Arts Writing Hot House

15. 08. 2019

One artist’s alchemy

By Fleur Peters

Cath Cantlon’s life as an artist spanned three decades of practice, enhanced by a lifetime’s work in theatre and cultural development.

Beginning her journey in the 1970s as a milliner/costumer with the Australian Ballet and SA Film Corp, she ventured into other aspects of theatre, particularly set design. Increasingly Cantlon became involved in artist-led projects in which her talents as a collaborator and creative director were widely recognised and awarded. Her private practice continued, building on youthful, formative drawings with distilled lines and gentle brushstrokes – in parallel to more public projects involving dramatic use of lighting and forms. Following study in remote communities, Cantlon re-engaged with drawing and painting, focusing on mark making. More frequent exhibitions followed particularly those aligning with her strong views of social inclusion.

After visits to Kangaroo Island with her life partner, the artist moved permanently to Emu Bay in 2008.  The lure was the sea and the unique natural environment which became her constant focus. She built her ‘Palace of Production’, filling it with collections of natural and found materials, often brought to her as gifts.  These evolved into a range of multi-disciplinary artworks characterised by raw muted tones of reclaimed shell, oak and sun-bleached timbers textured by charring, or interspersed with washes of Japanese ink. Sustained studio practice led to a rich vocabulary of expression characterised by combinations of familiar with unexpected elements. Unlikely associations of materials, objects and motifs evidence her inventiveness and sense of fun at this time.

Cath Cantlon, Onkos #3 (detail), 2016, sequins on mended tarpaulin, 52 x 94 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Cath Cantlon, Knives (detail), 2017, etched abalone shell, sequinned fabric on circular tray, 40 cm diameter. Courtesy of the artist.

Although recycling was integral to her beliefs about living lightly on the planet, it was the materials themselves revealing stories of previous lives that resonated with her. She wove these into new and thoughtful narratives, intuitively capturing their innate histories, calling on the viewer to respond to the overlooked or the forgotten.

Cantlon was ever-driven by the creative process itself, a maker at her core. In 2015 with a sudden and terminal diagnosis of brain cancer she declared that with the brevity of time remaining to her she wanted to “make more art… have fun”. She gifted herself an opportunity to contemplate what might lie beyond, including it in her visual expressions.  

Onkos 1-7, (2016) [Greek word for tumour, mass, burden] employed the perfect medium to work at her own pace. Sequins affixed to mended truck tarpaulin transformed the faded canvas into flamboyant patterns of brain maps and medical capsules, juxtaposition between the flawless and the lived-in. The work was to win first prize, in the major category Outré, at the Kangaroo Island Easter Art Exhibition. Judge Nick Mitzevich (then Director of Art Gallery of South Australia), said of Cantlon’s work it was “super-beautiful” and had “given us something unique, fresh, crisp and from the heart.” 

The artist passed away in 2018 leaving a sense of loss within the Kangaroo Island and wider community of a unique artist whose creative journey had not only been recognised by several awards but who was about to explore new directions.

Catherine Truman, opening the artist’s final exhibition Beyond (2017) said of her works, they are “timeless… they hover between places rather than give you any sense of finality or arrival at one destination. They seem in a permanent state of transition, transformation”.

Like alchemy her artwork transformed ordinary materials and objects, with insight and intervention into the extraordinary. This is Cath’s legacy.

Cath Cantlon, Sight Map, 2018, paper, mirror, black and gold ink, dimensions unknown. Courtesy of the artist.

Cath Cantlon has presented work in solo and group exhibitions including ‘Languages of Stitch’ at Signal Point Gallery (2018), ‘How Do We Love Thee?’ at the National Wine Centre (2017), ‘Beyond’ at Flinders Medical Centre (2017) and ‘It Is What It Is’ at Gallery Yampu (2016). In 1993 Cantlon was the inaugural winner of the Australian Council Fellowship. Other major awards include the Australia Council’s Ros Bower Award (2001) and the Geoff Crowhurst Memorial Award – Ruby Award (2012).

This piece of writing was commissioned by Country Arts SA as part of the inaugural Arts Writing Hot House – a program supporting emerging regional South Australian writers. You can read more about the Hot House here.

Lauren Mustillo

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November 2018 - July 2019


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