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Alumna Spotlight: Meet Kate Daughdrill CLAS ‘07

Oct 07, 2014
Kate recently shared her story with us about her life as an artist, teacher, and urban farmer in Detroit, MI.

I grew up all over the South, but for much of my life, I lived in New Orleans. That city has this great energy and creativity, and I knew when I was young that being creative was important to me, but I wanted to be a senator. I really cared about people's lives being enriched, and I thought being in politics would have the biggest impact.

I went to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and started studying government and Spanish — the Spanish was to talk to constituents. Then I took an art class and fell in love. I decided to minor in art, and then I took some more classes and thought, maybe I'll double major, and then I found an interdisciplinary option where I got to design my own curriculum. I designed mine around how socially engaged art could support communities in addressing their own social concerns. Through U.Va., I learned to write, I learned to think, I learned to speak, and I learned how to independently do the research and organizing and creating that I needed to do to learn what I wanted to learn.

My fourth-year project was one of the first big projects I did that helped me to discover the type of art-making that was interesting to me: I made five tents, these sculptural spaces, and I invited people into the tents to write letters around different themes: One was write a letter to your parents, one was write a letter to the Virginia Tech students (this was right after the shootings there), one was to write a letter to Charlotte city officials, one was to write a letter to your favorite artist, and one was to write a letter to your conception of God. The goal of the project was to make sculptural spaces that created an intimate environment for folks to reflect on what matters to them and take the time to communicate about it. At the end of the week, I put all the letters into a big mailbox outside the post office — even the ones to God.

I remember walking out of an art class one day feeling so inspired by the powerful conversations that can arise out of art, and I was standing under this bright, orange tree, looking up as the leaves were falling down on me, and I thought, It would be a waste of talent for me to be a senator.

During college, I did one summer internship at the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans. But I think the most profound experience I had at U.Va. was being a part of the university programs council. As a freshman, I applied to co-lead a first-year space called Tuttle Lounge, where we put on weekly music shows. I learned how to organize an event, pay out stipends, and lead community meetings. The next year, I took over as a special events leader of the school, so I got to plan a college-wide concert where we brought in a huge act, and I learned the skills necessary to plan a large gathering.

After I graduated, I lived in Charlottesville for two years and had a fellowship at Christ Episcopal Church. The church owned this tiny one-car garage that opened up into a public park, just a block from the pedestrian downtown area, and I decided to turn it into a tiny art space. By getting to focus on my art, I had enough work to be able to apply to grad school, and I picked Cranbrook in Detroit.

My second semester at Cranbrook I started a project called Detroit Soup with a friend of mine, Jessica Hernandez. It's a monthly soup dinner that funds micro-grants for creative projects in Detroit. We started holding dinners in a loft above the Family Bakery in Mexicantown, and people would apply for a micro-grant and propose a project they wanted to fund. It costs $5 to get in, and you get a soup and a salad and a vote on which project wins. The first few dinners, we had maybe 20 people. Then it started to grow, and we got a unique blend of creative people coming — artists, gardeners, curators, activists, people starting small business, people working in restaurants. We had conversations about how the type of work we made and supported is part of what shapes our city. By the end of the year, we had 200 people coming every month and were awarding grants of $800 to $1,000.

I ended up getting a lot of national press because of Detroit Soup, so by the end of grad school, I was getting invited to give talks and lectures, and I started developing PowerPoint presentations and ways to talk about the creative work happening in Detroit. I also teach at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. Initially I taught one studio class and one liberal arts class each semester, and while it was really meaningful to connect with students, it was overwhelming for me.

When I graduated from Cranbrook, I moved to the block where I live now, called Burnside. The house I bought happened to have three lots right next to it and one across the street and two burnt-out houses across the street and another at the end of the dead-end block. I started cultivating the garden that year in the adjacent lots with several neighbors. The neighbors and I built a fire pit and a cinderblock grill, and started cooking out most Sunday nights. We'd make Burnside Pizza by putting a pizza dough down on the grill and people could pick what they wanted out of the garden and put it directly on the pizza. That's when I realized being a gardener was an essential part of my practice, and my work now operates at that intersection of art and gardening.

From the time I was a little kid, I cared about what it means to live well and how people can thrive and cultivate well-being for themselves. I was curious about how a desire to live well affects quality of life in a city and in a country and in the world, and I thought I needed to promote that through policy and structures on a national scale. Art taught me that so much of the beauty and the value and the healing and the connection that makes life satisfying and profound comes from within. I've been able to participate in a larger movement that is made up of millions of people doing tiny projects across the globe, and I believe that's how we shape a more beautiful world.

My advice to young artists, or anyone really, is to listen to that voice deep inside of you. Learn to trust it. There's plenty of doubt and fear and expectations of other people or ourselves that get in the way of listening to that. Don't settle, and when you hear the voice, just go for it. What you need will be provided.

I've been lucky to have innately been pretty courageous and to have acted in spite of being fearful. But although I've always been independent and passionate in my work, there was often a good bit of fear. I still cared what people thought about it. Cultivating this healing space and working through the root of some of the things that made me fearful has been so freeing. Fear can be very motivating to a creative practice and to art-making and to organizing, but when you are making work from a place of peace and clarity and connection, it's so much more life-giving. I wouldn't change anything about my journey.


The original full-length article appeared August 25, 2014 on Cosmopolitan magazine’s website

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