top of page

Cultivate Featured Artist: Kae Britton

Kae Britton stands in front of one of their pieces, "Girdle", in the studio. Photo By Rachel Britton.

The Cultivate Exhibitions Team is excited to share the work of Kae Britton, whose works in graphite and charcoal explore the gray between black-and-white binary.

Kae is based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They share their work and process in our interview below. You can also discover more about the Cultivate Featured artist series below the interview.

Learn more about Kae on these platforms:

Briefly describe your work or share your artist statement

My work explores the intimacy of transitioning as a nonbinary person through self portraiture. I use white charcoal and graphite on toned paper to make extreme highlights, shadows, and subtle tones in grayscale to show the nuances and infiniteness of the gender spectrum. My drawings document my own gender journey, while also showing how it feels to exist in a constant state of wavering and in-between.

Two figures rest nestled in an intimate embrace. The lower, whose face is suspended between relief and pain, rests their head in the nook of the other figure's neck. The second figure, a mannequin, seems to be watchful and alert, staring into some point far out of the frame. Behind them leys darkness. Dramatic light bounces off of the second figure's plastic surface, while a softer light glows off of the first figure: Kae.
"The Ache", graphite and white charcoal on toned paper, 2021

How do you go about beginning a new piece? Do you have it planned or is it more spontaneous?

When I begin a new drawing I start with a concept from a master list I compile with drawing ideas on it, whatever idea is speaking to me at the time; these notes are about materials I can glue to myself or a certain type of lighting, not so much about a theme or concept. I use my phone to take reference photos, and those become my "rough drafts" for my drawing, which I sort through, crop, and print the best image of the bunch. Once I have copies in hand, the drawing begins! I usually don't have an idea about what the particular self portrait means when I'm taking photos of myself, but as I draw, I get to be quiet with myself and think about what the piece means--why that particular object, what it says about gender, and how it correlates with my own transition. Every once in a while, the idea is already there, but most times I have to figure it out as I work.

What is a barrier that you, as an artist, overcame?

A barrier I am continuously overcoming is validating myself as I strive for my own personal goals as an artist, or not thinking my goals are "realistic" and attainable. I have experienced many events that caused me to have self doubt--when I quit my day job to be freelance, when I lost grant funding for an expensive frame, etc--but through these events I realized there will always be ebbs and flows in any artists' career, and small [or large] hiccups along the way make for a much more interesting story that everything going according to plan.

Black lines of thread crisscross and press imperiously into the skin of Kae's face in another piece of self-reflection. The same soft lighting present throughout Kae's portfolio gloams again here, juxtaposing the brutal matrix of jet threads against the softened texture of Kae's constricted face.
"Girdle", graphite and white charcoal on toned paper, 2022

What is your go-to music when you're working on art?

I typically listen to melancholy, slow and dark feminine music while I'm working on art; lots of Chelsea Wolfe, Portishead, and Ethel Cain, among many other favorites like Nine Inch Nails, The Cure, PJ Harvey... the list goes on. Anything kinda spooky and ethereal gets me into a drawing mood and helps me to dive deeper into the piece I'm working on.

In Cocoon, Kae is joined by a moth who has spun a line of silk from somewhere beyond their open lips. The expression of the figure is an amorphous intersection between deadened and nonplussed, and is rendered difficult to read on account of the moth's position over the right eye. Perhaps Kae is the cocoon which the moth is emerging from.
"Cocoon", graphite and white charcoal on toned paper, 2021

What do you strive for as an artist? What form of recognition is important for you?

As an artist, I strive to aid in advancements for trans and nonbinary individuals--we live in a time where previously passed protections for queer folks are being challenged and revoked. Because my work openly discusses the honesty of gender transition, I hope in some way I can help folks outside of the queer community to understand what it means to be nonbinary, while experiencing my own transition alongside me as it unfolds. Eventually I would love to be exhibited internationally, and hopefully there I can impact the world.

In this portrait, Kae challenges gender norms with a stab against convention. They hold a fake bust above their own, creating a startling juxtaposition. Kae's expression is gutsy, seeming to ask the viewer "what will you do about this scene?"
"Budding", graphite and white charcoal on toned paper, 2022

What advice would you share for artists? Share something that you have learned along the way.

My advice to other artists is to be patient with your practice. It takes so many years of playing around to figure out what your voice and style look like, and you have to accept that your work isn't going to develop overnight. Part of the issue is that we live in a world where we see folks sharing their work as it's already been developed, but we hardly see the process of development. For example, I've been drawing portraits for about 15 years, which has allowed me to fine-tune my process and sharpen my eye for details. Keep challenging yourself, and eventually you will figure out what your style looks like.

What is a work of art that is an inspiration to you?

An inspirational work of art for me is Frida Kahlo's "The Broken Column," but really, it could be any of her self portraits. I remember seeing her work for the first time in middle school (with the help of my art teacher), and I was so fascinated by her symbols, the look in her eyes, the sometimes bizarre settings in her paintings--but I instantly understood it. When I began researching her, and learned how physical trauma had brought her to painting, and how she used painting as a means to channel the turmoil in her life... I understood that, too. She was one of the first queer individuals I had ever learned about, and was pivotal in my understanding of my own identity, and truly inspired me to not only start creating self portraits, but to be vulnerable in them as well.

Who are three working artists that you love and would recommend?

Three working artists I love and would recommend folks checking out are Rachel Britton @racbripho (who happens to be my twin), Kezia Harrell @sugarygarbage, and Bill Crisafi @billsafi. Tanya Gill, Mie Kongo and Yoonshin Park are three Chicago artists who I admire in terms of sensitivity to materials and work ethic. They all seem to be acutely aware of how small altercations can shift things substantially. Recently I was so pleased to discover the work of Igshaan Adams for the first time at the Art Institute of Chicago. He is a South African artist whose work Desire Lines addresses issues surrounding a multi-faceted identity with literal and metaphysical pathways through incredibly tactile, labor-intensive forms that create these fragmented yet cohesive environments.

Tresses is another surreal self portrait. Kae is posed with their hand braced into the skin above their chest, and curly hair tumbles like tears from the lids of Kae's eyes. Dramatic lighting renders the room behind in total shadow, with only a straight pillar behind to contextualize the perspective of the scene. The composition is lit softly, and the subject is lit soft against the harsh background shapes. Just above the tumble of curls falling from the right eye, the iris and cornea of an eye gaze piercingly into the viewer.
"Tresses", graphite and white charcoal on toned paper, 2021


Cultivate Artists

A curated collection of emerging and midcareer artists. The featured artist program at Cultivate serves to share the artist's work and process with the community, inviting them to understand how and why an artist creates the work they do, to market and promote artists, and to connect artists to each other and to our network of curators, artists, and gallery owners.

These artists are curated together and represent the work that we exhibit at Cultivate. The artists are selected in January and June, and scheduled out for the six-month period. If you are interested in being one of Cultivate featured artists, please visit our open call for submissions.


bottom of page