Navigating by Light: An Interview with Kate Lyons-Dawson

I haven’t blogged for a while because I’ve been busy the last few months preparing for an art exhibition, Navigating by Light, with my sister and fellow artist, Kate Lyons-Dawson. And now it’s on! Yes, as I type, our paintings and drawings are hanging on a wall in Fox Hole Small Bar in Sydney CBD, where they’ll be until 12 October. Exciting times!

In the lead-up to the show – and okay, hanging the show and opening the show – Kate and I were both pretty busy, plus I’m in Sydney and she’s on the South Coast. This interview is a bit of a catch-up and my attempt to pick Kate’s brain about our current show and her art practice in general.

What is it that keeps you going with art? Apart from the blind panic in the face of impending deadlines 🙂

Delving into art keeps you so interested in looking. Once I extricated the idea of art from that of perfection and the dissatisfaction this entailed, I began to enjoy the process; it’s a journey and has become integral to my approach to life.

You seem to use a lot of blue in your works. Actually we both do. Why do you think you do – what comes first, colour or subject? Both?

I think personal colour comes a lot from place and for me sky and sea fills my whole vision with a neverending blue colour chart. But my blue palette rests on an earthly range of rusty hues and seem always interwoven in my work.

What part does light play in your work?

Colour wouldn’t exist without light and I only regret that I don’t have the eyesight of a bird, as we humans, miss so much pattern and colour. But I never grow tired watching what I am able to see.

A Trace of Day, oil on canvas, 465 x 690 mm, 2015.
A Trace of Day, oil on canvas, 465 x 690 mm, 2015.

Tell me about the day you took the photo/s for your painting A Trace of Day.

It was on my semi-regular walk at day’s end, the last of June. It was a bit late, but the cloud cover made it seem even darker and as I entered the track to the beach, I could see it was an amazing moment. The sun was lighting up a band of cloud on the horizon and as it lowered, further layers were revealed. For the whole length of the beach and back, it just continued to deliver – colour and drama – it was atomic. As I was leaving I turned for one farewell moment and caught sight of ‘A Trace of Day’. In all the wonder I’d failed to notice the moon had risen.

I think you said Luminous Flux (one of my faves) came out of the same afternoon as A Trace of Day. What’s going on in this painting? It feels like a beautiful ocean sandwich.

Luminous Flux, oil on canvas, 615 x 470 mm, 2015.
Luminous Flux, oil on canvas, 615 x 470 mm, 2015.

Luminous Flux was a response to those first moments I walked onto the beach. I was trying to get as close to the action of the horizon clouds while still indicating this was a landscape. But you’re right, I think it became something else by zooming in and limiting the panorama – who knows? Possibly a sandwich. Yeah, I love it too, and I would also like to paint the moment just before the wave crashed, where the water was just a dark indigo band, creating a whole different dynamic.

The labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral, France, and Mt Keira in Wollongong (featured in Axis Mundi) are subjects you keep returning to – what draws you to them?

Ever since I read Rebecca Solnit’s excellent book about the history of walking, Wanderlust, I have been obsessed with labyrinths but especially the one paved into the floor of Chartres Cathedral. As Solnit writes, ‘A labyrinth is a symbolic journey or a map of the route to salvation, but it is a map we can really walk on, blurring the difference between map and world.’ I was intrigued at the idea of a walking meditation at a time in my life where a need for action coexisted with the search for meaning and peace.

Axis Mundi, oil on canvas, 460 x 600 mm, 2015.
Axis Mundi, oil on canvas, 460 x 600 mm, 2015.

Far from the medieval churches of Europe my personal form of walking meditation centred on the local escarpment, particularly Mt Keira, and I researched some of the local Dreaming about the West Wind and his six daughters: five of which became the Five Islands and Geera, who in her loneliness once her sisters were thrown into the sea, transformed into the mountain. Coming from our big family of five girls and two boys created a certain fellow feeling with that story. I’ve read since that a personal Dreaming depends on where your mother was when she first felt you in the womb. The ancestors who live in that place give you ‘anima’ and that concept resonated with my deep connection to my local surrounds.

I think I know the answer to this but maybe I don’t! Do you think an artwork’s ever finished?

Haha! We’ve had many discussions on this topic; always inconclusive. My feeling is that there’s a point at which you can see that you’ve achieved your objective or aim of your work. But then there’s this small band where you can push it a little further, achieving either that special moment or, going too far, you lose it forever. Maybe the elusive thing we value in art falls somewhere in that zone.

How do you know when an idea or image can be developed into an artwork?

Almost anything can be developed into an artwork. Sometimes the ideas with the merest possibility can be the most effective, but by looking hard you enter the moment. Sometimes it can come from pushing yourself to just make marks, rather than be invested in the subject, or times where a subject grown familiar is seen anew. I was lucky to be in Chartres Cathedral for the Easter light celebration and my theoretical idea of the labyrinth was forever changed when I walked its length by candlelight.

I remember last year at our gaffa gallery show there was that moment after hanging the works where we had that weird feeling of surprise, like we hadn’t fully anticipated what that would be like! And, at least for me, hadn’t completely considered how our works would sit together – though it worked out really well. Seeing our works up at the Fox Hole now, how do you feel?

Kate making some last adjustments to hanging the show at Fox Hole.
Kate making some last adjustments to hanging the show at Fox Hole.

Having not worked together or seen the other’s progress as we prepared for the show, it was a special feeling seeing our works alongside each other at gaffa. Yes, somehow part surprising, part relief; pleased to see we were in tune although coming from such different approaches.

That moment of truth at the Fox Hole made me realise that until it’s up on the wall you’ve been holding your breath. It was a lovely moment. It’s always nice to be exposed with other like-minded souls.

What are you cooking up next?

It’d be good to explore further my atomic sunset series and other walk-related images. Each time I approach a work attempting to loosen up my technique, I end up holding on to the realistic and the detail, so I’d like to push this a lot more. I’m also keen to collaborate on a work with you – it could strain the relationship a bit, but then, we can take it 😉 What do you say?

You got it, sister. I’m not sure how we’d go about it but hey, why let that stop us!

Navigating by Light runs at the Fox Hole until Monday 12 October.