Katina Huston Produces Kaleidoscopic Paintings

An Alameda artist lets her experiences guide her shadow drawings and other works.


Photos by Lance Yamamoto

San Francisco native Katina Huston never imagined herself living in Alameda. Growing up in the city in the ’70s, she remembers a go-go dancer shaking it in an acrylic box atop a pole on Broadway. She described her time there as being surrounded by a lot of “wow.”

Reflecting back on her childhood, which she described as “Dickensian,” and how it shaped her in becoming an artist, she said, “As somewhat of an outsider, if you have no sense of belonging, then there is little fear of getting kicked out for acting like yourself. There’s a lot of space there.” Huston also became an artist because she had a lot to say and because she believes artists are a community resource.

Her father, who died when she was 6, was “a collector with a preservationist’s eye” from whom she heard a lot that she couldn’t grok while playing under the kitchen table. After high school, she went to NYU to study art history and get some answers. While there, she realized she wanted to make stuff, not study what others made. Returning to San Francisco, she waited tables and got a job as a writer for the New Mission News, taking art classes at City College of San Francisco. She worked in ceramics, until the earthquake in 1989 informed her of the medium’s fragility.

Huston came to Oakland in 1992 to get an MFA at Mills College and landed in Alameda in 2000. The idea of a conservative tone scared her, but Alameda was different from what she expected.

“For one, Navy folks followed the California vehicle code with something like devotion. Cars rolled to a crisp stop just short of the white line. It was a thing of beauty,” she said.

Alameda is full of surprises, she said, adding, “Fireside Bar opened at 10 a.m. just so I could get hand-pulled garlic noodles for breakfast. And the wisdom earned from 100 years of do-it-yourselfers makes Pagano’s Hardware an artist’s dream.”

For a decade or more she has been drawing shadows. Finding an evocative object — from a palm leaf to a bicycle — she suspends it from the ceiling to cast a shadow, working ink, acrylic, and oil paint onto Mylar into the resulting form. “This technique lets me stay in shapes and spaces that are fully abstract but ring with physical familiarity,” Huston said.

She has other bodies of work that she builds in the studio. On occasion, she contrasts works that are fast and energetic with ones that are slow and contemplative like the shadow drawings.

To experience her color drawings is like being inside a turning kaleidoscope. Huston said the work demonstrates how an event of no consequence can become a monument through exquisite care. Her life informs her art-making, while the reverse is also true, she said, explaining, “In making, I learn what I think.”

She begins art projects with nonstudio elements, often a walk at the beach with artist friend Dickson Schneider. “Talking together, the debris of everyday life gets sorted into a framework for meaning,” she said. Then she finds a coffee shop and writes, finding pleasure in being surrounded by noise and people before closing the door to her High Street studio to work.

Huston has made a living as an artist for 20 years — no small feat. Sculptor Lee Bontecou — a favorite artist of hers in the ’80s who re-emerged in 2003 with decades of unseen work — inspires resilience for Huston.

“When asked, ‘Why did you leave the art world?’ she is quoted as saying, ‘I didn’t leave the art world; I am the art world,’” Huston said.

Huston exhibits around the country, most recently at SDSU Downtown Gallery. For more information, visit her website at KatinaHuston.com.

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