Catherine welcomed me to her home in the South of Sydney, not long after she had returned from a month-long working trip in the outback.
WHAT PROJECT ARE YOU WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT?
Well, I just came back from a trip out back.
Normally, at the end of a trip the four or five of us that travel together get ready for a group show but I decided this year that I’d hold off on working as soon as I came back. I am in a ‘thinking’ frame of mind at the moment, tossing everything up, like a big snow dome where everything is all swirly and it hasn’t settled quite yet. It is starting to…
I find that even when I’m working ‘plein-air’ now, I’m moving into a conversion, a sort of abstract view.
These are all plein-air [showing the small works on the wall, mostly on paper]. And they are not the plein-air that I used to do in the past and which were more ‘observation’ based. I am making a shift now…and that is new to me.
Annabelle JOSSE: You were painting what you saw while now you are painting your reaction to what you see?
Yes, and I can’t go back. There is no road back to that process that I used to follow.
That’s wonderful because that’s a whole new adventure but I’ve come back and I am quite puzzled as to what I’ll do with all the raw material that I’ve brought back, because it’s already landed in almost an abstract place. So I’ve decided I would not worry about it and just go with it. It’s instinctive, that is where I have arrived at now.
AP: so you are not focussing on the exhibition but more on the excitement of the process at the moment?
I do have an exhibition coming up in Melbourne on September 11th titled ‘Calling’, so some of the pieces for that will be some of my plein-air works and one large resolved piece. I can’t work for an exhibition-the work lives between the actual and the virtual so I have to hang onto that and let it have the time it needs-a fixed date is the enemy.
COULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR PRACTICE IN REGARDS TO THE LANDSCAPE?
What is your medium of choice? How to do combine your outdoor practice with the studio routine?
I work in acrylic because I find it difficult to travel with oils. Unless you are resident somewhere and can leave everything to dry, you can’t do a few days and then put everything in a car and move on… so I do use a little bit of oil stick, but otherwise it is always acrylic.
I use ‘Flashe’ which is a vinyl paint, beautiful matte finish, and you can get a beautiful wet in wet mark if you work very quickly. It is about speed when I am outdoor.
I also paint on little pieces of handmade paper, but also on ‘yupo paper’, which is made of plastic. It gives you a very very fast mark, it has no tooth at all.
AP: it a process between painting and drawing…
Yes, it is all that, and it doesn’t matter
AP: the mark doesn’t matter and it is all about the colour?
It will be colours that I react to: combinations of colour, and I never question that. It might be really dark paint like that little one over there, it depends where I am.
AP: How do you work with colour back in the studio? Is your artwork well planned or do you approach it instinctively too?
I work totally instinctively and some days I come here and think: “I can’t possibly work with blue today! …it is not a blue day….” So I’ll get red and orange out and it will straight away take me back to a piece of country that might have been pale pink and cream which I will then ramp up with deep reds and ochres.
AP: do you draw?
No, I draw with a paint brush, no preparatory drawing. Occasionally I will use oil sticks but I am not into refined drawings.
AP: How does the outdoor feed into your work?
I’ve had two weeks up at Arkaroola, we lived up there for two weeks and that was wonderful.
AP: can you talk to me more about that trip? Because I understand that travelling is essential to your practice…
Yes! I go out back for about a month every year. I travel with a few friend that are also artists.
This time some of us joined the group at Broken Hill but I really like to take off from Sydney: You have your backpack, your hats and your boots, you jump in the car and you leave Sydney. ..and you go over the Blue Mountains, west, west, west, to Broken Hill and leave everything behind. The further I go the happier I am.
AP: Do you work on your way or do you wait until you reach your destination?
On the way back or in-between destinations I will work but on the way over I just sit and let everything come. I think it works better for me if I can stay for a certain time in one place before moving on.
We had two weeks at Arkaroola then we went down into the lake Eyre Basin.
I have done this many times but this trip was after very good rain: normally when you are in the basin it is all cream and pink and silver and white, great expenses of shimmering light. But this time it was all covered in green, almost unrecognisable.
I usually go all of May, every year. And it feeds me, my energy, it keeps me going… and I run out in about 10months…and I need to leave again.
Well I don’t look at any of this material while I work. I could actually take it down while I work…
I keep working with acrylic because I am speedy, fast. I want to make the mark but not wait for it to dry. I don’t want to wait for the material to tell me what to do. I want to put it down as soon as I think of it. I don’t want to be interrupted by the material.
That is the kind of connection that I want: straight from my brain, by-pass the rest of the thought process.
As I am going on and on as a painter I realise that I am not a big fan of western disciplines, I am a big fan of 10th century Chinese painters, not all of them but a few who didn’t paint in the landscape, but they walked in the landscape.
They walked and walked and walked and they came back and they might sit in front of a sheet of paper for half a day, collect it all in their mind and then throw all that energy out onto the paper.
Francois Julienne is a writer who’s work has helped me understand that there was a lot of thinking going on long before the Greeks ever thought of logic. Logic has nothing to do with painting, as geometry or perspective. It has something to do with image-making but not with painting. Paint is a really visceral substance and you have to respond to it as a part of you, it’s your blood.
There is something that comes out of being human and of the world that I want to find in me. The writer Elisabeth Grosz describes it as low, bestial, of the animal, and I want to find that.
I don’t get it looking at Renaissance painting, probably in some of the Impressionists I can see it, Matisse,Vuillard, there was a different thought process beginning there, but I do find classical paintings a problem, they are….constrained by technique and the subject. I don’t believe in technique. You are just working with a substance and how you put that substance together is your so-called ‘technique’.
As an artist, I am a communicator. If I can’t communicate an energy or a love of something to someone else I have failed. The ‘raw energy’, that’s what I want to find. I know it’s here, I feel it. And if I feel it I must be able to get it down. I don’t care HOW I get it down, but it must be possible.
It is a constant struggle and I fail a lot: the trip I went on last year I came back with nothing. I had a sense of inadequacy…even before I left, I think. I must have been just at that stage where I was in-between a more literal way of painting and where I am now…
This one I felt freer: I decided I would just react and get on with it without too much thinking. I’ve definitely left the subject.
AP: so how many times have you gone on that painting trip?
Mmmm…. About ten times, I think, yes, it’s been about ten years….but I have always been on bush trips: As a child, we thought nothing of towing a caravan from the Western District of Victoria right over to South Australia or the right the other way to the coast….
YOU WERE MENTIONING ARTISTS AND PAINTERS YOU LIKE, WHAT ARE YOUR INFLUENCES?
Oh……everybody from Bill Henson to tenth century Chinese painters. Contemporary Indigenous gestural painters interest me too.
AP: what aspect of Bill Henson’s work interest you in particular?
His sense of being…. Of capturing LIFE.
We are part of a big whole”, a big huge thing. It is a very strange country when you get out there. It will absorb you entirely. When I go there I just sit and I wait. Everything slides from your mind, everything you’ve ever known or thought about, how you might think you’re gonna respond this time or how you are going to use your paint. It all empties out of your head and then there is that strange tree in front of you or that gorge or a pond, and you are like a vessel, letting it tell you what to do. You can’t impose anything on it.
AP: you have to give up?
Yes, that’s it. And maybe that is why I am moving into abstraction, where I am now, because I have learnt to give up, straight away… “giving up what I know” about technical things or western disciplines…
HAVE YOU ALWAYS BEEN A LANDSCAPE PAINTER?
Yes. Since I was a child. That’s all I was doing even as a child….I was a very strange child, who spent a lot of time indoors at my table with my oil paints and paintings. I think I was ten, or eleven. I lived in the country, in Victoria.
AP: were your parents farmers?
No, my father was a solicitor and my mother was a big influence on my creative world-she thought that was the most important thing to be doing. Amusing yourself.
AP: Where do you think your love of the land comes from?
We had a big house and a big garden and we were never allowed to say we were bored because we were sent out to walk around the garden! Within you’d find something to do, dig a hole in the ground or climb a tree or something. We were very much encouraged to do our own thing and my brother and I made giant books on birds that we illustrated and wrote ourselves.
AP: Nature was already feeding your time and your imagination..
We were pushed out. Or we’d jump in the car with my parents with a couple of roast lamb sandwiches and a thermos of tea and we’d all take off to the country around Clunes or Daylesford.
AP: What was your path to becoming a painter?
I had a very circuitous route to where I am now. I didn’t have the confidence initially and was steered away from becoming an artist. For a girl, it was as bad as becoming an actress!
It’s only when I came to Sydney that I applied to the National Art School, was accepted but realised I didn’t have any money to pay for the fees. So I had to get a job and worked as a jewellery designer with Hardy Brothers.
Then I went to Tafe, in Kogarah to get a diploma in Fine Art, just to put my toe in and convince myself I could do it. That was great because it made me mix with a lot of other artists and realise that everyone is different, doing it in their own way, which made me accept that there was nothing wrong with the way I was doing it! I used to think I had to learn and conform to a technique while I had been a natural painter forever.
I probably have what they call a lot of bad habits: I mix all sort of things that shouldn’t be mixed, oil and water and God knows what, I didn’t care, I just wanted to make marks. Then I went and did an MFA in Painting at NAS about four years ago.
For many years it was something I did “secretly”: I never had an audience, I never had any feedback so I never really knew.
AP: I might have actually allowed you to develop your own voice.
I think so…
AP: Have you gone on residencies?
Only self-imposed, really, because there are very few residencies that take you out back to remote areas. You can win them with something like the Alice Prize, but I have found out that it is better for me to go with a group of artist friends. Residencies don’t necessarily take me to where I want to go. They are very good for professional opportunities such as CVs and such but really I know where I want to go and that’s enough.
We rent a little stone house up in the ranges in South Australia, or at the back of the pub in William Creek.
If you are going to lake Eyre… there is really only one place to stay if you are there and it’s the back of the pub. And it’s terrific!
Same in Arkaroola too, in the far far end of the Flinders, it has a connection with fossil fields,geologists and astronomers .I like the writing of Stephen Jay Gould, evolutionary philosopher. It resonates with my experience of living in Australia. The idea of “deep time”, a wonderful concept. When you are at Lake Eyre, everything you are looking at was once at the bottom of the ocean, mountain ranges and all.
DO YOU HAVE A SPECIAL CONNECTION TO THE AUSTRALIAN LANDSCAPE?
I worked a bit in the Mojave desert, near L.A. where my son lives. I am attracted to the desert landscape.It was interesting in that everything was different: the rock formations, the grain of the sand and the light was the brightest I have seen… But I didn’t feel the innate connection that I have here, knowing that it’s my country. While I am not Indigenous, I am the 6th generation living in Australia, I don’t know anything else, there is no other family history I am connected to than in this country.
Abroad, I am able to do some work but I don’t get the same energy. I need to feel really connected and then I get really excited and almost in tears when I find places like Lake Eyre. It’s not the lake itself but the back country there. It’s the strangest, oddest, frightening country almost, but so beautiful in its deep isolation.
AP: does the fact that it is such a rough, unfriendly country affect you while you work there?
mmm….well it helps you realise that you have left everything that is familiar and comforting behind and pushes you to find something new out of it. But it is not a dangerous or scary feeling to me. I honestly feel that there is a presence sitting next to me, or around me.
It is not a protecting presence but a large hovering presence. I don’t know what that is, whether it is my imagination gone silly or something else, but I feel accompanied. Is it a void? or the spirit of forty, sixty thousand years of indigenous people having wandered over that country and dug out their ochre and painting material off that land….?
A lot of Australians think this place is empty because it is empty of people but it’s got a huge spirit presence. It was once full of people walking, talking and exchanging and living their lives.
AP: Having said that though, has travelling overseas influenced your work in any way?
I thought it did…Going to the Prado or museums in London has helped me but I don’t want to do it again. It is not giving me the information that I am looking for now.
All painters look for a connection with other painters, at one time or the other and you get that visiting major museums especially in Europe. But I don’t need it now…I am now looking for…. a connection HERE. Or rather I think I have a connection here but I don’t need the noise of the cultural history of painting. In fact I need the opposite to find what I’m looking for.
WHERE DO YOU LIVE AND DOES YOUR ‘BASE LOCATION’ AFFECT YOUR ART IN ONE WAY OR THE OTHER?
Do you think it is important for you to come back home to produce the works you paint?
I could live and work there, I would be happy to stay in the outback for six months if I could. But then there is the practicality of traveling with large canvases…. I like to work to the size of my body so that I feel that I’m “IN” it. My reach is my body’s size and that is about as far as I can go. If I had a large studio I am sure I could go even larger. This one is only four by four metres but it has a fabulous light.
WHAT WILL BE YOUR NEXT PROJECT?
I usually don’t plan further than 4 to 6mths ahead or it messes with my head. I like the here and now to stay thoroughly connected with all the material I brought back.
AP: Well, we are now at the end of our conversation, so in a few words, WHY THE LANDSCAPE?
That’s because it’s a big part of me…
The natural word has always been a big part of my psyche. It’s our origin and everything we are is out there. I wouldn’t be happy being an urban painter, the man-made environment doesn’t connect with me even though I like my interior spaces. I want to work with my primal origins…or what I think are my origins…just as a human being rather than as a woman or a painter even.
My origins as a human being are out there and it doesn’t matter which piece of ground we are talking about…. When I am standing on the ground the energy comes up, through my feet, my body and I can’t let go of that. Once I’ve felt it, I can’t think “oh, I’ve done five years of landscape I’m going to move on”, I can’t let go of it.
I wish people realised where they live, Australia is a very special place.
Born in Ballarat, CATHERINE CASSIDY has lived and travelled in the UK,Spain, Europe,Los Angeles and New York. Since childhood she has spent long hours in the bush and now continues working in diverse and remote environments, recently the Mojave Desert California, Australia’s Painted Desert and the ancient fossil-studded floodplains of the far Gulf Country.
Catherine has been selected in numerous art Prizes such as Portia Geach, Paddington Art Prize, NSW Parliament Plein-Air Art Prize and the Dobell Drawing Prize.
Catherine is currently showing “CALLING” at Chapter House Lane Gallery Melbourne until October 5th.