There's something intriguing about Kate MccGwire's work that pulls you in and invites contemplation. Many feel like a Borges story given physical form yet they are open to broad interpretation perhaps due to their dual nature. At once, her pieces can be relaxing yet tense. The flow of a piece with beautiful curves also resembles a knot. Another fluid shape is beautiful yet restrained in some way. Yet another looks to be a creature yet there's only a hint of its form. They are static yet full of motion. Some of her works look like liquid in zero gravity, suspended and encased in a jar or cabinet and completely individual like an embodiment of the mortal coil in all its melancholy isolation.
Another outstanding quality to her work is its ability to engage a wide range of people across ages and cultures. The mystery is subtle but compelling and pulls the viewer into the curves and folds for further investigation but no one answer is to be found.
I contacted Kate MccGwire and we arranged a telephone interview. When I phoned, she had just come from the back of a mishap in the set up of a new installation where one of the cabinets cracked. Inwardly, I sighed thinking this would put her in a negative mood but I was soon proved wrong. We managed to cover a lot of ground during the interview and she was good natured and enthusiastic throughout. In fact, one of my regrets is that in text you are unable to hear the smiles that punctuated key points in the interview.
SXF: Is it fair to say you've had a symbiotic life with the river?
KM: Yes, absolutely.
SXF: How has it influenced your work? I think your father was a boat builder?
KM: Yes. I was born on a boat yard in Norfolk. He was sort of an accountant I suppose in London in the textile industry and he moved to Norfolk when he had me, the youngest of four children, to sort of change his lifestyle and embrace what he really wanted to do. He got a job with a boat company so we had a house within the boat yard and we grew up paddling and making things and being by the water the entire time. It was an absolutely idyllic childhood.
"They’re never very specific. I never really want it to look just like one thing."
SXF: And your studio is actually on the water now?
KM: Yes. I got a 20 meter Dutch barge that’s 105 years old. I bought it in 2005 after I finished at the Royal College. I fitted it out and it has a beautiful studio which is about 8 meters long and 4 meters wide and has beautiful natural sunlight all day long. We’re on the south side of a strange little island with no road access on the Thames. So it’s quiet; really, really quiet. There’s no roads nearby and I’m only a half hour from London so I found a pretty perfect little slot really. There are various people on the island here that make things. It’s full of small units. The buildings are also wartime and rather decrepit so it’s one man bands really making light engineering work and joinery and there’s a prosthetic hand maker, boat builders... all sorts of weird things. So whatever you want or need; if I need a piece of steel welded, I can get that done. If I need to get a cabinet made, I can get that done here. So it’s a rather beautiful place really.
SXF: Sounds idyllic. What role would you say colour has in your works? Would you ever consider changing the natural colour of the feathers
KM: No. Absolutely not. I’m celebrating the beauty of the natural thing that people overlook. You see a mallard duck on the river and it looks fairly innocuous and rather dull but when it flies you see this flash of blue and it has I think 6 speculum feathers, blue speculum feathers, but you only see them when they fly. So I’m bringing to the fore things I find miraculous in nature. Those feathers in particular if you turn them over there’s no colour on the opposite side but you turn it back and it’s absolutely iridescent and I don’t understand how that can happen. We couldn’t make it ourselves in such a thin material and in nature, it is there and it is miraculous. And I love the fact that you can get a mallard in the UK and you get a mallard in China and they’ll be almost identical.
SXF: Aside from colour, what other qualities do you recognise in the feathers you work with and how are they important?
KM: Well, I think in engineering they are miraculous in the same way the colour is incredible, in that the bird can actually fly with something that is so lightweight, but so beautifully engineered that they can ruffle their feathers then preen them and reconnect the barbs that reattach each filament together.
SXF: My son will do that picking up a feather brushing them one way then the other to make them like new.
KM: Yes. I was taught actually by a taxidermist how to clean the feathers and you can pick up a pretty dire looking feather and clean it with a series of… sort of like a soapy water initially to get the dirt off it. Then it will look like a bedraggled rat and then you put it in a series of different sands It’s called chinchilla and it’s like a very, very fine sand and you agitate it in the sand and then flick the feather and eventually it all comes back to new. It probably takes five minutes to do each feather so for me it’s not a practical solution within large scale pieces.
"...I’m bringing to the fore things I find miraculous in nature."SXF: Sounds miraculous.
KM: It is miraculous! Honestly, it will look like something you wouldn't even touch and then you can make it perfect again. I sometimes do that for white pigeon feathers because I haven’t got enough and I get delivered quite a few that are a little bit manky and I can clean them and make them perfect.
SXF: They’re like little gems.
SXF: Some of your works feel like creatures themselves or multiple entities in embrace; is this your intention or do you feel your works are more abstract? They feel like a Moebius strip, you look and think that has two sides but there's actually only one but at the same time that truth doesn't quite settle.
KM: They’re never very specific. I never really want it to look just like one thing. It might resemble a snake or squirming creature but they’ll also resemble the human body and creases and crevices within the human body. I do a lot of life drawing and I’m looking at the armpit creases, the joints between the buttocks and knees. I’m referring to them but I’m trying to be ambiguous with them as well.
SXF: Some of your work feels like a fusion between element and animal, water and bird. Do you feel there is an elemental quality to your work?
KM: Yes, absolutely.
"...now I tend to follow my intuition and I think that is paying off..."
SXF: Is there an element of your work that you feel is missed or misinterpreted?
KM: I think if it’s just described as being “snake like”, they’ve missed the point. When I say that I refer to the body a lot, I believe that you will look at the work and see reflected yourself slightly?
SXF: There’s something recognisable.
KM: That is disquieting because you’re seeing it in a very different way. Also, that the cabinets are so close to the work, to me that’s a sort of suffocation or an entrapment that also I find disquieting.
SXF: From your early work Brood which made use chicken wishbones, your works have had a double edge being both beautiful and yet tinged with a darker side though getting increasingly subtle; is this deliberate?
KM: Yes. I mean certainly with the wishbones as I was collecting those 27,000 wishbones I needed, I was shocked when I found out the birds were hatched and dispatched in only 36 days. So you would think that a chicken might have a lifespan of 6 months or something but it’s just over a month. They were all extremely uniform. So the battery farm chickens are what I used for that and that feeds into the message of the work as well. At the same time I was collecting organic bones not really realising initially that they’d be much different but the organic bones are much stronger, they’re longer, they’re all different colours, they have different shapes and sizes whereas the battery farmed ones are stumpy and white and callowed.
"I also like that you don’t have to know about art to be interested in the work I make."SXF: Have there been any reactions to your work that surprised or delighted you or linger in your memory?
KM: I really like it when children have a look at it because they are completely devoid of any coolness. They don’t know anything about art or history or anything and so they have a completely visceral reaction to the work. You see them going round and round the cabinet thinking “I understand this piece but there’s no head, I don’t get it. What’s happening?” So that has been fantastic. I had a piece at Plymouth museum and I saw this group of kids and they just walked around and around the work. And they were looking at each other going “hang on a minute, this doesn’t make sense.” I like that. I also like that you don’t have to know about art to be interested in the work I make.
SXF: Yes, I think that’s part of the brilliance of it; it’s very inclusive.
KM: Yes. I was doing a residency in America and we had various visitors and at the end of the day I was absolutely shattered after having to describe and explain my work and present to people all day long. And then this guy arrived in my studio and I said, “Do you know what? I’m really, really tired. I’d like to know what you think.” He sat down and he was the most eloquent person I could have asked. He just brainstormed about what he saw in the work and it was just amazing. He saw in the work meanings and metaphors and relationships I had never thought about because he was so erudite. So that was incredible and we’ve been in correspondence ever since because he spoke so beautifully about it.
SXF: That’s exciting that you instigated those ideas.
KM: Yes. Yes.
SXF: What was the last important revelation you've had?
KM: Well, I suppose… I’m thinking about scale. I’ve been getting bigger and bigger with the work. I don’t know.
SXF: How would you describe the differences between your early work and your more recent creations?
KM: I think I’m probably trusting in my instinct more and I would absolutely agonise about work in the past whereas now I tend to follow my intuition and I think that is paying off, that I have confidence in what I produce. The weird bit about it is that I don’t necessarily have a very fixed idea of what I’m going to make. I start carving and a form will appear and I’ll stand back at the end of it and think “Oh okay, that’s what it is.” But it’s almost like someone else is doing it. So I carve the element first and then I’ll spend maybe a month feathering a piece. And that’s a sort of meditative process because all the decision making has gone into the bit where I am carving cause I have to make a decision into how the feathers will lie and how the piece is carved; it’s all set then. Whereas the feathering is more dreamlike and I can think about other things and new works as I’m doing that element of it if that makes any sense?
SXF: Yes. I’ve read before that you consider the next project while working on that stage.
SXF: Do you think you would go back to using other materials, we touched on the bones earlier…
KM: I would of course. I’m always looking to develop and I haven’t finished. People say, “Are you going to change from feathers?” And I say, “Yes, I will probably change from feathers eventually but I haven’t finished with what I want to say.”
SXF: The forms have been changing recently, haven’t they?
SXF: Previously they were more fluid, like liquid floating in zero gravity but now your work has more points of friction.
SXF: How would you describe your relationship to your works.
KM: Well, I have a real problem trying to deliver things. Though I make them and finish them in the studio I don’t like them going, parting from them. It doesn’t feel sad. It just feels like a loss. If I still have them I can still do things to them but if they’re gone, that’s it. So I do find it difficult but I’m having to, because there’s quite a lot of work that is out there now, I have to sort of switch off from that bit.
SXF: Thank you so much for your time, Kate.