Catherine O’Donnell‘s drawings seem to be suspended in time. Her impeccably constructed perspectives drawn in charcoal allude to a bygone era, while her subjects, petrol stations and suburban back lanes, undeniably speak of today. Carefully composed, Catherine’s drawings make the ordinary shine, relying on light and shade, repetition and variations to create a backdrop to the way we inhabit and compose our own lives. An open door, laundry, garbage bins, graffiti. Through the representation of buildings, it is in fact life which, in all of its ordinary glory, is at the centre of these exquisite scenes.
ALOUD: Catherine, could you tell us about yourself and your journey as an artist?
CATHERINE O’DONNELL: As a child, I was always interested in Arts but for various reasons, I decided to go into Science. I worked as a lab technician for years. I met my husband and we had 4 children. While raising a family, I did some art courses mostly to satisfy my creative urges but when our last child went to school, I decided that I would study Fine Arts formally. I didn’t necessarily think that I would become an artist but I felt the need to do something for myself. I did very well with the course and it took on a life of its own. My drawings were seen by people in the industry and suddenly I was invited into exhibitions. I suppose I was lucky. I never thought that I would reach this level when I started out. It was really just to do something for myself.
ALOUD: You mentioned you are also teaching Fine Arts at Tafe, could you tell us a little bit more about that side of your career?
CATHERINE: I hadn’t thought I would have a professional art career. I always assumed that I would just be a mother and work in a laboratory but after these things happened to me, I had choices. I did the required course to become a teacher but you have to be part of the industry first. Primarily, you are considered an artist and you are teaching people the skills they will need to work within the industry.
ALOUD: Did you ever go back to Science?
CATHERINE: No. After a while, I just wanted to concentrate on what I was studying so I took long-service leave and never looked back. I gave up the security of a permanent job and made the risky decision to step into the Art World. I felt that I had to give it all or nothing.
ALOUD: What difference did it make to be a little bit older and have more life experience than other artists taking that step at the same time as you?
CATHERINE: I think that as an older person, and especially because my work is grounded in traditional methods, I felt a little bit like a square peg in a round hole. I felt that, in this contemporary world, drawing wasn’t the “in” thing to do but I brought other things. Life experience, I realize now, is invaluable to an artist.
ALOUD: Could you describe your work?
CATHERINE: I am a drawer and my work is based around the urban landscape. I like to go to working class areas and study the architecture with the view that it speaks about the history and culture of the place. I seek out places people tend not to think about. When I went to Venice to work on the “Venetian Visions” series, exhibited at the Albury Art Gallery, I looked for the ordinary residential areas and purposely left out the touristic parts of the city. I enjoy those as a tourist but in my work, I like to look at the everyday and make people revisit those places through my drawings. I change things, do whatever the drawing will need so that people can see them with fresh eyes and bring their own story into that work.
ALOUD: As a trained Architect, your drawings appeal to me because they are beautifully old-fashioned architectural drawings. It took me a while to realize that although they are full of detail, they never show any people. Could you explain that decision?
CATHERINE: I never put any people into my work but I always allude to their presence. I will have an open door, a curtain, laundry hanging from the windows, graffiti, garbage bins. I don’t want the drawings to only be about buildings. The buildings have stories and those stories involve people, although indirectly. By leaving people out, I am letting the viewer put himself into the situation, letting the imagination fill in the gaps. I am very representational and I work from photographs but I make artistic decisions based on what I am trying to get out of my artwork.
ALOUD: How do you position yourself as an artist using traditional methods in the Contemporary Art scene?
CATHERINE: As an artist, there is always a little hole for you to fit into. I feel like I do something a little bit old-fashioned with a contemporary edge. My influences are very mixed, from the Renaissance to artists like Jeffrey Smart and Edward Hopper. The “Venetian Vision” series isn’t completely representative of my practice which focuses more on suburban areas and the layering of other cultures on the Australian urban landscapes. I think the Australian suburb is quite unique in some ways.
ALOUD: Is working for yourself an important aspect of what you do?
CATHERINE: I like the freedom of working for myself but being an artist can be very isolating too. I like to balance that out by working at Tafe. I am working alongside all kinds of creative people and to have that conversation around Art on a regular basis is very valuable.
ALOUD: What do you think of this quote “Choose a job you love and you will never work another day in your life.”?
CATHERINE: Sometimes I agonize over work, time constraints and things like that. It is a difficult balance and you have to be very dedicated. Ultimately though, I feel really privileged that I have the opportunity to do what I enjoy doing.
ALOUD: What type of support and infrastructure is there for Artists in Australia?
CATHERINE: NAVA (National Association for the Visual Arts) and the Australia Council for the Arts are government bodies that look after artists and offer advice and information on grants, residencies. There are monthly publications which list the competitions with prize money attached. There are things out there but as an artist, you have to be active in what you do. People aren’t going to come and find you.
ALOUD: Of your current situation, what would you change?
CATHERINE: I just hope that I continue to grow and move forward as an artist. That’s what I hope for myself and I am happy to go along, wherever that takes me. I think continuing education is important, whether it be formal or informal. The Art practice is not just about what is on the page, there is the other side of it which is what goes on in your head, the process you go through before putting it down on paper. Mostly people just see what is on the wall but the process can be involved and evolve over a long time.
ALOUD: You took the daring step of reinventing your life, are the risks worth the rewards?
CATHERINE: Slipping outside of your life and reinventing yourself is not always a bad thing. Moving away from being my children’s mother and building my own identity in the Art field was a big risk but it was an important step in my life. It was worth it to me to become my own person.
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