Profile and photograph by Michael C. Butz
Years 30 • Lives Lakewood • Creates Lakewood • Degrees BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art, where she majored in drawing and minored in photography
It’s difficult to decode Kaetlyn McCafferty’s art, but that’s by design. The subjects depicted are steeped in mythology, the multiple settings in which they’re placed jumble generations and the pieces’ cryptic titles throw viewers off the trail of discovery.
On those levels and others, her art intrigues. Her most recent works – on view in March in her solo show, “Gods and Fighting Men,” at PopEye Gallery at 78th Street Studios in Cleveland – engrossed viewers and had them seeking meaning.
“I never want to give away the answers,” McCafferty says. “I want people to have to work, and I also want them to know there isn’t a right or wrong. I use references that are very mixed and things that look like they add up but don’t.”
Take for instance “The Vorpal Blade,” a piece that drops the ancient statue Venus Callipyge (literally, “Venus of the beautiful buttocks”) on The Strip in mid-century Las Vegas but with a modern-day peach emoji covering her derrière. Colorful, multilayered, engaging and mysterious, it’s representative of her larger body of work.
“The No. 1 question I get is, ‘What does it mean?’ But I suppose there isn’t one single thing. I want them to sort of question the way they develop narrative and how they understand roles, archetype and character – and how do you sort of make sense out of an indeterminable or absurd situation?”
A clue to deciphering McCafferty’s art can be found in her familial roots. She’s third-generation Irish on her father’s side, and that culture figures prominently in her work and titles. Mummers – men cloaked in straw costumes who in Ireland would go door to door to perform plays, relying on just a few archetypal roles, and then demand money and leave – are in several of her pieces.
“Mummers will barge into a situation and disrupt it, and that’s what they’re doing in the images as well,” she says. “It’s masking something, it’s disrupting the understanding of something that would’ve been easier to access without it.”
“These things are meant to be not so much anachronistic as they are a conglomeration of everything happening at once,” she says. “They’re not supposed to exist in a specific time or place. They’re not even necessarily in the existing backgrounds (in the art). They’re breaking out of them, they’re standing in front of them, or they’re half in them or half out.”
It’s worth noting that McCaffety’s path to “Gods and Fighting Men” wasn’t a straight line. After graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 2012, she did a residency and internship but was saddled with student loan debt and living with her parents.
Sensing action needed to be taken, McCafferty followed in her father and grandfather’s footsteps and entered the construction business as a pipe insulator. She held – and enjoyed – the job for three years before art again beckoned.
“Eventually, I left because it gnawed at me that there was this thing I’d devoted so much of my life to doing and I wasn’t doing it,” she says. “I had started making work again, and once that was all I could think about, I knew it was time to leave. I had to at least try to do something with my work and not get absorbed into the comfort of having a steady paycheck.”
The transition back to making art is now complete, but it didn’t come without challenges.
“It wasn’t difficult to wake up in the morning and start doing things, but it was difficult to justify – and it was scary. I left something very steady and comforting for total uncertainty,” she says. “It was hard to pick things up right where I had left off, which was my thesis work, and I’d lost touch with the community, too. So, it really did feel like walking around in the dark for a little while.”
With her first solo show under her belt, she’s looking forward to where her art goes next.
“I have some sketches and some photographic things in mind, but I won’t know until I start making work – kind of trial and error to see what leads where,” she says. “A good friend of mine and I are constantly saying ‘work fixes work,’ and it determines itself.” CV
Lead image: Kaetlyn McCafferty in her Lakewood home studio.
“One of our goals as a gallery is to host a solo show every year of an emerging artist with a stellar practice and body of work. So, I began to ask around – I talked to local artists, curators and even professors to learn whether there was an artist who had strong work but who hasn’t been showing a ton around Cleveland. We wanted someone fresh, a new artist who could generate some energy in our space, and Kaetlyn McCafferty’s name kept coming up. Once I looked at her website, I knew she was a perfect fit for our gallery. Her detailed archetype figures are so strong and powerful. I was shocked that I hadn’t seen the work in the past.”
– Omid Tavokoli, owner and director, PopEye Gallery