Katharine Martin-Burgers recently settled into a studio at NEA, establishing a longed for space in which to work on creative projects. Katharine has a degree in Fine Arts and works in textiles, sculpture and silver smithing, typically finding interesting ways in which to combine these.
After finishing art school Katharine worked for five years making fly screens in a window factory, a physically complex and repetitive task which led to significant and ongoing pain issues. Juggling subsequent family responsibilities and pain management meant largely putting her creative life on hold for two decades.
With her children now having completed secondary school, Katharine has been able to set up a studio at NEA, where her partner Frank Burgers also has a studio. Katharine is currently undertaking a course which will enable her to apply modern 3D printing and laser technology to jewellery making techniques when completing her creative projects.
Katharine describes herself as a creative person, rather than an artist or artisan.
Where is home, Katharine?
We currently live in Wangaratta, but it doesn’t feel like home, it feels like somewhere we park ourselves. Home to me is Ringwood, where I grew up, and Bright, where we brought up our children. We had a lovely time as a family unit living in Bright.
Where would you most want to live and create?
Somewhere near Lilydale or Yarra Glen-- I love the view of the hills there. I love and miss the Dandenongs, which I could always see when I was growing up.
It would have to be chocolate. There’s lots of comfort food in my refrigerator! I love vegetables, even cauliflower’
When I was very small, Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci; Annameika Mein when I was learning textiles at High School. Towards the end of my schooling I began looking at modern sculpture, but sculpture wasn’t where I was thinking of going then, I thought it would be textiles.
Current reads/films/exhibitions attended?
‘I recently went to the National Gallery of Victoria to see the costume exhibition there – it was a collection of costumes from the 1850’s to now, displayed on the second level with art work from the period –each costume is exhibited with the art work of the same period. I’ve always tried to see exhibitions of couture or fashion design when they are in the gallery.’
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m trying to get components made for my silver smithing project for my class in Jewellery, objects and computer design. I’m making design objects from metal spoons and learning to use a 3D printer to map my design. I’m trying to get as many designs ready for 3D printing as I can while I have access to the machine.
What was the first work you exhibited publically or sold as an artist?
The first work I exhibited publically was in the Royal Melbourne Show. I exhibited a baby’s smocked frock in Year 9 and received first prize for it! In Year 11 my entry to the Show was influenced by an Annameika Mein exhibition I’d attended at the time - my textiles teacher dragged me away from the art teacher for me to attend. My entry received three prizes – two in the students’ section (the Student 1st Prize; the Teachers Home Economics Award) and a Special Prize won in the open section sponsored by Semco – this had never happened before.
The first work I sold was a sculpture, a massive 7 ft tall welded steel plate piece. I was 20 at the time and had just finished my degree in fine art, majoring in sculpture. I had cut it with an oxyacetaline torch, ground and arc welded it. It definitely took me out of my comfort zone. The student union bought it – it’s still there at Mt Helen, outside the Dean’s office area. Frank and I have been wondering if we should arrange a plaque for it, as it doesn’t identify me as the artist.
How has your background influenced your creativity ?
Massively! Mum was a dressmaker, her grandmother was a dressmaker/tailor. When mum looked back later in her life she realized how much she had learned from her grandmother. When I showed interest in textiles she tried to get me to think artistically about design and the fabric. She didn’t want me to become a dressmaker, but encouraged me to work with fabric creatively!
My father was a floor layer – often laying tiles. When I was old enough, perhaps to give herself respite, mum would send some of us (there were six children) to work with him. Sometimes there would be all sorts of tradies, materials and machines at the site. I watched, taking it all in. I’d help, or watch the tradies from a distance, soldering, machining. There was often a lot of fine metal left to play with, to manipulate. This play came back to me when I was doing sculpture, I thought ‘Hang on, I know what I’m doing, I’ve done this before”. A lecturer was a bit bewildered when I went to art school and was trying to mix fibre work with sculpture. I showed him what I was doing and asked him to think of it as ‘texture’. Fibre has a wonderful tactile quality to it and looks great.
Basically mum and dad gave me hand skills I didn’t realise I was developing; the art and design just came naturally eventually.
Also, when I was in year 12 I had to do work experience and wanted to complete it in a creative setting. The school mentioned the Meat Market who had to say no, but suggested I try the Melbourne Tapestry Workshop. I had no idea what this meant but they agreed to my being placed there. When I walked into the tapestry workshop it was heaven. The ceiling was three stories high and there were three people sitting on stools translating paintings into tapestry. They taught me how to make small tapestries. Watching the women, seeing the colour ranges and tones they had available to them, was for me like being in a candy shop! It was a magical time! Being able to be immersed in this creative setting and to be inspired by the work there was truly wonderful. It opened my mind to alternative options and later led to my seeking out the Melbourne College of Textiles.
What’s the best part of being an artist?
When I think of an artist, I think of someone who exhibits and sells. To me I’m a creative person. I don’t like the word craft; I think that this is used too much for something which is an art work. I’m a creative person and make things I want to make, it’s up to the person who views it to decide whether it’s art or not. Some people get that silversmithing can be sculptural pieces which are small or wearable art. I’ve done pieces which are seen as wearable art…The best part of being an artist is the joy of making and developing ideas and seeing a piece through the stages from start to finish and thinking ‘Whoa, I made that’
Katharine, you mentioned preferring to describe yourself as a creative person, rather than an artist. What is the best part of being a creative person?
One of the best parts of being a creative person, to me, is that it’s an escape. Have you ever had the feeling that time has just flown, that you’ve been totally absorbed in what you are doing? You get to the point in the day where you think, oh, I haven’t eaten, oh I’m dying to go to the toilet…
What’s the worst part of being a creative person?
It’s always the same the issue – it’s trying to survive financially. Any paid work you try to get is below the rate at which you can survive. I did a teaching qualification, but didn’t pursue it. I I felt I was just being a baby sitter, that the majority of the class had little interest in what I was trying to teach them. Although it wasn’t what I wanted to do, ended up working in a factory, they took me on because I had a first aid certificate and I became the OHS officer. I was there for four and a half years. I found I could trouble shoot problems using my design skills and sculptural reasoning. Working in sculpture was very heavy and taxing on the body, I had been standing all day from 9 am to 9 pm, so after that, working in a factory was a piece of cake. In the first weeks the men had been betting on when I was going to leave, they didn’t know anything about me … ‘what, we’ve got a female working here?’ They didn’t understand that I was highly skilled in hand tools, machinery and production processes’.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about your work?
I remember in my first week in Ballarat a design lecturer said to me ‘You’re mad Katharine’. I was only 18 - one of the older students explained it was a compliment, it was the lecturer’s way of saying, “this is extraordinary”. We had to design a mock up of a sculpture to go into a foyer like space – I made a textile piece, I wrapped foam around wire, and then from that twisted and bent it into a shape to fit and flow into the area , it would invade the space and yet people could walk through it… he said I was thinking like a designer who does public spaces.
What is the most significant moment in your artistic/creative career so far?
Well, when I eventually found a textile design course at the Melbourne College of Textiles, one day I had to submit work I had done. Within half an hour of submitting the work, my lecturers (two) raced into the room wanting to purchase one of the pieces I had submitted. Basically this piece involved a round robin shared loom; on one loom I had created a double weave pocket weave; I didn’t have to thread it. I wove it and mounted it on clear Perspex with black mount card with the idea of framing it when I got it home; but it never got home. I thought $200 was enough for two and half hours work; they bought it that day, I got an invoice for the piece. When I asked what was happening with it – they said it was going overseas. It appears the Dean of the Textile University in New Delhi was visiting the College of Textiles. They wanted to give it to him as a gift and would be handing it to him that night. Concerned that I didn’t have a picture of it; I grabbed it, went to the car, drove to Office Works and begged them to scan it so that I had an image of it.
It was becoming a trend that people from courses I was in were recognising the quality of my work and buying it. I didn’t want to exhibit-- I like going to exhibitions; but for some reason my work doesn’t sit in the normality of an exhibition. It takes so long to make; there aren’t many exhibitions for my work, even jewellery exhibitions are very unusual. However, I have exhibited in group shows and exhibited with Frank in Chiltern.
What do you find most challenging about your creative work?
The physicality of it – because of my pain issues, it’s trying to make something in a particular time frame. I get asked to submit things, but it’s usually difficult to complete them within the time frame I’ve been allocated. By the time I come up with an idea, I’ve sometimes only got two months and my physical constraints make it difficult to achieve. I do tend to overcomplicate my design work.
When you’re struggling with a work, where do you look for inspiration?
If I’m stuck it’s usually about technical things, so I start researching different techniques to see something would fit what I’m trying to do. But generally, I have works in my head which are waiting in a queue and they’ve all been worked out in order of steps and procedures relating to construction – there’s a process to what I do, stepwise, through to completion…it’s like getting ingredients together at the right time; putting it together – sculpture, textiles, silversmithing wise, involves steps – so when designing something you have to know the steps to physically making that piece.
Generally the problem will keep bugging me until I discover how to physically make this thing. I then put it into my memory bank where it stays, waiting. Problems can exist, such as I don’t have a fork lift driver’s licence, or a big foundry, but hopefully one day with some pieces I can demonstrate what they would look like and get someone else to make them for me. I’d like to be able to perhaps do what Inga King did – make a marquette and someone else can make that marquette into a full, living size sculpture. Sculptor Anthony Prior died young leaving many marquettes which are still being made into sculptures.
Who do you picture as the ideal viewer/audience of your work?
I think someone who doesn’t have perceived notion of what art should be; what sculpture, what silver smithing, what textiles should be. Someone who is willing to take on the beauty of the object, to see how well it has been put together. To be open to view something, to say ‘Wow, that’s fantastic’.
Whether creativity in different areas can be taught is often debated – what’s your view?
Creativity can be taught, but it really depends on the person as to whether they want to learn. I’m sure creativity brushes across them, I think everyone gets touched by creativity, but the thing is, you can’t really teach someone to be a great artist…. that comes from someone working very hard towards reaching success in their own work…. A person may have the ability to conceive ideas, but it is up to the person to develop the tools… It is hard to know however, how many great artists we’ve lost along the way because they didn’t get recognised and supported in their life time.
Where and when do you prefer to work on your art?
Any time I’ve got available. I’ve catalogued works in my head I want to complete. It’s been like, I’ve this creative work I want to do, but I’ve got a newborn baby in my arms, so it will have to wait… Learning new techniques also takes time away from completing works I’ve got catalogued in my head…
What do you listen to when you work?
I have a lot of favourite classical music, I like Eric Satie… Puccini is my favourite opera/composer; I also like modern classical composers like Arvo Part and Phillip Glass and really like this new composer, Max Richter… it’s long, undulating soaring sounds I like to hear when I’m working, they can flow into an hour…
Do you buy your art supplies online, in an art store, or both?
Never online, the thing is, I love rummaging around in stores, seeing what is available. Physically having the tool in my hands is more satisfying than looking at a picture on line. I can’t buy second hand metal on line, I have to go to a junk yard, a builders’ seconds supplier, that’s where I get some of my scraps. Recently I went to Mansfield and found some old nickel silver soup spoons which I’m now developing parts of a carousel like necklace stand for this course I’m doing titled ‘Introduction to Jewellery and Object Design’.
When not making jewellery or sculpting, what do you like to do?
I like listening to music, watching good TV programs or movies, spending time with my husband and children, and I love going to galleries and seeing good exhibitions. Candace and Sophia were both newborns when they went to their first exhibitions – the children have only just realised that not all other children or friends went through this. They now feel privileged.
If you could go out to dinner with any artist, who would it be and why?
I think it would have to be Michelangelo! When I saw his Pieta for the first time I was about 10 and it forced me to go into the library to look him up. We had really good art books in the primary school, the fact the photograph showed the veins Michelangelo was able to sculpt in the hands the feet the small hairs, it made me realise how amazing these artists were at times when things were so difficult. They didn’t have machines to do things for them; they spent years getting the stone soft and smooth; the sharpening of their tools, their amazing patience and skills, it still fathoms me today’
What is the art work that’s had the most significant impact on your life and work as an artist– and why?
The Pieta opened my eyes up to what is possible with any material; if you can do that with stone you can do that with anything; with metal and silver you can cut away with heat, you can use a saw. You can add back to it if you need to – a little more forgiving than stone or wood. Metal is a lot friendlier to use in some ways. You can rethread in textiles.
At the beginning of the interview you said you are currently making metal spoons into design objects and to use a 3D printer to map your designs. What do you hope to work on in future?
I’d like to realise some big sculptures I’ve always wanted to do, but my finances and body can’t deal with it. Although I can send things away to cast, I’d like to be able to make big sculptures again and put my stamp on them, incorporating my ideas, putting textiles into them. I want to have a textile element but not be textile in the sense of a material; a sculptural piece that can brave the elements with elements of textiles in it, that’s something I’d like to achieve. Imagine a yarn bombed piece made of steel which could echo there for decades instead of deteriorating or fading over time.
Katharine was interviewed at North East Artisans Benalla on Saturday 27 April 2019 by Beverley Lee.
Benalla Art Gallery
Shepparton Art Museum
Wangaratta Art Gallery
Benalla Camera Club
Broken River Potters
Broken River Painters
Broken River Writers
Wots4Me Benalla Youth
Art Gallery on Ovens
Bush Gatherings -Violet Town
GANEAA (Goulburn and North East Arts Alliance)