This past summer, the Roundhouse welcomed Kay Slater as one of the Centre’s new preparators. With a background in fine arts and design and a keen objective to bring accessibility into gallery spaces, Kay has become an invaluable part of the team. We took a moment to speak with Kay about what compelled them to become a preparator, why community spaces like the Roundhouse are important to artists, and how Kay’s personal experience with hearing challenges has shaped the way they work.
You have extensive experience in fine arts and design. What drew you to expand these skills into work as a preparator?
It’s a funny balancing act to be a working artist. One of the best lessons I learned in art school was to break free of the media’s portrayal of both the “starving artist” and the “artist as career” archetypes. I am the first to admit I had definitely romanticized the industry growing up and to learn that I would never be “just an artist” was an important life lesson. Working as a graphic designer, commercial illustrator, and web developer allowed me to be creative and pay my rent. But I spent weeks at my keyboard and very little time practicing my own art.
I had been volunteering as a Gallery Attendant and French Tour guide for three years at the Contemporary Art Gallery when I was first offered an assistant’s role on the preparatory team. It was so challenging to have to think on my feet; you need to use all of your design and art history knowledge to make decisions that work with the art you are handling, and listen to the artist’s needs while also respecting the needs of the curator and gallery director. There is something great about being creative both physically and mentally. Now, four years later, I regularly work at five different galleries and am contracted for shows throughout the year. No job is the same, and I both learn and bring something to every install. It’s very fulfilling.
I enjoy preparatory work because it blends design, display, and UX (user experience) in ways that, if done correctly, are invisible. It’s an exciting challenge and isn’t too different from being a good graphic designer; if you’ve done your job well, no one thinks about it. It was my exposure to artists such as Matthew Monahan who started me thinking about display as an art practice. After having worked with local artist Carmen Papalia on a show where their collective audited the Vancouver Art Gallery and discussed the challenges facing differently abled folks both as audience and artist, I began incorporating accessibility into my design lens, which added a new dimension of problem solving for each install. Many artists work to challenge their audience to, in turn, challenge their own assumptions and expectations. I like to think that my work is to remove as many barriers as possible so that the only challenges presented to an audience are the ones that the artists intended.
What drew you to work at the Roundhouse as a preparator, and have you noticed differences in the role at this facility in comparison to others you’ve worked at?
It is so fast paced here! I enjoy the team at the Roundhouse because everyone is very good at their job which allows me to focus on doing my job well. At smaller galleries or community spaces, you build up a set of skills that allow you to step in and out of roles simply to get a show finished. It’s refreshing to work with a confident team that is allowed to focus on their tasks. I feel very supported. I’m also impressed at how pleasant everyone is, especially with the high-pressure of single-day installs.
What role do you see community arts playing in Vancouver?
The divide between high art and low art is not going away any time soon, but with the rise of technology and the widening divide in our social classes and housing crisis, I feel community artists have an important role to play. Social media has also shaken up challenges of visibility and network that once required an artist to reach a certain level of celebrity, education, notoriety, or financial backing before they would be noticed or acknowledged. Local artist collectives, such as Gallery Gachet or Disability Arts, provide a place that allows marginalized artists to find their voice, share their stories, and find other people with whom they can make a connection. Computers and printers are challenging the value of “technical skill” that could once only be learned in a classroom. Indigenous art is being taken out of the “traditional” gallery and being presented and shared, not as fetishes or colonial collectables but as tools, regalia, and spiritual icons of a present and living nation.
I believe that art making is empowering and that community is essential for health and well-being. By making spaces for community art, we are telling each other that we matter.
Can you discuss your studies on the use of ASL and if/how those studies have influenced your work as an artist, designer and preparator?
I have been hard of hearing my entire life, but grew up oral (using my voice) and studied lip reading in elementary school. Depending on the time in my life, I have been able to hear quite well as I only have minimal hearing loss in my left ear and am profoundly Deaf in my right. A few years ago, my remaining hearing began to pose more of a challenge, and I would tire of trying to make it through the day in my hearing jobs. My life changed after my partner and I decided to attend the ASL program at VCC. I met other people who were hard of hearing and learned more about Deaf culture in that year than I had growing up struggling with hearing challenges.
I now feel stronger about my identity as someone who is hard of hearing, but still have yet to incorporate it into my own creative practice. The greatest benefit I have gained from learning ASL is the community to which I now have access, the agency I have gained as a hard of hearing person, and the insight I have when planning workshops or gallery openings. ASL is just a small piece of the accessibility puzzle, but I am proud to have it in my toolbox.
I now host Queer ASL, a queer- and transgender-positive class, at a few of the galleries at which I work. I’m delighted to introduce this community to different gallery spaces and to make space for this excellent initiative, founded and managed by Deaf queer artist Zoée Monpetit.
See Kay’s work by visiting kdot.ca.