An Interview with Catriona Secker
Nature Spirit 2
See more of Catriona Secker's artwork in Vol. 39.2 here.
Catriona Secker is an Australian visual artist and teacher living in Sydney. She has been exhibited across Australia, as well as in Hong Kong and the United States. We featured eight graphite illustrations of hers in Volume 39.2—you can view them here. Of her own work, Secker says:
The main theme that runs through my work is consciousness and connections in nature—the idea that right down to the cellular level, there is consciousness, even if that is completely beyond the limits of our own awareness...I’m also fascinated by the way that certain shapes and forms recur repeatedly among organisms that are biologically diverse. To me, this also points to the connectivity of all things.
In the course of this interview, Catriona and I expand on these themes, as well as the uncanny emotional gestures and hidden aspects of her subjects, often otherwise found in the pages of a biology textbook.
Haley Laningham: Our 39.2 issue's cover art is your piece Siphonophorae, which, as you’ve said, is the scientific name relating to jellyfish species. I know you've mentioned previously that you get a lot of inspiration from the shapes found in scientific drawings and diagrams. Can you talk a little bit about these influences to begin?
Catriona Secker: Siphonophorae in particular was directly influenced by the work of a pretty famous German zoologist named Ernst Haeckel. He did this really famous book called “Art Forms in Nature,” and he was amazing at drawing—he was a zoologist and an artist. He did drawings of real organisms, but I think they were also beautified in the process and sort of made perfect. Somewhere in that book is a plate that kind of sparked off the whole idea for Siphonophorae. I’d done an okay drawing of this panel before and revisited it for the image you’re using for the cover. That’s the way I arrive at the starting points for a lot of my stuff; I’ll just be flipping through and see a shape for form.
I also use Biodiversity Heritage Library a lot as well—it’s this amazing database full of old, old illustrations, and I’ll pick through and get folders and folders on my computer for inspiration. To me, there’s something in Haeckel’s illustrations that occasionally seem like an animate spark. It might even be some kind of anthropomorphization, like, as though we’re projecting something about ourselves into the creature—even like a gesture or the “bowed head” you see in Siphonophorae. I love to follow that whenever I see it, and then I build characters and scenery out of it. I’m really just looking for forms that feel right, and then I develop them out onto paper and then in graphite. It’s relaxing just getting the lights and darks in.
HL: Did you begin with Haeckel's "Art Forms in Nature," or did you get into this practice of working on biological subject matter diffusely, or…there wasn’t this epiphany, then, to when you began working this way?
CS: There actually totally was. I was already on this journey of biological subject matter even before the Haeckel text, and the beginning even comes down to a single moment. Years back I diverted from painting and drawing (I did my undergraduate degree in those) and had even studied some computer animation, did a Master’s, and then was staying with my mom and dad in Sydney, basically looking for animation or drawing work. They had a large collection of old-fashioned encyclopedias and I just pulled one out at random and looked for—just anything interesting—and came upon this lovely diagram of the surface of seaweed with these fractal-ly, branchy shapes inside the pores of its surface. I really fell in love with that and kept following that obsession, collected old biology textbooks. Vintage natural history illustrations are what I’ve graduated to, now, including in that database I mentioned. Small invertebrates and other microscopic organisms really seem to be what pull me in the most.
HL: As you were describing all the places you go to find these illustrations and drawn diagrams, I noticed that a lot of the ways in which people interact with natural history imagery in pedestrian life is now in photos instead of drawings. I think that would, at face value, possibly be considered a kind of improvement from the past. I imagine that the indisputable faithfulness to the subject and greater ease (sometimes) of getting images through photography might be the currently preferred method of acquiring academic and scientific images. I'm wondering if this change from illustrations to photography causes viewers to miss out in some way—or is it an objective improvement? Is there some distinct difference between illustration and vintage illustration, too?
CS: Yeah, exactly. I think so, to that latter question. I could get a quite detailed illustration of some kind of snail, or a mollusk, but to actually draw me in, the quality of the illustration is really important. It makes for much more animate characters. (She points to a work-in-progress since posted here, wherein a tentacled figure seems to travel through a field.) I think I just search for something particular about an illustration—a certain gesture or aliveness—that I can work with to bring forth that awareness or consciousness in my subject.
HL: Yeah, they are living things with consciousnesses, too. This sounds like your earlier input about “anthropomorphized gestures” as well. It’s interesting to think of how the illustrations might infuse maybe ideas of human motion in some personifying way, but I think that is still handled with incredible skill in your depictions, which, in the end, are imaginative fictionalizations. This is space I’ve never seen fiction reach to before. Your work makes me realize this more intimately…I mean, I haven’t thought very hard about your subject matter—bacteria, microscopic sea creatures, amoebas—before in my life, really.
CS: I think most people haven’t, except for biologists! Every so often, a biologist will contact me and be like, “I think your work is amazing,” because I don’t think many artists work like this. It’s wild, too. I mean I’ve never studied biology at all and don’t have the time to now, so I’m going off a feeling or fascination just with shapes and forms. I feel like in some way, knowing about the biology of these organisms might even take away, because then I’d be worrying if I were making sense as I brought these characters forward. I’ve never wanted that. I feel driven more by imagination to keep that, to keep possibilities open.
HL: Yeah, that’s not a bad thing at all. So, also, I wanted to make it clear to readers that though we only feature your black-and-white graphite work, you also compose in color. I want to know, though, if you don’t mind, how long it takes to graphite in a work like Siphonophorae? It’s incredibly detailed.
CS: Yeah, a pretty long time! All of my work is laborious and fine, so for the graphite drawings, I work over the whole page in great detail. Siphonophorae is on an A4 page [editor’s note: about 8 x 12 in] and I know that probably took me a month with about two hours in the evenings, so probably 50 to 60 hours. Some of the larger ones, probably 80. Nature Spirit took about 80.
HL: And the details are amazing. There are no eyes, fur, ears, legs, anything, and yet I get a sense of some kind of feeling from your characters. How do the two characters in Siphonoporae feel about each other?
CS: (Laughs) I don’t know! I just feel like the personality of the creatures that I draw…I guess I am directing it, but maybe subconsciously. I think the feeling of the characters was already there in the reference illustration, and that I keep it in that mood. I put myself back and let the characters form. Still, I think it’s very tender and intimate between those two and I worked to bring that out, not determine it, maybe. They’re very caring of each other.
HL: I thought the same, really, and hoped I wasn’t projecting. I never would have understood before that these creatures could be cute, though of course that’s part of the fictionalization, maybe, to call them cute.
So, Plate and Half Flatworm seemed to find themselves more in the human world than the others in my take. I felt a little more worried seeing these pieces. There’s a plate—you know, a human object which interacts with the natural world in a good measure of violence—and of course Half Flatform is cut in half, making me wonder if that was done by a human or something. Even just that the flatworm was seemingly wounded felt like a possible human presence. Like some kind of synecdochical mark.
As I saw your graphite work’s arc through time, those two pieces kind of exist outside of the otherworldly vibe—the truly nonhuman world—of the others. I mean, maybe the other stuff, rather, evokes world-scales that are so small they’d never be aware of the human in a direct way. But these two are way more in spaces I might encounter as a human.
CS: I guess it was a natural progression. None of my work starts with some kind of premeditation—like, of thinking of how to express something in concept. It really is driven by impression. From 2007 to 2009, I was still developing with this trend, and Half Flatworm is from a textbook actually—a flatworm chopped in half. I like stuff that shows cross-sections. I like seeing cross-sections and images that allow me to look inwards. They feature things that have to be cut to be seen. I've always had a fascination with what is hidden. I guess I sort of curate and think about my larger body of work now trying to build towards exhibitions, but yeah, I have to be a lot more selective now because my time is limited. But especially back then, I really followed what came to me and didn’t think in themes. Plate is a standout drawing that I really love, but I should say it was a commission. I was working at a restaurant and the lovely owner commissioned that piece. It was really fun. I found a bunch of vintage illustrations of food—like jellies and hors d'oeuvres and how they were served. It was just for play, making those cute little organisms on the plate.
HL: To me, your detailing feels similar to that of Hieronymus Bosch, with both of you occupying the whole space of a page in at-times-chaotic ways (though what’s filling the page in your work is much more of the arms or appendages of your characters, or at times, the seeming offspring of main characters, and not as much small, divisible scenes as in Bosch). Both of you have what I consider to be at least a debatable lightheartedness. Maybe I was supposed to think Bosch is terrifying, but I see a little bit of play in both of you.
CS: Yeah, I totally see that! I don’t mind including play in my work.
HL: If not Bosch, are there any artistic influences toward your style or use of space? As we discussed, your central ideas come from scientific imagery, but are there other mental or conceptual influences?
CS: I would say Haeckel is the largest, but along the way there have been a ton of artists. I have really looked at many artists in getting better. But another I should probably include is a comic or kind of cartoon artist named Jim Woodring, and his work Congress of The Animals. He does these incredible wordless comics with these characters who are not quite animal, not quite human.
There’s a character in Woodring’s work called Frank who goes on these wordless adventures. I got this in 2008 or 2009 (she points to an absolutely bizarre comic page, which displays the character in question in a jungle next to an alien figure—view here to see his work). It’s very trippy stuff. The sense of symmetry, the playfulness, and the aesthetic—he’s a massive influence. I’ve let this go now, but I’ve always admired artists who had narrative in their work. For now, I don’t feel that’s where my work is meant to go, or maybe where my talents are. You mentioned when speaking earlier that there is not necessarily story, but instead a vibrant presence in my work. And that’s just it—story is kind of overly humanizing, too, isn’t it? Like, I mean, anthropomorphizing or personifying a little? It’s not from conscious choice whether it’s there or not, but when I follow the lives of my characters, story doesn’t authentically emerge. Instead, I work on their being, perhaps, the “sense of their being.”
HL: Yes. Story really is a personifying demand isn’t it? But maybe also there’s a difference between, like, action and plot—I think you totally have action just maybe less so human plot. The characters in Siphonophorae really do seem to be mid-action. Alive.
But also, I’m remiss to leave out that these are weird to look at sometimes. I think some of your work gives, to me at least, an interesting personal study in repulsion. Like, for no clear reason, some of these pieces were unsettling—but upon a little thought, I realized my reaction was more about new demands of identification in the half-familiar, and really, the non-human. But a kind of non-human subject previously beyond pathos or common symbol.
And in this way, after seeing your statements on consciousness, my emotionally confusing reactions felt more sensible. Your work is really estranging and yet not. As you’ve said, your subjects live in a scale of reality which is too small to register humanity. When you bring these characters into being, do you have to ask yourself what that kind of “being” feels like? Does it just happen?
CS: Yeah, absolutely—as to the consciousness that might be felt in the piece: Going back to what I’ve been saying about the inspiring images, there’s always that spark of possible or probable consciousness that was there all along. Even just going back to Siphonophorae, just in that single inspiring gesture in Haeckel’s depiction, and the way that little shape was drawn; it contained the consciousness of that character from the very beginning. I work subconsciously to it, so it’s not like I try to put myself in the place of my characters; it’s just like setting myself aside.
I go back to sitting with these tiny, microscopic creatures, have to ask myself, “I wonder what it’s like to be something so tiny and to experience what it is they experience?” It’s more like wondering what it might be like, instead of trying to feel it, too. And that blows my mind. Every now and then, I’ll see it’s all so vast, it’s all so incredible, and “spiritual,” though, that’s a tricky word. But yeah, I really think this is my spirituality. Our range of experience in consciousness is such a small, limited thing in the scope of the whole universe. There’s this whole vastness beyond us that goes on, greater and greater, and then also as we focus to smaller and smaller settings, places, and lives. There are all sorts of organisms, and so I wonder, what is it like to be a tiny bacteria swimming in a pond? What do you experience? It’s like wondering and hitting this sense of wonder at the same time.
HL: I’m getting misty. Which is an American slang for “close to tears.” I couldn’t separate the art from acknowledging what they must feel, and I’m also in a sense mourning the wellbeing of this scale of life these days.
CS: Can I just say at this moment...I haven’t talked to so many people who got this, too. It’s a real treat.
HL: It’s totally inside of your work, but thank you. So, approaching the end here, I'd like to shift to the reproductive themes in your art that gave me a discomforting reaction, and that's fine of course, because when art is uncomfortable it means it’s asking me to think about my own reaction, right? So, I’m in a female body and the work made me examine my relationship to reproductivity. I feel it’s a very present theme. The work is still clearly not trying to invite human concerns, though.
Your body of work has many different kinds of reproduction impressionistically or imagistically represented, not just shapes reminiscent of, say, mammalian sexual reproduction. Nature Spirit seems to be based off a reproductive structure, just in shape, for example. Whether as a woman or just as the person in which these characters come to be, what fascinates you about reproductivity, or am I making this up?
CS: That’s a big question, so I might ramble a little. First of all, I am just drawn to the forms. That’s how reproductivity came in—not for investigation. It all just emerges. Something about the symmetry of the forms is what gets me. I’ll often just be going along on a piece and stop and realize…oh! that looks rude! And not realize until it’s all underway. But, eh, following that down the treadmill, especially these days, when I’m doing exhibitions more, I might go for it a little more directly.
Nature Spirit 2 (seen at the very top) seems to me to be the strongest piece for these elements. That diamond in the sky is simply a pattern on a rug, though, but I said to myself that I was going to fill it with cells or eyes or eggs. This figure is producing these seeds, or eggs, whatever, and they are sort of falling down, growing, seeding, and attaching themselves to also a sort of sexy looking thing underneath that’s based on the interior of a lily. And that’s definitely evocative of effeminate, female sexuality. And it’s beautiful. Earlier on in my career, I would just go along and then realized they were suggestive later on, subconsciously.
HL: Is it your own experience with motherhood that created that more intentional shift?
CS: I would say probably not. I don’t know that motherhood has changed my art, intentions or interests. I had my daughter in 2013 and my son in 2016, so I was already kind of playing with this. Maybe it was ramped up before I had my daughter. I was kind of always of two minds about having kids but when I hit a certain age my biological clock went cray-cray. I was kind of then drawing little embryonic figures. My husband would tease me about that. I just loved them, just was so drawn to them. I mean I’m sure on a very subconscious level that had a part to play, but again, none of my work starts as an idea first. It’s always visual, and instinctive.
HL: To consider another genre, anything with an animal in a poem (which is more my educational expertise) that is not also narratively led by a human mind risks a kind of possibly dismissive ecological label. Sometimes, to me at least, it feels like it’s considered some kind of secondary or tertiary territory to shift a focus from human experience, or psychology, or whatever…Do you think of your work as explicitly ecological or is it sort of about taking your mind off of humanity for five seconds?
CS: Can they be the same thing?
CS: Because I mean both resonate for me. I’m just completely fascinated by these aspects of nature. And while I’m drawn to it subconsciously, I’m pleased to be one of a few artists who are using this subject matter. A lot of artists who are ecological are kind of, like, about birds and flowers and snakes and animals we all recognize. I like bringing to light hidden things which maybe only biologists would know about. So yeah! It’s ecological in that sense. It’s all to do with the natural world and ecology. it’s also just because I am so deeply uninterested in bringing human aspects into my art. I don’t know why, I’ve just never wanted to paint human figures, or, you know, bring in human plot or a sense of human narrative.
Also, I should add that like many artists who work with mainly ecological subject matter, the work deals also with my anxiety about the current danger we are in with climate change and countless other environmental threats. It's not in any way explicit in my work, but I feel that at this critical point in time, any work that celebrates the beauty and wonder of the natural world is really inseparable from this concern.
HALEY LANINGHAM is a PhD student in Poetry at Florida State University and holds an MFA from the University of Oregon. She acts as the Art Editor for Southeast Review.