Craft interviews artist Catherine Bell about her practice, personal rituals and her work for Craft's exhibition Ceremonial.
Your work in Ceremonial was developed from a yearlong residency at St Vincent’s Hospital. Can you tell us about your time there?
In April 2013 I completed a yearlong artist residency at St Vincent's Hospital in Melbourne, Australia. Several factors influenced the artwork I produced. There was the site itself, a hospice for patients in end of life care, and the patients, families and carers I interacted with during the collaborative art project I facilitated. The communal artwork, titled "Flower Tower" was a five metre tall totem filled with handmade flowers created over the yearlong residency. The colourfully, decorated structure became a weekly socially inclusive project in the Palliative Care Day Hospice that patients looked forward to working on.
This relational project used existing knowledge about art and social praxis in new and creative ways. It fostered connectivity where the individual creative contribution is vital to the evolution of a larger communal artwork and promoted art as a vehicle to work with diverse communities to create healthier responses to death and dying. The creation of this collaborative artwork promoted quality of life and recognised that dying is part of life.
The removal of the "Flower Tower" out of the hospice where it was created into a public gallery space produced new knowledge about how the public view the role of the artist and art in the hospice. This socially engaged artwork provided insight into the importance of art in health care settings as a vehicle for expression and meaning making.
I also made personal work in the studio that explored themes of death, dying and bereavement while simultaneously organising this collaborative art project. These works examine how art can play in mediating issues of life and death. Made from recycled materials sourced from the hospice they demonstrated the complex interactions of grief and loss embedded in the artworks produced.
More information about the artworks produced during this residency can be found here and seen on Youtube.
How does each work come to life?
The works come to life because I have literally resurrected the materials used to create them. During my residency I salvaged and repurposed discarded and ephemeral materials from the site, so they are imbued with the history of the patients, health care setting and embody the fragility and resilience of the terminal body. The artworks transform floral oasis foam into archeological relics and mythologised landscapes.
I reclaimed the floral bouquets when they were removed from the patient rooms and sculpted the oasis foam that is designed to keep the flower arrangements stable and hydrated. The green, spongy material dictates the mountainous forms of Dublin, the homeland of the Sisters of Charity, who founded St Vincent's Hospital in Australia in 1857.
Death, dying and bereavement inhabits these materials so it is not surprising they address the human condition and challenge our fragile sense of mortality. The hollow Crematorium Vessels are poised to receive the ashes of the deceased. Placed throughout the hospice during my St Vincent’s Hospital residency, they collected the floating dust that is the detritus of everybody, thus binding the living and dead. The dust that settled on these urns transformed them from bright green vessels to ancient relics by creating a patina on the surface suggestive of antiquity.
The methodology of using a found material, and transforming them into separate bodies of work, not only speaks to environmental but artistic sustainability. The different incarnations conceptually reiterate how the reclaimed material becomes a memorial, giving voice to the departed and to the act of bearing witness.
How has your practice changed over time?
I have been a practicing artist for twenty-five years and during that time my interdisciplinary practice has encompassed a variety of mediums including sculpture, drawing, performance art, video and installation.
My practice has had to adapt to a full time, university lecturing position; and it is constant juggling act trying to balance an academic role with time in the studio.
My art practice has always had a social conscious and explored female identity, but those concepts have amplified over the years and expanded to include: art activism, art on the margins, gender politics, community engagement and socially-engaged art. The thematic common denominator has always been the human condition and manifests through rendering the lived experience visible.
The last couple of years I have focused on art in healthcare settings and this complements my relational and socially networked practice that forefronts a sense of ownership, empowerment and self-actualized learning.
So the biggest change to my practice is implementing collaborative art projects in community contexts that emphasise a democratic involvement in the various aspects of exhibition and production.
Any artists or thinkers who influence your work at the moment?
I am inspired by generations of female artists, female activists and feminist discourse. Louse Bourgeois is my hero and has had a profound influence on my practice in the way she explores the lived experience and works across diverse mediums. I am strongly influenced by films, especially those that grapple with apocalyptic themes and taboo subject matter such as ageing, death and dying. I was very inspired by the Death Be Kind Gallery founded by artists Elvis Richardson and Claire Lambe.
This gallery invited artists to enter into a dialogue about death and how it manifests in their practice. I was invited to exhibit in both solo and group exhibitions at Death Be Kind and these opportunities inspired the creation of artwork using ephemeral materials.
I am also a member of an art collective called Finitude with artists Dr Michael Needham and Dr Anne Wilson. Our collective has resulted in bringing our work together as a celebration and resistance to the theme of finitude through a wide - almost disparate - scope of materials and propositions played out in relation to one’s own phenomenological presence and body limitations.
I spend time with all these extraordinary artists and thinkers and have the privilege of collaborating on projects with them that have influenced my solo practice.
Any rituals you have when you make?
I have a studio within walking distance to where I live so walking there with my dog Archie is a regular ritual. Walking to and from my creative space allows me to clear my mind and having my dog with me helps me live in the moment and pace my day.
The obsessive and labour-intensive nature of my work means its creation can be static, so making habitual cups of tea is another diversion and opportunity to step away from the work and get some perspective. Archie also encourages me to take regular breaks and stretch my legs.
When I leave my studio for the day I ritualistically document the work I have made, as working in ephemeral materials is unpredictable, and the work can change or disappear overnight.