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Updated: Jul 7, 2020

Catherine Griffiths is an artist, designer and typographer. She talks of collections, vowels and her penchant for word play.

The Phone Book, 2012

Do you collect anything?

Avidly, sometimes to my own torment, from usual things like stones, rocks, books, letters since forever, to French telephone numbers (those paper tear-off tabs), making images of washing folded by my husband (for years), films of moving light (before social media burst that balloon), recording vowel sounds, and collecting (my own) brushed hair. The telephone numbers became a small artist book, The Phone Book (edition of 4) and a series of rugs with Dilana, Club de Conversation Keyhole series.

The Brexit Series (1/5) / Best Design Awards protest (1/3) / #ff3333 Poster Call (detail)

How does your work comment on current social or political issues?

By the work being typographic-based, and with my penchant for word-play, I have found it possible to comment or protest. The Brexit Series, five political posters posing as type specimens, were made as a commentary in response to the announcement of the referendum result to exit the EU in 2016.

In 2018, I made three protest posters in response to the shocking gender imbalance consistently put forward by the governing body of the design industry, the Designers Institute of New Zealand.

A year on, we await to see real, meaningful change to a culture that has already written women out of our design history.

The posters manifested several projects including the blog platform, Designers Speak (Up), the Directory of Women* Designers (*female-identifying and non-binary) and Present Tense : Wāhine Toi Aotearoa, an ongoing poster project.

Posters aside though, years ago I worked with artist Raewyn Atkinson, to change the Norsewear Awards’ unequal prize money, with Protest Vessel, a ceramic work onto which we worked the wording APPLIED ARTS 1/2 PRICE. The following year the awards between the two disciplines, Painting and Applied Arts, was equal.

memento :: motif, a work comprised of five of the keyhole rugs together with the artist book, and The Jets, a film work made in Paris, dealt with the social and political context of memory and loss of memory in a group show titled Alzheimer, in Valparaiso, Chile, 2012.

Work/Space, 2016 (detail), Shanghai Art and Design Exhibition

What project are you working on now?

I’m working with architecture and design studio ĀKAU in Kaikohe. We have just finished a series of workshops with local taitamariki who are designing a series of taonga markers as part of a wider project in Te Tai Tokerau. It’s tingling to watch these young ones respond, knowing that what they are designing will actually be made — a tangible object that holds meaning. A humbling journey to be on while being a student in full immersion te reo Māori (another project!).

Everything is interwoven, the ĀKAU wāhine contributed to Present Tense : Wāhine Toi Aotearoa, a poster and exhibition project generated out of Designers Speak (Up), to record the current landscape of women in design and give visibility to the unsung diversity of Aotearoa design. We now have over 100 posters submitted to the open call inviting women-identifying and non-binary designers to employ the poster medium to investigate any social, cultural, or political issue of each designer’s choice. The result and exhibition, which opened at RAMP Gallery in May (and is off to Laurel Projects for August on its hīkoi around Aotearoa over the next few months) is astounding. What does this landscape look like right now? What does it sound like? Who is out there? How to find these voices? This is a very important moment.

For my own work, I’m preparing (and in search for funding assistance) for an exhibition in Shanghai — my first solo, and an extension of Work/Space (2016) an installation at the Shanghai Art and Design Exhibition.

Catherine Griffiths. AEIOU — a typo/sound installation, 2009 and Collidescape, 2017. Photo: Mitchell Bright

What themes keep reoccurring in your work and why?

One theme would have to be the vowels, A-E-I-O-U. In speech the vowels, which include other letterforms and diacritics not noted here, allow us to be understood by one another. They belong to everyone, so they hold a certain democracy, a sort of levelling out. If you abstract these letterforms, they are the simplest form of line you can draw, as expressed in my first work, AEIOU — a typo/sound installation (2009), where the observer delivers the sound. The serial work is an ongoing enquiry into the vowels, and continues to explore material and contextual terms, the abstract construction of the vowels (line, curve, circle), and the speech sounds that these elicit. The vowels offer endless possibilities, and I continue to respond with them, wherever space and/or funding can be found or is offered.

Light Weight O, 2012, installed 2018 / photos: David Straight

What materials are integral in your work?

Of the vowel series, AEIOU is constructed of five vowels in lengths and circles of steel rod, lightly stacked five metres high on a first level terrace in Wellington.

Both the elemental forms and the gathering of sound, mentioned above, are subsequently expressed in AEIOU — Constructed/Projected (2015), a semi-autobiographical multi-media work commissioned for a typography biennale in Seoul, where for example, you see the rods of the E dismantled (in brass, but of the same dimension) leaning against the wall; the other four elements A, I, O, U, referencing other parts of my work and work space with timber, paper, barrier tape and a short film titled i, a running stream of consciousness.

Kihi/Kiss (2015) an oddly-placed carpet work at Wellington airport (I’m still unclear if the infrastructure that has intersected it is temporary or permanent), and Collidescape (2017), a large-scale glazed work, as part of Ōtautahi’s Ara Campus designed by Athfield Architects, are two further iterations in the series.

Collidescape is the most graphic and loudest, most invigorating work to date. Light Weight O, a mirror-faced, brass-backed work suspended above O’Connell St in Tāmaki would have to be the most sublime, gently pivoting, it’s materiality receiving and reflecting light shadows, playing visual tricks into view shafts and onto surfaces.

Earlier this year I missed out on a text-based public art series in Sydney, for which I was shortlisted, but this — another vowel work — would have been my most colourful rendition, pushing my range of materiality beyond what I have made so far.

installation of AEIOU — Constructed/Projected, Typojanchi 2015 Biennale, Seoul

In 5 words, describe the colour yellow to somebody who is blind.

Vibrant, mellifluous, summery, optimistic, zesty

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read or seen this week?

Perhaps one that sticks right now, or did at the time of writing, is Barbara Kruger’s Your body is a battleground, from 1989 (when I was a student) is a fight still (despairingly) being battled out 34 years on.

The other is Ihumātao which I became aware of in 2016 when SOUL (Save Our Unique Landscape) ran a Virtual Occupation campaign. On the weekend, we visited the whenua to tautoko kaitiaki and pay our respects.

Where were you 3 hours ago?

In my studio, my work space, in te ngāhere.


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