Illustrator. Designer. Educator. Observer of consumer culture. Lover of daily drawings and art installations. Believer that “teaching and making go hand in hand.” Meet the talented, smart and refreshingly honest Kate Bingaman-Burt.
The Illustrator and Designer
Before graduate school and teaching, the beginning of Kate’s fascination with consumerism emerged. Her first job was as a graphic designer at a small gift and retail company in Omaha, Nebraska in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Having just finished her undergraduate work at the College of the Ozarks in Missouri, part of Kate’s job was to attend trade shows and pay attention to trends, where she was finding herself obsessed yet also disgusted with consumer culture.
“It was a den of seduction for all these store owners…it was weird.” Kate explained. “It was during the Beanie Baby era. I would see people just lose their shit. ‘I’ve got to get the Beanie Baby order in!’ These are business owners. I thought, ‘wow, this is crazy.’…I have to make work about this, this is insane.” Kate applied to graduate school at the University of Nebraska and spent three years creating work about different consumer behaviors and the emotions that fueled them. She made various consumer-based projects, like photo-documenting yard sales, thrift stores and customers in retail stores. She would ask questions and found most people would openly share about their purchases and their stories. Using photos or art installations of photos, Kate would showcase her findings.
“I thought, ‘wow, this is crazy.’…I have to make work about this, this is insane.”
Kate didn’t always have a passion for drawing and illustrating. In fact, she didn’t like to draw and used it as a way to reprimand herself for the credit card debt she accumulated coming out of graduate school. In the fall of Kate’s first semester as an Assistant Professor at Mississippi State University (MSU), she was $26,000 in debt. She received her first paycheck in October of 2004 and started reviewing her six different credit card bills. Feelings of anxiety and guilt crept in, as she realized it would take years to pay it all off. “This is my big girl job, and this is not really going to vaporize my credit card debt. I remember sitting in my office thinking, ‘this is nuts. This is completely nuts,’” Kate vulnerably shared.
She started drawing her credit card statements after feeling the different emotions around money and finances. “Nobody updates their Facebook status to say, ‘I’m $37,000 in debt.’ It’s just something we don’t talk about, but it’s something we are all completely messed up over,” Kate explained. Since she didn’t like to draw at the time, she treated it like a form of punishment for herself and decided to share her drawings online. “It was terrifying. I remember when I uploaded the first month of statements to my website and sent it out to the mailing list …I remember sending it out, going to bed, laying there, thinking, ‘what have I done? This is terrifying.’” Two years into the project, Kate found she genuinely liked the marks and logos she would draw, which prompted her to start her daily drawings illustration project. Instead of making work about consumer culture, she started actively participating in design work while teaching, and was frequently contacted for freelance projects. She used drawing as a medium to relate with those who shared a similar struggle, and was able to pay off her debt in 2010.
“Nobody updates their Facebook status to say, ‘I’m $37,000 in debt.’ It’s just something we don’t talk about, but it’s something we are all completely messed up over.”
Kate finds drawing helps to center her, making the comparison to how people feel about working out. No matter what the day is like, “I can sit down at my desk at home and make one drawing. Okay, I made something today…that gives me a little hope. At least I made this one thing.” While drawing, she is inspired by finding a different style or type of content, which gives her a sense of discovery. “It doesn’t look perfect…I don’t want to make easy work. My own work I have control over, I want layers to exist. I don’t want to sit there and mindlessly doodle away. Even if it’s not apparent to the viewer, I want it to be deeper. That’s what makes me really happy.”
“You have to go all in for a while. If you want to write, you’ve got to write a lot. If you want to draw, you’ve got to draw a lot. The thing that you’re doing, you can’t be that timid with it.”
Kate’s first experience teaching was presented to her while most graduate students are still learning and assisting their mentors. While earning a Masters of Fine Arts in Studio Art/Graphic Design from the University of Nebraska, Kate’s graduate advisor fell ill. She ended up having three different classes to teach because he wasn’t able to be there, all within her first year as a graduate student.
“I guess I’m doing this now! I had no idea what I was doing,” Kate laughed. “Okay, I have to figure this out because I have a class of 25 kids. After the initial shock of it all, I really liked it. This is fun. This is very, very cool. At the end of three years of school, I felt like I was really enjoying the personal research I was doing, I was also really enjoying teaching…I thought, ‘I think I am going to try applying for professor jobs.’ In a university environment they support your research and I thought ‘this is the environment for me.’” Kate accepted a position with MSU and continued to work on her illustrations. After four years teaching at MSU, the gifted illustrator and educator moved out to Portland, Oregon in 2008. She was referred by a colleague for a position as a graphics design professor at Portland State University (PSU), where she currently teaches.
“Okay, I have to figure this out because I have a class of 25 kids. After the initial shock of it all, I really liked it. This is fun. This is very, very cool.”
After an hour talking with Kate, sitting in brightly colored beanbag chairs at her Portland studio, you can easily understand why she is a favorite amongst students. It’s not just her upbeat personality or breadth of industry experience; she is truly invested in helping her students find their passion. She focuses on how to make each student grow and develop beyond the classroom, teaching them it’s not just about getting a job or taking classes specifically laid out on their degree map, but it’s about how to find a program that’s enjoyable. She also gives them accurate expectations about the skills that are most important to make it in the world. “Communication, how to listen to somebody, how to relate to somebody, how to not feel awkward talking to a stranger…those are the skills you really need to cultivate. The hard (technical) skills follow,” she described.
Teaching is the most satisfying thing she does, but can also be the most challenging. “I really love it. It’s a lot of hard work but it’s also incredibly rewarding, too. I feel like the amount of work you put into it…you’re met with that back, too.”
“I always tell my students – you want to do things that make you nervous because that means you’re growing. Okay Kate, take some of your own advice.”
This fall, Kate will have an even bigger hand in supporting her students, taking on a new administrative role as the Associate Director of the Art School for PSU. She will be splitting her attention between her existing roles and classes, as well as her new role with first year foundations, school advising, retention and working with outside community partners. “I have no idea what this job is going to be like,” Kate shared with a laugh. “It’s a new position so I don’t have a precedent. It’s going to be a challenge…It makes me nervous but it’s also really, really good. I normally feel nervous before the new school year, but this is different. I always tell my students – you want to do things that make you nervous because that means you’re growing. Okay Kate, take some of your own advice.”
Blending Her Passions
As an illustrator and educator, Kate’s philosophy is that “teaching and making go hand in hand.” She feels it’s necessary to be active in her field so she can be a better teacher. “It is so important to be able to have those conversations with students,” Kate explained. “You can navigate anything from tricky email correspondence, contracts, concepts…It helps get buy in from the students when they see you working in a way that they might be hoping to work, too…That makes teaching so much better and productive, too. If I woke up one morning and said, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore,’ it would be really hard for me to keep teaching. It would feel weird. I don’t think I would believe the things I would be saying.”
She also helps students realize the hardships. “I feel like it shouldn’t all be sharing successes with students, it should be about when you’ve fucked up. I’m not a fan of ‘let me tell you.’ Everyone’s learning. You just happen to be at a different stage of learning. It’s about helping students on the path.”
“I feel like it shouldn’t all be sharing successes with students, it should be about when you’ve fucked up.”
While she continues to find success in her different roles and projects, Kate relates to the unique struggle of starting out as an artist. “You have to go all in for a while. If you want to write, you’ve got to write a lot. If you want to draw, you’ve got to draw a lot. The thing that you’re doing, you can’t be that timid with it. You’ve got to make piles of whatever it is. Only then, once you sort through the writing, the drawing, or the photography, you start to see those connections and you start figuring out what you want to do or how you want to move forward. You can’t try something for a couple days or be timid with it. It’s hard, especially when you’re starting something new. It’s hard to go all in. Also, be okay making an amazing amount of crap. Everyone starts as a beginner. You’re going to make a lot of crap. But you’re going to find gems in there that are going to give you motivation to keep going.”
As we find those gems, just like Kate’s story, it’s extraordinary.