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Cat Woman of PIFAS: K-Fai Steele


K-Fai Steele
K-Fai Steele in her installation at PIFAS. She’s holding one of her papier mache pigeons which, like the cat-people in her self-created feline-human universe, is white and has long black hair.

I heard about PIFAS, Philadelphia Institute for Advanced Studies, a couple months ago from from Jesse Greenberg, who has a studio there (See post) and from the Bobo’s on 9th crew who are also affiliated, so when I got an email from K-Fai Steele, artist in residence at PIFAS I was intrigued. Greenberg had mentioned the PIFAS artist in residence program but it seemed highly improbable given the rough-hewn DIY aspect of the the North Philly art collective at 2nd and Cecil B. Moore, a place that looks like it runs on a budget that can barely float its own boat much less the boat of an artist-resident. But looks are often deceiving and the residency program — fueled by energy, ideas and friendship, if not by money — is a totally great idea.

K-Fai (pronounced Kay-Fi –long i) is an energetic and charming 25-year old Brooklyn artist with a literary bent (Her father is a poet and during her residency at PIFAS, among other things, she made a video adaptation of Othello).

Her residency space at PIFAS is a tiny room in the big warehouse but she seemed happy as can be with the entire everything of her stay in Philadelphia. She’d been put up in one of the PIFAS members’ apartments for the month and in addition to her own work, she got to participate in the many activities of the multi-tasking collective. They offer classes, movie nights, music and other performances in what seems to be a non-standard learning community where classes are like Greek symposia where lots of socializing and beer drinking ensues. Hey, it’s classic.

Film still from K-Fai Steele’s adaptation of Othello. Picture by Ramsey Arnaoot.

Steele grew up in Wooster MA in an old 1830s house. Her father was the head of the local poets society. “He’s a bohemian at heart,” she said. Dad is Italian and Mom’s from Hong Kong. Her parents owned an antiques shop. Her parents are very supportive of her art although mom always asks whether she can’t put some clothes on the cat-ladies.

I asked her about her unusual name. It’s Chinese. All her siblings have names that begin with K-. She explained more in an email:

“K-Fai means “beautiful sunshine” in Chinese. It’s a very unique name. My mother made it up by combining the character for “sun” and another two characters that literally translate to “soliders marching in glory”. My last name, Steele, comes from my grandfather and is a Scottish term for a stone wall. My grandmother’s last name was Gaudio. Her family was from Naples and apparently one of my family members is a saint in the Catholic church.

Leisure, drawing by K-Fai Steele.
Leisure, drawing by K-Fai Steele.

I asked her if she’d been to China and she said she had been when she was 2 years old. She and her mom went to China and Hong Kong. Her mom hasn’t been there in 27 years.

Steele’s art involves a universe of cat-people with white bodies and black hair. When she met me at PIFAS she was dressed all in white and her long black hair was falling over her shoulders. While the work I saw was sculptural, Steele’s a drawing artist as well and her website and blogs have a number of storybook-like scenes that evoke the Rennaissance and Matisse’s Le bonheur de vivre (1905-6) with nude bodies in lush landscapes. Elsewhere, Piranesi-like cities are the backdrop.

Matisse, Bonheur de vivre

Here’s what she said in an email about her cats:

“I’ve been drawing the cat-people for the past three years. An interesting note: when I was a child I’d draw myself and family as cat-people, so in a way this character was waiting in soft primordial form. I was certainly obsessed with cats as a girl. I would pretend to be a cat as often as possible, and I spent hours petting and observing the dozen or so of them that used to stalk around and breed in our barn. I read and watched a lot of cartoons, and later sitcoms, but mostly for study rather than pleasure; I was a sponge absorbing the writers’ concepts of humor and human interaction. One of my goals with the cat-people is to use them as a new method of understanding and appreciating the way that people communicate with one another. I also use them as a tool to understand art history.

K-Fai Steele
Steele with one of her cat ladies.

The art from her residency was a group of life-size papier mache figures — all cat girls with black hair. They were posed in the small studio on a masonite floor painted to look like tile with a papier mache tree, a two-headed gargoyle, some birds and beer bottles. It was a shame the space was so small because the work had some drama and weirdness but in the compressed space it was diminished. She was making work about herself, right? “It’s all me–why do others,” she asked. Also, she’s fueled by art history and wanted you to feel like you’re stepping into a Fra Angelico painting.

The residency was great, she said. She had a studio for a month and was immersed in the PIFAs world where people were very interested in helping her with projects, like the Othello film done in cat costume. “They said Do you need help?”

I asked her about the Othello video. They shot it at night in FDR Park in the pavilions. “It felt like off the beaten path Rome.” she said. (she spend a year in Rome while she was a student).

“The Othello film is called “The Cat People of Venice”. Right now Shawn Kornhauser (the cinematographer who shot and edited the film) is making a final edit. We don’t have plans to screen it anytime soon, but hopefully we will arrange a proper screening. Within a few weeks we’ll be making it available for download on the PIFAS website.

When they were done shooting the film, they drove back up town, still talking a mile a minute and still dressed in cat costumes. And they rear ended someone and all got out of the car — forgetting they were still dressed in cat costume — to see if the people in the other car were ok. Apparently everyone was ok.

Steele’s residency happened when a friend of hers, Gavin, who lives here, introduced her to the PIFAS folks. She graduated from Bates (major in art and minor in German literature) and then moved to New York. She traveled after college and got a job at MoMA as an art handler. She was also a personal assistant to musician/artist/actor John Lurie.

At MoMA she said she got to handle Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignon. She’s freelancing there now off and on.

“I’ve been in Brooklyn for 3 1/2-4 years. I found in Philly what I’ve been looking for in Brooklyn for a long time, a community of people who are enthusiastic. I found it in New York with some but nobody has the time there. Maybe because they have jobs to work and pay rent. It’s isolating to work by yourself.”

Image that greets you on the PIFAS website’s front page.

I spent a nice hour in the PIFAS space — much of it with K-Fai, but also with Ramsay Arnaoot,
one of the PIFAS founders who walked me through the space and explained the range of people who had studios there (there must be 20 some people, from bike fixers to painters, sculptors, costume designers, electronics wizards and musicians. Two of the performance/rock band The Extraordinaires, Matt and Jay, have studios there. There’s a photographer. Liz Rywelski used to have a space there. Also, Owen Osborn has a studio to do music synthesizing. He does “stuff” for Dear Raindrop an art collective in Virginia Beach (they used to be with Paper Rad).

There’s a wood shop and a metal shop. The Sunday afternoon I was there, a couple of people were playing a timed chess game in one of the common areas.

shop area and garage door
Metal shop area of PIFAS.

Arnaoot told me they were big on pedagogy and he said it with such a straight face that I was taken aback, partly because the group’s name, Philadelphia Instutute for Advanced Studies is a clear parody of the famed Princeton Institute for Advanced studies (home of Einstein and other brainy people). Also, partly because their website, with its picture of a steel and glass tower that might be somebody’s dream of a think tank, is rather opaque with terminology couched in academe (members are faculty or emeriti, there’s a listing for trustees and there are indeed classes listed and projects that have ongoing meetings.) I thought he was pulling my leg. But no, they’re seriously about getting together to share information and teach and challenge each other with ideas, and that’s a pretty good definition of pedagogy.

Arnaoot is from outside Washington D.C. He went to the University of Virginia and wound up in Philadelphia because two friends he knew moved here. His background is in engineering and computer science. One of the classes he teaches is “Pure data” “It’s freeware, like Max MSP (sp???).” He makes electronically-generated music. “K-Fai asked me to do something for the film so I did.”

The PIFAS group used to be at the South Philadelphia Atheneum, where they carried on sub-rosa with activities which included inhabiting the space, until they were busted by L&I and driven out in the middle of the night. Read it all here in PIFAS co-founder Brandon Joyce’s nicely-told tale of woe.

It is clear that nobody is inhabiting the PIFAS space, which has the ambiance of a factory and clubhouse but not a dorm.

They’ve had artists in residence since May, Arnaoot said. The first was from England and was a musician; second was someone working on a book; “In September two German friends of mine came. K-Fai’s opening was the biggest we’ve had. We showed the film of Othello.”

common area in shared studio building
A common area in PIFAS where they screen movies or have performances or music.

While PIFAS seems like Philly’s other great art beehives — a little anarchic and utopian and full of ambitious child-like dreamers — (Space 1026, AMMS) their level of pedagogy is on another level, although maybe they’re just more organized about it with course listings online and all.

Mostly they’re about being together and sharing and having fun. Example: Tucked away in the description for the serious-sounding Philosophy Group was the fact that the first session’s topics were Safety, Cellphones, and Housepets… and another project, Game Lab will have events that “will be festive, competitive, and hypercaffeinated in character.”

Speaking of games, Arnaoot mentioned that their enormous, high-ceilinged space got pretty cold in the winter and said that last winter they stayed warm by breaking every hour to play basketball! Here’s a link to Arnaoot’s music page.

Meanwhile, K-Fai is moving from Brooklyn to Philadelphia where she’ll sublease for a month then move to an old coffin factory in the PIFAS neighborhood. Her lease on her Brooklyn apartment is up, the building’s been sold and meanwhile, she’s found a community of like-minded art workers here.

More photos at my flickr and even more, including shots from a recent jam session at PIFAS with Jonny Corndawg and the Extraordinaires, at Ramsey Arnaoot’s flickr.