Catherine Harper, Land, cloth, body and culture

I blogged recently about Georgia O’Keeffe as an inspirational women artist (for International Women’s Day in March) but in the last week I have attended talks by two equally inspirational women.    It has taken me a few days to collect my thoughts as I was so impressed with their lectures – I have divided up the post into two (see Mandy Webb post here)….

Catherine Harper

Catherine is the Dean of the Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries; Professor of Textiles at the University of Portsmouth and last week gave her inaugural lecture at the University – Land, cloth, body and culture.
Her synopsis of her art practice over the last twenty five years was shocking, fascinating, amusing and deeply moving.   I have huge admiration for anyone who can put so much of themselves into their work – the art is always richer for it.   Her work covers the ‘places inbetween’ in Irish and Northern Irish gender and identity, in intersex and anatomical drag and in  fabrics of death and desire.    Huge subjects, but tackled in such a way to make the audience think twice about a subject they may not have much knowledge about or may have felt they understood already.

Woman Mouth Stapled Shut (detail) 1988-90

I learnt some shocking things and understood a little better the deep collective agonies of being female in Ireland.    Some of her art is glorious and subversive, some uses humour and stereotypes to convey the message about gender issues.   Queenie; the knitting and ironing drag queen for instance.

Catherine Harper, Queenie O Queenie performances, Orchard Gallery and Derry City, 2001
The poignancy of Queenie washing the walls of Derry makes a huge impact – I find it incredibly sombre.
The Big Red (detail) 1994

Such beauty and sadness combined.   I am envious of the scale of some pieces – I do not feel I yet have the confidence to attempt something that makes such an overwhelming statement.
The Big Red (Dublin) 1994

Listening to Catherine, I understood a great deal about what makes good art good.  The passion, research, subversion and combining difficult subjects with beautiful objects makes for powerful pieces.   Before I tentatively entered the art world a year or so ago, I had no idea the work that went into a piece, the research, the practice, the background.  I know that many members of the public will look at art and wonder why it is art (I had that discussion with a cleaner at the art college only last week!) but when you are privy to the backstory, the artwork comes alive.
I realise that I have to concentrate my own practice on my personal experiences – just to attempt to express how I feel about being a human – goodness knows I have a rich vein of life experience to call upon!   If I am doing a piece and it is not about a strongly held belief / feeling / experience, then I should question why I am doing it.
I shied away from doing some darker pieces for my MA Fine Art this year because of the potential impact on my audience and whilst I still feel it was the right decision, I know that these pieces must emerge at some point in the future.
At the end of the lecture (which flew by!  I could have listened to much more) I turned to my fellow female MA Fine Art student and we both just said “Wow”.  And nearly two weeks on, I still think  “Wow”.
Find out more about Catherine Harper here and download her lecture notes (PDF) from Academia now.
All images ©Catherine Harper and shown with kind permission of the artist.