Katie Cooney
Katie Cooney Creative

Katie Cooney

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Katie Cooney Creative
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Katie is a photographer, illustrator and printmaker.

Before I moved to Teton Valley - back when my partner and I were long distance and I visited him here on the weekends - there was a late summer night when we met up with Katie at the Wolf and drank G&T's. I don't remember if this was the first time I met Katie, but it was the first time we got to talk in depth about both being artists. From that night on, Katie has a friend I'm so grateful for. As I weighed the idea of moving here, I chatted with her about what the creative market and options were like. She's a kind, wonderful human who is always motivating me to shoot more and getting me to wake up at 4am to shoot at sunrise. She was also the first person to be photographed for New Maps Project.

Q: I know “how did you get started?” Is a really typical question, but I’d love to know about your creative journey. When did you start creating & when did you decide this was the career path for you?

 

Katie: I started creating when I was a very little girl and never stopped. If you asked my parents, I don’t think they’d say that they ever imagined I’d grow up to have anything other than a creative career. My mom got me a little plastic art desk that I spent countless hours at. My grandmother was an illustrator, so she was always there to support my creativity and teach my parents how to nurture it. I feel really fortunate that I grew up in a family that supported my passions and talents. 

 

(I get further into this topic in the telling my younger self something section!)


Q: Was anyone a pivotal person/mentor in terms of inspiring how or why you create?

 

Katie: I’ve had some really great mentors along the way. My grandmother was definitely a pivotal person in that respect, as were my printmaking teachers in college. They really taught me to unlock my creativity, let it run wild, and then harness that energy to make my work.

Q: What’s your favorite part of your processes? I know you have several!

 

Katie: I love every single bit of it. Seriously. But if I have to pick, it’s the process of translating the colors that I see and feel and remember into something that others can see too.



Q: Your work spans across a lot of genres and art forms - how do these feed into each other? Does it boost your creativity or is it hard to jump from one mindset to another?

 

Katie: For anyone that doesn’t know – I’m a photographer, printmaker, and illustrator. To answer the question: Oh, it totally boosts my creativity! I’m constantly thinking about how the things that I see and photograph could be turned into serigraphs or watercolors or even just pen and ink drawings. Photography has taught me to look at the lines, shapes, and colors of a scene to make an interesting composition, and studying those things so closely with a camera has made it so much easier to go back and draw them later.

One of the great things about screenprinting is that it allows me to be more experimental with my paper-based work — to dye the paper, try something with an image, paint on top of it, layer in old idea, change the colors, and so on and so on. And if I hate it? I can simply pull another base print and try again. More often than not, I come to love the experiments more just as much or more than the original idea!

 Recently, I’ve been exploring working with gouache paints. Gouache paint is similar to watercolor, but unless watered down, takes to paper in a more opaque fashion. It feels like a happy medium between two things that I love — the thick, graphic ink of Screenprint and the delicate application of watercolor. 

For a year or so, I’ve been enjoying printing a “key” image (which is typically just the linework/final layer of a screenprint) and adding in additional colors with watercolor or gouache. It gives me a lot of room to play, make mistakes, and figure out what works. 

 Photographs are about storytelling for me, and that means capturing the emotion, colors, and atmosphere of whatever it is that I’m photographing. That kind of documentation helps to inform works on paper down the road.


Q: What inspires your work?

 

Katie: When I look at my surroundings I’m always thinking about how I’d take a photograph of them or how I’d paint them. I’m taking in the atmosphere, the temperature, the colors, the sounds… all of those things come back to me when I’m working on art, even if it’s something that isn’t based in reality. 

 I’m totally mesmerized by all of the life and beauty on the little blue planet that I happened to land on. It’s the rolling clouds, fleeting colors during blue hour, encounters with foxes, brilliant hues of the desert, busy little honeybees on wildflowers… it’s going to sound cheesy, but just being alive and experiencing being a part of nature—paired with a desire to protect and take care of every bit of it that we can—keeps my creative cup full.

Q: What's your favorite project you've ever done?

 

Katie: Man. That’s seriously like asking me to choose a favorite child. The imagery isn’t necessarily my favorite anymore, but I think one of the projects that I’m still the most proud of is the Works Project Administration-inspired screenprint that I did of Grand Teton National Park in college. It was something like 17 layers of color, each one hand-printed individually. My classmates clapped when I finished the last color. 

 I set out to do something really ambitious, wasn’t one hundred percent sure if I really knew how to do it, but took the skills that I had and made it work. I had such a strong sense of accomplishment after I finished that set of prints, and still look at that work with so much fondness. 


Q: Tell me about a moment or a job that made you feel amazing or gave you a "wow this is real?" feeling.

 

Katie: I recently had a couple from Berlin buy three original pieces from me at an art fair. They were just visiting Jackson Hole and had never seen my work before, but loved it so much that they wanted to take home not one, not two, but three! pieces of it. I think they were my first international purchasers, too. It was so validating to have people who had no outside investment in my work love it so much!

Q: Do you often get creative blocks? If so, how do you handle them?

 

Katie: I’m working hard on coming off of what was effectively a year-long creative block. My older brother passed away unexpectedly a little over two years ago, and to be totally real with you – and I don’t want this to sound super dramatic – that trauma completely zapped my creative energy. Like, ninety-five percent of it. I thought that I was going to turn to my creative passions to help myself heal in that first year, but I just… didn’t. I didn’t look at the world the same way for a while. Colors didn’t seem to vibrate and fill my head with ideas the way that they normally did. For a multitude of reasons, that was a really weird time for me. It was so bizarre to feel so out of touch with my creativity, which has been a huge part of my identity since I was a little girl. I think I took something like 1500 photographs that year, which is a pretty wild number considering it’s normally in something like the 10-15,000 range.  

 For a while, I was just gentle with myself, grateful for every little doodle I could muster and phrase written down in my sketchbook, every photograph that I was happy with. After about a year, I started to push myself a little harder on the subject, and made myself make *something.* Anything. I did a new screenprint that helped me start to feel more in touch with my creativity again. I took a new job as a photographer where I needed to use my creative skills every day. I started to feel my creative energy and inspiration growing fresh, tender, green leaves. It was like I’d fertilized a plant (my creativity) that’d just been surviving on occasional, crappy tap water with no nutrients.

 This August, I really pushed the subject and challenged myself to work on my creative passions (outside of work) for at least 30 minutes a day for 31 days. And I did it! After about a week, that wonderful, familiar feeling came back… fresh green leaves on my little creative plant. I had ideas that I carried from day to day, excited to sit down and put them on paper. 

 I’m not getting in 30 minutes a day every day right now, but I challenge myself to draw something, write down an idea, or reflect on what I want to do next with art every day. That practice keeps me thinking of ideas, executing on them (even if they’re thumbnail sketches), and nurturing my creativity even on busy weekdays. 

 A 30 minute or three thoughts a day practice is something that’s probably a little more applicable to the short term creative block, rather than the bigger existential life crisis-style creative block that I was working through.


Q: What’s the most difficult part of working for yourself?

 

Katie: I’ve been figuring out a lot of the freelance art world on my own and as I go, and that’s been really challenging. I didn’t learn how to do this in art school, believe it or not (ha!). Learning where to ask for help has been hard, because it’s easy to just get overwhelmed in the “I don’t know what to do or how to do this” phase and then just put whatever it is off for weeks. 

On a similar note: Staying motivated isn’t a challenge for me, but I’ve also found myself in an “Oh my god, I have so much to do” state where I don’t know where to start.

 One of my goals for the early part of 2020 is to find some more concrete mentorship for my creative career. I hope that having someone like that to ask questions will keep me help me navigate some of those “what do I do?” situations.


Q: Do you encounter on/off seasons in terms of how much work you’re doing? How do you feel about them & how do you prepare for them?

 

Katie: There’s definitely a “down” season with photography. Two of them, actually. Y’know, the 3-4 weeks in April and October/November that things are just muddy and it’s kinda generally just blah in the Tetons? Those are my off seasons! Right now, I have full-time employment in my creative field that keeps me completely sustained during my off seasons, but that will definitely change if I am working for myself full time someday. 

 I actually kind of love the idea of having a down season for photography, because it gives me a chance to put my camera down and be present in my life and experiences in a different way. It’s also a bi-annual opportunity for me to shift my artistic focus to more painting and printmaking. It sometimes feels difficult to put my camera down and work on those things when I’m in the midst of the very short summers in the Tetons!


 Q: If you could go back in time and give one piece of advice to your younger self - what would it be?

 

Katie: I’d tell little Katie or younger Katie, “You do you, honey. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t be creative for a career! Follow your dreams!” and hope that she would take me seriously. 

 I vividly remember "career days" in high school, when we were supposed to explore what we wanted to do as a grown-up, and talk with our school counselors about what we thought we might want to do.⁠

⁠I had listed "artist," "illustrator," "biologist," and "forensic science" (that one solely because I really liked the CSI shows at the time and just thought it'd be cool to learn more about). Can you guess which one my counselor focused on? I'll give you a hint, it wasn't any of the top three choices – it was the path that he deemed the most "realistic" or "reasonable" or however he put it. The one that was really just there because I needed to fill the fourth blank on the worksheet.⁠

⁠I was crushed. It sucked, quite frankly, to be told by an adult –– one who was supposed to be helping me ––that the career path that I wanted to follow the most "wasn't realistic."⁠

⁠Despite any naysaying from wayward high school career counselors... I think I'm turning out just fine! With the help of some other, more supportive adults in my life (thank you, parents, family friends, good teachers), I followed my gut and studied both art *and* environmental science in college. Now, I'm in the thick of the very odd process of figuring out how to turn that into my lifelong career. ⁠

⁠The point here is to FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS! Yes, yes, I know, that's unbearably cheesy, but seriously – follow them. Life's too short to wish you had done something else with it. And while we're at it, please, for Pete's sake, don't tell kids that their career goals are unrealistic. ⁠

⁠With any luck, they'll end up doing something they were dreaming about. In my case, right now, that means laying on my belly in sagebrush to get the shot, a lot of learning on the fly, and a *lot* of learning to ask for help. ⁠

⁠By no means do I have the whole being an artist thing figured out. It's not like a lot of careers – there's no clear trajectory, nobody telling you what's next, no corporate ladder to climb. A lot of days it feels kind of scary. But even at the end of those days, I'm building a life and career that I'm proud of, and that's what counts.

Q: What's a piece of advice you could give to someone thinking about working with you? / What's something you wish your clients or audience knew?

 

Katie: If you’re thinking about working with me… let’s do it! I love that the work that I get to do for people is so exciting, and try to keep it that way throughout the process. Sure, there’s less fun business-y parts of creative work, but if you’ve lost the excitement and passion for the project on either end, the work isn’t going to be as successful or have as much heart and conviction. It’s not going to tell the story that you want it to.

Q: Tell me about work-life balance. What does that mean to you? Do you struggle with it or does it come naturally?

 

Katie: Oh, man… I’m working on it! I’m still balancing my personal photography, freelance work and artwork with a 40+ hour per week photography gig in the valley. Sometimes it feels hard to reserve some of my creative energy for myself. There are days that I’m like man, I should sit down and draw today, but it feels like so much of that creative energy has already been used up for the day, and I’d rather go for a bike ride or just sit down and read a book. 

The idea that we (creative people) should be constantly hustling and side-hustling to make ends meet, better our work, and “make a name for ourselves” is really exhausting. Creative work is so valuable in today’s market, but I don’t think that most creatives are really seeing that much of the money that they’re bringing to their companies yet, or that people are totally willing pay creatives a fair rate. There’s still this weird idea that creative work is something that anyone can do. 

 Anyway, I’m working really hard on figuring out what the right balance is between the 40hr gig, my personal work, freelance work, and nurturing myself and my relationships and wonderful dog looks like. Some weeks go better than others in that department, and I’m trying to give myself the grace to have weeks where I don’t crank quite as hard on all kinds of work – because, to be honest, if I don’t have weeks like that, my mental health suffers. Lots of listening to myself and actually taking care of my needs. I’m not always good at bu go-go-go-go-go thing. I need time to stop and smell the flowers, and that is A-OK.

Q: What are your feelings on social media?

 

Katie: They’re honestly pretty mixed. I spent a year managing a big company’s social media and I came out of it feeling pretty drained and uninspired. I was constantly glued to my phone and found it so hard to disconnect with the online world and be completely present unless I was somewhere that the internet wasn’t. That sounds ridiculous and dramatic, but I don’t think we all really realize what a nasty habit social media can become. It’s like smoking cigarettes. You start to become compelled to check it without even realizing what you’re doing.

 I do think it has some positive impacts and uses. As a creative, I love that social media gives creatives the ability to connect with such a broad audience, one that otherwise might never discover their work. It allows people to share more real-time messaging about important events, it connects communities, and so on and so forth.

At the same time, though, putting that “like” number on your work can be a little bit paralyzing. It can keep you from sharing work that you’re really proud of because you’re worried that the internet won’t love it. I’ve also seen social media push artists into this kitschy mode where they’re only making and sharing the work that they know their social media following will appreciate/buy (photographs, paintings, etc. etc. etc.)... and starting to lose their own voice along the way. So that kinda freaks me out, but I think being so keenly aware of that will help prevent me from going down that road. 

 I’m working on figuring out what a healthy relationship with social media looks like for me as a creative and as a millennial. I think it’s going to be a pretty minimalistic approach.

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