Catherine Nolan is an illustrator, painter, coral reef explorer and passionate conservationist.
You have recently collaborated with artists and academics for the Living data project at UTS. Please tell us more about the concept, and the process of making work for it.
There is a lot of scientific data relating to the changing natural world being used in the media, but its meaning is not generally accessible to most people. The Living Data project operates at the intersection between science and art and allows conversations between contributors to generate art work in response to the data.
There is generally no place for emotion in the presentation of scientific findings, let alone artistic interpretation, and yet the scientists I have spoken to have very strong feelings about what is going on in our world. This project is a wonderful way to bring together these two disciplines so that everyone benefits, and it has been lovely to meet scientists who are also very talented artists.
I was introduced to the project leader, the wonderful Dr Lisa Roberts by a mutual scientist/artist friend, and was delighted to be invited to contribute. There are weekly meetings and the format varies. Sometimes a scientist presents information, sometimes we look at an artists’ work or share our own (which is diverse across dance, writing and visual art), or visit a lab, and the common thread is our ongoing discussion about the environment and our response to that. I have also enjoyed contributing to the blog, as I find writing is a wonderful way to clarify and refine ideas.
What is the relationship between art and science within your work?
My passion for the natural world is the genesis of my work, and researching scientific material is an important aspect of furthering my understanding. Images often come to me when I’m researching, and it is an integral part of my visualisation process.
Which is more important when building a new series of work: intuition or calculation?
Definitely intuition. I find it infinitely mysterious that no matter how much I plan or try to control my composition and colour choice, the work takes on a life of its own and I respond to what is happening on the page, not what I thought should be happening when I was planning the work out in my sketch book. Nonetheless, I do usually plan new work, and the plan becomes a kind of skeleton that I can respond and add to.
How did you identify important scientific information to communicate through your work?
For the Living Data project, I found it a bit overwhelming at first. I felt responsible to the scientists, and quickly got lost from there, trying to figure out what direction to take. To find my way, I decided to concentrate on coral reefs, which are familiar to me from scuba diving. I started to pose questions to myself and found that under each question, was another more basic question, until I ended up at: What is a coral reef? We all think we know what a reef is, because it is such a familiar term. However I realised I had very little idea about how a reef functions. I am learning that it is a marvel of symbiotic relationships, delicate balance and jaw-droppingly beautiful processes, many invisible to the naked eye. I branched out into looking at the processes that keep the ocean healthy, because they can’t really be separated. I began by painting the images that most powerfully sparked my imagination, and conceived of a series of 36 small images that are my investigation into how the ocean works and the challenges to the health of that system. The paintings will be hung together in a closely-spaced grid, which will allow them to be in conversation with each other, and not just be seen as individual works.
Which materials have you enjoyed using most in your recent work?
I have chosen to paint this series on balsa wood, using gouache, watercolour and collage. I am enjoying how differently the paint behaves on the wood, and how much less control I have. The balsa panels need to be sanded and sized, and this patient, repetitive work appeals to me greatly, having been informed by my training in printmaking and textiles, both of which are process-based. Preparing the surface is an opportunity to meditatively get to know the materials, much like I imagine it must have been for artists hundreds of years ago, who had to grind their own pigments and prepare a new batch of egg tempera each day.
What is the most inspiring place you have ever visited?
I can’t narrow it down to one, there are just too many places that I feel this way about, including; the forests of Big Sur in California; Yosemite National Park, which is a perfect, tiny universe of perpendicular granite cliffs, frog meadows sparkling with tiny flowers, and avenues of flowering dogwood trees; the spare beauty of Mutawintji National Park near Broken Hill; the monastery San Marco in Florence; The moist, green primeval forests of Tasmania; the silent rock formations of Joshua Tree National Park, Highgate Cemetery in London, Witley Court in Worcestershire, The Met and The Guggenheim in New York, and I will never forget an incredible hike in Deua National Park in NSW, where the enormous goannas lumbered through our camp, unafraid, and we saw no trace of civilisation the entire time we were there.
The reason for my choices comes down to the beautiful resonance these places all still have in my life, often many years after I visited them. They have all imprinted themselves on me deeply, rather than just being visual memories, with no feeling attached.
Which aspects of the natural world are most important to your work?
The complex, invisible processes that seem to make the universe hum along.
If your art could make people aware of one new thing about our world, what would it be?
That the primal beauty and balance of the interconnected natural systems that make up our environment are worth protecting, and that if everyone could begin by making even small corrections to their patterns of consumption, they would be contributing positively to this preservation.