Activist Artist: If you look closely, you’ll notice a political edge in Kate Renee’s coloring-book-like artwork

“Alice in Wonderland”

The first thing you notice when you look at a collection of paintings by artist Kate Renee are the eyes of the person in each portrait – specifically one eye. It’s big and round and black. 

“It’s a style thing. When you see those googly eyes, you know it’s a Kate Renee art piece,” she says. 

You’ll also notice the bright colors and the thick, black lines that give a feel of a coloring book. Fairytale and storybook characters are recognizable in her artwork. Characters such as Winnie the Pooh or the Little Mermaid appear as metaphors, often with an ironic stance about the political theme she is illustrating. “I like to say that my work is edgy with a veneer of cute,” she says. 

As her work has evolved over time from simple, cute animals or figures, to a deeper metaphorical level, she kept the styling of the eyes a consistent feature in her acrylic paintings on birch panels. 

“When you give these googly eyes to a Disney princess or fairytale character, you still recognize them, but you know there’s something not quite right about them,” she says. “It anthropomorphizes things that are not real and it takes away the human qualities of characters.” 

Politically-charged messages

Renee has created two series of artwork that she has exhibited locally. Her “7 Sins” series featured Pooh, the man from the Monopoly game (as President Trump), the seven dwarfs, Kim Kardashian and others, examining vices such as gluttony, greed, lust and vanity. Her “Beauties Behaving Badly” series portrayed Snow White, Alice in Wonderland, Belle, Mary Poppins and others with messages about drug abuse, domestic violence and environmental carnage. 

The collections are basically fairytales that touch on political or social issues, says the artist. “For example, the painting with the ‘Little Mermaid’ was about the BP oil spill. It gives a lighter touch on exploring environmental or politically-charged topics.” 

Her painting “Liberty and Justice for All,” featured on this month’s cover, is a more recent work. She has stepped out of the fairytale mode, but is still working with a recognizable figure. In the painting, the Statue of Liberty is portrayed as a Muslim woman. “I’m growing as an artist over the years from cute, edgy and funny to something more political with a direct statement.” 

The artwork is a response to the current political climate of America, Renee says. “It’s a reminder that our country is built on a foundation of immigrants, and we have pledged that everyone deserves liberty and justice.” 

“The current political decisions under [President] Trump, including the travel ban, the police brutalities, the elimination of the DACA program and the events that took place in South Carolina are all alarming. These events have really brought racism to the forefront and continue to perpetuate fear and divide our country,” she says. 

Renee plans to make artwork that responds to current political events, “in a way that is creative and positive, and hopefully builds connections between people,” she says. “I know that all of the political things that are happening are feeding my creativity. This will not be the last work in response to what’s happening. There will be more.”

The work of art

Art has always been a part of Renee’s life. She grew up in Bloomington and studied at the University of Minnesota, receiving a Bachelors degree in Art and Art History, with a minor in Design. In her day job at the Science Museum gift shop she creates displays, paints walls, moves merchandise. “It keeps me in the creative mode,” she says. 

She also is a artist consultant, offering workshops for local artists about business skills, marketing and at a deeper level, “getting to the core of why they want to be creative, how art can make a difference in their life, how they can make it work,” she says. 

“Art is where people can meet and understand you in a non-confrontational way,” she says. “Art is a good way to start or continue a conversation.” 


Kate Renee (Courtesy Photo)