by Sharon Lynn
Artist Kate Breakey shows larger-than-life photographs of heads and torsos of dead birds, lizards and flowers from a series she calls Small Deaths. Each photograph is hand-painted in transparent oil washes, and then the details are redefined by tracing each petal, or feather, or eyelash onto the image with colored pencils. In this series, begun in 1995, Breakey raisesthe dead.
The Danish writer Isak Denisen (the Baroness Karen Blixen) who spent so much time in Africa told a story about admiring a lizard colored in iridescent hues that were breathtaking and almost otherworldly. A friend of the writer killed the animal for her and had it made into a belt. Denisen later regretted the death of the creature because in death it had lost its vibrancy and had become ugly.
Kate Breakey makes small dead things come alive. But she is more than a funereal cosmetician. She enlarges the image to heroic proportions (32" x 32") that allow the viewer to see life up close, in a way rarely seen in nature, and then she washes and draws the living spirit of the thing onto the paper. It is in this way that she immortalizes her subject. And you can see that it is something other than color that makes the images come alive, in the two monotone photographs, White Horse (i977/printed in 1999) and Accipiter coop-erii, Cooper's Hawk (1998), demonstrate. Breakey says that it is in her attempt to examine the remains that she can comprehend what life is and therefore, also, what death is. "My friends and their friends give me small dead things as gifts. It is because they know that I will try to give them life."
Only one photograph in the series is of a living thing: the head entitled White Horse, which is neither small nor dead.
Says Breakey, "The photographs are not always just fresh dead birds and flowers but all states in the process ofdecomposition, disintegration — the whole transition into nothing. Soon they'll be gone, they'll be nothing." ... "There are photographs of mummified birds that have been left out in the sun so the feathers are gone and the skin is like leather. And there are many skeletons.
Breakey has ties to Texas. She received an MFA from The University of Texas in Austin where she also held a faculty position in the department of photography until 1998. One day she walked into the Stephen L. Clark Gallery on West SixthStreet and bought a Keith Carter photograph. She told Clark she was a photographer and invited him to her studio to see her work. Clark, who represents other critically acclaimed photographers, like Mariana Yampolsky and Geoff Winning-ham, says the hair on his arms stood on end when he saw Breakey's work because he was so physically affected by the images.
She usually makes no more than 10 images are printed from one photograph. Because it takes time to diligently hand-color each image, there is always a backlog of photographs to be finished for exhibition and for buyers. Breakey has painted only a small percentage of what she has photographed. Steve Clark says that there are lots of things sitting around in freezers all over Austin waiting for Kate to photograph them.
Says Breakey, "[Bill] Wittliff (of the Wittliff Gallery of Southwestern and Mexican Photography at Southwest TexasUniversity in San Marcos) collects the skeletal pieces but dealers usually pick the pretty pieces, the colorful ones that will not offend an audience."
Sharon Lynn is a writer and editor and has collected art for more than 25 years.