’t do a satire on top of a satire, somehow.
RW: Right. Now I wanted to revisit those early drawings. I think it was this one I saw at the Berkeley Art Center.
It was one of these etchings. They’re all part of a series that started as black line drawings in pen and ink. Then I decided to create an intaglio plate, and before I printed it, I wiped the top of the line so the line would come out white; and then by circularly moving the plate and wiping the ink, this halo of black comes in.
RW: How did doing this work make you feel?
Oh, I was just very excited about it! I felt free in a two-dimensional space. See, I came from three-dimensional work. So how do you organize two-dimensional space? Theoretically I could understand composition, but how I needed to organize it was not clear to me to begin with.
RW: You’re well trained and knowledgeable about art and I’m wondering about the feeling part in all of this.
Well, I’d been looking for my voice like every artist does. You know, the old 10,000 hours, or whatever. You need to do a lot of stuff that looks maybe like somebody else could have made it. Everyone needs to synthesize ideas they’ve been exposed to. My mother was very well thought of by her peers and I wasn’t thinking of myself in competition with her, or anything like that, but I had to go away to discover what was authentically mine. I tried playing the violin for nine years, and so forth.
RW: You’re talking about a real search.
It’s a search. And I discovered that I really did feel most comfortable in the visual arts.
RW: Was there a moment when you felt, yes, I found something?
Yes. I did a big project at UC Santa Cruz. But I have to go back and give you some background. My first year in Italy had been when my mother took a sabbatical from UC Davis. We went to Rome. We spent 15 months in Rome. I turned 16 in Rome. My mother was doing bronze casting there. And I went to music school to decide whether I would be a musician or not in a serious way. But I still did art and some theater, and all kinds of stuff. So I was there. I fell in love with Italy that year; it was a very formative year, because I was turning into a young woman.
RW: Do you still have a connection with music? Do you still play at all?
I haven’t for a long time, but I love it and understand it better than I would if I hadn’t had that training. I spent a year at a conservatory. I had to try really deeply before I eliminated anything. I played for nine years. And also I worked at a theater in the evenings, an English-speaking theater. And I studied Italian, and all that stuff. I just fell in love with Rome, of course—and Italy, in general.
When I came back, I enrolled at UC Davis, but in my freshman year I transferred to UC Santa Cruz. Then, when I did a third year abroad, I was back in Italy. I enrolled at the University of Padua in art history, which is great because there is so much stuff you can see. You don’t have to look at slides [laughs]. You just go and see the stuff! And I also enrolled at L’Accedemia de Belli Arte
, in Venice for studio classes, because it’s so close to Padua. So my going back and forth between the Bay Area and Italy made me think deeply about certain things.
Just walking to my studio classes in Venice was a labyrinth experience. I had this wonderful feeling of being lost, and also of being freed, and getting centered by moving through these passageways and narrow walkways.
I discovered that a lot of the villas on the mainland had labyrinths—labyrinthine gardens. I’d read Dante and various Latin writers who talked about the myth of the labyrinth in Crete. Then I started doing research and got more books on the labyrinth, you know, the ones on the backs of coins. And there are the six books of the Aeneid that take us into the underground. Going into the underworld is often depicted as a labyrinth. Then there were related things in other cultures that had other meanings and nuances.
So at a certain point, I started asking myself, how am I going to put all this work I did together—these art courses, these philosophy courses, these literature courses? And eventually all of those things kind of combined in my mind in this one symbol, the labyrinth. So when I got back to UC Santa Cruz I did a major called “Studies in Symbolism.” I was very interested in metaphor and what symbols the artists used. And I decided I would build a labyrinth on campus.
That was my major work before I got into these drawings. It ended up being seventy some feet in diameter. It was octagonal with walls about three feet apart. The walls were from six to twelve feet high.
RW: What were the walls made of?
Redwood fencing. And as you got closer to the center the walls got higher, up to 12 feet high. And there was a tower in the center where I used four telephone poles.
RW: Now you didn’t build this by yourself.
No, no. [laughs] I talked a lot of people into helping me. I even had my professors up on ladders. Some of them didn’t even know how to swing a hammer, and when I started I didn’t know how to build something that would stand up.
This was a project that was possible in the early years of UC Santa Cruz, but probably nobody else would have given me the land. I had to go through all this permission-getting and raising of money and getting donated wood.
It was something like an earthwork; it was architectural, but it was also like a special form of a theater. There was one central path and eventually you get to the center. So it was more about centering, not getting lost. But you would get disoriented, and you could focus in a different way. I had imagined people going through this and being more actively involved—viewers would meet the performers one by one and there wouldn’t be that separation you have with the stage.
RW: Is it still there?
No. It was there for five years. Then they took it down. The fire department thought there weren’t enough exits.
RW: Did the theater department make use of it?
I didn’t actually stay long enough to see the final use of it. One of my professors wrote labyrinth music for it, so we had a concert in it once. There were other events, I know.
RW: Well, it’s interesting that you were moved to do that. It was symbolic of your own experience, right?
It was definitely connected with my own experience in Italy, and going back and forth between here and there. There was always the question: where is my home? Where is my center?
It was also a tremendous opportunity to take an idea and see it become a reality, which is what all artists get to do—to have an idea or vision and make it manifest. Then other people can share it. So that was a big experience—having this large-scale idea and seeing it become real. It was just a thrill. And I got all kinds of other people involved with this, the campus architect—his name was Wagstaff; he was wonderful. All these people got excited about it, which was so nice.
RW: It sounds amazing.
It was. And ultimately, that was probably good training for doing KALA. I’d had to write grant proposals; I’d had to negotiate stuff; I had to get a bunch of people excited about doing a project.
RW: That’s a great story. So the labyrinth project took the whole year, right?
Yes. It was in 1970 to ’71. And then afterwards, I went back to Europe again—on my own this time. I apprenticed myself to a sculptor there and tried to learn a lot of things and then I ended up in Padua again for several years, and then going to Paris for a year, which is where I met Nakano. That’s where I ran into Hayter and all these people, which was a wonderful experience.
RW: It seems like you’ve explored a lot of different things.
Yes. I didn’t want to study just art. I wanted to read books, to know what Plato and other people said—and then combine that with my work, eventually.
RW: Did you ever connect at all with Joseph Campbell?
He was definitely spoken about. I had a professor named Norman O. Brown. He talked about Campbell, but he was a classics professor. He discovered Marx and then he discovered Freud. He would say all kinds of Delphic things like, “Culture is agriculture.” And there was an anthropologist—I think his name was Edmund Carpenter—talking about all the ways that people are different from each other. And of course I had to take philosophy courses, literature courses. I just needed to.
RW: You must feel that artists really benefit from having a broader view.
Oh, yes. I always recommend to artists that if they can find a good university to go there. And if you want to do an MFA at an art school, fine. But get your basic foundation. And the more you study, the more you know you don’t know, but that’s another story. But still you know something about the things you don’t know and you can follow up later.
RW: Are there any philosophers or other figures in your reading and studies that have stood out in all of that?
I remember being touched early by Camus who wrote The Plague
. That was very influential when I was a 14-year-old. Do you know that book?
RW: I haven’t read that one.
Well, it’s Existentialism. But it’s also about this sense of how we all have the plague and how we can give it to somebody else. I was also searching for what made the most sense to me spiritually, and the books on Zen Buddhism and Asian thought made more sense to me. Maybe because we’re too close to the basic myths of Western thought.
RW: Did you get involved in Zen practice at all?
I did when I was in college.
RW: In Europe or over here in the Bay Area?
RW: San Francisco Zen Center?
Yes. I mean nobody over there would remember me, but I would come up from Santa Cruz and listen to some of the dharma talks.
RW: Was Shunryu Suzuki still alive?
Yes. Suzuki roshi was still there. I did a sesshin one time with him, and things like that. So it had a nice direction. It was quite lovely.
RW: Well, you obviously have done a lot of exploring and looking into things. All that’s really wonderful to hear.
Yes. Well I’m never bored, left to my own devices. The world is a fascinating place. How about if we go on through these? [turning to more etchings]
RW: Yes, let’s look at more.
I was working really late every night and trying to get these things printed. So this is the front piece of this series: Text, Context, Texture, Architexture.
I was discovering things about marks and scale; when they’re small enough they’re a texture; when they’re larger, they become architexture. It all depends on the context and also the way we share ideas with text. So all these marks have all these relationships. I was exploring all of that and having fun. These came out of these simple black and white drawings, also. This one is called Paduan Arches
, because I lived in Padua, which is full of archways that you walk through. So I was reminded of that once I made the drawing.
RW: I see.
This was called Aztec Clown
. I was exploring here with the context and also what colored it emotionally.
RW: It’s a big thing going away from black and gray to color here.
Right. But it was enough just to do one color at a time, to figure out which color it should be. [showing me another piece] This one I call Underwater Arch
. Since my name is Archana, I’m very fond of arches generally.
RW: That’s a beauty.
The context of wateriness comes from the color, which if it were a different color wouldn’t feel that way.
RW: And obviously context goes out beyond the edge of the work itself.
Oh yes. Everything is adjacent to it. So this I call the Kandinsky Kid
. I don’t know why, but there is something about it. It’s like a buzz cut or something. And then this one, when I turn it around and make it horizontal, I printed it horizontally in ochre. Then it became pyramids or something. That was part of a whole series where I was taking the images, turning them, changing the color and then you can see it completely differently. This one is called Palenque
RW: Wow, very cool.
It just reminded me of trips to the pyramids in Mexico.
RW: Has this work been shown very much?
Once at KALA.
RW: This work should be out there.
These titles are just sort of poetic handles. That’s what all my titles are. They’re not supposed to explain anything, but they’re…
RW: Sure. Titles are interesting. They point the reader, or the viewer. So they have to be very carefully chosen, or just neutral.
Yes. It has to have some connection, but it’s not meant to be a complete explanation. For me it’s sort of a poetic handle so I can recall the image really fast in my own mind.
RW: I’m guessing you’ve thought about the difference between the visual and words. How’s that for a big subject?
My whole undergraduate degree was in metaphor; literature and metaphor and art— metaphor and reality.
RW: All right. So the artist is trying to show something, right? I mean what are you trying to do as an artist?
As an undergraduate, I was trying to understand how art communicates. I didn’t want to communicate in a way that could just be written about. It had to be more direct and more touching than that. So I was thinking about all these problems. And at that time the philosophers were the logical positivists based on the early Wittgenstein.
RW: Wittgenstein, and also Bertrand Russell, thought they could nail it down, didn’t they?
Yes. Something is equal to something else, or it is not equal. [laughs] So they had it down to two or three propositions, the whole of meaning. Of course, I didn’t feel that was sufficient. And yet it was very hard to prove that a poetic metaphor, for instance, had any kind of logical meaning. Things were getting narrowed down. And then the later Wittgenstein came along and said, no, words don’t have to be defined absolutely. They can still shed light on something. He used a metaphor of light and how its illumination doesn’t have clear boundaries.
RW: Right. And he totally changed direction in this thought.
Yes. I really liked the late Wittgenstein. So that’s interesting. Then what I found in reading Samuel Beckett was that he said exactly similar things to the late Wittgenstein, only much more poetically. I did a comparison of paragraphs from Samuel Beckett from his trilogy, his three novels.
RW: Can you give an example of something the late Wittgenstein would say that Beckett also said? Even just paraphrasing that would be interesting.
Well, I remember Beckett talking about this character who communicates with his mother. It was a take-off on Aristotle, or maybe Augustine. One knock meant “yes,” two knocks meant “no.” I can’t remember exactly. It was on the basic idea of communication being very limited. Anyway, there are some wonderful quotes.
RW: I’m thinking of a couple of great Wittgenstein quotes: “What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence.” But he also said that what cannot be said can sometimes be shown—something like that.
Right. And this is the late Wittgenstein. A word didn’t have a precise definition, but that doesn’t mean a word is not illuminating, because it’s like a light. As I was saying, light doesn’t have a firm boundary, but it still gives us the light that we need.
That’s really the way I thought of metaphor and symbols; they pointed. When you have a comparison of two things and, if they’re both active in your mind at the same time, some kind of leap has to be made. And then we also don’t learn new things unless we can create metaphors. We sometimes use very mundane metaphors to explain very complex things in order for the mind to grasp them.
RW: I would like to see those quotes. But the whole question of communication is really—I mean the subject is fraught with failures.
Very difficult is communication. So the original work of someone like Wittgenstein was about how it was impossible to say many things. Then he discovered that people can still point to things, but you don’t look at the finger, you look at the direction the finger is pointing. And that’s really what artists do.
RW: What artists try
to do. How about that?
Yes. They don’t always succeed. But good metaphors that are alive are the best way to communicate, I think. It’s a way we learn new things. Whether it’s an artist or poet or a scientist, they will always try to find a metaphor to describe an experience we haven’t had yet, but they have.
And when you look at language and how language grew, the etymology of it and how it was built, it was based on all these metaphors. If we say “foot of the mountain” the foot doesn’t jump out at you as an idea, but you know it means at the base of the mountain.
RW: So this is an analogy for what art could
be doing, or should be doing.
Right. There’s a way that art can communicate that pure logic alone cannot describe. It didn’t mean we should be illogical. And I don’t want to be saying non-sense. I just thought that nobody was looking at the metaphorical side of language deeply enough whereas people had really looked at the logical side.
RW: Especially at that time.
Especially at that time. I felt the scales were weighted too much on that side. Then the later Wittgenstein brought out these inconsistencies in language that still actually succeeded in transferring ideas and information. Something was happening there. He wasn’t able to say it very easily himself, but people were poring over how he said it.
But in reading Beckett, I realized the power of the artist is to make much more real the meaning, or more potent the meaning, we’re trying to find in our lives.
RW: There’s the search again. Sometimes the search could be a search for the self, I’d say, although the “self” is another difficult…
RW: So while the artist is trying to show something to others, it’s also perhaps a process where something becomes visible to oneself.
Oh, absolutely. I think, that’s the real motive, but it is wonderful to be able to share it. First you have to discover it. And I always tell young artists, “Don’t worry so much about showing, showing, showing. Find, first
. Discover what you have to say. Then you’ll have something to show that’s meaningful.”
RW: This portfolio that you’re showing me is an example of that, isn’t it?
Yes. I felt that way.
RW: Now, I’m curious. You’re in a position that most artists are not in. You’re the director of an important art institution. KALA is a significant part of the whole Bay Area art scene. And you’re the director. And you’re also a dedicated, serious artist. So is that a problem in terms of getting recognition? Because people think of you as the founding director of Kala.
Archana: I try not to see it as a problem. The real problem is that there are not enough hours in the day.
RW: What if I asked, is it an issue?
Archana: Okay. When Nakano and I founded Kala, I swore that I wouldn’t let the institution prevent me from being an artist.
RW: Yes. But don’t people tend think you’re either this or that?
Archana: I’m sure more people think of me as an arts administrator than an artist. I try not to let that bother me too much. What’s more important is that I know that I’ve done less work than if I had just dedicated myself to work. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have been exposed to all these wonderful artists and learned so much about process and technique and so on. There are times when I have to recuse myself from shows because I don’t put my own work in shows I jury, obviously.
RW: So probably more people know you as Archana who runs Kala instead of Archana the artist. I knew you ran KALA, but I didn’t know your work, for instance. And now I do. And it’s wonderful.
Thank you. I'm delighted. Not too long ago Jim Melchert came to see some work and he’d never seen it. And he was interested.
RW: That’s the point.
So it’s very satisfying to have somebody respond to the work, of course. And also, they see it in a way you don’t see it. So you learn things.
RW: Well, it’s mysterious to me why some work just has something. And some of your work does, for me. I don’t run into that very much.
I think also the fact that I was exploring the mark so much. That goes back to our earliest civilizations, pre-civilizations.
RW: So going back to how you were consciously approaching making marks with this question: what other thing in myself can operate and direct my hand? That would be a very delicate search, wouldn’t you say? Did you find that your mind would jump in and interfere?
Oh, yes. You have to stay quiet until an indication comes.
RW: And that’s a hard thing to do, isn’t it?
It’s a hard thing, but that goes back to meditation, and everything else. You know?
RW: That’s why I’m so interested. You wait for an indication, but in that space of waiting your ordinary mind can give you some subtle suggestion of a movement. So how do you discriminate when it’s your thought and when it comes from somewhere outside of thought?
How do you discriminate every day in all your actions? It’s good to listen to your higher mind—however you find it, I guess. Whether it’s how do I be a good person? How do I listen to someone? How am I to act in a way that’s humane? Those are difficult moments, but they come up in everything.
Yes. Just listening to yourself, and there are always trade-offs.
RW: Listening is not just a simple matter.
No. And it’s not easy to find someone who is so attentive to what I’ve been trying to do. It’s very flattering and also very satisfying to have someone look this closely; and not everybody looks, as well as listens.