The anatomy of her talent
08/27/2014 06:00PM ● Published by Lev
By Richard L. Gaw
Katy Wiedemann was studying illustration at the famed Rhode Island School of Design [RISD] a few years ago, when she visited Italy in order to experience the work of some of the greatest artists in the history of mankind.
She was particularly interested in seeing how masters like Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Boticelli interpreted the human body -- in all of its peculiar, tangled beauty -- and when she walked into Uffizi Museum in Florence, she saw room after room of Renaissance paintings, where the work illuminated hands, feet and knuckles to the point where the human form was stretched to a gorgeous elasticity. There, among the art, she totally lost her mind.
"I thought, 'This is what I should be doing,'" she said.
No one who has ever picked up a paint brush, a pen, graced a theatre stage or given themselves to the creative life as something more than a hobby truly understands the beginnings of where that talent comes from. but Wiedemann can easily trace when it began. From the time she was a youngster and collecting insects around the woods near the Landenberg home where she grew up, to her work as a painter, she has held a curious fascination for the inner life beneath the surface of what appears to be the normal body, the normal insect, the normal world.
That curious fascination is now launching her career.
At the age of 22, Wiedemann, who graduated from RISD last year with a degree in illustration, is providing the cover art for the cover of the September edition of Scientific American , as well as work that appears in a two-page spread in the publication.
"The editors found my work through my website, and over the course of a few weeks, we went back-and-forth on what they wanted," she said. "After I delivered early sketches, they asked me to draw another illustration for the article. Then they came back and said, 'We think you should do the cover as well.'
"I have always been fascinated by scientific illustration, but I thought that it wasn't something I could do professionally. So I'm very happy that it's already going in the direction that it is."
Her parents Ted and Merle saw their daughter's ability to draw at an early age, and encouraged her to develop her artistic talents, but also fed her need to know more about the human body. She received an anatomical skeleton one year for Hanukkah. They gave her anatomy textbooks that she pored through. When she entered RISD, she studied not only painting and illustration, but anatomy. She visited the medical school at nearby Brown University, where she copiously studied the sinew of tissues and muscles of cadavers.
"I love the idea that there are all of these layers to our bodies that we can't see but are complex on their own -- bones, musculature -- everything that lay beneath what forms who we are on the outside," she said. "I think the human body is absolutely beautiful. It's not beautiful in the way that most people would find it beautiful. The abnormalities of people are what make the human body beautiful. I like to show the human form in a way that is a little distorted, but still realistic. I like to emphasize the things that I think make the body interesting."
Heavily influenced by the work of German expressionist painters like Otto Dix, Wiedemann's paintings reflect a Renaissance technique, one that uses chiaroscuro lighting, one used by painters like Rembrandt to provide a dramatic lighting to emphasize the difference between light and dark.
Perhaps most overtly apparent in Wiedemann's artwork are the elements of the bizarre and horrific, which she said have been influenced by the presence of nightmares that she has experienced since she was a child. When she was a student at Sanford School in Hockessin, she began developing literal translations of her nightmares, and instead of steering her to more conventional work like landscapes and abstract art, her teacher Alex Ball encouraged the young Wiedemann to go against the common grain.
"She let me go in my own direction,” she said. “Art became a way to channel my nightmares into something productive, a way to take a nightmare and make it a positive experience. I attempted to channel my dreams into a form of entertainment, instead of seeing it as this realistic thing that I had to be afraid of. As I began to channel the nightmares into my art, it became more of an interest instead of a fear. It took the power away from the nightmares, and I felt more in control.
"My work has a very vouyeristic feeling to it," she said. "It's very intimate. It feels as if you're right there in bed with the person, or standing in front of a violent scene. I know that makes some people uncomfortable, but it's intentional. I want it to feel uncomfortable. The thing that I would like to accomplish the most with my art is to evoke emotion."
In her young career, Wiedemann has already shown her paintings at a gallery in Fredricksburg, Va, and at a senior invitational gallery show at RISD. She is currently preparing some new paintings for an upcoming gallery exhibition on Frenchman Street in New Orleans. For now, though, with one national magazine cover already on her resume, Wiedemann wants to concentrate on the other side of her creative life.
"With my scientific illustration work, it's more mundane but a much faster turnover," she said. "It's usually something very specific, very exact, and a lot of creative decisions go into it, but it's not like decisions that I make in my paintings. In a way, it's more sterilized. The fact that I've been able to follow my life's fascination with anatomy is an incredible honor."