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.


The triffids are coming!!!


‘When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.’

I recently read John Wyndham’s 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids for the third time. What happened was I casually picked up the book, opened it to the first page and read that first line.

Big mistake. Huge.

It was the end of October and I’d been thinking I would do National Novel Writing Month again this year (my second time) and how I want to write speculative fiction. So I’d started brainstorming and making a little reading list. Then I picked up TDotT and that was it for me. (I’d therefore like to personally blame John Wyndham for my lack of effort in NaNoWriMo this year.)

I don’t reread many books – seriously, who has the time? Plus working in publishing tends to make reading for pleasure a slightly less pleasurable experience (‘I found a typo!’ ‘Why the hell did they pick this font?’ ‘Hmm, I think the author used that adjective 100 pages ago’, etc.) But there are some books that once in a blue moon when I pick them up, I have to reread.

Exhibit A: why this book can be difficult to adapt to the screen.

The Day of the Triffids is Wyndham’s ‘famous story of a world dominated by monstrous, stinging plants’. Okay, it doesn’t sound that scary (last time I read this book, I backed it up with The Road and yes, this book is nowhere near scary. Thanks for the nightmares, Cormac McCarthy). And the triffids would have remained a safe though ungainly feature of London gardens and parks, had some pretty lights not appeared in the sky one night and triggered a sequence of events that brings civilisation to its knees.

What is it about TDotT that I love? As mentioned above, right from the beginning it’s terrific. You can see how the opening’s influenced modern-day sci-fi/speculative fiction – 28 Days Later and Walking Dead are two examples that spring instantly to mind, where the main character wakes up in hospital and ‘while they were sleeping’ shit had got real. The waking up, not knowing where people are, the disorientation and realisation that everything has changed. For the worse. Oh my god for the worse.

Fun Christmas present for the Lego fan you love!
Fun Christmas present for the Lego fan you love. Run for your life, cowboy!

Bill Masen’s situation is intensified by the fact he’s recovering from an eye operation after a triffid-related incident. (This will become relevant later.) Sadly he therefore missed out on the spectacular comets that lit up the sky the previous night and everyone wouldn’t shut up about. Poor Bill.

He waits impatiently for someone to come and remove his bandages and reveal whether or not he can see but . . . nobody comes. (Go Wyndham, tapping into that deep-seated fear – what if the world ended and you were one of the survivors but with a disability that hugely increased the odds against you?)

Bill eventually carefully removes the bandages and ventures out to find desperate scenes – everyone seems to have gone blind overnight. A number have already given up hope, taking to the bottle or stepping out a high window (if they can actually find one).

Sometimes it is all about the triffids.
Sometimes it is all about the triffids.

It’s not all about the triffids. In fact, like a lot of speculative fiction, this book isn’t so much about the threat – the triffids, in this case – but about how people deal with the tragedy. And there are other threats here too: despair, hunger and that old favourite, man’s inhumanity to man.

This book is not fast-paced, wall-to-wall action, but is incredibly tense in other ways. And I love the quieter moments where the characters have a chance to reflect on the big picture of what’s happened and what it means. The moment where they have to face their dystopian future head on:

‘Quite consciously I began saying goodbye to it all. The sun was low. Towers, spires, facades of Portland stone were white or pink against the dimming sky. More fires had broken out here and there . . . Quite likely, I told myself, I would never in my life see any of these familiar buildings after tomorrow.’

This novel is a perfect example of the genre known as ‘cosy catastrophe’, which I didn’t know was a thing. Bill and his new friend Josella spend a fair amount of time in an enviable position – firstly, they are two of the few people who can see, and secondly, they can see where luxury pads and gourmet small goods are. It ain’t all bad. Their last night in London is spent holed up in a sweet suite, dressed to the nines (well, Josella is – women, eh) and pigging out. Oh okay, it’s not all a walk in the triffid-filled park:

‘Night magnified the quiet of the city, making the sounds which broke it the more desolate. From time to time voices rose from the street, edgy and brittle with hysteria. Once there came a freezing scream which seemed to revel horribly in its release from sanity. Somewhere not far away a sobbing went on endlessly, hopelessly.’

Triffid bench in London. Would you sit on it? Oh hell no.
Triffid bench in London. Would you sit on it? Oh hell no.

Way to spoil the mood. Other passion killers for Bill and Josella include the time they’re starting over with a bunch of survivors and cluey Josella susses out how exactly they’re going to have to repopulate the earth. (Hint: Bill’s going to be a busy man.)

Bill Masen’s a competent protagonist – he’s a man of the times, a bit of an everyman who, luckily, has a lot of experience working with triffids and just doesn’t trust the damn plants. He’s not really an action man, but that’s alright; he gets things done. He also happens to have anti-triffid guns. He’s a guy you want to stick with when things go south in a triffid-related manner.

Josella is a woman of the 1950s but although a bit annoying at times she’s a pretty good heroine. She’s quick thinking, a tad feisty and she knows how to look good in ski pants. Bill indulges in a bit of quaint misogyny by describing her (she ‘prattles on’ etc), but it’ll be a few decades until Lt Ellen Ripley et al hit the sci-fi scene, so let’s take what we can get.

I happened to pick up half a dozen or so second-hand Wyndhams in the past year or so; looks like it’s time to get busy!Image1599


Aside from The Day of the Triffids, off the top of my head a few others I reread are: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I’m curious to know what books other people return to time and again.