If there ever was a year for women to keep their armor up, it was 2017. Fitting, then, that protection is a focal point of “Athena’s Armor,” multimedia artist Kathryn Nobbe’s first solo show at Form + Content. Pulling inspiration from sources as diverse as medieval armor, radiation shields, and carapace, Nobbe reimagines protection in artistic forms so gorgeous and avant-garde they could be on fashion runways.
Nobbe is fascinated by “what we do to survive and how that’s related to other organisms that have the survival instinct,” she says. This fascination with self-defense didn’t arise out of thin air, nor solely because of the current socio-political climate.
Nobbe was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999. She suffered recurrences of the disease in 2006 and 2009. Both her mother and grandmother had breast cancer as well, though none of them have the BRCA gene. It’s an affliction that has dogged Nobbe for almost two decades. She still has to have blood tests done every three months in addition to regular MRI scans and checkups. Sometimes, she doesn’t feel like abiding her treatment plan, but her survival instinct forces her to do it.
There’s no denying that the life-threatening illness has infiltrated her perspective on life, but she says, “I don’t want to be identified as ‘the cancer artist woman’ or [have] people feel sorry for me. I don’t like to talk about it professionally.”
While “Athena’s Armor” is not about Nobbe’s “odyssey” with cancer, it was a jumping-off point and it provides a context for this work.
The drive for safety goes beyond the physical body, however. The predator-in-chief provokes a survival instinct response in her, too. “The chaos that we live in, it’s frightening,” she says. “We need to be proactive to defend ourselves from this guy who has his finger very close to the button.”
The need to feel safe and protected hits even closer to home for Nobbe – quite literally on her doorstep. She lives in Grant, Minnesota, a small town northeast of the Twin Cities. Many residents there live on five- and 10-acre lots and are avid hunters. The last few years, she’s had crossbow arrows show up in her yard and on her front stoop. Her neighbors fear being shot while out on a walk during deer hunting season.
Family matters further incite her protective instincts. Nobbe is the mother of two adult sons and is also dealing with her own mother’s decline in health. She is part of what’s known as the “sandwich generation,” those who care for children and parents at the same time.
No wonder that Athena, the goddess of wisdom, strategy, and protection, became Nobbe’s muse and the namesake for this exhibition.
“I am so interested in creating work that reveals human experiences that are large, sometimes full of uncertainty, sometimes disturbing, yet full of grace, because that’s what it means to be human,” she says.
In this exhibition, she’ll debut a wall relief piece that incorporates thousands of pom poms as a visual representation of mimicry, a concept from evolutionary biology that helps creatures hide in plain sight.
“I’m using [the pom poms] because they’re kind of kitschy and they’re sort of silly and they’re not ‘serious’ art materials,” Nobbe says. “When you’re dealing with sort of heavy subject matter, I like that counterpoint. I can communicate something that’s deeply philosophical or somewhat intense without banging the viewer over the head with it.”
The effect Nobbes hopes to have on viewers is to inspire people to dig deeper into these issues, pick up a paintbrush themselves, and get more involved in changing society so people feel less afraid. If “Athena’s Armor” has a good reception, she hopes to take the exhibition to other galleries and universities. No matter what the reaction, she’ll be making art – arguably one of her survival mechanisms – for as long as humanly possible. “It’s a calling and I can’t imagine living without. I’ve been doing it now for a really long time and I hope to continue until the day I leave this existence.”
Kathryn Nobbe: “Athena’s Armor”
Where: Form + Content Gallery
When: Dec. 21-Jan. 27
Opening Reception: 6-9 p.m. Sat., Jan. 6