The following interview was conducted in Kathleen’s studio in Missoula, Montana on July 16, 2023 between Kathleen Herlihy-Paoli and Tessa Granowski (BCE) about her upcoming show at NADA House on Governors Island.

Brackett Creek Exhibitions:  Curtains are a clear motif in almost all of your paintings. Where did that come from?

Kathleen Herlihy-Paoli: Well, I'll just show you a painting for that. I started with this painting. That's the first one with curtains. And it's kind of a self-portrait.

Strut, Fret and Falter, 2014
Oil on canvas with metal piece, 20x20”

KHP:  My husband and I were in Dallas for a trial for three months. I had five hip replacement surgeries. I did two of them here in Montana, and I found out that they were poisoning me. And I didn't know what to do. My cobalt and chromium levels in my blood were dangerously high. Just crazy and scary. I found that out about a year after I had this surgery done, so I had to take them out again. I went back to Mass General because at the time, there weren't very many places that knew much about metal-on-metal poisoning. After that, I went through this big, long trial in Dallas against Johnson & Johnson.

BCE:  What year was this?

KHP:  2013. And I was the first person out of all of the metal-on-metal trials, and we lost the case. There were 18 other people that won.

But they never tried anyone else by themselves. I was the first one, and I was alone. Then after that, they tried them in groups of five or six people. So, I don't know. I mean, it's just the way it goes.

BCE:  And no retrial?

KHP:  Yeah. I just had to let it go. The good thing was that my blood levels were back to normal after they took those metal hips out. So, I did two hip replacements in Boston, and then one of those again failed. That's how I ended up with five, and I ended up going to Columbus, Missouri, for that last one. So, after that, I kind of felt like I was on view, on stage.

BCE:  Both in the hospital room and on trial?

KHP:  No, really just the trial. That was sort of the emphasis behind these paintings I just felt kind of cold and found that little piece of metal and I liked it. I put the metal piece on stage because that's how I felt. And then a lot of my paintings became more topical after that. Like this one was painted during the start of the war in Ukraine.

Defiance, 2021-22
Oil on canvas, 20x20”

KHP:  We have a friend from Ukraine that lives here in Missoula, and she was able to get her daughter-in-law and granddaughter out of Ukraine. But her son is still over there and some of her family members are still over there.

The Migrant series kind of came from that.

BCE:  How did your work change when you moved to Montana?

KHP:  Well, I can show you some old drawings that I made when living in New York. I did a lot of things that were more abstract than these with old wallpaper. A friend of ours had bought a defunct theater in Williamsburg in 1982. And it was a big old dance hall, where they'd have an orchestra. It had all these layers of wallpaper. So, I'd go in there and peel it off and use it for drawings and paintings.

BCE:  Were the works from New York drawn more from your immediate surroundings?

KHP:  Actually, I didn't make a lot of art then. I had to work, and worked as a book designer, so that was a lot of my time. But I did do a lot of Greenpoint drawings over the years, because that’s where we lived. When we moved, I just found some of them and was like, oh, I remember these.

One of Kathy’s wallpaper drawings from Greenpoint

BCE:  You have this artist sensibility, but a lot of your day-to-day work has been design related. Has that been an interesting or difficult balance?

KHP:  Well, I mean, these paintings are probably a lot more “designy” than some artists that are a lot looser. But that's just sort of been my background.

Once I started making work again in Montana, I realized I didn't want to do Western animals. Or even just a straight landscape. I’ve waited for a long time to be able to paint, so I'm just going to do what I want.

BCE:  When did that open up for you?

KHP:  Well, probably about the past ten to fifteen years. But really, after the trial I just wanted to do what I wanted to do. And the rest of it, whatever happens, happens. That's kind of how it's been.

BCE:  You had your life turned upside down.

KHP:  Yeah. Things just sometimes happen that change the direction of how you think and what you're going to do with your time.

BCE:  What about the playing cards?

KHP:  My husband and I were making these playing card series for many years. We were selling those to the Met. Pottery Barn. All sorts of places. Kind of wild.

BCE:  Did the designs for the playing cards start from actual paintings? Or was that only the “Go-Fish” cards with this trout painting?

Kathy’s trout painting that was used for her “Go-Fish” playing card series

KHP:  It depended. The fish one started from a painting, but then I think we did the cocktail ones shortly after that. I wanted to do them, and I thought maybe I'd illustrate 52 different glasses. And one day John and I were riding the chair lift at our local ski hill, which is 7 miles from here and it dawned on me that I'll just get 52 different glasses.

Then I had to find a glass from that era for each cocktail. And this is early eBay. Then we drove over to Portland to have a friend of ours, a photographer, and another friend, a bartender made and photographed all of these cocktails in one day. It was a hoot.

BCE:  Did you get pretty drunk?

KHP: It was really the funniest photo shoot I’ve ever done. But no, we didn’t get drunk. We had a swill bucket we just dumped them into. Because you can't drink 52 cocktails amongst four people and get any work done. Plus, you're drinking all different stuff. But the photographer had a friend that came in to deliver a package, kind of midday. And he started drinking them. He was the only one.

We stayed overnight in Portland and then when we were driving back, we had a box full of open liquor bottles. I just hoped we wouldn’t get pulled over.

BCE: They would have never believed that it was for playing cards.

Back to your paintings—are you also thinking with these paintings being stages, how that frames the gaze of the viewer?

KHP:  Growing up an hour outside of New York City, we'd go to a lot of Broadway shows and theater and it was always influential as a young kid.

BCE:  Do you remember your first Broadway show or your favorite?

KHP:  Early on, I think it was probably Chorus Line. But that was one of the ones that really sort of stuck with me. I don't remember the earliest ones.

BCE: Did you ever see yourself as a set designer?

KHP: Well, I did in high school. Yeah, a little bit. I did school theater stage stuff, painting backdrops.

But the Migrant paintings are different.

BCE: They're less theater curtains now.

Migrants IV, 2023
Oil on canvas, 48x48”

KHP:  Yes, they're more domestic curtains. You become the person in the room looking out onto a scene with these migrants that are dying in the Mediterranean or on the train rides through Mexico. You become a voyeur, sort of more like you’re just in a room looking out. You don't picture an audience with you. Whereas in my older paintings you might be looking at a stage in a theater with other people watching the same thing. The Migrant paintings feel a bit lonelier, intentionally.

For the upcoming installation at NADA House, my intent is to make people uncomfortable in that room. And that was the idea behind the sort of claustrophobia is you walk in and these curtains sort of close behind you. So, you're in this sort of small, dark space with these people that are going through a tragedy, having to leave where they're from or persecuted. These days it seems like there's always another migrant tragedy that's going on.

BCE: It seems to still happen because the pursuit of a promise or something hopeful, something better is just human nature.

KHP:  And Governors Island is right by the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. My grandparents came through Nova Scotia because they came from Ireland earlier, but my husband’s family all came through Ellis Island. They’re in the book. All four of his grandparents came from Italy.

In New York there has always been waves of immigrants. When we lived in Greenpoint, it was Polish, but previously had been Irish and Italian.

BCE:  Some of your paintings have sewn elements—beads or buttons on them. Where did that come from?

KHP: My grandmother was a seamstress. Well, she just made her own clothes and clothes for all her grandkids. I wish I had a picture, but there were 18 cousins with matching outfits. We have pictures of the individual families, but not of the group of altogether.

She was the Irish immigrant side of the family, and she was strong-willed and so smart. She kicked her husband out of the house early on. He was a prominent attorney. And he started gambling and writing bad checks. And she had no tolerance for that. She said, I can raise these kids better on my own. And so, she did. She sent all four of them to college. Both of my uncles went to Harvard. She was a badass.

BCE: Do you make any of your own clothes?

KHP: I did. I don't anymore. She'd always have me finish her stuff. She'd like to make the stuff, but she didn't like the details, the finishing, so she would get me to sew on buttons and hem dresses.

BCE:  Was that pleasurable when you were a kid?

KHP:  Oh yeah, I loved spending time with her. She was pretty strict, but she was a really interesting person. We'd just sit there and talk while I'd sew on buttons.

BCE:  Are some of these stages based on actual theaters that you've been to?

KHP:  Most of them I just make up. But one of them is the theater at Cranbrook.

The Bauhaus and all these architects and artists and designers have a history with that theater. It’s really beautiful. And I painted it how I remember it. It looked like a dining hall with stage at one end. They probably used it for all sorts of functions and the stage had a beautiful curtain. But most of them are made up.

BCE: For any of your nature-related paintings... Do you ever paint en plein air?

KHP: I haven't so much anymore. I used to do a lot of drawing en plein air. I wouldn't take oil paints, but I'd take pastels and colored pencils. Especially when I first moved out to Montana from New York. I'd spend time doing that because it was such a visual change.

BCE:  Were you hesitant at all to move here?

KHP:  Yeah.

BCE:  You wanted to stay in New York?

  Well, probably. I don't have family in Montana. Growing up, we lived in a lot of places on the East Coast. John, my husband, and I lived in Italy for a while with some of his relatives. This is after we were in Manhattan for a couple of years, and we saved up some money and said, let's go live in Italy, which actually it wasn't so hard because we stayed with his relatives and some of them and helped them with the kids.

BCE: Is there a “Little Italy” in Missoula?

KHP:  I don't think so. There's hardly a Little Italy in New York anymore.

BCE:  With your husband being an architect, and y'all's workspaces being right next to each other... Has any of that influenced your work?

KHP:  We've always worked probably no more than 12 feet from each other. I mean, not in New York. We worked for different companies then. But when we moved out here 25 years ago, when to be a remote worker meant that you sent a 44-megabyte SyQuest disk back to the publisher via FedEx overnight. That's what remote work was. It was a lot different than it is today.

Which was interesting at first. I started making the playing cards because I figured it would become inconvenient for clients. And so, one night my husband and I were talking about making Go-Fish cards, and we're like, let's do it. I had the publishing background, so I knew about printing. And I knew about the gift shops. But after a while, it's like, yeah, I just don't want to do this anymore. You end up working creatively for someone else. Even if you're making your own products, your clients are the public and what sells.

BCE:  So, a return to making art, to painting, was the first time again that you were really working for yourself.

KHP:  Right. That was always my intent. But I kind of wanted to wait to do it until could do what I want and didn’t have to worry about selling things.

I mean, if I had to sell work in Montana 20 years ago, I'd be painting landscapes with a moose.

BCE:  For sure. Great, thank you, Kathy for your time!