Wings sweep across the sky like an artist’s brush on canvas. A Steller’s Jay squawks through my backyard and lands in the plum tree, and I admire its crested head and blue feathers striped in black. I can picture this bird so clearly in the hands of Kate Breakey. But it would have to be dead first.
Breakey is best known for her meticulously hand-colored gelatin silver prints of dead birds that she or others have found. Against backdrops as empty as death itself (for a self-professed atheist like Breakey), with their Latin names handwritten at the bottom, these birds could pose as scientific specimens if not for their larger-than-life size that raises them from the dead and praises their fragile existence.
Since 1995, Breakey has been adding to her Small Deaths series, which now numbers over 240 images. Eighty-one of them appeared in her first, similarly titled monograph (University of Texas Press, 2001). Her body of work also includes 35 years of hand-colored photographs about the natural world: realistic birds, still lifes, landscapes, cacti and flowers; fanciful conversations between beasts of feather and fur; household objects acting out laws of physics; and, most recently, photograms of dead animals and images of live ones caught at night by a motion-sensing camera.
Etherton Gallery in Tucson, Arizona has shown Breakey’s photographs for 15 years. Owner Terry Etherton observes, “I’ve never met a more productive artist in my life. Kate is constantly coming up with new work. In the middle of one show, she’s already on to the next, and it doesn’t look at all like the last body of work.” Breakey says, “I get very excited about something I’ve thought up and I want to do it immediately.” She lives on four acres outside of Tucson with her husband, molecular biologist Paul Krieg, a horse named “Go” and a cello she started learning only three years ago. “Time is running out, and there’s not enough of it left for everything on my to-do list,” she adds.
At 56, hopefully she’s far from dying. But the subject of death remains close to much of Breakey’s work, because it allows her to more fully embrace life. She writes in her second monograph, Painted Light (University of Texas Press, 2010), which is a 20-year, nine-series retrospective, “I’ve tried not to lose sight of the inconceivable privilege it is to be alive. Sometimes I think what I do as an artist is to ‘take notes’ and pay attention along the way, out of a certain kind of gratitude for my life.”
There’s a lot she’s thankful for. “I never dreamed that I could make a living as an artist,” Breakey says. She has had more than 80 solo shows and 50 group ones in the United States, England, Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan and France. The many public collections of her work include the Australian National Gallery in Canberra, the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego and the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson. The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos holds over 400 of her photographs.
It all started in rural Adelaide, South Australia, where Breakey was born in 1957. Her father, an architect, was a bird lover, with backyard ducks, geese, exotic chickens and an aviary of finches and parrots. There was a big dog, cats, several horses and pet rabbits. Dinner came from cows or sheep butchered nearby.
Early on, Breakey thought about death — such a part of rural life — and was “fascinated and saddened” by the roadkill her father stopped for, rescuing possum babies still alive. She’ll also never forget him chopping the head off a chicken. “I was three years old, and it was the first violent death I’d seen. I wonder whether I’m still trying to make sense of it through my art.”
Shortly after that, when her parents separated, she and her younger sister moved 200 miles west with their mother to the small coastal fishing town of Port Lincoln. Growing up there was all about the sea, jellyfish and squid; rowing a dinghy at midnight to spear blue crabs; and swinging like Tarzan from a eucalyptus tree. She pored over art books, peered through the microscope her mother gave her for her birthday and collected feathers, rocks, birds’ nests and bones. Trips with her father to the natural history museum in Adelaide deepened her awe of the natural world.
“As a kid, I was interested in biology and wanted to be a paleontologist, but I wasn’t academic or disciplined enough,” Breakey says. “I was extremely good at drawing, though, and loved it.” When she was 13, her mother let her draw giant sunflowers on the kitchen wall with crayons. “I knew then what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
More of this article can be read in the Winter 2013 issue.