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Kathy Liao
Kathy Liao teaches painting and printmaking at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Missouri. | Photo by Christopher Smith

Through layers of memory, painter Kathy Liao tells stories of separation

From deciding against a career in medicine to relocating to Kansas City, Kathy Liao’s road to a profession in art has not always been straightforward or easy.

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Artist Kathy Liao tells her painting and printmaking students at Missouri Western State University that becoming an artist is a risk, so before they make a profession of it, they should know what they’re getting into. “It’s not just like you go in and suddenly you’re a famous painter. There is a lot of hard work. There’s a lot of effort, there’s a lot of failing, there’s a lot of things that’s not going to work, you’re going to lose a lot of money,” she said.

Liao’s professional life as a visual artist has been all about knowing, and then calculating, apparent risks against possible gains, beginning in college when she decided a career in medicine was not right for her after earning a psychology degree with an emphasis on behavioral neuroscience. Since then, she’s been through an eight-week session at Artist INC for artists as business people.

“I’m constantly taking risks or trying something new, pushing my work in a different direction to allow it to move forward,” Liao said.

Kathy Liao
Kathy Liao’s hands during a project. | Photo by Christopher Smith

When she took a chance on relocating to Kansas City five years ago, that caused further separation from family members who live in California and Taiwan; she’d previously lived in Seattle and Boston. Her concern about that separation has made its way into her work. She creates collages that begin almost as screenshots of FaceTime interactions, then become increasingly hazy as she scrapes away a layer and adds another. “That process allows me to think about how malleable and how memory is,” she said. “In some ways—I don’t know what’s a good word to describe it—it’s not stable, right?”

The calculation of risks doesn’t stop with her process or her ideas, though. She said the gallery in Seattle that sells her work is betting on her, as are her patrons who either hope the work will appreciate in monetary value or will continue to be aesthetically enjoyable for years to come.

Because of the high-risk nature of the work for all concerned, Liao said building relationships is important. She said, “I feel like it does take multiple exposure and creating that relationship between myself and the collector and the art itself for them to buy the piece or invest in the piece.”

Kathy Liao
Kathy Liao’s artist statement: “I engage in rituals to keep memories alive.” | Photo by Christopher Smith

“The Risk Optimistic” is about belief: the assurance that taking a chance is worthwhile, even without knowing the outcome. It’s also the belief that if we value and support risk – in policy, community, and culture – we benefit from each person’s ability to make choices to achieve success. With this initiative, Kauffman kicks off 2020 with insights, stories, and opportunities to explore what it means to take risks, and own your own success, however you choose to define it.


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