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.


Art day out

At the start of the week I was lucky enough to have a day out in Sydney, seeing art with an old art school buddy I hadn’t seen for a long time. We ate, we drank, we got stoned (okay, I barely inhaled), looked at the Royal Botanic Gardens, old buildings, the underside of the harbour bridge, marvelled at Circular Quay and we saw art.

We checked out the excellent Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition Martu Art from the Far Western Desert, with beautiful, brightly coloured collaborative Aboriginal paintings from Western Australia, and the slightly underwhelming and very French retrospective show of Annette Messager’s work.

Then we moseyed on over to the Art Gallery of NSW to see the Pop to Popism show. It wasn’t on – not on till November. No, I did not read the calender correctly – bummer! So instead we meandered around some of the permanent collection, then lost time in the book shop. I ended up on my own wandering through a European prints and drawing show and then the Australian collection.

Oh my god! There was a Clarice Beckett painting outside the book shop. A new one, acquired last year: Evening, St Kilda Road.

St Kilda
Clarice Beckett (1887-1935), Evening St Kilda (c. 1930), 35.5 x 40.5 cm, oil on board

Clarice Beckett is one of my favourite Australian artists – her tonal approach and dawns/dusks really appeal to me. This one is so brief and gestural and flat, a spare impression of Melbourne in twilight. I just love it. What really does it for me are the cheery streetlights going up either side of the road, shining heartily in the smog or dusk. It also covers some of my favourite painting subjects: road, sky, romantic urban setting.

It must have been completed so quickly, and it’s only small. Clarice cared for her ageing parents and would duck out early in the morning and at dusk to paint en plein air. Which unfortunately, is eventually how she met her end – she got caught in a storm while painting the sea at Beaumaris, got pneumonia and died, aged 48.

So many paintings in the nineteenth-century galleries off the main foyer caught my eye with their skies. I’ve visited them a number of times but I like to see them again and again. You see different things every time. I’m suddenly having a love affair with W.C. Piguenit (who I don’t think I was aware of until this week), especially The Flood in the Darling 1890.

W.C. Piguenit (1836-1914), The Flood in the Darling 1890 (1895), 122 x 199 cm, oil on canvas

It is stunning, absolutely entrancing (also, the joint might’ve been kicking in).That is how to do overcast afternoons – warm purpley clouds and cool grey skies. The clouds are somehow comforting – sure, they’re rough, ragged-edged pillowy ones but the water reflecting them back up is calm and smooth. Kosciusko (1903) also took my fancy with its deep blue mountain shadows and misty ethereal cloudage.

I spent a good amount of time in front of Sydney Long’s Decoration – apparently also known as Sadder Than a Single Star That Sets at Twilight in a Land of Reeds, which is a bloody mouthful and I can see why it didn’t make it onto the gallery label, but I much prefer it.

Sidney Long, Sadder Than a Single Star...(1899), 93 x 39 cm, oil on canvas.
Sydney Long, Sadder Than a Single Star…(1899), 93 x 39 cm, oil on canvas.

This painting’s gorgeous and haunting – it looks like a quintessential art nouveau bookmark. You can’t see the woman’s face, just the moon like a halo behind her head, the shadows dark on her face and the sketchy marks of black in the lower half are a great contrast to the creamy peach skin of her decolletage and arms. The edge of the left arm seems to continue in a wavy line down her side almost to the hem of her dress.

I love how rough and expressive the background is, and also the exploratory squiggle marks over the dress, the nice rust patina, the blues within the olive of the fabric and the thin blue loosely tied ribbon. That ain’t no plain green dress; there’s a lot of colour and action going on there. I like the ‘unfinished’ look at the edges of the painting too, and the gaps of light where the background meets the subtle curves of her arms. Syd didn’t even really do the hands; when you look at them directly they’re just 2D suggestions. Crafty beggar.

I left this painting wondering ‘What is going on in this picture?’*

Other highlights were George W. Lambert’s radiant portrait of fellow artist Miss Thea Proctor (1903), resplendent in her blue gown and fetching hat.

George W. Lambert, Miss Thea Proctor (1903), 90 x 70 cm, oil on canvas.
George W. Lambert, Miss Thea Proctor (1903), 90 x 70 cm, oil on canvas.

They were so having an affair. Okay they probably weren’t, and George was seemingly happily married, but his relationship with Thea was ‘enigmatic’, she was ‘doggedly devoted’ to him, and they spent lots of time on the art scene together. Also, let me present Exhibit A (a charcoal portrait George did of Thea):


I don’t think you labour over a drawing like this, capturing your art pal’s exquisite likeness, without some underlying feelings, do you? Go George.

I enjoyed some of the works in the European prints and drawing exhibition as well; I wasn’t really in the mood for prints for some reason but I did find some old favourites of mine I had looked at many times but never seen in the flesh. Seeing Peter Behren’s The Kiss was a lovely surprise. Years ago I loved this image so much I did a copy of it in coloured pencil.

Peter Behrens, The Kiss (1898), 27 x 21 cm, coloured woodcut.
Peter Behrens, The Kiss (1898), 27 x 21 cm, coloured woodcut.

And I spent ages looking at Edgar Degas’ drawing After the Bath – it’s so raw and lively, and the linework is quite rough at times yet it works, gives it movement and keeps it alive.

Edgar Degas, After the Bath (c. 1900), 74 x 60 cm, charcoal on tracing paper mounted on board.

Reminds me yet again that a drawing doesn’t have to be polished, perfect; it can be completely free, rough and gestural, yet still be finished and beautiful.

I emerged from the gallery after 4 pm, the day just about done. I was chock-full of ideas for holing up somewhere in the city or inner west sometime soon to do sketches on the go of places around me, trying to capture that freshness you can’t get from a photo. Time to get back to experimenting with cloud paintings too; there’s that lightness and depth – that cloudness – I haven’t nailed yet.

And I’ll be back to the galleries soon no doubt, to revisit my favourites . . . and finally see the pop art show.

*Just read something about Sydney Long being briefly engaged to Thea Proctor in 1898. Hello! A year before he completed this painting? Wonder if that’s what it’s about…