Katie Ohe RCA, MFA (hon), LLD (hon)
Katie Ohe is a renowned legend in the Canadian art world and one of the first artists to make conceptual sculpture in Alberta. She is a beloved mentor who has inspired and taught generations of art students.
“My main focus has been to explore and develop kinetic/participation/installation sculpture. I’m interested in how the eye perceives form and space in motion. When the sculptures are in rotary motion, optically, each displays a unique movement and spatial relationship that the mind and eye cannot immediately comprehend logically. The objects’ surfaces are smooth and tactile, inviting intuitive touch to set the sculptures into motion. Colour is integral to the essence of the idea. The scale of each element of the sculpture is considered personable, friendly and approachable, provoking participation, a sense of play and communion.”
Katie Dorothea Mina von der Ohe was born to German homesteaders in 1937 on a farm between Rosevear and Peers, just east of Edson, Alberta. The family made whatever they needed, fortifying Katie’s already active imagination and creativity. She knew early on that she wanted to be an artist, but had yet to discover that she would express her vision three dimensionally. When she announced to her parents that she planned to go to art school, they said, “You must do what you are.” Education was important to them.
She was all of 16 when she began her studies at the Alberta College of Art (ACA) in Calgary, where she honed her natural talent for conceptual sculpting. Driven by her desire to express thoughts and emotions through her work, Katie compels the viewer to physically interact with her sculptures, producing mesmerizing movement and spatial changes.
“I would call myself a conceptual artist. I think the difference between abstract art and conceptual art is whether you find your stimulus externally or internally. It is distinctive. I don't do what I see, but rather what I feel,” explains Katie.
Following her third year at ACA, she received a scholarship to spend a year at the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal studying with one of Canada’s most eminent painters, Arthur Lismer of the Group of Seven. She returned to Calgary and taught at the Allied Arts Centre while she finished her diploma at ACA, but Katie wasn’t finished studying sculpture. Mentors Marion Nicoll, Luke Lindoe and Archie Key guided her to a three-year scholarship in New York at SculptureCenter. Studies there led to a further year of independent study in London, England, thanks to a Canada Council grant.
Although she could have remained in New York or London, Katie felt Calgary offered greater opportunity to pay forward the support she had received in Alberta. So she returned to ACA, this time as an instructor. And generations of students have benefitted as a result.
Katie has a natural ability for teaching. She nurtures creativity and art appreciation in students from all walks of life, each along their own path, guiding them to their next steps of achievement, whether they enter professional careers in art or not.
As she taught, Katie also remained focused on her own work. She remained in touch with Saul Swarz at SculptureCentre and Columbia University, who encouraged her to continue exploring sculpture by working in Italy in the Fonderia Fabris. Thus began eight years of Katie teaching during the school year in Calgary, then travelling to Verona, Italy, for summer work at the foundry. While the experience was enlightening, Katie found that bronze wasn’t the medium she sought.
“I prefer steel. It's a hard material, it's durable, it lends itself to fabrication, it comes in many forms and shapes, such as a rod, sheet, pipe, as a solid, and so on. The diversity of the material is large. I can work the material until it is complete and satisfied,” explains Katie.
Finding an affordable studio space that would allow for welding wasn’t easy. But Katie found the perfect spot in a carriage house owned by the Hart family of wrestling fame. The Harts were generous with their support. In turn, Katie taught art to their children. In time, Katie felt it was time to find her own space and leave the carriage house to the family’s next generation. That’s when she and husband Harry Kiyooka, also a renowned artist, found 20 acres of land in Springbank where they built the house and two large studios.
Katie continued to teach at ACA as it evolved into the Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD) in 1995. Her tenure at the school spans from 1954 when she first enrolled as a student, to 2016 when she retired from teaching. Over her six-decade career, she has selflessly guided many students on to successful and high-profile careers of their own. In recognition of her legacy, she received the ACA Medal of Excellence in 1991 and the designation Lecturer Emeritus in 2012. Katie received an Honourary Masters in Fine Arts from ACAD in 2018.
Katie is an elected member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. She received an Honourary Doctor of Laws from the University of Calgary in 2001. She is a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals, and the Alberta Centennial Medal. In 2019, she was awarded the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Distinguished Artist Award, the province’s most prestigious artistic award that celebrates Alberta’s rich cultural fabric by honouring its most accomplished artists.
Katie has exhibited extensively throughout Canada and internationally, and her sculptures are found in numerous permanent collections from Alberta to Ottawa to New York. Her public sculptures are eminently familiar to Calgarians: Janet’s Crown at ACAD, Garden of Learning at the University of Calgary, Nimmons Cairn in Bankview, Lotus no. 1 at the Bethany Care Centre, Child Bearers at the Calgary School Board. Perhaps her most celebrated sculpture is the Zipper at the University of Calgary.
Ever humble, Katie is grateful for the opportunities her life as an artist has provided. “Throughout both of our lives, we've been sponsored, had scholarships, had support and been able to travel while creating art. We've been extremely fortunate. So at this point in our lives, we feel we're in the position to give back,” says Katie.
That’s why Katie and Harry created the sustainable, art-in-nature Kiyooka Ohe Arts Centre in 2011 — to provide space, to provide stimulus and to provide research material for artists and students of all ages. Future plans for the arts centre include a 10-acre sculpture park, a 2,000-volume library, emerging artist programs, artist residencies, and a pavilion that showcases their large collection of contemporary art, including Matisse, Miro, Picasso and many Canadians.
All told, the Kiyooka Ohe Arts Centre will be a world-class, interactive, visual arts institution, so Katie and Harry can pay forward the support and inspiration that they received to coming generations of artists. In the meantime, Katie’s personal legacy — doing what you are — will continue to inspire creativity in Albertans from all walks of life.
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