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Printmaker Kate Higley is considering retitling much of her oeuvre. It seems that visitors to her past few shows have reported that her slide-under-a-microscope subject matter gave them the willies.
“Creeped-out is not [the reaction] I’m looking for,” she says. “I think the names are getting in the way of the art.”
Or at least putting a damper on sales. One typical Higley monotype features warm blobs suggestive of foxfire shimmering in a roiling mist—a soothing composition, until you glimpse the title: Tissue II. Then the picture falls into place as a magnified slice of human meat. Virus I and Cleaving Cell I undergo similarly shocking transformations.
Pamela Wilson, director of the Maryland Federation of Art, exhibited Higley’s prints at Baltimore’s City Gallery in April. “I think people who looked at them were fascinated by the sense of motion, the swirling color and forms, the organicity,” she says. “Then, when they looked at the titles…there was a sort of ‘Ew!’ factor, like, That’s not what I wanted it to be.”
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Still, Higley, whose work is currently on view at Northwest’s Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church, thinks she’s onto something. “We take all kinds of pills. We think about our diets. We spend a lot of time thinking about this sea within us. We spend a lot of time worrying about it, too,” she says. “The paradigm for our age is biochemical.”
Higley, a middle-aged visual-arts instructor at Bethesda’s Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, can trace her preoccupation back 20 years, to a Christmas party in Connecticut where an inebriated high-school official gave her a job teaching biology. Being unfamiliar with the field—her undergraduate degree is in painting—Higley enrolled in science courses at nearby Wesleyan University. “I had to look at a lot of slides, and it just kind of filled up my head,” she says.
At home, Higley invoked her course material to generate etchings and paintings of plant, tongue, heart, and intestinal cells. She later adopted the virus as a muse, instructing her daughter, a researcher at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, to root through laboratory trash bins for scrapped electron-microscope scans of such infectious agents as vaccinia, or cowpox.
When she moved to Washington, in the ’90s, Higley began relying on remembered images for her work. Her compositions became more abstract, her colors more wild, the work as a whole more reflective of her feelings toward the subject. “It’s sort of filtered through my biggest fears,” she says. “I think that at some level what intrigues me about this work is if I can picture these things…then maybe I don’t have to be afraid of them.”
In some prints, fear still comes out ahead: On the Move II, for instance, features a spirochete-shaped form that strikes her as “ominous.” But the colors and shapes of other pieces click together, indicating an artist at peace with that which composes her. Higley has become particularly fond of depicting mitochondria, subcellular energy-producing organelles she regards as “happy.”
Not that she thinks a happy organelle will charge up her buying pool much better than a muzzy portrait of vaccinia.
“My son said it best,” Higley laments. “He said, ‘Mom, nobody wants to hang a disease vector in their dining room.’ He said, ‘Call ’em Stardust.’” —John Metcalfe
Higley’s work is on view to Sunday, May 16, at the Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church, 3401 Nebraska Ave. NW. For more information, call (202) 363-4900. It will also be on view Saturday, May 22, and Sunday, May 23, at the Yellow Barn Gallery, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. For more information, call (301) 371-5593.