Graphic designer, photographer explores vulnerability and life through surrealist sets
Story by Christine Broussard '10 & '20
Photos by Kat Alyst '11
If Kat Alyst's '11 photography was a music genre, what would it be?
It may seem like an odd question, but when I view Alyst's art, I hear music. Her crystalline pinks sound like the Cocteau Twins' shoegaze beats, while her bright blues play chillwave notes you'd expect from Washed Out or Toro y Moi. What do you hear?
To experience synesthesia — or the perception of one sensory modality in another, like seeing music — while viewing Alyst's work is fitting. A lot of her art is borne from her own predisposition to synesthesia.
"Color combinations from sentences or words inspire me often," she explained. "A flash of color or texture pops in my mind when I see certain things, so I run with how it feels to see these colors or this abstract imagery. I try to transition it from abstract mind puddles to a narrative with physical elements."
The answer to the genre question would be "a little bit of a lot of them, and a lot of a few of them." Pop, punk, a little yacht rock, with dashes of country and classical music peppered in — all of these sounds spill out of the more then 800 photo shoots Alyst has done since 2015.
The Lufkin native has made a name for herself in the bicoastal art worlds. In just the past few years, her work has appeared in Vogue, New York Weekly, LA Weekly and The Los Angeles Tribune, among others.
Recognition of Alyst's name seems to be growing still (she's nearing 40,000 followers on Instagram) and, while surreal, each new recognition is her own catalyst to continue creating.
"I spent years emailing my work nonstop before getting a ‘yes,' and in the meantime, I continued shooting, creating and brainstorming," she said. "I caught a couple small features at first, and each has been a lifeline to keep me motivated. I learned that rejections aren't personal — it's all timing and business. If you don't fit in at one point, eventually you might. And as long as you're doing what's true and right for you, the rest doesn't even matter."
Growing Up on the Move
Alyst moved a lot in high school — by her estimate about 11 times, though always to locations tucked behind East Texas' beautiful pine curtain.
"I was always in the woods on a lot of land, exploring, climbing trees, running from cows and burying things with a homemade map," Alyst said. "A lot of time capsules are still buried out in Beulah with notes from my 1998 self to my future self."
She self-describes as someone who, in her youth, "sunburned easily, didn't wear jeans, or relate to ranching or horseback riding." Creativity was her outlet, and she often crafted any random thing she could cobble together.
Choosing to stay in East Texas for college to be near her mother, who was sick, Alyst originally enrolled at SFA to study psychology. A 2D design class quickly changed her mind and her major.
Alyst graduated from SFA in 2011 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design and photography. She fondly recalls more art faculty members than there is space here to recount, including the late Gary Frields, Ron King, Jill Carrington, Chris Talbot, Robert Kinsell and Gary Parker.
"Linda Post became one of my favorite professors," Alyst said. "I loved that she was from New York because I really loved art from New York at that time, so she was extra cool to me. She also always supported my weird digital media videos and encouraged me to go for my wild ideas."
Faculty members also fondly remember Alyst's time at the university.
"Kat was in a number of my digital media art classes," Post said. "She was always a dynamic, confident artist ready to soak up all she could and experiment in her work. Her drive, energy, fearlessness and kind, kind heart stood out."
Art and Inspiration
The day after graduating from SFA, Alyst moved to Austin. Aside from a small stint working in the New Orleans film industry beginning in 2016, she still lives in Texas' weirdest city and works predominantly between Austin, Los Angeles and New York.
For several years, she lived a nomadic lifestyle, living job to job and seeing if she could make photography a full-time profession. Now, Alyst works as a graphic designer by day and a photographer by what spare time she can find. Her photography expertise is all over the artistic map — she's done everything from fashion editorial shoots to wedding photography and enjoys it all.
"A lot of photographers only focus on one type of photography, like they'll only shoot products and not people because it's all very different thinking, lighting setups and planning," Alyst explained. "But I wanted to remain open to every experience because, in my opinion, that is not only how you grow, but it also just makes you more knowledgeable, so why not learn everything you can?"
Vulnerability and honesty about the complexity of life are crucial aspects of everything Alyst creates.
"I still find a lot of myself through this new work. I've discovered many of the boundaries I created for myself that I've kept hidden," she said. "I don't think we should censor ourselves in art, but I have definitely done just that. It's all fear-based, right? We hide because we are worried about x, y and z, so it's been good breaking those down and trying to find the raw parts.
"I'm hoping my future work will have fewer hidden messages. I want to live my truth and let my art live in that expression," she added. "I believe so many of us share the highlights of our lives nowadays — especially with social media — and I oftentimes see some artwork mimicking that. But real life is raw, uncensored and not pretty."
A part of being vulnerable is acknowledging mental health, which also is a central thematic component of her art.
"I hope to forever create a space that holds a safety net for viewers who may need additional support with their internal struggles or whatever it is they aren't talking about yet," Alyst said. "I believe the only way to remind people how they aren't alone is simply by sharing and opening up more about our vulnerabilities."
Just this year, Alyst debuted her first solo show — one that, in our current socially distanced pandemic world, is housed entirely online. "Someone is Trying to Tell You Something," or SITTTYS, is Alyst's attempt to share her own vulnerabilities through "surreal and hyperstylized" self-portraits. It's her attempt at being honest, not only to herself but in the hopes that others will become comfortable doing the same.
"I genuinely love people and connecting to people," Alyst said. "I love hearing everyone's stories and really believe the only way we can make the world go round is by being vulnerable at times and gentle with each other."
Alyst's social and online presence is as much about her art as the social justice she craves for the world. That desire for equality informs her art and has helped her grow personally and professionally.
"I have always tried to stand up for what is right, but I used to be so soft-spoken and easily talked over, easily shut down. Photography in the fashion world specifically gave me the director's voice I never had," she said.
Some may view Alyst's art and hear the blues play in their head (which is apt as she has an entire shoot that explores "the blues" — both the color and the feeling). Others may hear any number of genres, or none at all. But whatever music or feelings her art inspires, Alyst is likely just glad to have inspired.
To view more of Kat Alyst's work, including her first solo show, visit mynameiskat.com.