Children in Capetown, South Africa hold their finished clay masks.
One of Kates’ vases she sculpted
Artist Daisy Kates
Signpost featured artist of the month: Daisy Kates
—Keiko Ohnuma, Signpost
Art can be a hobby, a job, a therapy, an outlet for ambition. Daisy Kates is one of those rare artists for whom it seems to be a practice, in the Buddhist sense of the word: the path by which one develops as a human being. That, more than any of the above.
Kates arrived at her calling early in life, then pursued it steadily and monastically—how she seemingly does everything. As an eighteen-year-old at the City College of New York, she took a pottery class and grew intrigued. The school wasn’t a great choice for art, she says, but it was cheap and close to home. By age twenty-one, she had her own kiln and pottery wheel and had taken off on a forty-year experimental journey.
Today you will find Kates at the end of a perilous dirt road that climbs a ridge overlooking Tecolote Canyon. Although she shares the road with her sister (artist Evey Jones) and a few other pioneers, her adobe complex has something of the hermitage about it—an arid Walden Pond, a peaceful hobbit hideaway that testifies to the little-known pleasures of being sufficient unto oneself.
Basically a single room that spans multiple levels, the house surprises with a sleeping loft atop the kitchen. A lower room serves as a small parlor that still bears a former exterior wall of real adobe. In a separate building next door is a large art studio flooded with light and 360-degree views, filled not with pottery these days, but with paintings.
From floor to ceiling, the room is tiled in colorful swirls, swishes, marks, and scratches dancing across sheets of paper strung on a clothesline, small canvases propped along shelves, and a large canvas beside a table scattered with paints—a visual diary of emotions, thoughts, and memories, a rich inner life that contrasts with the quiet abode next door.
“I turn on music and go intuitively, let it flow,” says the former potter. After decades of loading kilns, hauling clay, and struggling with the unpredictability of glaze, it comes as a great relief, she says, to just paint. “It’s so much simpler,” she laughs. And it’s not about creating something to show or sell anyway, at this point, though she has sold pottery steadily over the years.
“It’s never been about commitment to success,” she muses. “I guess the thing for me when doing artwork is progressing, feeling like I see some growth or change or… feeling satisfied, like I’m not stagnating.”
A no-nonsense, down-to-earth person, Kates radiates a natural calm that steps away from sweeping statements and conclusive pronouncements. The earthy medium of pottery clearly made sense to her—she built her house by hand without power tools or water, and mudded the walls herself every summer. “I looked around and asked a lot of questions,” is how she sums up her construction process. “Because it was a mud house, I felt like I could do it.”
Born and raised in New York City, “I always knew I was a country person born into the city,” Kates explains. Soon after turning thirty, she made good on a vow to “do the rural thing,” and in 1979 bought a piece of land near her sister in Placitas. She lived in a tent and built the one-room house in one summer, stuffing newspaper into the remaining gaps when the weather turned cold.
Her clay studio originally occupied the narrow landing at entry level, overlooking the kitchen. She used a foot-operated pottery wheel and kerosene lights, and heated the place with a wood stove—there was no electricity wired to the site until 2000. She hauled water from a spring for years until the well was dug, which was then powered with an electric generator. She still relies on what must be the cleanest outhouse in the West.
None of this was planned, Kates says, or undertaken to meet a challenge. “That’s just the way it evolved,” she shrugs, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to saw logs for your house by hand. “I think I’m just that way. For some reason that’s just the natural me, and for some reason I got to play it out.”
The same is true of teaching, her first job out of college and a career she maintained for over forty years, teaching art in social service agencies to seniors, kids, teens, all populations. “I definitely have a very serious ‘alone’ thing that I do, which is my relationship with my environment and the artwork. But I also have a social side,” she says, which was fulfilled through her social work. Never wanting children of her own, Kates treated her many students of all ages as a kind of extended family.
She retired from teaching about a year ago, right around the time she stopped loading kilns and switched to painting. The quiet hours now find her revisiting the person she was at eighteen, the one who never mailed in her Peace Corps application. Last spring, Kates decided to propose a project to the Amy Biehl Foundation to teach pottery in black townships around Capetown, South Africa, for six weeks.
“It wasn’t an ideal situation, but I pulled it off!” she exults, though the project ended up costing her thousands of dollars in travel and work expenses. “I would like to do something (volunteer) here, I can’t say what it would be. I try to keep my hand in that, giving something back. It’s a two-way deal, and nice to have a skill that I can give.”
Over the years, her artwork evolved naturally from functional to decorative to contemplative, including tiles, slip-trailed slabs, and commissioned murals. Her part-time teaching jobs always gave her a substantial life in the studio, along with the constant labor of keeping up her home and land.
But since retirement, “I’m in a zone where I don’t have to do anything. So it’s the question of the day,” she says of her art practice. “It’s an ongoing something to think about. I don’t have to go in there,” she emphasizes of her studio, testing out the idea on herself. “I have construction projects and the garden, or getting ready for winter—parts of my life are pretty labor-intensive.
“I kind of think (art) will always be there, because it has been, but… I don’t know,” she says disarmingly, clearly in no rush to arrive at an answer.
Once a month, Kates gets together with a few other artists—her sister, neighbor Laura Robbins (a mosaic artist), and others—to exchange constructive criticism of each other’s work. But even in society, she appears to be one of those rare people who follows her own inner compass—the quintessential artistic temperament.
No matter what people say about your art, she says, it finally comes back to you alone. “In the end, it’s just you and this thing you’ve done, and how you feel about it. In the end, it’s just about you and the work.”