Illustrator Profile - Katherine Streeter: "My imagination likes to run wild"

By Robert Newman   Thursday September 17, 2015

Katherine Streeter is a painter, collagist, and illustrator whose work appears in numerous magazines and publications and has been displayed in galleries, on product design, and much more. A former staff illustrator at, she creates rich visual imagery that has the ability to explain complex issues in quiet, simple tones. Streeter's artwork is a cool mix of photo collage, painting and hand lettering. She makes her illustrations “using a combination of traditional and digital work;” the result is an old school, hand-hewn look that feels very crafted and intimate.

“Stay focused on finding your creative voice” is Streeter’s advice to up-and-coming artists. Streeter obviously has taken her own advice—she is a powerful and original creative talent. Streeter’s work is currently on display at the Raised by Foxes show at FOE Gallery in Northampton, Massachusetts, along with art by Martha Rich, Gina Triplett and Matt Curtius.

My nana was a very creative person. She called her oil painting a hobby, but I was very inspired by how prolific she was. She worked on landscapes and still lifes, and sewed dolls, which she used as painting subjects. I've been making dolls in recent years, which makes me think of her.

I went to Massachusetts College of Art and Design for illustration, and also attended summer program at Chelsea College of Arts in London where I was introduced to the commercial art happening there at the time That is what really inspired me to focus on illustration.

As an undergrad, I interned with a small graphic design company, which taught me a lot about working with clients. Before becoming stabilized as an illustrator and throughout art school, I had many part time jobs like waiting tables, retail, gallery assistant, and weird office temp work.

I live and work in the East Village of Manhattan, New York. I’ve been an illustrator and artist for over 20 years. I also teach at times at some of the East Coast art schools (University of the Arts, RISD, and FIT).

My studio is a fifth floor room with high ceilings. The view faces south with a lot of light pouring in all day. I fill my shelves and walls with various books, objects, figures, and other muses for my work. I like being downtown; I am close to so many things, and appreciate the village experience of riding my bike to get art supplies, or taking a walk to Chelsea to see a gallery exhibit. The biggest challenge is the size compromise of living here. I dream every day about having a bigger space to work in, but I don't want to give up this inner city environment.

I create most of my commercial illustrations by using a combination of traditional and digital work. I usually start a piece on the art table and finish it on the computer. I would prefer to spend more time at the art table though, because digital has turned into a bit of a crutch. I'm thankful for how it aids with time for quick deadlines, but I tend to be more creatively energized when I am forced to take chances with no “undo” button.

I had a few turning points in the early years while working hard to find my creative voice and pay rent at the same time.

Shortly after art school, I was waiting tables at night and trying to make promos and reach out to art directors during business hours (in the days before social media and easy image posting). There were a few very helpful art directors who hired me, despite how “in progress” my style was at the time. Beatrice McDonald and Frank Tagariello at Bloomberg were two art directors who gave me enough work to be able to phase out of being a waitress and make illustrations full time. Also Patrick Flynn who trusted my experiments and vision, and Jorge Colombo who was an art director at San Francisco magazine when I lived in that city. He spent time talking about my portfolio with me, which was so helpful.

The combination of finding the art directors who trusted me and who were willing to take risks, along with the helpful objective opinions of industry people were a big part of my creative growth.

The list is so long, but a few are Hannah HöchLouise BourgeoisKiki Smith, Hans Bellmer, James Ensor, and Ben Shahn.

Travel sparks endless ideas, and I spend a lot of time listening to music and inwardly spacing out while I work, which lets my brain and imagination breathe.

If I had to choose just one, I'd say Louise Bourgeois because she was so prolific, and worked on so many different art forms through her long life.

There are not too many inner challenges when I’m working on assignments for clients. The deadline is always the first priority and I do whatever I have to do to meet it.

The challenges come when I am working on personal art. I should treat my own deadlines with the same importance that I give to the client ones, but sometimes that slacks a bit and I let myself get distracted. I often wish for more focus with personal work.

Also doing the necessary illustration tasks when there are no assignments; the other business work like promotion and site updating is a constant thing to think about when work is slow.

My environment. New York City is praised for its art constantly, but the everyday walking experience gives me a lot of inspiration; the layers of graffiti and posters on buildings, trucks, and walls, the faces, the fashion choices, and the architecture. It is constantly changing and moving. I love the light, the colors, and patterns all weaving through each other.

On the occasional walk when I’m not rushed, I like to cut out the noise with headphones, and just let the visuals float by me. It feels like stream of consciousness or a dream.

I was asked to illustrate a very abstract poem for LMU magazine. DJ Stout and Barrett Fry were great to work with, and were supportive of my very surreal concepts for the piece.

Something ongoing would be so great, like a large body of work or series.

SooJin Buzelli is a dream art director because she looks at illustration as art, and allows illustrators to solve visual problems with the freedom to be as surreal and abstract as we’d like to be. Usually, she gives me just a few words to sum up the feeling of the article. Getting less information is the most fun for me because my imagination likes to run wild from those few key words that spark images and concepts. Her encouragement, trust, and appreciation of the creative process is a big example of why I am still doing what I do.

The other illustrators who I admire are those who are very motivated and challenge themselves. This describes a lot of my peers that I'm lucky to call friends.

I think we find our tribe as creative folks, and I like to surround myself with people who inspire me.

Illustrators have to work with the ebb and flow of freelance life, so the way that the industry has shifted has not felt too jarring to my senses. (I think freelancers all have strong shock absorbers)

I’ve had to sadly say goodbye to regular column jobs and ongoing work from art directors who leave their positions and move on. When this happens I usually try to think of it as organic; that something else will come in (sometimes it’s other life things, not always illustration things)

As artists we are always re-inventing ourselves on some level. I have had a number of points along the way that were signs that I needed to do something to spark excitement with art making.

As far as finding unconventional clients, I have not been as resourceful as I’d like to be, but I try to keep my mind open for what might come in, and I rarely have said no to any opportunity to learn something new about craft, or a new approach.

Lately is has mostly been social media.

Stay focused on finding your creative voice above and beyond following trends or doing work that you think is what art directors want. Sometimes assignments find you by way of what you do naturally, which is the most ideal situation. Put your (true) self out there.

See more Katherine Streeter illustrations, new work, and updates:
Katherine Streeter website