This year I was awarded the James Northfield scholarship and began making lithographs at the Australian Print Workshop with master printer Martin King. Covid of course interrupted. Works on paper – drawing, printmaking and collage – are a continuing thread in my practice. My first works were pencil drawings on writing paper of my family and our furniture. Our mother had taken her three oldest children, teenage daughters, to a friend’s creative dance class in an abandoned city warehouse. This was to support the young dancer. Though trying really hard to “be a leaf“ or a lamppost was excruciating, that evocative abandoned space uncovered some other creative desire. I began making the small observational drawings which grew from pencil to charcoal and eventually to large sheets of cartridge paper. I strung wires round my bedroom hanging drawings from them in this homemade exhibiting space. Family friend, artist Arthur Boyd, visited and when shown these works told my parents to take me out of school. My parents, knowing the tough artist life up close, had no such intention. I was academic and yet I havered. I put together an application for the then National Gallery School but didn’t apply and continued to make black and white drawings for the next fifteen years. I also completed an honours degree at the University of Melbourne in literature and political science – so-called, but really psychoanalytic theory. All these influences have remained a focus and drive in my work.
In 1978 I had my first solo show – ten drawings at the George Paton Gallery the University of Melbourne. In the adjoining Ewing Gallery were 58 paintings and prints by Helen Frankenthaler on loan from the NGA – an auspicious start I now realise. Documentation of both shows is at the Baillieu Library and when Covid permits I look forward to seeing it. Kiffy Rubbo was director, it was the 70s feminist era. Years later Jarrod Rawlins (Curator MONA) opened Desire First, a survey of my work curated by Emma Cox at Deakin University Gallery, when it travelled to Devonport Museum. He summed up my work as being about family and feminism – pretty accurate. Ash Wednesday 1983 our house burnt down, taking with it all but a handful of these early drawings.
Taking on colour and paint was a slow process, beginning with a truly hideous huge oil painting in 1984 which I kept under the bed for years before destroying. Gouache, which I had witnessed on painting trips with my father and occasionally, Fred Williams, was a much more navigable path. One trip, a privilege I knew at the time, my father dropped Williams, who didn’t drive, home. My father had made three of the 56 X 76 cm landscapes, Williams had made eight. He dropped two on the ground and hosed them back, ready to rework in the studio. I finally did go to Art school at age thirty-nine, having exhibited every year in the meantime. I was part of the first Masters intake at the Victorian College of the Arts. John Dunkley Smith, a fellow student, ran the course the following year. Art school was a rich and confronting experience where thought and planning mixed with what had previously been an entirely intuitive process.
Shifts and changes in imagery and process have been slow. Family and feminism persist but Australian history, psychoanalysis and colour are now important elements of my work too. Recently, on a trip to New York, I saw a fabulous small Philip Guston painting called My Pantheon. This inspired a project I call Rewriting. Between Guston’s iconic light bulb and the bar of his easel he lists his artistic ‘pantheon’ – all-male, all unarguably great and all working in the past. I realised that although I love and admire all these artists – Piero Della Francesca, Tiepolo, Giotto, Masaccio and DeChirico – they are not the artists I take with me into the studio. My pantheon, I realised, is more contemporary and female. My first version – also titled My Pantheon – included Agnes Martin, Louise Bourgeois, Joan Mitchell, Rose Wylie, Hilma af Klint, and Grace Cossington Smith. Later, I decided ’pantheon’ is such a hierarchical way of thinking that I changed it to My List. I then began the project Our List where I asked 200 friends, artists, curators and writers to give me the names of their three favourite women artists, alive or dead, Australian or international. Repurposing Guston’s light bulb and easel arm I listed the names. I set myself rules. I would include whoever was named. I colour-coded the names according to how many times they were mentioned, blue if once, yellow for twice, pink for three, green for four. White and black for those like Agnes Martin and Clarice Beckett who were named the most by far.
I have since read Jennifer Higgie’s excellent book, The Mirror and the Palette, and talked with Drusilla Modjeska about whether women artists should be referred to by their first, second or both names. Each writer said they begin with both names and then use the first name because women often change their second names throughout their lives. I am in the midst of making a work about this. In the process I made an astonishing and kind of ridiculous realisation – I made a poster for that first solo show in 1978 – casually looking at it I saw I exhibited in my then married name, Katherine Mackinnon. Later that year I was included in a book on Australian and New Zealand artists as Katherine Mackinnon. It would require some research to work out what happened to that person.
– Katherine Hattam
Katherine Hattam, 2021