Interview with Katie Belcher

Line Gallery:  Why do you think you came to focus on drawing as opposed to another medium?

Katie Belcher:  I came into drawing as my medium quite reluctantly. I had always associated drawing with sketching or illustration. I thought it was tight and limited. It was my first drawing teacher, Susan Wood, who changed that for me. She encouraged me to use loose media (both dry and wet) and to work on quality paper at a much larger size. I learned to persist with one drawing, layering and reworking it until it was fully realized. With that change in process, I fell completely in love with drawing. It is energetic, raw and immediate. I pursued drawing through my studies at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, but also continued to work in sculpture. Outside of school, I’ve found drawing to be more practical than sculpture in terms of space, cost, and storage. I still perceive three dimensionally however, which is likely why I draw reductively. I find that my process of drawing satisfies the parts of me that still love sculpture.


LG:  Why do you think drawing is important in contemporary art or as a practice?

KB:  Drawing is a medium unlike any other. It can be very current, or historical. It can straddle both of those definitions, as I intend my own work to do. Drawings are the beginning to all other art forms, and yet, they can stand on their own as completed works. To me, one of the richest qualities of drawing is that it is free from the condition of being “finished”. A drawing always holds within it the possibility of being erased, or added to, and as such is limitless.

LG:  Are there any artists or experiences that have shaped/influenced your practice?

KB:  Steve Higgins and Jan Peacock, both previous instructors of mine, have been valuable mentors to me. Jan is smart as a whip and has similar theoretical interests as I do such as space and memory. Steve is an incredible resource as a drawer and sculptor. Ingrid Jenkner, my current employer at MSVU Art Gallery has also been an important influence and mentor, though more in the writing aspect of my practice.

My practice has been significantly shaped by my visits to my grandparents’ Southwestern Ontario farm as a child. My memories from that time have served as endless material for my work. It has been rich to examine the vivid imagery, textures and smells of a meaningful place, and exciting to discover inconsistencies and conflations. Even now as my subjects extend beyond these personal experiences, they remain deeply rooted in that history.


LG:  We’ve had questions from visitors asking about your working process. Can you tell us a little about how you begin a drawing?

KB:   I joke that I’m more of a “withdrawer” than a drawer. I draw primarily with the eraser. First I lay down a dark mass of charcoal, sometimes in the shape of the object itself, other times in the shape of the negative space. At this stage my process is very physical; I rub the charcoal into the paper until there are no particles left on the surface. I then carve into the black with the eraser. I do draw additively in addition to this, but the drawings always begin with reduction.


LG:  How do you go about selecting which objects or specimens you will work from?

KB:  This series started with a drawing of a dreamt iron object. My dreams at the time were informed by my endless wanderings through antique stores in search of objects that might have triggered memories for another series of drawings, Plank Road. I had also been drawing specimens from the natural history museum after another series of drawings that was inspired by Dutch Baroque Still Lifes. The birds I chose to draw were common birds—such as herons, owls—and some from literature—seagulls (from a play by Chekov). I was fascinated by the shifts in meaning when I presented the various subjects alongside one another. I started to seek out objects that had lost their function, or whose function was ambiguous or dreamlike to pair beside these flightless birds. Only after a few years of collecting this “archive” did it start to divide into categories. Most recently, the work has returned to the agricultural roots of my previous drawings, as well as the culinary elements from the still life paintings I so admire. Other collections of drawings are more nautical and some literary. The most recent drawings of various legs hold together as echoes of the same shape rather than subject. I have enough now to see patterns emerging, both expected and unexpected.

I collect sources everywhere I go; sometimes making specific trips to museums or properties or stores to gather sources. I also have other people send me images of objects they find on their travels. I find these particularly engaging to draw having not actually seen the object. Potter’s tool for example, was drawn from a photograph taken by my mother during her travels in England. Other than knowing it was taken in a potter’s studio, I know little of the object.

My selection of objects with ambiguous or archaic functions is driven by the notion that we are quickly losing knowledge in this information age. We are losing an understanding of how to produce our own food, fix our own engines, and cure our own illnesses. We don’t consider where our food comes from.  I’m not entirely nostalgic for the past, but I do question what we lose with progress, and through my drawings aim to explore that.


LG:  In your artist statement, you speak about how drawing is a wonderful medium for evoking experience without defining it.  Can you elaborate on this a bit, especially as it relates to capturing aspects of memory and/or nostalgia in your work?

KB:  A drawing contains within it the history of its own making. In painting a new layer often obliterates the old one. In sculpture, to begin a form again the first attempt is often destroyed (as with clay) or removed (with stone). In drawings, there are often remnants of initial lines and erased beginnings. Mark-making is persistent! Paper can be surprisingly resilient; yet drawing is also an impermanent medium. It is fragile and easily damaged. I see drawing as a metaphor for how we process experience and build memory. 

My process is theoretically informed by the content of my work. By alternating between drawing and withdrawing, I aim to mimic the process of forming and retrieving memories. I search out the form I’m drawing, just as we search out the details of a memory. The layering in my drawings echoes the layering of experiences and how they inform one another. This process began with my Still Life series, in which I redrew elements from Dutch Masters’ still life paintings in new constructions. I continued with this process in Plank Road, drawing my grandparent’s farm from memory. Though the works presented in Field Work are drawn directly from a source, I use the process of the previous series as a conceptual strategy.


LG:  Do you have a preferred type of paper that you like to work on? How important is the surface for you? 

KB:  The surface of a drawing paper is very important to the way that I work. Grinding the dry media into the fibres of the paper and then erasing simply doesn’t work on many types of paper. For the past several years I’ve drawn primarily on Stonehenge. It has enough tooth to take dry media well, yet is smooth enough to erase cleanly. For the smaller drawings that were exhibited in Field Work, I used a soft rag paper that I found during a residency in Spain. It was fragile and the paper didn’t erase cleanly, which changed the way I worked. I tried another paper while in Spain which I absolutely fell in love with. It was thick and smooth, but more like animal skin vellum rather than plastic. Despite its lack of tooth, it managed to hold onto the charcoal. It erased completely. It was like working with butter.


LG:  Could you speak a little about the scale of your work? For the most part, your work is relatively large scale. Do you prefer working larger as a personal choice or do you work large as another way of impacting the viewer?

KB:  This is something I often think about as an artist. It is a scale that feels comfortable to me. I like to say that the scale of my drawings corresponds to my “wing span”. I’m a tall woman. At that scale the drawings give back. I am no longer the authoritative artist. It becomes an interaction between me and the act of drawing, the ground, the charcoal, and the object itself. 

Both large and small scale work can have a strong impact. I love small drawings that the viewer has to lean into in order to appreciate. I try to maintain that intimacy in my larger work by alternating between highly detailed and looser more dramatic sections.


LG:  I’m interested in your drawing Collapsed Barn and that you were willing to show it in process. Can you speak to your intentions with this? Have you shown other unfinished drawings before?

KB:  I usually spend a significant amount of time deciding if a work is finished, and never exhibit unfinished work. I don’t consider the two existing panels of Collapsed barn to be unfinished, but the drawing as a whole is definitely in progress. While at my recent residency at Can Serrat (El Bruc, Spain), I was working to reduce the scale of my drawings. Upon “completing” a drawing, I realized that it was only the centre a much larger work. I added a panel and kept drawing. I imagine the drawing expanding vertically and horizontally. I like the drawing’s potential for exhibition in several iterations—as individual drawings, as separate parts of a whole, and in various arrangements. It is a new way of working for me, and though it feels risky, it is also exciting.


LG:  Are there any drawers you have been looking at recently or any Canadian drawers we should check out?

KB:  Anne Macmillan is an emerging artist in Halifax, Nova Scotia whose work I’ve been following after curating her into an exhibition Somewhere along the line (MSVU Art Gallery 2009). Her practice is very process based, and the drawings that result from mathematics and chance are striking and poetic. Sophie Jodoin was also in that exhibition. She’s based in Montreal, Quebec. Her drawing ability is virtuosic, but what she chooses to do with that skill is surprising and often disquieting. Also in that exhibition were Audrey Nicoll’s large dramatic drawings. She often engages with environmental subjects, and is based in Chester Basin, Nova Scotia.

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