Talented and introspective, mixed media artist Maura Cluthe integrates text, drawing, photography, painting, and other “stuff” she has collected into her art. These collected fragments take on new meaning and live on within her paintings. Since graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute in 1993 with a BFA in Illustration, Maura has shown her mixed media works across the country including Kansas City, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Jackson Hole, Calgary and London.
You’ve lived in Kansas City since ’89, what brought you here? How has the city grown?
I first visited Kansas City when I was a junior in high school. My family was living in Houston, TX at the time. I had decided at that point that I wanted to go to art school and the Kansas City Art Institute was one of the schools that I was thinking of applying to. Several of my peers were thinking of applying to KCAI as well so my art teacher brought a small group of us to Kansas City one fall weekend to visit. I fell in love with KC that weekend. The energy I felt here and within the school felt right. I felt at home here. I ended up going to KCAI and have called KC my home ever since.
The most noticeable thing, I think, is the growth of the Crossroads district. When I first arrived in KC, many of the buildings in the Crossroads were warehouses. There were several great galleries in town (Dolphin, Leedy Voulkos, Byron Cohen, the KC Artists Coalition, to name a few), but seeing the Crossroads grow and change has been really inspiring. Additionally, while attending KCAI, the Kemper Museum wasn’t there so seeing the construction of the Kemper happen, the Bloch addition on the Nelson Atkins Museum and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts has been really amazing.
“I hope that they (MY STUDENTS) have a stronger, clearer sense of who they are and what makes their work unique.”
GROWING UP WAS CREATIVITY ENCOURAGED? WHEN DID YOU KNOW YOU WANTED TO
BE AN ARTIST?
Definitely. Although I don’t think that my parents were necessarily thrilled that I wanted to go to art school (!), they always encouraged me to keep drawing. I also played the violin from first grade to eighth grade. They encouraged me to play and invested in lessons. One of my favorite teachers was a member of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. She often gave my parents and I free tickets so I could see her play! It was so cool! Each of my grandmothers encouraged me to explore and try new things. They were each creative in different ways and were always making things for family and friends. I credit them for my desire to try new mediums and different ways of working. My high school art teachers also really influenced how I create. In addition to teaching me how to keep an “idea book”, they also encouraged me to simply have fun with my work and to draw & create what feels right. I still think of that today when I’m working on stuff.
After eighth grade, I had to make a decision about whether I wanted to continue playing the violin in high school or not. I thoroughly enjoyed playing. Being part of a youth symphony was so fun. It was a lot of hard work, too, but the sound of a piece of music coming together on the night of the performance after so many hours of practice was magical. Everything fell into place. When faced with this decision, however, what I realized was that I love to draw and create stuff more than play the violin. I’m not sure if that’s when I decided that I wanted to be an artist but I eventually sold my violin to purchase my first easel (which I still own) so I guess that says something.
If you could only choose one which would it be—robots or monsters?
HA! Robots! Definitely! I am a little obsessed.
You teach illustration at the Kansas City Art Institute. What is one thing that you want each student to take AWAY from your class?
Teaching is such a humbling experience and one that I am so grateful for. When I think about teaching, I can’t help but think of the many wonderful teachers that I had growing up. I was very fortunate to have had the teachers that I had. They were invested in me and genuinely encouraged me to keep moving forward, keep playing and keep trying. I don’t think I would be where I am today if not for them. When my students move on from my classes, I hope that they have a stronger, clearer sense of who they are and what makes their work unique. It’s going to be different for every student, but I hope I am able to help them move forward, with confidence.
Describe your process working with mixed media. Is working with multiple medias at once helpful?
I like to collect all kinds of stuff. Utilizing everything from printed ephemera, fabric, discarded materials, game pieces, drawing and painting, it’s always a lot of fun to try to bring various elements together in a way that feels balanced and cohesive. I start by putting a ton of stuff out in front of me on my large worktable. I have no idea what these pieces are going to be or what they’re going to look like when I start piecing them together. Each one is a puzzle that I’m figuring out as I go along. It’s a game, and within every piece I discover something different. I love that.
I love mixed media because it can be whatever I need it to be. I primarily use acrylic and other water-based permanent mediums because I like the immediacy of it; I don’t have to wait for it to dry that long and I can work on several pieces at once. At the same time, I like to play, try lots of different things and revisit ways I’ve worked in the past. I’ve been revisiting using oil and enamel again recently and it’s been really fun. It feels familiar, yet at the same time I feel like I’m way out of my comfort zone.
“It’s a game, and within every piece I discover
I love that.”
How often do you collaborate with other makers? Is it an important part of your process?
Although I’ve collaborated with quite a few artists, it’s been a while since I’ve taken on a collaborative project. It might be time to create a new one! I love to collaborate. I love it because it forces me to see things differently and work differently.
There are so many different ways of doing things! Seeing how others work and the way they work helps to inform how I work and why I work the way I do. It makes me question things and helps to reaffirm things at the same time. I love it.
What would be the biggest risk you have taken thus far in your career?
During the first semester of my junior year at KCAI, I interned for Hallmark. I was 19 years old and didn’t know what the heck I was doing or where I was going. I wanted to maybe go to grad school but my interests were all over the place, so I decided against it. I was offered a job at Hallmark in October of my senior year. Since I was undecided about grad school, I took the job.
I ended up staying and from 1992 to 2012 I worked for Hallmark in some capacity or another. Originally hired as an illustrator, I also worked as a designer and an art director (for Shoebox cards) and over the years I created all sorts of stuff.
I continued this schedule until December of 2012, when I left the comfort (and paycheck!) of Hallmark so I could focus on teaching … and try to balance my life! Maintaining a healthy work/life balance is a constant challenge, and I’m still learning. I miss seeing my friends at Hallmark as often as I used to, but I truly love teaching. Every day is different and my students have taught me so much. I feel very lucky.
What makes Kansas City a special place for creative people?
THE MOST ATTRACTIVE THING TO ME when I was considering moving to KC was the fact that it’s in the center of the US (thus, traveling to any coast isn’t too pricey) and it’s actually affordable to live here! Over the years, both of those things are part of what has kept me here. There’s a reason Kansas City is called Paris of The Plains. The arts—and artists—are truly supported here and have been for years. There are generations of artists—writers, photographers, visual artists, dancers, musicians—that live here that make up a large part of the community that are genuinely supportive of one another. I also think there is incredible, inspiring, meaningful work that is being created here, continuously, that is accessible.
“There IS INCREDIBLE, inspiring, meaningful work that is being created here, continuously,
that is accessible.”
What do you listen to you when you make?
Music, mostly. Very loud so I can sing along! Having grown up in a house that was filled with all kinds of music (my Dad was a music nut!), I tend to like lots of different stuff. Some of my favorite artists/bands include Billie Holiday, Leon Redbone, Bjork, Arcade Fire, Sallie Ford, Peter Gabriel, Nick Cave, Beach House, The Decemberists, David Byrne, Low, Iron & Wine, St. Vincent, LCD Soundsystem, Heartless Bastards, Bon Iver… to name a few. I could go on! I love music.
What’s the best thing to happen to you in the past year?
Knowing that my husband’s brain surgery went well.
you have a nice balance between commercial work and fine art. is that balance important to your practice?
Thank you. Yes, definitely. When I began working at Hallmark, although I enjoyed what I was working on during the day, I found that it wasn’t satisfying me creatively. Everything that I created commercially during my job, as a Hallmark employee, was art directed and became the property of Hallmark. It was important to me to make something for myself (that wasn’t art directed by someone else). At home in the evenings, I could play and experiment on larger pieces, with different color palettes and materials, etc. What ended up happening, eventually, is that my commercial work helped to fuel my personal work and my personal work helped to fuel my commercial work. Discoveries I’d make at home, I’d bring into what I was doing at work, and vice versa. It was really great and fit the way that I like to work. I still tend to do this today with my work.
“Discoveries I’d make at home,
I’d bring into
what I was doing at work, and
Unique to Kansas City, what is one local restaurant, store or space that you love?
Hmmm….The first place that comes to mind is probably the River Market Antique Mall. I love that place (as my students know)! Aside from practically outfitting my entire studio with furniture & equipment from that place(!), I’ve found SO MANY wonderful treasures there over the years.