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Interview: Ceramic Artist Cathy Keys

The focus show for October in Makers Gallery is Cathy Keys’ Sea Shells. The works are thoughtful, beautiful and sentimental: the collection inspired by Keys’ love of the complex geometries of worn and broken shell fragments on the sands of South East Queensland.

We caught up with Cathy to talk about her practice.

Cathy Keys What do you enjoy most about working as a ceramic artist?

Being able to pursue an idea and a form in a deep and slow way and using my hands to incrementally craft a beautiful thing from a cool, raw piece of clay.

What separates your work from the work of other ceramic artists?

I coil.  I have developed a form of hand-building with clay that generates sculptural forms through the incremental layering and weaving of small clay coils. I design my surfaces so that the coils are retained and integral to the finished piece, enhancing and drawing attention to the lines made when these rolls of clay touch.

What are your favourite materials to work with and why?

I prefer a heavily grogged clay—something with body.  I want a clay with a strong personality that can handle being pushed a little beyond its limits.

I do work with finer clay bodies, but my temperament and hands prefer a clay with some robustness and forgiveness. I also prefer quite simple oxides, utilising one or two raw materials plus water.

Why do you believe ceramics are eco-friendly?

I like the life cycle of ceramics—from the earth—back to the earth.

Cathy Keys

I’ve heard that you draw inspiration from landscapes where you have had strong experiences. Can you tell me more about this? 

I find great peace in natural and wildish environments and have places that have great personal meaning to me where I walk and return to regularly throughout a calendar year.  This walking is often solitary, and fundamental to my arts practice and well-being.

In terms of my arts practice, I have an informal process where I allow some days to connect with the place, the season and myself. Before long, something ‘speaks’ to me and without consciously meaning to, I sort of hone in on it—this could be a natural form, a quality of light, a type of tree. I then seek out examples of this phenomena and use silence, photography, journaling and drawing to make detailed observations.

I have an intellectual thread in my work and I will often come back from these trips fired up to do some research about the phenomena or an idea that is starting to germinate as a result of my experiences.

Back in my studio, I will also make design drawings.  As I am making with the wet clay, in the slow gentle process of hand-building, I mentally return to the place of inspiration, and when I have pulled it off, I understand my sculptures to be literally holding memory. I love being near my sculptures when I am not in those places because they immediately take me back there—a sort of short-hand time-travel.

How has working with Aboriginal communities influenced your work?

Perhaps the biggest single influence of working in Aboriginal communities, aside from the privilege of meeting some extraordinary people and seeing some of the most beautiful desert landscapes in the world, was the drive to make time for my artistic expression. Rather than study material culture, I wanted to make it—to be an active creative agent in the recording of my own culture.

While doing research in remote desert communities of Central Australia in the mid to late 1990s, I was lucky enough to work alongside a number of extremely gifted Aboriginal women artists and I was inspired by the way they made time for their arts practice despite, often, extreme physical conditions with minimal resources and space and sometimes quite challenging social pressures on their time. I thought if they can do it, I can. So, I took my arts practice seriously, and here we are.

Cathy Keys

If you could take your practice anywhere in the world, where would you go?

Here. South East Queensland. Australia.  I am doing my practice in the best place in the world for me.

Why do you like having your work displayed in Makers Gallery?

I’ve had some time off and aside from having my work displayed in amongst some absolutely stunning ceramics by other Australian artists, Stephanie [Director of Makers Gallery] was fundamental to the launching of my ceramics practice. It seems right to be returning with Makers.

What’s the next step in your career?

I am working towards a major solo exhibition at Makers in October next year, so will be working on a large body of ceramics for that—but, I also have more recently been spending time drawing, so I am aiming to complement the sculptural works with some works on paper…..we’ll see!

Sea Shells will run until 28 October 2016 at Makers Gallery (open Wednesday to Friday 10:30 am to 1:30 pm & Saturday, Sunday 12:30 pm to 3:00 pm).

Cathy will give a talk in the gallery and answer questions about her practice this Sunday 16 October at 1:00 pm. All are welcome to join the conversation.

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