Special Report

Aesthetic Phenomenon

At 24, Katherine Elliott Eastland is a rising fine artist to watch.

By 12.24.09

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Katherine Elliott Eastland discovered the hat amongst her grandmother's piles of boxes, lists, and post-it notes shortly after the beloved matriarch passed away, a saucer of black velvet topped with a curlicue feather like a withered fern and two pins to secure it at however beguiling an angle the wearer dared. Mildred's. 1915. Very special read the attached note in penciled script. Mildred was the younger sister of Eastland's grandmother. She wore the hat when she was Eastland's age, and now her great niece assumed it with aplomb.

"I like to think of hats being the casual sons -- bowlers, fedoras, top hats -- and daughters -- pillboxes, pincushions, and cloches -- of crowns," Eastland says. "They can transform anyone into a walking exclamation mark. Granted, it's a little awkward to go get your lunch in a hat made entirely of pheasant and peacock feathers. But I still say it's worth it. Let joie de vivre enter the wardrobe!"

In a way this hat's newfound place in granddaughter Eastland's extensive, wonderfully idiosyncratic headwear rotation -- it is already slated for New Year's Eve 2015, its 100th birthday -- tells us something about the already stunning work of this 24-year-old writer/fine artist wunderkind: Eastland has the ability to draw chicness from unexpected, long-lost wells of classiness and fundamental truth by the bucketful; to provide a twinkling, stylishly sacred answer to the questions snidely posed by the over-aggrandized modern profane -- perhaps not surprising from a creator whose childhood artistic touchstones included Sesame Street's Snuffleupagus, "well-lit, beautiful, mostly unnecessary things" from the Neiman Marcus catalog, and the Book of Revelation. 

Readers may recognize Eastland's near-peerless caricature work and writing from the Arts & Culture section of the Weekly Standard, where she is an assistant editor, or perhaps from her illustration for the upcoming W.B. Yeats and the Muses. Fewer are likely familiar with her exquisite paintings -- for now. Nothing is ever certain, but wagering on the world's ability to keep a lid on a triple-threat appears the very definition of a bad bet.

"I WILL FOREVER THANK MY mother for not depriving me of pen and paper in the 'time-out corner,'" Eastland says of her earliest, unorthodox tiny studio space. When not, say, distributing a Valentine's Day card to fellow fifth-graders depicting Bill Clinton missives "raining all around" a blue dress-clad Monica Lewinsky "like the roses of Heliogobulus," you might have found Eastland sketching in church pews. "I still think it is beautiful that John writes angels measure heaven with yardsticks that are intelligible to men. It was these rooms, and the staircases stretching up to them from earth, that I would try to draw."

Later she expanded into rendering iconic images in the styles of other artists -- "One time I painted the head of Botticelli's Venus in the style of Van Gogh" -- and eventually double-majored in Classics and Studio Art at Davidson College, where she founded a glossy arts quarterly, the Davidson Reader. "After penning half-baked Latin letters to Cicero, knowing full well I'd never hear back from him, I'd walk over to the art building, where I would not have to think about grammar at all," she explains. "When I got sick of staring at colors and shapes, or stretching my own canvas, I'd just walk back to the library."

Once during her Davidson years friends convinced Eastland to put together an experimental performance art piece in the name of getting out of her "comfort zone," a revelatory moment, as it turns out. "I remember thinking that I didn't care to make something to shock people for no apparent reason," she recalls. "It was flashy entertainment masquerading as 'authenticity.' But sometimes you don't know these things until you've tried them out."

Perusing her current collections it is clear her sublime talents would have been terribly wasted had she tipped the other way -- though from this perch that alternate universe seems at best improbable. We're talking about a young woman, after all, who borrows her motto from Jimmy Stewart's Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey ("I prefer pleasant"), is extremely modest about her talents and aims ("I'm happiest when making, probably because my dad drilled into me the loveliness and satisfaction of a 'thing made' -- with dogs around me, and a bottomless cup of Earl Grey tea"), and adores 1930s screwball comedy star Irene Dunne. "She polished her laugh down to three lilting hah's, head tilted back at a 10 degree angle, eyes sparkling," Eastland reports reverently.

Not exactly the curriculum vitae of a future Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation intern.

"I'm old-fashioned with my drawing style, probably because I look at 19th-century illustration more than any other kind," she explains. "They tend to have a quiet wit that doesn't offer itself upfront. You have to look for it. They reward slowly…I think about the ideas that inform what I am making, but I want the image to be able to stand alone not need an explanatory text. When art requires an explanation for it to make any sense, it's often weak."

THIS MINDSET EXPLAINS, partially anyway, how Eastland is able to subtly allude to the sacred in her work sans the two-dimensional equivalent of a Bible-encrusted baseball bat pummeling. She keeps a copy of the Lord's Prayer, written in two-inch tall Greek letters, on the wall in her studio to center and inspire, but nevertheless says carefully, "When talking and thinking about God, you have to check yourself for straying into a land of saccharine sentiment, which is so easy to do, and can cripple an image and belief."

Her ideal is Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "Christ Carrying the Cross," a print of which adorns her Weekly Standard cubicle. "This is an amazing painting about a dramatic event, yet it does not give itself away upon first viewing like an advertisement," she offers. "It does not seem to spell disaster; it tells the story slowly, one shape at a time. What keeps bringing my eye back to this work is Mary Magdalene, the way her back is to us and her face -- hidden in cloth and shadow -- reveals so little. Look at her dress, its certain formality, the tight bodice, the full skirt, the yards of silk pooling on Golgotha while Christ quietly lugs the cross in the background. Look at Mary. It seems as though she is embracing a figure. She holds the cloth as if it were a body. This is such a strong and subtle way to depict loss.

"The story of cloth in Christianity is interesting," she continues. "There's Hypatia's cloth, Veronica's veil, and the cloth that is suddenly ripped in two when Christ dies. They all touch on the mystery of to what extent we, still clothed in our skin and in the world, are near, or not near, God. I would not want to know that mystery, for to know it would be, in a sense, to cure it. A great part of the aesthetic phenomenon is simply not to know!"

THE ICONIC FIGURES EASTLAND portrays as part of her Weekly Standard day job are, mercifully, less complicated than the divine, yet still knotty puzzles fished from what she describes as a "magpie nest of lines."

"The trick for getting a subject's essence…accessories or, you could say, attributes!" Eastland says. "I probably over-think this, but it's important to get inside your subject as best as you can, if it makes you ask yourself if you are nuts for thinking this minutely. It's like getting inside the head of a character when acting. You need a fair amount of negative capability to make a good illustration.

"You can say a lot just by the way a collar is rumpled -- or starched," she continues. "Chairs are also a great help. I put Philip Larkin in a glum, lumpy one, for instance, to go with his potato face. Prim people get striped chairs with narrow wooden arms and legs. Ayn Rand will probably get a practical-looking one with clean cash signs on it; she always wore a little money pin in life, and on a practical little black dress Coco Chanel never would have made or worn…I relish the way Horace describes the hairstyle of a woman: simplex munditiis. It means, loosely, 'simple in its intricacies.' This is the best definition of elegance I've found yet."  

And if Eastland sometimes frets she hasn't strapped, for instance, George Frideric Handel into a sufficiently evincing pair of shoes, it hasn't lessened her esteem in the eyes of her bossman, the incomparable Philip Terzian, who calls her the "ideal colleague."

"Quick, immensely capable, amusing and amusable, diplomatic, shrewd, smart and learned, rolls easily with the punches," Terzian rattles off via email. "And she can draw, write, brews a mean cup of tea and wears a different hat every day."

When the thorny question of whether her status as a worker bee in the right-wing hive -- neoconservative honeycomb no less! -- might diminish her options/opportunities in the art world, Eastland is all unflappable nonchalance.

"I can worry only about what, and how, I make things, whether they are sentences or images," she says. "Super-politicized artwork is often a lot of silent screaming aimed at no one. I think that art has higher, and more lasting, purposes. Some expect that I don't like modern or contemporary art since I'm conservative. This is almost as silly as when someone who, knowing I make art, assumes I'm liberal. When they hear where I work, they say, What! You're a conservative artist! But that doesn't add up! Oh, but it does, depending on what and how you make."

LEST YE HAVEN'T GUESSED, this isn't exactly the character of a compromiser or a shameless self-promoter.

"For better or worse, I tend to be a bit of a clam," Eastland confirms. "I work in quiet, don't enter contests. But I sincerely believe that if you do good work in quiet, that work still speaks for itself."

Or in Eastland's case, screams from rooftops.

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