For the first Artist of the Month interview for 2021, Cathy Chilly talks about being an untrained artist, balancing painting with poetry and capturing Covid on canvas.
You can watch the interview here, which can be viewed with captions, or you can find the edited transcript below.
Laura: Hello and welcome to Outside In’s January interview for Artist of the Month. My name is Laura, I work for Outside In.
I’d like to introduce you to our interviewee for this Artist of the Month interview – it is Cathy Chilly.
Cathy: Hello, yes my name is Cathy. I also have the nickname of cactus which is quite fun.
I’m sitting in a little room which I am lucky to have. I feel really grateful for it. It is my own room, my lady cave, woman cave. And behind me is some of the artwork that I make.
Laura: If you are happy Cathy, I would love to start by asking you – why and when did you start making artwork?
Cathy: Well, I really do enjoy writing poetry and a lot of my time up until four years ago say was spent writing poetry. I started a project which was called Magpie and I just wanted to take it that step further – as the poem. It is a poem which is quite a sad poem really and I felt I wanted to make it more accessible. I wanted to make the sadder parts very sad, and make the happy parts very happy to bring in the certain moods.
So I really felt that I wanted to turn the poetry into an artwork. I hadn’t ever considered doing any artwork at all before that moment. But I took sail on the subject and I did it. It took quite a long time but I so enjoyed it. It was the best thing I had ever done.
Suddenly a poem became a much bigger poem because I put lots of different poetry within it. So there was a lot of writing, all in pen and ink on card. It was a real catalyst for starting to do artwork, I think for the sheer pleasure of doing artwork Rather than devoting one’s life completely to writing, to poetry, which is lovely but it is lonely and very hard. The artwork felt so much lighter and more exciting. I was very, very excited about that.
So that is actually how I started to do artwork. Then, after that – I live in Margate which is in Kent, and next to Margate is a place called Ramsgate, and there was a festival in Ramsgate called the festival of sound. They put out an open call asking if people would like to put proposals forward. I put a proposal forward for a poem that I had recorded with a big soundscape behind it and it got accepted.
So I was over the moon! Anyway I was given two rooms in an empty shop, quite a lot of space, so I decided to make more artwork to go alongside the poem. So you would have the soundscape of the poem with the artwork incorporated into the exhibition And it was so enjoyable to do. I made enormous posters and broke the poem up into fragments and put that into smaller pictures.
So, yeah, that is really how I first found myself doing artwork and the strange thing is as I have been doing more artwork, more artwork has come about.And now, which I am personally really happy about, is that the artwork has overtake the poetry – because I am so happy doing the artwork. It is such a lovely, lovely, lovely thing to do. It is a bit more physical, you can judge it better… I find it a beautiful thing to do.
Laura: It is interesting to hear how your poetry inspired your art, and if anything your art seems to be taking over. So how do work to bring those two together and how does that manifest for you?
Cathy: For me, I find it very complicated to put the poetry into the artwork. Poetry is quite a powerful thing and it can take over the artwork I believe. So my ideas have always been for the poetry to accompany the artwork in an independent way. A few years ago, to complement my poetry, I endeavoured to make films – to do poetry films. Which is quite a fantastic thing here in Europe and America. It is a very small world but a very passionate world of people making poetry films. I set about to learn how to make film and it is hard, as the technical side is quite complicated and quite difficult, but I managed to arrive at a certain thing that I could make a film quite well and it was lovely.
So for me I love to have the artwork separate, the recording of the poem separate as a soundscape – perhaps with distant sounds going on which I like to do, I really like to invent those as well myself and record them. To bring the poem into a soundscape that is relevant to the poem. For example if it is a poem about the sea you would have a tonnes of beautiful noises that you could bring in to the poem
and to make the soundscape behind the poem. And then, if you can do it as well, to have a film going at the same time. So you would have artwork on the walls, film work going on and then a soundscape on top.I really feel that is how I feel that is the way to bring in poetry to artwork, rather than writing it onto the artwork. Which I do do sometimes, I don’t say I don’t do that at all, but a whole poem I think would get lost in the artwork and the artwork would get lost in the poem. So I think it is a difficult thing to do.
Laura: It is lovely to see so many of your artworks with you now, would it be possible to describe your work to us?
Cathy: I think the majority of my artwork is actually about people. Also a bit about dogs.
I am an untrained artist, completely. So sometimes things are a bit of a conundrum of how to get to something that I want to do. I started off using off paper, I have a lovely art shop down the road which sells big sheets which are almost like cardboard but they are not, they are still paper. So I started using that, it is very reasonably priced – about 80p for a lovely great big sheet of it. You can use it whole or you can tear it up, or cut it into half or into quarters. You can try loads of things out and it doesn’t break the bank. I stayed with paper for probably about ten months and started using acrylic, ink, pen and ink, and acrylic coloured ink and I diluted the ink as well and used it as a block colour.
I then, one day, someone gave me a canvas. It was this lovely lady in the art shop. She gave me the canvas which she had never been able to use as they were a really strange shape. They were rectangular, oblongs, and very very long. Probably only about 8cm wide by a metre and a half long.
So really weird shaped canvas, she said she’d never been able to use them and told me to take them and give them a try. She gave me two of them, so suddenly I worked on canvas and that was just such good fun.
I really liked working with canvas, it felt like really doing art. To see the canvas underneath it come through the paint, that beautiful look you get when you can see the filaments of the make up of the linen underneath your paint. I loved that so much. That was just amazing. Then after that I happened to go into working on wood. We have got a wood yard just near home. You can go there and ask them to cut it for you and they will cut any size you want which is really nice. So I have been working on wood recently
So people, really, I think because poetry is very much about people – for me anyway. It quite naturally went into the artwork, and that it should be about people and the situations they get themselves in and life how it is, and hopefully, hopefully.. I mean I am not sure if I achieve that.. but I like to think I do.Or that I might one day.But, as an untrained artist, I think you have to go through a lot of working out, to try and get to that end product that you wanted – I know what I want to get but I can’t quite see it. It is because I don’t quite know it, or understand how to do it. But sometimes that feeling of rawness, of working without training, is rather nice actually and it gives you, kind of, a freedom to just do what you want to do and to do it how you do it. And you hope it works out, and sometimes it does, and sometimes accident plays a role and something turns out.
If you can just, momentarily stop, and look and say ‘yes actually that line is how that person stands’
Or, how that person looks. And before you blot it away, or cover it over with paint again, just to register it, or keep it, or realise, that oh by accident that is how it goes, that is quite fun to do it like that.
I use, at the moment, acrylic paint. I would love to try oils one day but I am not sure it would suit me because I love the quick drying of acrylic because it means that you can cover a lot in one day, you seem to be able to move on quickly. Whereas I believe with oils it is quite a long process of waiting to dry perhaps
I always had a difficulty with trees, I found trees really difficult to make right. I love trees but I found my first attempts heavy, stocky and just badly done. I didn’t like them at all. So I have been working on trees and I am really enjoying that now. They seem to be improving a bit so I am pleased about that.
I has been really, really starting from scratch. And not knowing how to do it, and the joy that it gave me to be just doing art because I love art so much. I have always loved art, but it felt like it was something out of my reach
Laura: Could you tell us about the process you have to creating your work now, and how that may have changed from what you did previously?
Cathy: When I first started it was quite difficult for me to envision how to progress with the figure of a person for me. So I was messing around cutting out pieces of cardboard and it really helped for me to understand how, for example, a leg joined a body or an arm joined a body. For example, there is a piece of cardboard that represents a very muscly arm that end and a very thin arm at the other end and no hand as yet. But I would make that be a body and then I would work out how, by moving it around, how I could make something become something that represented a body. It was very, very, helpful to get my confidence going and sometimes that rawish feeling was really fun and I quite like what happened, what it gave. As time has progressed, I have managed to put these away, I am very happy to say they have gone into a little box and now I am managing to work a little bit differently. I use tracing paper to do my sketching. So I am still in the same problem of wondering how you do things but I do find if I use tracing paper I can make my initial sketch, then I can put the tracing paper on top and using the guide of my initial sketch I can put another sketch on top of the tracing paper. I can use three or four sheets of tracing paper to eventually come out with what I am looking for it won’t be right, or it might not be right for somebody else and for some people it might be completely wrong – but on the otherhand it is what I want to do and what I want to give.
It is a little bit like doing cartooning for me. So little by little, where I have got my own, perhaps difficulties in trying to get my drawings down I help myself by going forward very slowly and creaking forward, until I find – oh yes! If I put the arm like that it does look how it should be or the leg like that. It helps it work for me.
It does seem to me that I do like to work in a cycle of paintings. Occasionally I do one painting, and it is just one subject, one thing. Like if I have seen something and I think ‘oh that would be really nice’ so I will do that. Other times, I fall into, it has to be a cycle of paintings. So one lead to the other, or else they are all based on the same subject.For example, the one you can see behind me here. This was based on the pandemic. At the beginning of the pandemic I thought, we are all going to need something to occupy ourselves with while we are in shutdown so I started this work. And it finished up being 48 paintings all based on the months of March and April, or April and May. So 24 paintings to each month and it just went through things I had come across with the pandemic. Situations, difficulties, that people were having. So that is an example of working in a cycle of paintings which happens again and again to me. Which I do like to do very much so it gives it a theme and a story as you are going along.
Laura: Would it be possible to ask a bit more about lockdown and perhaps the role being creative had during that time for you then?
Cathy: Yes, a very hard period, a period which we have never known in our lifetimes. Most certainly the smaller things have become more irrelevant which has been quite nice. I definitely think that people have slowed down and that is really nice as well. I think everyone has really got a bit more time to say hello across the street and things like that. And lots of people are trying to help other people which is really, really nice.
I think because we are not going out it has opened the doors to more creativity. I think for myself, I have enjoyed the quiet and the being able to stop and so you can get on with something else which you might want to do rather than a normal life or working, looking after, and doing things like that. So yes, it has been very different, and I know it has been hard for a lot of people but there have been some sides to it that have been very interesting and quite good in the fact people have slowed down.
I mean it must be the first holiday, not that people could be having a holiday, but the first time they have stopped their lives, their busy lives, since perhaps they left school or when they were children. So it must have been quite a relief in that sense that people, like myself, have been allowed to stop and do something else.
Laura: Did you find that space it allowed helped to fuel your creativity and provide room for it?
Cathy: It did actually. I really feel it did yes. It is such an unusual subject and so unusual to find ourselves it that situation. Something, perhaps, that people used to experience all the time before we had vaccinations. Even childhood illnesses were very bad. I think people had what we are experience today, all the time, it was part of life and we have become a little bit adjacent to that. So it is a really unique situation for people of our time. Which is interesting, which has been interesting.
Laura: Do you find it a nice feeling to know you have got the paintings – you have captured it in someway?
Cathy: Yeah I do, I really really do. I’ve put my coronavirus paintings on the wall, and there are another 24 over there, and I look at them everyday. And they live with me now. And I am very happy to see them. They are colourful, even through some of them are quite sad – I am pleased I did them.
And it flew past, actually, that bit. Because I was managing to do – say – one per every four days. Everyday you saw something that you had not seen before, a different feeling – rushing to get food, supermarkets, the shock of panic buying, things like that.. it was so different. We have never seen that have we? So it was a good moment to re-evaluate our lives and how lucky we have been really, up until now.
Laura: I have to 100 per cent agree with that.
It would be great to know next what you hope the viewer might get from your work, or if they don’t play a part in your creative process
Cathy: It would be amazing and I would be so privileged and happy if someone, somewhere, thought that they connected and that they had lived that moment. Or ‘oh I have seen that before’. That for me, would be an amazing thing. That something I had made could connect to a recognisable moment in human life. That would be amazing. I think. That would be fantastic. Just that human connection. That maybe I have managed to create a little moment that is recognisable of something people have lived through or had in their lives. That would be the nicest thing.
Obviously approval is such a massive thing for everybody and it would be amazing to get some of that – that would be lovely.
Laura: In light of this being our January interview, and it being a time for looking both forward and back, perhaps it would be nice to end on a standout moment for you to date as an artist?
Cathy: Okay, I think I have got to say it was being shortlisted for the Madge Gill co-commission with yourselves and Pallant House – that was just an amazing moment. I was so over the moon, I actually gasped, I couldn’t believe it, just to be shortlisted was amazing. I was so happy. So I think it has to be said that is the standout moment to date.
Laura: Perfect! So hopefully we will see more of that in the future as well then
Cathy: Thank you. I hope so.
Laura: It has been very lovely to talk with you Cathy, thank you.
Cathy’s explanation of her current work in progress (above): “AlterVista is an artwork based on the narrow line between happiness and sadness. It comprises of 11 panels of figures who find themselves close to the blue of sky and the yellow of sun, but yet, are unable to leave the darkness and enter the light. The artwork measures 3m20cm in length with each panel interconnected to its neighbour to make one continuous scene. The artwork is accompanied by a soundscape.”