In conversation with Cate Collopy
Cate Collopy is a Queensland artist who lives in Brisbane. Her work Fantastic Plastic - Land, Sea and Air Penetrato has a strong environmental focus with a playful yet calculated message.
Writer Nicole Browne spoke with Cate about what provokes the environmental themes in her work and about life as an art therapist.
Fantastic Plastic is the first work you have entered in SWELL. It tells us the story of plastic as a great conqueror; can you tell us more about the piece and why you chose to tell the story from a heroic angle?
Fantastic Plastic is a very intentional storytelling around reframing something that we have stopped seeing. I know the conversations around plastic and its impact are getting more robust these days, but when I started working with this concept around 5 years ago and I started talking to people about the plastic mass in the Pacific Ocean being the size of the Northern Territory, their eyes would glaze over, in the sense that the problem was too big, what could they do? People weren’t ready to talk about it then. This led me to start asking myself the questions of "How can I make this conversation more palatable?” How do I as an artist make a work that is engaging, that tells a story about something more serious? I found that by playing with plastic as the hero and writing it into a story as a great conqueror, going bright and fabulous, drawing sources from all around the human detritus, and bringing all the great qualities of plastic into the artwork, doing that reframe made it a more acceptable story. People are opening up to the conversation.
The artwork Fantastic Plastic itself is made up of the everyday plastics we use in our lives, like toys, things from the kitchen, stuff from the office, and bigger pieces such as industrial parts. There is a draw from as many sources as I possibly can do. Some pieces will invoke a sense of familiarity to the audience where they may need to step in closer to recognise what they are so there is a lot of intentional opportunity for engagement with the work.
Can you talk a little about your creative process, and how you weave the story telling into your work?
I do a lot of research. For this piece, I wasn’t just looking at plastic from a contemporary issue of sustainability. I was looking at it as a material. What is a material? Where is it sourced. What are the issues? Where is the research into what it is doing to our oceans? What happens to our recycling? I will go very in depth in a pragmatic way. You won’t see this outside of the workflow, but underneath the work is a really strong foundation holding my concept. The concept being, this is something that we need to raise. We need to get the plastic and its impact back into our focus. We need to think differently about it because of all these underlying issues.
There is a theme throughout your artwork that provokes us, the audience to consider as you put “what we value as resource and what we see as waste’. How did you get into working with salvaged re-usable materials as your medium?
I spent around 12 years working with Brisbane Reverse Garbage. I worked there as a teacher in Creative Re-Use. In that experience I started asking myself a lot of questions regarding where our materials coming from? What are we doing with our things? Prior to this I had been only working with new materials in my artwork. During my time here working hands on with industrial discard, moving materials from landfill and in teaching creative re-use, it all became a fundamental part of my practice and I couldn’t take it out again. I needed to stay in this material source of re-using and explore that. It has become the methodology in my work and it is has led me to focus on quite specific material. Plastic is one medium I work with, the other is copper.
"Fantastic Plastic is not just an artwork, it is not just a concept. Nor is it something to just look at. It is also about entering a conversation with a massive group of people and making a really strong comment in that."
What opportunities does exhibiting at SWELL present to you as an artist?
Fantastic Plastic has been a very long practise and the piece for SWELL will be the largest work of it that I have realised. It is the biggest opportunity as an artist that I have been able to approach to date. I am looking forward to being there, participating, and being among these great names. I will get to meet them and their work, so that is impressive to start with. Exhibiting in SWELL is also a major practice opportunity for me. Fantastic Plastic has been my focus for quite a few years now and SWELL will be the largest audience that I have had this conversation with, it will be very interesting having this dialogue in a much more open and public forum. Fantastic Plastic is not just an artwork, it is not just a concept. Nor is it something to just look at. It is also about entering a conversation with a massive group of people and making a really strong comment in that. Hopefully the audience will take a story from it that will help others find this topic, this conversation around plastic more palatable. Maybe those conversations will then lead to action.
What is your connection to place of SWELL, and exhibiting indoors versus outdoors?
There are many personal connections to the Gold Coast for me. My parents loved and celebrated many milestones down there. I am a seagull. I belong to the sea. In regard to SWELL and the placement of my work, right on the edge of Currumbin Beach, it is not often you get an opportunity like that. There is a lot more planning in creating a piece for an outdoor exhibition, but it is beyond all that, seeing my piece on the edge of the ocean which really is where it belongs in the conversation, that is really great.
You are an art therapist as well. Can you talk a little about how art has the capacity to heal on an emotional level when many of us wouldn’t consider ourselves artists?
I think it is the difference between looking at art for product and art for process. Having run a lot of community art projects, being involved in teaching art and through my many years as a studio artist, I have seen how people feel during the art making process. They are in the moment, expressing themselves in ways that perhaps there are no words for. Not all our memory and thinking are in this cognitive talking brain. There is a whole other hemisphere in there that has a lot to say, and it has a lot to do with our wellness. When we make art, we tap into the right hemisphere of our brain which is our emotional and feeling part of ourselves, the art process is a great way to talk to this otherness, without the need for words or thought. And this is not limited to painting or drawing. We are talking about music, movement, all forms of art. They all have their place in our health.
Nicole Browne @mothersofourhood
Visit Cate Collopy Fantastic Plastic - Land, Sea and Air Penetrator at Site 21 between 14 – 23 September at SWELL, Currumbin Beach.