October 14, 2012

STRANGER: Katelan Foisy
LOCATION: Cosmopolitan Café, 125 Chambers Street, New York City
THEME: Breakfast with a visual artist

It was Sunday morning in New York, and Katelan Foisy was about to get naked.

I’d met the artist for breakfast at a restaurant in Tribeca, a mercifully short stumble from the hotel where I was staying that weekend. From the start I found her friendly and warm, thanks to her natural peppy energy, easygoing manner and welcoming smile. She stays upbeat despite a busy schedule — which has included a one-time effort of deliberately trying to make herself crazy by overwhelming herself with music, books and other culture.

We’d spent an enjoyable meal together at the small Cosmopolitan Café, filling up on standard breakfast dishes and copious amounts of coffee, which is a crutch for both of us.

But all good things must come to an end. We were on a tight timetable as Katelan had to catch a subway train for an important appointment. She had to travel to Brooklyn to disrobe. It was the last week of her 15-week stint posing naked for a friend’s art class at a private school. The students are a respectful group of professionals and hobbyists, and Katelan said the only problem she ever has with the pose — which requires her to lie down and stay still — is to remain awake.

As I’d learn during our meal, the fact she’s doing the job as a favor to her friend is par for the course for her life. She’s developed a strong network of artist friends who apparently are eager to help each other out whenever they can, and it’s a major reason Katelan loves life in New York.

She’s lived in the city for about 15 years, after moving from Massachusetts where her parents and sister still live. Katelan said, “I think I can call myself a New Yorker now.”

The reason for the move was school: Katelan came to study as an illustrator.

She’s uncertain exactly what got her into art at an early age, though the macabre comics of Massachusetts-based illustrator Edward Gorey were one thing she really liked. And her mother was a librarian, so when Katelan was growing up she made her way through plenty of illustrated books.

“I became obsessed with all the pictures and then just realized I had a gift for drawing and painting. When it came time for college I realized I clearly needed to do what I’m good at. I’m not good at math, so I went to art school,” she said. At school, she developed her own artistic style focused on collage and mixed media paintings, and after graduation started to make a career of art.

People told her to make cold calls in an attempt to sell her artwork, but that wasn’t something she felt good at doing. Instead, she realized at the time that most working artists were sending postcards to art directors or illustrators in order to try and get noticed and get jobs, rather than using then-new email. So Katelan started firing off emails and getting work. When email became ubiquitous, Katelan noticed nobody was sending traditional postcards anymore, so she switched back.

But she’s not doing a huge amount of illustration these days — it’s mostly for bands through posters or album covers, something she enjoys regardless of the paycheck. “The illustration world right now is just kind of dying. Publishers are not paying as much for illustrations, they’re using stock images which really hurts artists because they’re paying pennies and the artist isn’t really getting anything. And online, people will pull from everywhere and not pay for it,” she said.

In lieu of more illustration, Katelan makes fine art and multidisciplinary creations, but her focus constantly shifts to other realms, including an acting role in a current play, writing and tarot. The unpredictable nature of her work also appeals to Katelan because she admits she’s not great with a nine-to-five structure. “When one thing is in a lull, the others make it up for it.”

Her acting includes a role in Speakeasy Dollhouse, an “immersive play” by Cynthia von Buhler that takes place during the Prohibition era. It’s the story of the playwright’s family — in particular her murdered grandfather, who owned two speakeasies in The Bronx and had ties to the mafia. Von Buhler dug up history on the murder and wrote a play about it. While writing, she contacted her friend Katelan to offer her the part of her grandfather’s supposed mistress.

“She called me and said I was the only person she could see playing the part,” Katelan said, laughing at whether she should be happy or offended that her friend thought she was a great fit to play a mistress. But the fact that the playwright reached out to her is more evidence of her highly connected, inter-dependent circle of friends. “The funny thing is her husband plays her grandfather, and everyone she put in the play is a friend and performer. We’re lucky to have that.”

Katelan returns the favors she’s been given, and is involving her friends in two major projects that she’s working on. The first is creating a series of life-size altars with moving parts, some that will move as the viewer moves, others that will move to beats or music. She’s working with a friend who specializes in robotics, and also calling in help from her composer friends.

The other big work-in-progress is creating her own tarot deck, as she’s been reading the cards since she was a child. Katelan is part Native American, part gypsy — her website is called “La Gitana,” or “the gypsy” in Spanish — and she was interested in spiritualism from an early age. She bought her first tarot deck in Cape Cod at age 12 and “I got really obsessed with it, looking at the cards all the time and writing down what I thought they meant, and eventually I got really good at it.”

She’ll do tarot readings for parties, and used to work at a spiritual store working the cards. But now it’s mostly one-on-one consultations with clients. My knowledge of tarot stems from the James Bond movie, Live and Let Die, which makes me think it’s all about trying to avoid drawing the Death card because whatever picture is on the card is going to determine your immediate fate.

“People think that you’re going to predict death and all that type of stuff. But that’s not going to happen,” Katelan said, telling me that tarot is more about confirming things that people already know or helping them figure out the direction their life is taking.

Her long-running interest in tarot was the primary reason behind deciding to craft a full tarot deck featuring her own artwork. “It’s an oracle deck, and can also be used as a regular tarot deck. An oracle deck is where you can pull a card a day and get a message. If you want to inspire the energy of one person’s archetype you can pull that card and have it around while you’re working.”

It’s a major undertaking — a tarot deck has 78 cards. But, as with many things in her life, Katelan is getting by with a little help from her friends. She’s featuring many of them as characters in the tarot deck. Sxip Shirey, who takes children’s toys and rattles and makes musical compositions, will be The Magician. Author Neil Gaiman is The Hangman, while musician Amanda Palmer is The Tower. Von Buhler, who gave Katelan the part in Speakeasy Dollhouse, will be the Queen of Pentacles, also known as the Queen of Coins. And Nicole Fiorentino of the Smashing Pumpkins will be the Princess of Coins.

“There are a lot of different people in the deck that are all creative,” Katelan said. “It’s everyone that I know and love and appreciate, they’re all in the stack.”

And Katelan will also be in the deck, starring as Death and “all the other cards that everyone’s scared of,” including the Ten of Swords — a picture of someone lying on the ground with 10 swords in their back. “I couldn’t really say ‘I love this person’ and then have them stabbed.”

The tarot deck and the altar project will each take at least one year to reach completion, which alongside all her other work might be enough to make Katelan crazy.

Funnily enough, she once tried a whirl with insanity. However, before I could pry into that experiment, our waiter arrived.

I opted for the simple dish of French toast with bananas. It was fine — serviceable, filling, but not exciting. The bread was pretty doughy and stuck to my teeth, but at least there was plenty of coffee to dislodge it.

Katelan ordered an omelet with goat cheese, spinach and onion. She seemed to enjoy it, and it wasn’t her first visit to the restaurant. Although my food wasn’t memorable, the café is a cozy place and I’d be willing to give it another try to choose a more adventurous dish.

As we made our way through brunch — helped with several refills of our small coffee cups — Katelan told me about her 40-day experiment at going mad.

“I over-saturated myself with literature, music, movies, film, anything I felt would normally be a source of inspiration but too much could be information overload,” she said, citing examples of listening to Thelonious Monk while reading James Joyce novels and trying to create three separate paintings. The origin of the experiment was a time she did a painting that she thought took three days but actually took 10. “I was interested in being so involved in your work and not paying attention to time at all. Because I work at home it’s very easy for me to lose time.”

So with her 40-day experiment she’d focus on a plethora of cultural experiences, while drinking gallons of coffee and rarely sleeping. “I was monitored, I had people that I told, ‘If I really crack you have to stop me.’”

But she didn’t crack, and one of the best things she took away from the project was the interaction with her audience — she used her Twitter account to get recommendations for music, books and other art to consume during the 40 days. “Some people liked the idea of making me crazy, and would send me terrible things to read or listen to. But a lot of people that I didn’t know were following me on Twitter started writing to me and sharing stuff.”

In addition to her Twitter account, Katelan uses her personal website to showcase her work and announce projects. It’s where you can also find out more information about yet another project of hers, a book she wrote at age 17 called Blood & Pudding.

“It’s a memoir of my sordid teenage years,” she said. The book stemmed from a vow she made with her cousin to write about their experiences during those years, a time when Katelan decided to get married. Her fiancée died during Katelan’s first year in college, which sent her on a self-described drug and alcohol binge, interspersed with road trips with her cousin.

Then, after graduation, her cousin died.

“The two major people in my life were now gone, and I was on a downward spiral of drinking and drugs,” she said, adding that the book is a way to remember both those people. “It’s almost like a love letter to them, but also a love letter to life in a way.”

Some of her family members were upset she wrote the book, but Katelan said that before her cousin died they had made a pact that one of them would write it. She published the book through the independent company Knickerbocker Circus, and said it continues to do well — particularly with people struggling with addiction who can identify with the tale.

Not wanting to make the book all about herself, Katelan once again turned to her social network in order to take part in the promotion of Blood & Pudding.

“I have such a great support system here and such a wonderful friend circle,” she said.

Part of the reason she appears to be so fond of her friends is that they helped her get out of her “anti-social” rut that marked her early days in New York City.

“I don’t know exactly why I was anti-social, but I think I was angry that I had to leave my best friend to move here for school, and I thought to myself, ‘I don’t need new friends.’ And I was shy too. It was hard for me to talk to new people,” Katelan said.

However, after graduation she realized that to make a living as an artist she’d have to be more social. Once she sold some artwork, she gained confidence. And then she started to make friends in the city who helped her become the vibrant personality she is today.

“My career and my friends are what formed me,” she said.

That’s why she’s happy to help her friends when they need it — including her nude modeling later that day. I’d enjoyed my time with Katelan but as the clock inched every closer to the art class, we had to wrap up our meal so she could make it there on time.

I paid the check, we stepped out into the breezy New York morning and I walked Katelan to the end of the street. A quick hand shake and goodbye, and then she ducked down the steps into a subway station, heading for yet another artistic endeavor.

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