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More than human world

Updated: Nov 2, 2021

Catherine Bagnall is a painter, a performance artist, and a Senior Lecturer at Massey University’s College of Creative Arts.

She recently published On we go (Massey University Press), a collection of paintings and poems she created in collaboration with her longtime friend, the poet, art writer, and lecturer L Jane Sayle.

Catherine talks to us about teaching art, being inspired, and rabbity feelings.

Can art be taught?

Yes I believe so. At least technical skills can be taught, and how to reflect on what you have done and on the work of others can be taught. But one of the best things about being a student in an art college is all the other students and what they learn from each other, and having the time and space to make stuff and make mistakes and try again and to talk about that process and be critical.

I had drawing lessons from Julia Van Helden when I was young and I learnt to look hard at things and to play with the quality of pencil and paint lines. Then a fantastic art teacher at Wellington High School, Rob Mcleod, taught me attitude, and to believe in myself, and about the sensuality of paint. I am still learning a lot! That is possibly the best thing about being a teacher.

How do you measure success as a teacher?

If my students are enthused about doing or making something, or writing and investigating, and believe that they can do it.

I have just been doing a ton of marking and that is one point where what you teach is reflected back at you. I feel I have done okay when students dig deep into investigating a topic that I’ve talked with them about, and they write it up in a way that is good and sometimes more sophisticated and thoughtfully done than I could do, or they find things out that I didn’t know. But, personally I do not believe in grading students. I do not think it helps with their learning; rather, it sets up a competitive environment which is not that good for anything.

Describe your creative process.

In my practice I am trying to engage with non-human creatures, the weather, plants and trees. For example I have made a work where, dressed as a rabbit, I talked about the climate crisis, and clothing, and the weather with my friend, who was dressed as a native gecko in a fully hand-sewn sequin jump suit.

Right now I am watercolour painting. I love doing it because I can’t fully control it and when I am painting I sort of disappear into the paint and into the paintings and into the forests and bush scenes that I am painting.

The creatures in my paintings come from the performance works I have done where I sew up outfits with tails and ears and go walking in the bush or town belt in them – a sort of trying to become a non-human other. Wearing my brown spotty hood with ears and my pale pink dress with a tail, I stretch out, feeling the breeze ruffling my fur. I know that I cannot completely share the stretching out sensations of a rabbit in the grass, in the sun, but my dress allows me to inhabit a notion of myself as a rabbit and feel more a part of this more-than-human world we all share. I feel a “rabbitty” pleasure. With my eyes lightly closed and brimming with flickering light, I drift through thoughts about what I will make next.

Do you collect anything?

I am collecting dead moths and feathers and ideas for another book that Jane Sayle and I hope to do. A book of fragments and drawings and words and poems. I also collect any clothes I find on the side of the road, except for underwear.

What work of art has most affected you?

Last year we bought a small and magical Hariata Ropata Tangahoe from Bowen Gallery and I look at this every morning. The thinkers who have influenced me the most of late are philosophers Rosi Braidotti, Kate Soper, and also Alison Jones and Te Kawehau Hoskins. And of course Bill Hammond has been a huge influence on my paintings.

Shannon Te Ao’s work always moves me too and makes me think about what it means to live here in Aotearoa as a Pākehā and about the importance of everything (humans, non- humans) being connected through relationships. I have spent hours watching his video work Two shoots that stretch far out (2013–14) when it was exhibited up in Auckland.

Five years ago I was lucky enough to spend the full six hours in front of the video A Lot of Sorrow, by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson. It was a live loop of The National performing their song, Sorrow, repeatedly for six hours. In the darkness of the gallery, on the other side of the world and with the huge sound, that was a sublime, immersive experience and I went back the next day to sit all day in the gallery all over again. It takes time to look at art and often we don’t have the time, or make the time.

We have two copies of On we go to give away. Click here for competition details.


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