We’re excited to introduce you to the always interesting and insightful Judith Berk King. We hope you’ll enjoy our conversation with Judith below.
Judith, appreciate you joining us today. Did you always know you wanted to pursue a creative or artistic career? When did you first know?
It’s never too late.
Unlike so many other creatives, who knew from a very early age that this is what they were born to do, I came to that realization after many, many years. It probably should not have taken me so long, but if the path had been different, I would not have ended up (happily) where I’ve ended up. The experiences would have been different, the people different, the influences different; who can say what the present would look like?
Let me say a bit about the hints that I missed early on, and the opportunities that I fell into, despite my cluelessness.
Missed hint #1: My Dad was an extremely creative and talented man. He was an electrical engineer by profession, but during the early days of the Depression, he worked both as a commercial artist and photographer. I shared his passion for all things scientific, and this became the focus of our relationship. He helped me explore the mysteries under the microscope and through the telescope, and these early leanings and learnings still influence me today.
Missed hint #2: As a child I adored drawing and making clay figures, and my parents were happy to have me do that. But art was always considered ‘play’ and was always an afterthought to my ‘serious’ studies and to the creative pursuits of ballet and choir.
Missed hint #3: At university I studied sociology and biology, taking art as electives. I adored it, and spent all my non-study time doing my art projects and drawing for fun.
After university, it became necessary to actually support myself and make a living. It never even occurred to me that there might be a creative path to take. This was a time when men’s and women’s ‘Want Ads’ in the newspapers were still separate, with jobs for women being restricted to teachers, nurses and administrative assistants, and I was not qualified for any of the those jobs. The professional jobs were on the men’s side of the newspaper. In desperation, I applied for and got one of those jobs with a company that agreed to train me as a business analyst, and this started me down a 33 year career path in financial services with some occasional, interesting creative aspects.
For instance, while working in London for an international company, they decided to put together marketing materials to attract a certain target market. I volunteered, and remarkably, they let me do it; my very first (unofficial) graphic design job! So much fun, and a nice diversion from analyzing financial statements. Same company, next assignment in Canada: I started and managed a new business venture and volunteered to do the marketing materials. Fun again! Then in New York, I was asked to define international client software and work with a team of developers, which really stretched my creative and design muscles. During these years, I was very satisfied in my work. Traveling is in my heart, and the company sent me to a number of wonderful places where I sponged up remarkable sights and experiences.
Now it really begins. I was back in London with my own company, doing software consulting for a client whose internal politics kept the project in eternal limbo. I was leaving home at 4 am, flying to mainland Europe, and getting home at 11 pm at night. For the first time in my professional career, I was not happy, and became vulnerable to the ‘call of the creative’.
During this time I took a traditional porcelain painting class on weekends, and realized that this was my happiest time of the week. Then I had an opportunity to take a two week course at a college near me with a week of figure painting and a week of figure sculpting. On the very last day of the course, an instructor from another part of the school wandered through and said I should apply to their course, but that this was the last day to do so.
Never had anyone told me that I had anything to contribute artistically, and I was stunned. This was the first time that it occurred to me that I could follow another, more creative, path.
Great, appreciate you sharing that with us. Before we ask you to share more of your insights, can you take a moment to introduce yourself and how you got to where you are today to our readers.
After working in financial analysis and software for so many years, the day that my (future) mentor suggested that I was a creator at heart was the exact point in time that ended up changing my life. I went home, gathered up my paltry portfolio, lugged it back to the college by bus and presented it. They accepted me, and that was the pivotal moment on which my future hinged. This new opportunity was an intensive one year course to help students prepare their portfolios so they might be apply to and be accepted to institutions of higher learning. We were expected to be in the studio every day working. Of course, in order to do this, I had to wind up my consulting company; one of the hardest decisions of my life. I decided to take the plunge and started making art full-time.
The next year was transformative. Every minute in the studio was a treasure. At the end of that year I applied and was accepted to the MFA program at Miami International University of Art & Design where yet another artistic transformation took place. There I had mentors who taught me what it would take to have a creative career, and how to actually embark on a career as an artist. To be a professional artist, it is very important to build an exhibition record, so I started exhibiting work well before graduation. The faculty stressed concept and conceptual development, and I began work based on imagined future biological adaptations, a theme that still inspires me. [Digression: I became fascinated with fossils and the previous big extinctions that the earth has experienced, which informs my work about future evolution.]
Two quarters before graduation with my MFA, my mentor said, “Judith, you should teach when you graduate.” I laughed, because it had never occurred to me. I was totally in denial about what would happen after graduation. Then it occurred to me that there were really two important activities that I loved: Making art (any medium, any time) and being with the undergrads in ceramic studio, which tends to be a fairly social activity. They all thought I was a teacher (‘maturity’ has its benefits) and often requested demos or asked advice. The reality is that I loved being at the University and didn’t want to leave, so when I graduated in 2006 and was offered a teaching position, I accepted immediately.
That moment of acceptance was when I knew exactly what life could be; working as a professional artist and teaching. I kept making and exhibiting my work, doing art residencies and building that all-important resume. Then life got even better. In 2011 the Bakehouse Art Complex (a non-profit organization with 60 art studios and two galleries) accepted my application and I have been working in my studio there ever since. It is an incredible community of artists and has given my work tremendous visibility and accessibility.
The richness of teaching is hard to articulate. My students give me way more than I could ever give them (though I try.) I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to China, the Netherlands, France and Italy with student groups. At the University I teach media and idea based classes, but also classes in Professional Development, to pass on to other creatives what my mentors so generously gave to me: How to have a creative career and how to be a professional artist, often two very separate, but related, things. Students that graduated years ago still keep in touch, and watching them strive and succeed creatively is certainly one of the most gratifying experiences that I’ve ever known.
My art is my way to engage about subjects that interest and concern me; specifically, climate change, species evolution and extinction.
Scientific specimens presented by museums in their glass cases and the artistic renderings of previous eras have always fascinated me. The displays and drawings enabled me to enter a place where strange objects, transformed by preservation and dissection, were brought into the light of day.
As an artist, I focus on the creation and display of curious zoological and botanical structures. The objects constructed may live somewhere in the present or may exist in the future. The style of the work may be contemporary or recall the work of scientific illustrators of the past, transcending time. Through re-imagination and distortion, I invite the viewer to examine and interpret the ambiguous and sometimes disquieting forms that inhabit these works.
We’d love to hear a story of resilience from your journey.
The very first critique I received while studying art was so brutal that quitting seemed the only option. At that point, though, I had closed my consulting company and was totally immersed in the creative process, so sticking it out seemed a better option. I am not sure whether it was resilience, persistence or desperation.
One thing that helped immensely was communication. I talked to my tutors afterward about that ruthless critique to ask what how to move forward from that point. They told me that the ‘tearing down’ was par for the course with new students! It was a valuable lesson to learn about the value of listening, persistence, and then continuing to do what you were meant to do.
For you, what’s the most rewarding aspect of being creative?
That’s easy! There are really two main things:
One is the freedom; the freedom to create whatever can be imagined, and to interact with both other artists and the public about the environmental concepts and concerns that drive it.
The other is that the opportunity to teach future artists, to help them find their voice and to guide them on how to succeed as artists and in creative careers.
A third bonus reward: It is something that I will do all my life; I’ll never be bored!
- Website: www.judithberkking.com
- Instagram: judithberkking