Interview with Kathleen Varnell, OEC Senior Exhibits Specialist and Ceramic Artist


Q: Can you describe what you do as a Senior Exhibits Specialist at the Office of Exhibits Central (OEC)?
A: I am a team leader of day-to-day operations, frequently acting supervisor of the Graphics unit, and point person for production and installation of numerous exhibitions.  Additionally, I train and counsel assigned employees and interns on production techniques, and develop, as well as establish, internal operating procedures.  On the design and graphics side, I am responsible for interpreting and implementing design concepts, layouts, sketches, and shop drawings to execute production of exhibition-related graphics (e.g., text and graphic panels, large-scale photographs and text, directional signage, object labels), which meet clients’ aesthetic and accessibility requirements.  On the business side, I prepare contracts and orders for services, materials, and equipment, ensuring sufficient inventory for current projects.  As a Project Manager, I am responsible for all phases of project development including client consultation, budgets, scopes of work, contracts, purchasing, outsourcing, production, transportation, and installation.


KV Int 1


Q: How long have you been at OEC?  How did you get started there?
A: I have been at OEC for eight years.  I came to OEC as a Howard University Minority Fellowship Intern in the Fabrication unit, during the winter session of 2001.  At the end of the internship, I was offered temporary employment in the Graphics unit.  After one year of service, I applied for the permanent position of Exhibits Specialist, and I’ve been here ever since.


Q: What kind of training did you have before you came to OEC?
A: I have a BA, with concentrations in Graphics and Ceramics from Jackson State University.  I have an MFA in Ceramics from Howard University.  I also have experience in teaching and money and banking.


Q: What kind of work did you do before you came to OEC?
A: Before Howard University, I worked in accounting with a large food distribution company where I reconciled accounts payable and accounts receivable.


Q: What has been your favorite project so far at OEC?
A: There have been many projects I’ve enjoyed at OEC, but by far, the annual Smithsonian Women’s Committee (SWC) Craft Show is my favorite project to work with each year.  I have served as the project manager, determining the scope of work based on the committee’s needs.  I also attend to the graphic needs for this project.  This is a show where approximately 120 artists showcase their artworks.


Q: What has been your favorite project so far as an artist?
A: As an artist, being in the studio, and living the process of creating is the ultimate project.  “Live Face Casting” is one important element in my work.  My first encounter with live face casting was in undergraduate school.  The procedure entails greasing your face with Vaseline, and inserting straws coated with cotton into your nose for air access.  While lying on your back, a two-inch coil of clay is placed around your entire face.  Plaster mixed to a cake mix consistency, is poured onto your face.  In approximately 15 to 20 minutes, the plaster cures, and then the cast lifted from your face has all your features, even the flaws.  The feeling was as if you were buried alive.

Wounded I-Detail.ai



Wounded I (Detail), 2002
Smoke-fired stoneware with earthenware slip

Keeping this in mind, imagine two grade school boys going through this process.  Many years ago, a client commissioned wall art featuring the faces of her two boys.  The eldest son went through the process just fine.  He was a great role model for his younger brother.  Then, it was time for the youngest son “to go under.”  He was fine while we prepared his face and hair for the process.  Even when the plaster was poured onto his face, he lay there still and brave.  Just before the plaster set, however, he leaped to his feet and took off across the yard.  Thank goodness we were outside, plaster went everywhere.



The client knew just what to do.  She calmed him and convinced him to try it again.  She read his favorite book to him while we began the process.  This time he was a champion.  We made it through the entire process without a hitch.  We finished the day with two perfect face castings of two perfect boys.


Q: Do you have any upcoming events where your work will be showcased?
A: Yes.  I will exhibit at Arts/Harmony Hall Regional Center in their commemorative exhibition, 20 Years: A Retrospective, on view from November 16, 2009, through January 9, 2010, in Ft. Washington, Maryland, and I have a piece in an exhibit at the Fischer Gallery in Jackson, Mississippi.  Also, I have work at the Mississippi Museum of Art in their permanent collection.



Q: Are there any similar techniques or skills that you use both in your ceramic work, and the work you do at OEC?
A: Yes.  Managing projects at OEC is similar to managing shows of my work.  I am responsible for sales and marketing, content development, cost estimates, contracts, purchasing, production, transportation, and installation.  In addition, to have superior craftsmanship, skill in Adobe CS3 applications, and to interpret and implement layouts and sketches, are crucial in my ceramic work, as well as the work I do at OEC.


Q: What is one significant event that has shaped your career as an artist?
A: When I was in undergrad, I kept putting off my ceramics class.  I took every possible class to avoid it.  But from the first day I stepped into the ceramics studio, the aroma of the clay took me over.  In that moment, I went back to my childhood when I would play in the dirt and make little village compounds.  My mother always had to get me out of the dirt.  Since that first day in the ceramics studio, I have only worked in clay.

Healing VI.ai 


Healing VI, 2004
Smoke-fired stoneware with earthenware slip

Q: What does it mean to you to work at an institution like the Smithsonian?
A: As an artist, this is a dream to work at an institution that is the largest conglomerate of art in the world.  I enjoy looking at art in the Smithsonian’s collections, and being inspired to expand my own work in new directions.


Written by Antonia Harbin.  

photo credits:


       photo 1:  Nekisha Durrett


       photo 2:  Sutikare Photography

      photo 3:  Mississippi Museum of Art