Copy and Paste Forever ✾
Katherine Frazer on studying ikebana and using Keynote as a canvas.
Creativity is part of every aspect of Katherine Frazer’s life. Not only is she a celebrated visual artist, she is a student of ikebana, and a senior product designer at Apple, where she has developed applications like Freeform, Pages, Numbers, and Keynote. In her art, she incorporates the tools she has developed for artistic means, creating collages, animations, and digital paintings. She often draws source material from different aspects of her life, like her ikebana practice and daily interactions with her iPhone.
For her Gemma-commissioned artwork, “Life Force,” Katherine blends elements of reality with speculative elements like island land masses and abstract stained glass windows. In a conversation with Gemma contributor Willa Köerner, she talks about working with organic materials, pursuing beauty, and embracing learning as a lifelong practice.
Willa Köerner: Can you tell me about the piece you're launching with Gemma?
Katherine Frazer: It's titled Life Force. It’s somewhat inspired by StarCraft, the '90s real-time strategy game. I'm interested in putting together these disparate elements into a collage that imply how vastly different pieces could work together. In video games, several different art styles will often be mashed together into one cohesive whole, and I think my background as a UX designer requires me to similarly slot different UI elements together to make one feature. With Life Force, I wanted to create a piece that was inspired by collaging interfaces.
I like making pieces that allow me to take from previous works that I've done, and then mash them up together into a new formulation. I joke that a lot of my practice is just copying and pasting, because that's essentially what I'm doing. But I like this incrementalist approach where you take these really simple things and then if you copy and paste them enough, you end up with something intricate and compelling.
Maybe this is a good segue to talk about ikebana, the ancient Japanese art of flower arranging—something you’ve been studying for a few years now. How’d you end up as a student of ikebana?
I got into it because I wasn't making art, and that annoyed me. I felt very burnt out from my day job, and I just wanted accountability. So much of being an artist is being by yourself, as it’s not in a lot of people's interests to help you, or to get in the weeds with you. But I really wanted someone to work with me one-on-one and to force me to create. So, I was seeking out a discipline that required a student-teacher relationship.
The introductory lessons to ikebana are really regimented, and you have diagrams that you have to follow pretty closely. But now that I've been doing it for a few years, all of my arrangements are freestyle and have a loose theme about them. My teacher will give me a prompt, and then I have to figure out how to execute it. The last one that I made was an arrangement that only used one type of material. And today, I went to the flower district to get a bunch of leaves, because I have to make an arrangement with no flowers—just leaves.
Can you explain the overall premise of ikebana? What are the arrangements trying to achieve?
Well, there are different schools of ikebana. I specifically study Sogetsu ikebana, which is a more modern, avant-garde school of ikebana. But generally, the approach to ikebana is to emphasize the natural beauty found in plant materials. Historically ikebana has been a very aristocratic practice, but the Sogetsu school flips that on its head and is basically like, “You can make an ikebana arrangement with any type of materials, anywhere, anytime.” My teacher was showing me this vase that she made out of melted plastic in her garage.
You talked about wanting somebody to hold you accountable. I totally know what you mean—when you're spending so much of your energy on your day job, but you still have this creative impulse that's not fulfilled, having some sort of structure that teases it out of you can be really helpful.
Yeah. I also feel like it's just very hard to find a mentor, generally. I had no expectations that my teacher would be very formative to me—I just googled ikebana lessons one day, and then just emailed the first result, and that was her. [Laughs]
But learning ikebana has really had an effect on your creative practice, it sounds like.
Yeah. The early lessons that you do are just so iterative. Basically, you do 40 different arrangements that are derivatives of each other. They use the same three major stems and the same angles, so you’re just reconfiguring the same elements over and over.
It’s still very exciting, though. I like that ikebana is virtually plagiarism-proof. Even though we’re all doing the same things in the class, one person's arrangement will look totally different from another person's arrangement, even if they're technically doing the same one.
Is that because it's a collaboration with organic materials?
Yes, but even elements of your stature or personality come out. Like, I was always the tallest person in the class, and then I always ended up with the tallest arrangement. My friend started taking ikebana lessons, and I always joke with him that his arrangements are bushy, simply because he likes to leave a lot of leaves on them. So yeah, the arrangements will always vary by person. That’s what keeps it interesting—and it’s what keeps me interested in my work, too. There are always variations, even within repetition.
You’re a product designer at Apple, and I wonder how that affects your creative practice. On your website, you say that you often take the work that you're doing in your day job and the tools you're helping to design, and then use them for your own creative practice. Why?
A lot of it was about reducing the barrier to entry for me to make work, and also just thinking about ways to try to view the software in a new light. When you're using something day in and day out, it can become very stale. Several years ago, I was working on Keynote features. I was also designing in Keynote and presenting in Keynote, and I just got so sick of it. I had this urge to ask, "How can I make this more interesting for myself?" That's when I made my first Keynote painting.
Going back to how I started with ikebana, I wanted a way to force myself to create. And I felt like the easiest way to do that was to use the tools that I was already familiar with, and give myself simple prompts to work from. So for example, when I’d make work in Figma—a product I used to help design, which is primarily a vector tool—I’d use it to create collages made out of raster assets. Or with Keynote, I got excited about the idea of a slide as a canvas that you can duplicate and iterate on, or even animate between the different slides. It feels like playing with, or sometimes against, the personality of the application. I end up thinking of the software as a collaborator, in a way. It's this feedback loop where I'm designing a piece of software, but I want to be able to surprise myself with it, too.
What are some of the tricks of your trade, if you don't mind sharing? How are you building up these whole collagey worlds inside of Keynote?
I use Keynote’s “Remove Background” tool a lot. I typically take 3D scans on my phone, and then I'll take screenshots of those scans. A lot of times, the 3D models aren't captured super well—which can make certain captures look like brush strokes or an interesting texture, and so on. So I'll rotate these 3D scans around, screenshot them from different angles, and then put it all into Keynote to remove the backgrounds. And then I rely heavily on Keynote’s Align and Distribute functions to create these relationships between different objects rather than manually arranging each one.
What I like about making art this way, and about ikebana, is that it’s not about what I'm going to make—it’s about the exploration and the process. I like being able to open up a file and play within a pre-existing system. In this way, I’m never starting from scratch. Each work perpetuates more work.
Beyond having a teacher to hold you accountable, how do you keep yourself motivated and keep coming back to your creative practice? Do you try to do a little bit every day?
I often say that making art is like playing a single player video game. It is pretty engrossing and keeps me occupied, almost like playing a game of chess with myself. So I like the distraction and ability to empty my mind. Making art is very therapeutic for me. I feel like I haven't made as much work lately because I've just been interested in other things. Actually, I've been really into the idea of life overall as a form of creative practice.
Can you say more about that? How does one reframe their whole life as a creative practice?
I care about beauty, and that’s what drew me to become a designer. That's what draws me to art, too—this desire to try to make something beautiful in a way that I haven't seen before.
Why do you think you care about beauty so much, or why do you think so many of us care about it? Finding beauty—in ourselves, in others, in our environments—is such a universal quest. What do you think it is that drives us towards this deep desire for beauty in our lives?
What drives me is that I feel like I have the opportunity to pursue it, and I want to pursue it. I want to try to reach my potential, and I feel like that's my way to do it. It's not to say that I think of my art as beautiful, but I feel like it's exploring my own ideas of beauty.
There's something really challenging about finding beauty or making beauty. It's like you can't always explain how to get there, or how to make it. It’s a “you know it when you see it” type of thing.
Exactly—which makes it so hard, and so rewarding, to pursue. If my teacher gives me feedback on an arrangement, I'll always be like, "What are you talking about, putting that branch there?" And then I do and I'm like, "Oh my God, that's it." That's what I want to gain for myself—this understanding and application of taste, and I don't think I'm there yet. I feel like I'm a beginner in everything that I do, but it's also refreshing to me to think that I'll be a beginner for the rest of my life, because there are so many different permutations or ways to delve deeper into whatever you're interested in.
I like the idea of infinite games where there isn't a goal. It just perpetuates itself forever. That mentality is how I make art, but it's also how I live my life, too.
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