Femme Visuale: Katee Tully

Using found objects and ensnared words, Tully's installations suggest intimate personal narratives.


Katee Tully is at the edge of the sidewalk, posed and ready to dart across traffic to grab the perfect piece of tire tread for a new installation. Sensing the eagerness in her eyes, a driver pulls off to the side of the road, rolls down his window, and holds out a dollar bill. The artist, unable to explain her situation, obliges the confused motorist and takes the money.

During her artist talk for her solo show “Generally Speaking” at The ArtsXchange earlier this spring, the self-professed dumpster-diver expert explained the strange situations her art sometimes puts her in.

“You have to have a lot of stuff to put together the kinds of installations that I do. That’s one of the lovely things about it, but also one of the nightmare parts about it. My sister always reminds me that it’s okay to love things; it’s not okay to love everything,” she said with a laugh.

click to enlarge Tully sorting through her studio, looking for that perfect object for her next installation. - Terri Cruz
Terri Cruz
Tully sorting through her studio, looking for that perfect object for her next installation.

Using non-traditional, found, and repurposed materials for her recent body of work, "Word Traps,” Tully creates snares, traps, or nests (interchangeable terms depending on the situation) to speak about the difficulty of capturing those elusive words. Triggered by the phrase, “I wish I could capture those words,” the artist explores the literal and symbolic methods of coaxing or baiting words. (Would they like alcohol? Or would they like bones or feathers?)

She says, “It’s this idea that we all hold or capture words in our heads, or on the nightstands by our beds, or bookshelves — wherever we keep those words. It’s about the ones that take up residence and stay with you across, maybe not a lifetime, but some chapter of our lives.”

Sometimes you may need to use strength and cleverness to grasp at slippery words, she says, while other words may just need a little gentle coaxing and TLC in order to snuggle into the nest. 

“I find that there are words that like to live alone, and there are words that need a room full of other words to keep them company. I think about words as these almost living pieces that are attracted to some environments, and maybe repulsed by other environments where we have difficulty coming up with the right words.”

Bundling branches together, Tully positions found objects both inside and outside her nest installations to form narratives. A piece of writing or a single word, usually a favorite from her personal library, is always included to lead the viewer into the story.

“I’m brutal on books. I rip pages out of books, like my favorite pages because I think, ‘Why am I just leaving this in the book?,’ because this is what I take most from it,” she says.

I ask her the difference between sculpture and installation. “I think of installations as having stories attached to them, or some kind of narrative. There’s this notion in my family that you could bear just about anything if you could tell a story about it. Some of the pieces in here are joyful, some are very descriptive, and some are achy-painful. I feel best about the work if I know someone isn’t looking at a piece and thinking, ‘I wonder if I could get a fruit salad in that bowl.’ It’s not about looking at the piece in some functional way, or even necessarily looking at it and going, ‘Oh, that would look good on my coffee table.’ I first want people to engage with the work in the most personal way that they can. Then if they make the decision to bring a piece into their home, they already have a relationship with it.”

Her recent solo show felt very personal. “I wanted it to be," she confesses, "because it was an introduction to me, and thus the title Generally Speaking. And the lovely part, which any artist is hopeful about, is that the work resonates so deeply with other people. I want to build a space where people come in and feel like just for a little while [that] they’ve entered someplace special, and be just right here.”

There’s an element of unsolicited participation in her work, since friends and family know that Tully is in the business of collecting as part of her art practice. She chuckles, “Now people don’t even leave me a text, email, or phone call. We just have things that show up in our mailbox or by the front door that are odd enough that I know someone was thinking about me.”

Though she doesn't use “precious” art materials like oil paint, there’s still intrinsic value in these discarded, lost, or repurposed objects. “There’s a lot more freedom in working with things that on the surface, have no value," she says, "but they do. This show was deliberately staged low to the ground. We walk past objects every day that we don’t see because we’re up here, or we don’t see them as anything else other than something that fell off a truck or out of someone’s pocket. This show makes you bend your knees, and get down to look at things at this lower perspective. You just start noticing things.”

Tully finds inspiration not just in visual artists, but also writers and stylists. She was especially struck by the work of Rebecca Purcell, who calls herself an artist-as-stylist.

“Rebecca was the stager for ABC Carpet & Home in New York City," Tully explains. "I used to walk by their windows, and they were mind-blowing. Her whole concept is having people walk into a space and being deeply moved by how the things are related to one another. She would do these huge window displays where there would be some items from the store in it, but because the front was glass, you could see below the floor level. She made a tiny little city of mice, as if they lived below the store and you get to see their lives and how they furnish their place with things from the store. It’s about creating a space where people want to linger and touch things.”

Raised in Tallahassee, Tully has always had a creative strand running through her life. “Growing up, we were always building forts and making up all kinds of stories in our heads. I had that feral childhood thing going on. We just lived out in the woods or down by the beach, and didn’t think twice about our freedom, and nothing bad ever happened.”

“I was introduced to a lot of creative pursuits when I was young. My mom had one of the very first pre-school programs, which was a new concept in the ’50s. She provided all kinds of enrichment activities, everything from theater to dance, storytelling, and all sorts of things beyond just reading,” she says.

“I lived in New York City for 12 years before coming to St. Pete with my wife. I loved the city, but it was never my home; it was exhausting to live there on a daily basis.” But compared to her childhood, she says, “The city provided this other kind of wildness that I loved.”

Before shifting to doing art full-time about five years ago, Tully, a former university provost, was head of the Morean Arts Center during the period when the center established the Chilhuly Collection on Beach Drive. “I wanted to do one last signature project here in St. Pete before I retired, and that was the Chihuly Collection. Then I was ready to have a space and start focusing on this in a much more robust way. Initially, I did focus primarily on pottery, but as my space grew, I got more comfortable building installations. I took many of them for what I would call a ‘test drive’ during gallery walks, along with the clay. The response was very affirming, so it just made sense to keep going in that direction.”

She explains that one of the luxuries of her solo show was that it was the first time she could build a body of work in a space that was entirely hers to stage. She says, “It spoiled me, because I had an entire space to inhabit and manipulate large materials and equipment.”

Tully’s pieces are intimate in scale and relationship to the viewer, but she’s planning on enlarging her work for an exhibition in Tallahassee with six-foot-tall traps. She also has plans for shows in Miami, NYC, and Santa Fe.

“In terms of my aspirations, my goal is to show and share my work around the country. It will take a particular willingness on the part of a gallery or museum to be able to do large-scale projects. I have some remarkable installations in mind; using my gestural ceramic tools/utensils, I have this vision for an entire wall of these pieces that are done in a hieroglyphic way. Now that I’ve given myself permission to go to this different scale, it becomes easier for me to think about my work in that context,” she says.

In the meantime, she’s busy working away at commissioned nests. Tully says, “The wonderful thing about that is having a conversation with someone, and often times the person gives me personal objects that they want to use to populate it. It could be their mother’s diary, jewelry, a photograph — just beautiful artifacts. Then we talk about what they want expressed, and then I build it from there. How much more joyful can it get than that?”

I remark that the word traps are shrine-like in that way, and she responds, “That’s a great descriptor, because once they come into your home, in particular if it’s about a person in your life, they’re like a tiny altar. They’re intended to be organic, so that you may decide over time to add and subtract from it. I tell people don’t ever think of it as a static piece that you can’t mess with.”

Though it’s clear she’s a very hands-on artist, and derives extreme pleasure from the physicality of building these structures with her own hands, Tully also revels in the mental challenge and brain stimulation that is behind each installation.

“I get so much joy out of just thinking about how it's going to work: about the elements, what it needs, or what it’s missing. It’s about the problem-solving part, because once the piece is made, it’s gone. I’m a very tactile person, but a lot of the things that I build now are on a scale that requires some physical strength, ladders, chainsaws, and some substantial tools. I don’t necessarily take on the burden that I have to do every single component of my work. But at this point in my life, I think the actual touching and intimacy of building is the connective tissue." 

One nest includes Raymond Carver’s poem “Drinking While Driving” tucked into its twigs. A bottle of liquor and a package of Band-aids sit together inside it, with a feathered cap hanging on the apex of the bundled sticks.

Tully tells me, “Carver was talking about riding in the car with his brother and they were passing this bottle of Old Crow back and forth. It really resonated with me, because my dad had a younger brother, and the two of them were so close. My mom has these letters they wrote back and forth to one another when they were in college and the service. They’re just the most beautiful letters between brothers. I have no problem envisioning my dad and his younger brother doing exactly this, not thinking about drinking and driving, but just riding around in the car — waiting for something to happen.”

Staging sets for her viewers to have their own intimate experiences is an important aspect of her work. In these conversations among the installation’s objects, a conversation can arise between the installation and the viewer, and Tully just wants us to slow down enough to hear it.

To see more of Katee Tully’s work, visit her studio at Soft Water Studios, 515 22nd St. South, St. Pete. Softwaterstudios.com. 

To get in touch with the artist, you can reach her at: [email protected].

Urban Dictionary defines Femme Fatale as “a woman with both intelligence and sex appeal that uses these skills to manipulate poor helpless men into doing what she wants. May cause death.” Keeping in line with this concept, Caitlin Albritton's "Femme Visuale" series aims to highlight local women artists and show off some lesser-known talent that's been hiding in the shadows. In the art world, if it ain't big and loud, it ain't being seen (looking at you, Koons). Art as a grand spectacle leaves little room for modest, sincere, or quiet voices, especially women's voices. And I promise, we won’t bite.

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