Katie Bork’s drawings explode with imagination. Scenes in black ink reveal a world right out of her brain. Faceless people go about their daily lives with exclamation points and question marks on their bellies; they float in dreamlike bubbles; they climb up a hill, reaching and stumbling for the elusive A+ at the top. They are happy, sad, enigmatic, or seem to encapsulate many emotions at the same time.
“Mostly what my work is is surrealism,” said the diminutive Caledonia High School senior, who uses different sized ink pens to create depth and detail. “I like to draw little buildings with little people who live in them. One might have a cat or be washing the dishes. It might not matter what they’re doing, but it’s a sense of real life without being real life.”
Partly inspired by Studio Ghibli, a Japanese animation studio, Katie created her own style with ink and a technique called cross-hatching.
“I have this style that people call obsessively detailed,” she said.
Editor’s note: Grads with Grit is a series about students who have had to overcome unusual challenges and hardships to graduate this spring
An Outlet Through Which She Thrived
Katie has been drawing since she was a little girl, when art was a way her mother, Erika Bork, could include Katie, who tires easily, and her two energetic siblings in something together.
“I’ve loved art since I could physically hold something to draw with,” Katie said.
Katie has Trichorhinophalangeal Syndrome Type 1,TRPS1 for short, an extremely rare chromosomal disorder. Characteristics of the syndrome include thin hair, short stature and other physical differences. Katie experiences joint pain, and physical activities like climbing stairs and athletics are difficult for her.
Katie will graduate May 25, headed to Kendall College of Art and Design in the fall to major in illustration with $52,000 in scholarship money. She has also been awarded one Gold Key and two Silver Key titles from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and will have her first entry in ArtPrize, a 12-piece illustrative narrative, in September. She is also working on a graphic novel that include her comic-like illustrations.
“I want to take that to the next level or learn to make short films with animation,” she said.
As a child, Katie colored, doodled, loved anything to do with pen and paper, say her mom, Erika, and dad, Nick Bork.
“I think drawing was something she noticed she could do just like everyone else and it didn’t make her different,” Erika said. “We really didn’t do anything special, just let her choose her own path, her own likes and dislikes.”
Katie reflected on her disability. “Academic-wise it hasn’t affected me but socially it did, and that was kind of a problem,” she said, explaining how her group of friends shifted during middle school.
‘We think the best part of Katie has nothing to do with art. She is simply the kindest, most sincere and genuine person we know.’ — Nick Bork, father
Finding Her Tribe
She began to realize the possibilities of art her freshman year in the Caledonia art program, where she found her tribe among painters, sculptors and illustrators.
“The people in the art program kind of took me in as this freshman who didn’t know anything,” Katie recalled. “I was able to meet so many people, and at that point they didn’t care if I was only 4 feet 10 inches tall. They saw me as this hard-working artist who wanted to do something with herself.”
Katie drew, and drew and drew, her style coming to life on paper. “I had a hard time finding other things that I fit really well into, so I devoted all my time to this,” she said. “It was kind of like a job.”
She has now served as National Art Honor Society president for two years and is a founder of the silkscreen T-shirt program, which helps fund NAHS and a scholarship. She has maintained a GPA above 3.5. Her role in NAHS goes much deeper than creating art. Katie sees it as a way to reach out to other students.
“It’s easier for me to use art to help other people with mental illness, and their own disabilities and social anxieties, because I went through that myself. These are like-minded people who understand we have internal battles and they will not judge us.”
Erika Bork saw her daughter flourish in NAHS. “Our Katie, the girl we worried about because she is smaller than most, amazed us all over again. Her drive to be a leader makes her shine.”
Art teacher Mike Cornell said Katie is a passionate advocate.
“Many of the kids we serve here don’t necessary fit into other programming in the school,” Cornell said. “It’s often the kids that have more of an outsider perspective. She will seek those kids out and draw them in.”
Katie also plans to volunteer for DisArt, an organization that aims to connect people who have disabilities to art and to promote accessibility.
“We think the best part of Katie has nothing to do with art,” said her father, Nick Bork. “She is simply the kindest, most sincere and genuine person we know. She is so understanding and considerate of others’ feelings. Katie teaches us as parents more about compassion and empathy than we could ever show her.”
An Informal Member of the Department
Katie said art teachers Cornell, Evan Chamberlain, and Joel Reeder are like “second parents,” and they see her as almost like a colleague.
“It’s hard to separate her from our department in a lot of ways because she comes to our morning meetings every day with the teachers,” Cornell said. “She is always there giving a student perspective.”
She makes the teachers checklists and offers them reminders about upcoming events. “She totally holds us accountable,” he said with a laugh.
Katie said the main thing she wants people to know is that art is an option for them too. She knows there are many other dreamers, drawers and doodlers out there who feel left on the sidelines.
“That was me,” she said.