Kamilla White, Artist and Free Bird.
When I moved to Seattle in 1994, one of the first things I noticed was the ubiquity of the local crow population. I had never paid that much attention to these birds before. Having grown up in western Washington, I'd seen them around all my life, but this was different. I was starting a new chapter of my life in a new city, and the crows seemed to me to be harbingers of possibility. I began watching them, studying their behavior, and reading about them. I learned of their keen intelligence, their social and family structures, and their intricate co-evolutionary relationships with human beings. From there, it was only a short step to imagining them living in my house, having access to my things and generally wreaking whimsical havoc. I started Raven Lunatic Studios (originally called Kamillustration) in 2001, and began sharing these ideas with the art-viewing public. I am happy to report that the response has been favorable.
I am constantly striving for balance – between work and the rest of life; between painting and sculpture; between reliable production work that pays the bills and new, fresh material that keeps me engaged and excited about what I do. And yes, eventually between crow- and raven-themed art and other subject matter. For now, the crows are my muses, and I expect that to be the case for some time to come. Ideas for new work occur to me more quickly than I can get them onto canvas or paper, so I think I shall be very busy for the next few decades. I am grateful to the crows for inspiring me, and to the wonderful people who share, appreciate and support my artistic visions.
Kamilla White was born and raised in a small town in southwest Washington state. An introverted, self-contained child, she often preferred books and art to human companionship.
“When we lived in north Kelso, I was the only kid in the neighborhood who had a swing set. One day several kids were visiting and playing in the yard with me, but eventually I just slipped away. They knocked at the front door and asked Mom where I was. She found me alone in my bedroom, reading a book,” Kamilla laughs. “Some things never change.”
Solitary creative pursuits were therefore a natural choice for Kamilla, and she began drawing at a very young age.
In kindergarten, she was introduced to painting. “Our teacher told us we each needed to bring in one of our dads' old shirts to cover our school clothes before we'd be allowed to paint,” Kamilla recalls. “I rushed straight home after school and yelled, 'Mom, I need a paint shirt!' She was happy to oblige. I brought one in the very next day. I couldn't wait to get started.”
She was fascinated by painting. “All these lovely tempera colors in old soup cans, brushes instead of fingers, and huge (to me) paper, on an easel instead of a tabletop. In my first painting, I used every color and covered the entire paper. A boy asked me what it was. I told him it was a torpedo, simply because I liked the sound of the word. (I had no idea what a torpedo was.) The teacher came over to look and said, 'WOW!' I guess I made a bit of a splash,” Kamilla says, smiling. “I wish I'd kept that one.”
Arts and crafts quickly became Kamilla's favorite part of the school day – or the Girl Scout meeting, or the Sunday School class, or any other time she could participate. She drew with pencils, crayons, or markers, and painted in watercolors. Writing stories also became a favorite activity, because it meant she could draw pictures to illustrate them.
An avid reader, Kamilla also studied illustrations in children's books and comic books, photography in National Geographic magazine, and even her father's Time Life books about the Old West. Thus, it wasn't long before she developed a realist sensibility, and became frustrated by her relative lack of skill.
“I was absurdly hard on myself. It used to drive me nuts that I couldn't produce professional-caliber art at the age of eight,” Kamilla laughs. “Still, I kept soldiering away at it, just because it was fun.”
Kamilla also made simple beaded jewelry and did crochet projects, which satisfied her creative urges without as much self-imposed pressure to achieve. Jazz dance joined artmaking as a primary passion.
One day, Kamilla's sixth-grade class did a drawing exercise which consisted of cutting out half a picture of a human face from a magazine, gluing it down on paper and drawing the other half. She used a photo she had found of a middle-aged woman who reminded her of her best friend's mother. “My drawing of the other half of her face wasn't stellar,” she concedes, “but it really wasn't bad, either. I definitely had made progress. I began to think I really could be good at this after all.”
In junior high school Kamilla began taking art classes. Drawing was the main focus for most of this time. She began to learn principles of perspective drawing, human anatomy and even some basic color theory. Kamilla showed sufficient artistic promise that she was promoted to the ninth-grade art class in the second semester of her eighth-grade year.
That same year, Kamilla's art teacher showed the class a short film about several practicing professional artists, and the types of work they were doing. Kamilla was completely enthralled. It had never occurred to her that this could be a career choice, but the idea was an attractive one.
“I rushed home and told my mom, 'I want to be an artist!', just like with the paint shirt,” Kamilla recalls.“I honestly thought she'd be happy for me.”
You Can't Always Get What You Want
Kamilla's mother was markedly less enthusiastic. “She'd encouraged the living daylights out of me,” Kamilla says. “Right up until that moment. Then, suddenly, it was 'frivolous' and 'she just didn't see how I could ever make a living at it.' There were a lot of mixed messages during the next several years. It was confusing, and extremely frustrating.”
Kamilla had also expressed interest in computers and electronics, and so was persuaded to forgo art for those subjects in high school. However, she possessed little aptitude for them. She quickly discovered an affinity for biology, but was too afraid of upsetting her mother to try changing her career path yet again.
Kamilla kept her artistic spirit alive as best she could in her spare time (and often during classes that didn't interest her), drawing and copying art from comic books and other illustrated materials. She also joined the school's theater department and acted in several plays, as well as assisting in set construction and stage management. Dance classes continued.
An opportunity to spend a summer in Europe came along at the end of Kamilla's junior year. Needless to say, she gratefully and enthusiastically accepted.
The trip was life-changing. Traveling in Scotland, England, France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands, getting a taste of the different cultures, was amazing to 16-year-old Kamilla. “I didn't want to go back home.” she remembers.
A major high point was a foray into the Louvre Museum in Paris. Surrounded by art and history, she remembered who she really was and what she really wanted out of life. “I knew I could never take another electronics course.”
Empowered and emboldened by her European sojourn, Kamilla returned to school. She ended a dating relationship that was doing her no favors and rearranged her senior year schedule to include art classes, even managing to crowbar in an extra art class her final semester. “I finally had some clarity. I was feeling pretty good about myself.”
Losing My Religion
College brought new and different challenges. Kamilla attended a private Christian liberal arts college at her mother's behest, but was unable to maintain the GPA necessary to renew her first-year scholarship. Transferring to a local community college her sophomore year improved her spirits and academic performance dramatically. She studied graphic design and photography, worked part-time decorating cakes, and even returned to acting, this time in the college's theater department.
“It was a great time in a lot of ways,” Kamilla recalls. “I loved my studies, I loved my job, I had lots of friends.....I felt like I was at a creative peak.”
Tensions at home, however, eventually drove her to move out of her parents' house and share an apartment with a friend from the theater department. Kamilla spent the next year working two and sometimes three part-time jobs at once to make ends meet, while still carving out the time to act in community theater and study jazz dance.
Financial aid was a huge worry. Desperate for college money, she and a high school friend together signed up for Army ROTC Basic Camp at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
The military life did not much suit Kamilla either, but she completed the six week program, simply to prove that she could. “It was a surreal experience. There were some high points, and I did meet some really cool people; but it definitely pushed me outside my comfort zone on a daily basis, and not always in good ways. I knew it wasn't for me. I was just going to have to find another way to pay for school, or else not go back. I guess the biggest take away for me was the realization that not finishing college wouldn't be the end of my world. If I could graduate Basic Camp, I could find a way to make a life for myself.”
Fortunately, sufficient financial aid came through to allow Kamilla to attend Washington State University. She packed all her things into her blue Datsun and drove it to Pullman, Washington. There, she quickly found a job in the Financial Aid office, and set to work earning her BFA degree in Painting.
“I actually started out as a Graphic Design major – a nod to concerns about my future employability,” Kamilla explains, “but Painting ultimately stole my heart. Although, if I'm being honest, I considered changing my major emphasis every time I tried a new medium. I put off taking the required Sculpture and Ceramics classes for as long as I could, thinking I would probably hate them. I loved them, of course. In fact, I chose a minor emphasis in Ceramics. You just never know, do you?”
Kamilla loved living in eastern Washington. The cold, snowy winters and hot, dry summers were a welcome contrast to the milder, rainy climate of her childhood home. She enjoyed the college town culture of Pullman and nearby Moscow, Idaho, and seriously considered settling permanently on the Palouse.
The sudden and unexpected death of Kamilla's father during a holiday break was a major turning point. “It threw a huge emotional wrench into my world,” she acknowledges. “I realized nobody knows how much time they have left, and that I should get on with my life.” She changed her class schedule to let her graduate a semester earlier than she'd originally planned, and did a series of paintings mourning her father as her senior thesis exhibition.
“Art is so therapeutic and cathartic. I really do believe it saves lives. Processing that experience would have been so much more difficult without that creative outlet. I know my mother and brother both had tougher struggles with it than I did.”
After graduation, Kamilla once again strung together a series of part-time jobs and community theater gigs. She acquired a six-month work visa for the UK and scraped together enough money to go. There, she found work at the Institute of Advanced Motorists and a room in a house in the London suburb of Brentford, Middlesex.
England agreed with Kamilla, and she spent all the time she could exploring the art galleries, parks, museums, theaters and other cultural offerings. She made friends, took courses in fencing and stand-up comedy, and enjoyed side trips to France and Germany during her stay.
But the trip was also challenging in unexpected ways, ones for which she feels she was ill-prepared. “It was intense. I learned a lot about myself. In my mad rush to develop myself as an artist, and escape my early life, I had neglected other very important areas of personal growth. And that caught up with me in London. I realized I had a lot of work to do, and I couldn't be my best self, or even have much of a self, without doing it. It was humbling, to say the least. My work took a really dark turn for a few years there, but it helped me to sort myself out. Once again, it saved my life.”
She moved back in with a friend in Pullman and began to build a functional life. She painted signs, modeled for life-drawing classes, took temporary jobs, and again got involved in community theater. It was this that inspired her to apply to Many Glaciers Hotel in Montana for a summer position as hotel maid/evening entertainer. To her very great surprise and excitement, it was offered to her.
Instead, Kamilla bowed to her mother's influence one last time. She shipped out on the factory trawler Pacific Glacier for a two-month stint as a galley girl and factory worker, fishing off the coast of Alaska. Afterward, she moved in with a crewmate who lived in Seattle, Washington.
Life in a Northern Town
Kamilla found a job in the shipping department of a local fine art publishing company and got on with the business of living. She joined Art/Not Terminal, a local artist-run collective gallery, where she started showing her work. Eventually it began to sell, and before long she was selling regularly.
To keep her skills fresh and learn new ones, Kamilla took art classes at Gage Academy (then known as the Academy of Realist Art), as well as additional coursework in graphic design and illustration. She flirted briefly with the idea of becoming a professional illustrator.
During a visit with friends in Bellingham, Washington, Kamilla met fellow artist Arianne LaPine, who was planning a move to Seattle. The two bonded over science fiction and role-playing games, among other things, and began a relationship.
Kamilla and Arianne shared a love of crows, of which there are many in Seattle. They would feed their local birds and observe their behaviors. Both artists began using crow and raven imagery in their work; Kamilla in her paintings and Arianne in her photographs.
After another work-abroad adventure (a summer in Dublin, Ireland this time), Kamilla worked for Native American artist Betty David for a few years in the early 2000s. She painted Ms. David's designs on leather for custom coats, vests and jackets, which were sold at art and craft shows all over the United States. It was educational as well as enjoyable for Kamilla, seeing the inner workings of a successful art business firsthand. Ms. David encouraged Kamilla to start her own business, Raven Lunatic Studios.
In her quest to develop a consistent painting style, Kamilla took cues from the clean, straightforward lines of local artist Jaime Ellsworth's work, as well as the whimsy and comic sensibility of Will Bullas. “I loved Jaime's black dog paintings, and realized a similar approach would work for my crows,” she says. “And of course everyone loves Will's ducks. So adorable.”
Sculptor Mike Zitka provided inspiration for Kamilla's crow sculptures. Unlike Zitka, who uses wood, Kamilla used polymer clay over a core of compressed aluminum foil. (These days, paperclay has replaced the polymer.) The twisted wire design of the crows' legs Kamilla borrowed directly from Zitka, but in a much lighter gauge of wire, and with a different approach to crafting the feet.
Kamilla began vending at art and craft shows in 2009, after being laid off from her day job. She started selling original sculptures, giclee prints and paintings online that same year. Her work is now in private collections in every one of the fifty states, as well as in Canada, Ireland, Australia and Japan.
Kamilla met her current partner, artist and teacher Brian Carman, in 2012. Brian helps Kamilla with craft show logistics, as well as providing valuable art critiques and, occasionally, titles for paintings. When not making or selling art, the two enjoy attending baseball games, concerts, plays and films together, as well as traveling in the US and abroad. They still live in Seattle, with Arianne and their cat, Minnie.