Navy Veteran is Living her Best Pop-art Life in Biltmore Village
By: Niko Gonzalez
A giant felted Pop Tart and Moon Pie hang behind the desk. To their left sits an ornate, playable baby grand piano painted in Piet Mondrian patterns. Images of pop-culture figures ranging from Mickey Mouse to Pablo Picasso (in this case combined in one portrait) line the walls. At the center of this display of Pop art is Katrina Chenevert herself, owner of the eponymous Katrina Chenevert Gallery in Biltmore Village.
Showcasing what’s labeled as “contemporary 3D and Pop Art,” the space occupies a distinct place in the city’s bustling arts scene, where painting and fine craft dominate local venues. Chenevert draws on her nostalgia for America’s Mid Century Modern heyday, and the kitsch factor, while inherently playful, is also emotional: “It’s just what I do,” she says. “I love to create these things.”
Although voted “most artistic” in high school, Chenevert couldn’t imagine a post-graduation world in which being creative equalled a steady paycheck. In response, she embarked on a career in the Navy, and by doing so, “I had this 28-year hiatus where I didn’t create art at all.”
The creative urge obviously didn’t die — instead it bided its time. Then it blew up. Consider one of Chenevert’s current signature pieces, the absurdist expansion of a set of vintage artificial grapes.
In its original incarnation, the decorative item might have been at home on a coffee table in any Midwestern living room. Chenevert’s grapes are the size of the actual table.
“I didn’t know how to make that,” she admits. “I had no idea. So … you start thinking, you start sketching, and you start making.” She eventually figured it out, like “… all sculptors do,” with the help of styrofoam balls and electrical cord.
Before this, and on her own “VA dime,” as Chenevert puts it, she obtained an art degree from UNCA. This all occurred after 2008, the year her family, which includes her wife and then-three-year-old son, moved to Asheville.
She studied various processes such as printmaking and painting, and then sculpting entered her life, changing everything. For Chenevert, her larger-than-life forms of everyday relics — Felix the Cat, Charlie McCarthy, Howdy Doody — are both a celebration and critique: a fond, playful recreation of that which has been relegated to posterity, but always formed with an eye for potential. Other Pop artists represented in the gallery are Felix Semper, Karen Wippich, Rebecca Williams, Daniel Root, and Jay Tyler Steele.
Chenevert’s approach stems from three key influences. Besides the obvious one, Andy Warhol, there’s soft sculptor Claes Oldenburg — known for his public installations — and Venezuelan American sculptor Marisol Escobar, whose work, including large, folk-art-influenced wooden sculptures like The Family, was imbued with feminist critique, marking her apart in the coolly observational Pop-art genre. The two artists — like Warhol, they were mainstays of the 1960s New York scene — are enshrined in tributes around the gallery: A cutout of Escobar’s head adorns a similarly paper-dolled iteration of Jackie-O’s iconic pink Dallas attire.
An acolyte of Escobar in particular, Chenevert attempted to meet the icon in person. When a Sepia watercolor piece of Chenevert’s titled Smoking Hot Women made it into the American Watercolor Society’s 149th exhibit in New York City, the Asheville artist trekked up north to be present at the Salmagundi Club.
While in the Big Apple, however, she made no bones about where she’d rather be: “That was about five miles from where [Escobar] actually lived in New York. … I could’ve cared less, honestly, about the show: I wanted to meet Marisol. That was my goal…” (Unfortunately, Escobar was stricken with Alzheimer’s by then and could not be seen by visitors; Chenevert made the pilgrimage to her residence regardless, in an attempt to at least catch a glimpse of her idol or her work. But it was not meant to be, and just two weeks after she arrived back home, Escobar passed away.)
Ever optimistic, Chenenvert was in Washington D.C., shortly before this article appeared, scheduled to connect with a young man who hung out with Escobar.
If everything goes to plan, Chenevert promises to “ … to chew his ear off.”
Katrina Chenevert Gallery, 18 Brook St. Suite 102, Biltmore Village, Asheville, open Wednesday through Saturday, 12-5pm, and by appointment: 703-501-4837. Check out the exhibit “Games People Play” opening in October. For more information, see katrinachenevertgallery.com.