catherine richards: extended interview

Catherine Elizabeth Richards is an artist who studied architecture. Her work expands the understanding of architecture at different scales; from discrete objects, sculpture and installations to city-wide interventions. Richards works between mediums, exploring architecture and perception with materials, experimental photography and video. We at Five-Dots had the opportunity to interview Catherine at her Newport, Kentucky studio, where she took the liberty to give us a full studio tour and breakdown of a long list of projects both old and new. 

Whilst editing and compiling this specific interview, I (Megan) began to feel that it was an utter waste to not document the preceding hour long conversation held before our interview began. This is that conversation. We, as always, hope you enjoy the read. 

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Megan Bickel: I unfortunately wasn’t able to attend your performances with fellow artist, Anh Tran, but have seen still images. Could we have you break down the intent with those performances?

Catherine Richards: They were about our interaction with textile and fiber in relationship to the psychology of patterns and color. I could also add that they were discussing our relationship to nature and flowers. All of these are photographs that I’ve taken and then they are printed on silk. So it’s about delicacy, scale and creating an environment the viewer can inhabit. It's the combination of fashion and art. Making a garment is something that envelops you as the creator.

I also make jewelry: I’m interested in scale within all of my projects. I'm interested in seeing how blowing up small scale architectural models into larger scale objects can lead to a psychological transformation. All of this work was looking at historic colors used in fascist flags and fascist fashion and then taking those and combing them with other historic garments to embody the psychology of certain items. The performance with Ann was more of a playful thing: It’s about fantasy, ritual, dreaming, whimsy, and femininity. It’s a fairy tale, actually. I haven’t talked about that performance yet, and so this is my first time verbalizing. It’s about femininity and how that can be both playful and serious. It’s about trying to mitigate both of those ideas. 

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MB: I guess my question would be / how are you connecting that idea of fascist fashion and power paradigms with that sense of playfulness and femininity? How are those two narratives joining together for you?

CR: It’s not that fascist fashion is my main interest. I’m interested in color, scale, pattern, and form; and how they are used as tools of power. That can come in the form of a physical and psychological entity.

CR: These over here are garments that I made. My mom is a textile, fashion, and costume designer (so that history is important to me). My dad is an actor, and my other dad is a chef. I grew up with a lot of creative people in my family. My mom worked  all over Asia, and so we always had a lot of textiles from that region around us. We were also traveling all over Europe and that is something that has informed my personal history. This is how I inhabit the sort of world that I’m making. I want to include everything that is expansive in it, and I’m interested in the different ways that I can do that.

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I think as an architect, the performance lies in the way that we inhabit that world. It's the way we document it and understand it on a deeper level. For example, outdoor public sculpture is inhabited through this object but then if I can design and control that perception or perform to that object, then I can create more meaning, both implied and obvious. 

I’ll walk you through other stuff. This over here is my staging area. I didn’t set it up for you but I figured I could take things in there for you and show them there. I use this area to document and showcase different designs. Most of the architectural designs you see in here are mock-ups, in particular anything made of wood. There are a few finished pieces around, though. They’re intended to be perceptual screens; another way that we can inhabit and be inside of fiber.  I’m trying to figure out how I can have this colorful, extreme, or intense experience at the same time, next to, or coming from a very sensitive, simple, or refined experience. They are a meditative space for one person. All of my sculptures tend to be a space for one person or a small group to experience a zen meditative state. After that, it becomes interesting to incorporate other, more chaotic, elements. 

CR: Over here I have some test prints on paper for some of my textile designs. I have a lot of them and they're large.  I’m filled with all of these ambitious ideas, but I can’t always do them. I often employ paper architecture, architecture that’s never built or, perhaps, just drawn as its final form. I also make a lot of handmade scale architectural models. Oftentimes I make these models for various exhibits and smaller scale things before I move to the larger scale. Which I find really fascinating and enjoyable. 

MB: Yes, I’ve always enjoyed looking at gallery models. There is something really pleasurable about them in their size and approach. 

CR: I was an only child and during my childhood I fell in love with playing and inventing games. I feel like I’m just doing the same thing now; and I’ve read that that’s a good thing-- to feel like you're emulating your play patterns from childhood in work. The only real difference is that I’m not doing it in my grandparents’ basement. I was making buildings and entire worlds out of paper, paint chips. . . anything I could get my hands on. Paper model making was the first thing that I was really into making. I've always enjoyed making these models, and I was lucky, I had the opportunity to intern with OMA and they're famous for their model-making. I think I liked the more paper side of architecture. The architect has to let go of a lot of control once that building goes into the construction phase. I don't really enjoy that. I enjoy looking at historic usage of spaces. I studied Japanese culture and different ceremonies: yoga, zen tea ceremonies, . . . and I’m combining multiple cultures here but I’m really interested in research and historic interiors and historic patterns, use of fabric, and contemporary usages of those same ideas. I'm then asking myself how I can mitigate that. My thesis in architecture was about how architecture communicates gender and I specifically looked at fabric and how its a gendered material that can be both hard and soft. So, we can use it in different ways. I try to explore the same ideas through various means as well as media. 

A lot of these test sculptures are falling in certain ways, or invading space. I'm working to create very simple perceptual spaces. All of them are repeatable patterns. This sculpture could be repeated and expanded upon in an infinite amount of ways. Over and over, infinitely. It’s another example of patterns and psychology and how we can expand and extrude our experience of that. I’m always trying to expand and create new patterns, so here I created mold designs that are based off of the forms of these sculptures that I have been working on. These are different sets of ideas on performance and how the body creates shape and how that relates to the sculpture. I’ve done a lot of group performances. Actually, at Zephyr Gallery [Louisville, Kentucky] I did a braided hair performance where we looked at the history of female architecture: we led large groups of women to braid their hair together. A lot of these projects are ongoing. I’m working with Pyramid Hill (in Cincinnati) for a big show this spring. I’m also in a show in NY in January at Meta Meta Meta Gallery. We are going to do a large hair braiding performance.

MB: How large?

CR: I’m still designing it right now, but it will be as many people as I can get.

CR: These are for a performance that I’m working on right now. My friend actually got married in NY, and we had a fourteen person parade within the city. So this was the center of the performance. I did a tantric painting, actually, all of these are tantric paintings that I did with natural dye. I also designed their wedding rings and then they did a blind folded ceremony that led into the park. After I did that, I began working on this idea of keeping ground with these performances. These are two scale mock ups of other different performances. 

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This project is referred to as the Sequin Sequence, I’m working right now, on a lot of drawings that are all hand embroidered with sequins. So I’m going to have like, thirty pieces, that are done similar to this. So the differences will lie in the scale: the end pieces will be a lot larger. 

MB: Any idea about how large they’ll end up?

CR: Well, they’ll be like that size, but extravagently adorned in sequins. I really love the transparency and treating embroidery as drawing, which is always interesting: to take a hand craft and elevate it to this “higher level” practice. To use it in a serious way. I’m really excited to go back to Paris because a lot of French artists and designers are creating with materials that aren’t often thought of as serious.  But they're doing it in a very serious, beautiful way. It’s whimsical and feminine, and they use poetics. I think all of this is dealing with the poetics of space and how we find and use that.

This is a series that I’m working on. I like to find objects and then work to arrange them.  Their placement becomes very important. I’m then photographing them and then printing them on fabric, adding sequins, and other details like that. I tend to be super process oriented and that’s where the studio sort of becomes this zen environment. I can move things around and be intuitive and, I think, it's a feminine way of working. I start to combine things to the point where it doesn’t all make sense. Then it can morph into this sort of integrated thing.  It’s a memory device, really. The studio is like a memory device. 

MB: Do you tend to hand write everything? Some people can organize and process everything digitally and then others have to write everything down. It’s about the physicality of memory. 

CR: I do so much digitally. It drives me crazy, actually. But if you look over there you’ll see lists and lists and lists. It’s just the way my brain works; I’m constantly in a sort of ‘zany’ zone. So if I can just write it all down and then leave it at the list, and then subsequently reference the list, I can settle that a little bit. 

CR: Other than building models, drawing is my first love. I also teach drawing. I do a lot of hand drawings and then try to figure out ways to use them. Right now I’m in this stage where I have built a lot of things that are really expensive and I think that as an architect, particularly one with experience working for firms with unlimited budgets, I'm influenced to dream big and then find a way to do it. I’m looking for ways that I can get that same richness or permanence without having to spend $10,000 or more. These little etchings are an example of that effort of downsizing-- they're laser etchings of some small 'hand' drawings. Some of them broke.  This is one of a unicorn, which is kind of cool. This is a sculpture as well, so this is actually a drawing of a sculpture. A sculpture that is going to be this [walks over to sculpture]. It’s a wooden frame that is wrapped in vinyl, and then there is going to be an entire series of them where they create a wall. They’ll fold and it will envelop you. Another important aspect of my work is the idea of the handmade object. I enjoy making things by hand and then translating it into something digital. Asking "What’s the relationship between that? The digital and the handmade". How can I pair those in a really creative way and almost not tell if the end result was done by hand or digitally? I like to use technology in this subversive, ‘wrong’ way, as opposed to starting out by hand and working toward a digital end product. I’m not good at following rules but I can make up a system that makes sense for me and utilize that.

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This piece is from a series called the Brickarium.  It was about precariousness and how we assume that femininity is in permanent precariousness, perhaps broken or non-structural. So I was working with broken architecture and broken structures, attempting to look at how we assume things to not be complete. This next item is also a reference to that-- it's a wave structure that's is created from etched acrylic. I took an image of a large textile when it was in motion and then etched the mold from it's image. It's another look at how we associate the female body with being curvilinear, or being curvaceous like that of a landscape. 

MB: You're relating the gendered female body to nature, in that way. 

CR: Yes, and also looking at how the female body is manipulated to be “hard” or “soft”, and how the surface of our skin is looked at and critiqued. A lot of these things that I think about relate to cellulite surfaces and how it as a material can be really beautiful, but culturally deemed unattractive, unaccepted, or not beautiful. 

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MB: So is that acrylic wave directly from a wave of fabric?

CR: This one actually isn’t. I took foam to a foam cutter and I cut it by hand first, then I built it further from that form on the computer and then carved the plastic from there. The plastic was donated to me, acrylic this thick is rather pricey. But I have a bunch of these. 

CR: What I’m doing right now is what I like to refer to as a 'television show'. For me, this is like a set. I’m doing projections and performance here. I’m filming it, and I’m figuring out how to do the photograph it. I’m more of an experimental, ‘use it in the wrong way’ sort of person; but you have to do some things right, in terms of lighting and that sort of thing.  It's all very intuitive--I can integrate all different kinds of images into it and I can blow up the scale. Mirrors are really interesting devices for this project and I have all of these mirrors that are on stilts. 

Everything in here is temporary and everything in here is sacred. All of this ‘stuff’ is my zen. It’s very important. 

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