Big Dig: Kathy Dunlop and the Progression of Art

By Canyun Zhang


Kathy Dunlop, the Budget Analyst of Facilities at the Getty Museum, enjoys not only preserving but creating art.

The sun beats down in a strange haze, blending with wind and Los Angeles smog in January. Three girls and a woman wander around CactusGarden, separating parts of the J. Paul Getty Museum, admiring the sunset over the Pacific Ocean in the distance. “Come on, girls,” says Kathy Dunlop, 53. She is dressed in a festively floral top, black pants and glasses with her brown mid-length waves. Dunlop’s daughter, Rachel, and her two friends visiting from Northern California follow behind. A hint of her Southern California accent, enunciating on the soft s and vowels, drags on. She guides the three people behind her into the building. She’s on a mission to find and show us a luxurious Parisian blue bed, done in the courtly Rococo style, hidden somewhere in the museum.  

Growing up in nearby Culver City, Dunlop did not always have an interest in art as she does now. “I actually played music, sometimes forcefully, before I was interested in art,” Dunlop says. “I didn’t start being interested in art until I took my first photography class in high school. Although, I was in church choir in elementary school and always won best choir notebook for my coloring and embellishments.”   Getting acquainted with the different kinds of cameras, media and artworks through photography class helped Dunlop shift her focus from music to photography and the visual arts. Yet her fond memory of her childhood prizes in the choir notebook showed Dunlop’s unconscious talent and desire for art, despite her parents forcing her to play piano or guitar before high school.

Ultimately, Dunlop’s high school boyfriend, whom she described as a “wanna-be illustrator”, convinced her to get into photography. For school assignments, she roamed around the streets of Hollywood, and slowly ended up capturing the big and tiny moments of weddings and parties. People moved too often and too quick; Dunlop’s love in art became still lives and their own kind of tranquility, almost as if transcending time. And when college rolled around, Dunlop wanted to major in merchandising at the Fashion Institute in Los Angeles. “But, my parents nixed that when they found out their friend’s daughter ended up as a clerk at Bullock’s after graduating,” Dunlop said. So she ended up attending Los AngelesValleyCollege and received her associate degree in photojournalism, and then to the Art Center College of Design for her Bachelors in Fine Arts in photography. Luckily for her, she did not befall the same fate as her friend who worked at Bullock’s after graduation. Dunlop managed to nab a job as an assistant for product photographers at an advertising studio, where she processed and printed black and white film. Although a seemingly entry-level job, she was able to foster her love for art and photography and gain monumental experience in the industry.

Walking around the Getty after finally discovering the bed, Dunlop waits patiently as the three girls take silly pictures next to the blue canopies and embroidered pillows. She understands the importance of creating and remembering these moments, although on a 5-megapixel iPhone camera. “I never worked in photography at the Getty,” Dunlop remarks with a sigh, “although just being around the art and knowing I currently work to protect the art in the Facilities area makes me happy.” Dunlop came far from her old days as an assistant and even working five years before as a studio manager for a card photographer. During her tenure there, she was able to shoot Christmas cards for NFL teams and 1940’s ties and had the privilege to assist on shoots for movies like Top Gun. One of the shoots she now looks back on with shock and a smile is “meeting Tom Hanks before he was a somebody,” Dunlop says. She worked strenuous 18 hour days and sometimes 7 days a week, but she enjoyed practically every moment.

Now, Dunlop makes the trek on the 405 freeway from her home near the beach in El Segundo to the GettyCenter in Brentwood, working as the Budget Analyst for Facilities there. She constructs and monitors a multi-million dollar budget for all of the Getty’s properties. In addition, she tracks the Getty’s food service contract, and at one point oversaw property management for offsite office space and several residential properties. Dunlop has no regrets in joining the team at the Getty. “I would love to be closer to the art, although Facilities has a huge part of keeping the art in a safe environment.  A majority of our utility costs are to maintain the correct humidity in all the gallery spaces,” Dunlop says. “My best memories are participating in and chairing the bi-annual employee art show. More than 200 employees display their art, read their short stories and poetry, perform music and show movies they have produced or acted in.” Dunlop joins in on the festivities by documenting not only the visual arts pieces, but the live performances. All of these have been compiled into print catalogs for the present to enjoy the past.

In the past decade, Dunlop has expanded her interest in photography to art in mixed media. Some of her own favorite pieces that she has displayed for the Getty’s bi-annual employee art show is a case she built in order to display travel soaps, which Dunlop has collected since she was ten years old. The theme of travel and finding new places is prevalent in her other work as well – another beloved piece of hers is a quilt she produced of Mapquest pages from traveling with Rachel to multiple band and drum corps shows, which Dunlop scanned and printed on fabric. “I decided that I needed to memorialize our trips together since this activity had become such a big part of Rachel’s, and by extension, my life.  I realized that it would be difficult to collage paper pieces together and so researched transforming the project into fabric.”

Yet, art is a very personal experience. “I have ended up so attached to my pieces that I have not sold any of them,” Dunlop says. When she creates her art, Dunlop’s mindset is always focused and driven, yet she finds inspiration in unexpected places around her household. She explains, “I occasionally have space in what is nicknamed my “paper” room at home.  It holds our piano, computer and then usually piles of papers and photos.  I mocked up my quilt piece on the table here.  I photographed my first Getty Underground piece, “Spoiled Only Child” in this room too. ” Dunlop’s husband, Dave, fondly remembers her way of transporting her gears for her art back when they first began dating – “I was first impressed by the big, black Chevy Blazer she drove to hold all the photo equipment she carried around for her work.” Her love of art even prevailed in her choice of date locations. “One of our first dates, she took me to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to see a David Hockney show and I actually ran into other friends of mine, so all was good,” Dave says with a grin.

Dunlop vanishes after giving us the grand tour around the Getty into her office basement downstairs, located in the North Wing of the building. Rachel and the two of us Northern Californians proceed down the stairs to leave. Even as a mother, Dunlop was always supportive of her daughter. “When I got interested in the arts, she supported me 100 percent. She never pushed me towards photography, it kind of fell into place,” Rachel explains later. We ride the free train back down from the Getty and the hills onto flat Los Angeles land again, near the 405. We gaze out towards the last faint remnants of the setting sun, as it casts its iridescent filmy and slender rays over the City of Angels. The trees and trains seem to rock back and forth along with the breeze. “I’m really lucky because I meet tons of students or people who wish they could have studied something or pursued art, but their parents didn’t approve so they had to stick to something safe. I’ve been very lucky with my mom because she understands and has been through art school and worked in the arts.”

Even though art is a prominent part of Dunlop’s life, being a born-and-raised Los Angeles resident has deeper effects. “The beach is one of my favorite places in LA.  I love to ride my bike down near sunset – the wind dies down and there aren’t as many people.  It’s so peaceful and a chance to get away from the hustle and bustle and 405 traffic here,” Dunlop beams. Before we all left, the four of us peered out towards the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. As the three girls Instagrammed the water multiple times, Dunlop sighed and knew that soon, the work day would be over. Then, she’d be able to reunite with her own personal art and drive down by the beach once again; these two, perhaps, are some of the most perfect, immortal things in Dunlop’s life.


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