Being lovers of sci-fi, bio mechanics and the natural world, the first time we saw Kaitlin Becketts work several years ago, it was instant hell yeah. Yet, those ‘genres’ seem a less than fitting classification, as her work goes well beyond the traditional science fiction, or fantasy themes. Endowing outlandish, often folklorically surreal beasts with subtle stories and character, it is the unspoken narratives of her work that give it an enthusiastic flair of its own.
With exposure in magazines and print, and having prolifically displayed her beasts across both the continent, and the globe, there is no doubt that there is a mass of love for Kaitlins weird and wonderful creations. Her fans are many, and they are all constantly, eagerly, anticipate the uncaging of new beasts from the confines of her imagination.
With the next menagerie to be unleashed at her upcoming solo show, Exoskeletons, next week at No Vacancys Project Space in Melbournes Federation Square, we talked to Kaitlin about her move to Australia, her unique techniques, and her enthrallingly curious beasts …
You moved over to Melbourne from New Zealand almost ten years ago now, when you originally came over, did you have some kind of "direction in art" in mind when you relocated here, and did that factor into your emigration at all?
Not really, as I moved over to pursue music!
I concentrated on musical projects for about three years, though, after a while, I became uninspired and gradually art took over as my main creative pursuit. If art had been my main gig back then, I probably would have moved over here for the same reasons though – more opportunities, more support, more of an arts network and scene – and there are so many kiwis over here that it sometimes feels like I’m not in a different country!
Obviously, sci-fi, biomechanics, cryptozoology and other themes of that ilk influence your work – where did all of these loves spring from, originally?
I grew up playing Star Wars games with the neighbourhood kids, watching David Attenborough documentaries and looking at pictures in animal books. Later on, I discovered HR Giger, during a time when I was absolutely yawningly bored with visual arts, and shortly after that i found Beksinski, and these two artists have been incredibly inspiring to me over the years, particularly with the darker and more surreal elements in my work.
Do any of the creatures within your Bestiary have stories behind them? Often we see some recurring motifs behind them, and wonder at the world that they would inhabit – or is that world contained within your imagination, only, without a consistent fable behind them? Do you leave all of that up to us, the viewers?
They all have stories – though I do like to mostly keep them to myself and only reveal small parts, because it means people don’t come up with stories of their own. I like that people often make up a whole narrative around my paintings, what they think the character is doing or thinking, and I don’t want to take this away from them by suggesting a different story.
Tell us a bit about your techniques – there is obviously a fair bit of illustration in your work, but it is a long way away from any form of illustrative work we’ve seen – we know you use some airbrush in the mix, but what other techniques and mediums do you use on your creatures to really give them that subtle "Beckett" style?
I like to use a lot of different media in the one piece, and as I’ve collected more materials over the years my technique has inevitably expanded to include them. It’s a very layered process, starting with an ink sketch, coloured with airbrush and pastel, ink washes and splats in the background and to give texture to the foreground, then another few layers of ink to define the beast. I’ve been using the airbrush for 2 years now and it has really sped up part of my process, though I’m really only using it in a very basic way, so my technique is a bit crap…there’s a lot to learn about it as a method yet. The one essential thing is my dip pen – I use super-fine mapping nibs and dip them into black ink. It’s the only way to get a fine but solid line on canvas through all the layers of paint and pastel.
Are you a planner, or do you create your works spontaneously? Sketchbooks, or ad hoc pieces of paper? What is the fundamental way in which you transfer your mental concepts into a visual depiction?
I’m a planner definitely. I used to be a lot more spontaneous but I found that I’d often abandon a work because of something that was bothering me about it. These days I start with tiny sketches on scrap paper and pin these to boards around my room. Sometimes I’ll develop the sketch straight away, sometimes I’ll wait years before I do anything about it. Once I decide to go ahead and develop the idea, I sketch it a few more times and test the colours and composition, so I pretty much know how it will all work before I transfer it all to the canvas.
The part that’s completely random is the ink splats in the background – I just start throwing paint around and see what happens. Sometimes it’s understated and subtle, but sometimes it becomes a large part of the mood of a piece.
You haven’t had a full solo show in a little while – but you have done a huge number of group shows in the past year or two – tell us a little about these shows and what you have done in the lead up to Exoskeletons.
I mean to do a solo every year but it never works out that way, and a lot of spaces are just too big for my little detailed works so I have limited choice in where I can show. I like to have goals and deadlines to work towards, so I tend to say yes to some of the group shows that come my way – I especially like themed shows, where you have to produce work with a certain theme or on a certain physical object.
I like the challenge of this, and, also, sometimes it’s fun to have a brief to work to, or constraints to stay within.
Speaking of Exoskeletons, can you tell us a bit about the ideas behind the upcoming show? Obviously the title gives away the central theme, but what is it about exoskeletons on beasts that don’t naturally have them, that piques your interest?
It started with Stag Beetle, and then started thinking about the word ‘exoskeleton’. Obviously, as it’s a beetle it already has an exoskeleton, but what if a creature had an external skeleton that was like ours? Then it would be more like a suit of armour that gets attached to the outside of the beast somehow. The idea made me laugh so it continued from there. Some of my beasts already have a natural exoskeleton, though many are just normal creatures who fancy some extra protection – some make a lot more sense than others.
You’ve also hit a few markets recently and Finders Keepers last year, and Rose Street recently – how has selling artwork at a market differed to putting work in shows? What do you try to aim for in a market or commercial environment that differs to your gallery work?
Market people seem to be bargain hunters and prefer the cheaper prints to originals, so I’m putting different things into market stalls than I would put into a gallery – framed prints, badges and cards seem to work well. I can’t say I’ll ever get used to just sitting there and ‘selling’ my own work, though!
Most people, so far, who have bought my things at a market have never seen my work before, so it’s nice to be in contact with a completely different audience – and the kids! My beasts draw the ankle biters like magnets!
What, for you, have been some of the biggest learning curves, or hurdles, involved in "being an artist?” Of the difficulties encountered along the way, which were the most challenging, and rewarding?
I think the most rewarding thing is being able to do something that I love, as my job. Though, this does have its own set of challenges. I’ve now been full time artist for just over a year, and it has been a real learning curve on how to structure my days, when to keep working and when to give it a break, as well as how to break up my processes to get the most out of a day.
It’s been great to be able to learn to recognise when I need a change of scenery too, and to get out of the studio when I feel like I’m uninspired.
I’d like to start planning the next solo soon-ish, so another couple of years don’t sneak past again! I’m doing a group show at BSG where I’ll be doing more samurai-themed creatures on origami paper, then a show with Aramas at Rancho Notorious in October, and after then I’ll be expanding on a few recent themes, trying to get better at airbrushing, and experimenting with a new sculpted beast army – a couple of those will be at my show in July …