With an energy that is at once rich and refined, Cathy Layzell‘s paintings are a symphony of layered mark making and plays of light. Described as a colourist, the Cape Town based artist is primarily interested in the ways that colours interact with each other. Whether working with large flat areas or complex mixtures she endeavours to make the colours on the canvas breathe, to create space and movement through the dynamic interplay of lines and shapes. Curious about her background and the whimsical paintings she creates, we spoke to Cathy to learn more.
What sort of environment did you grow up in?
I grew up in Kloof (KZN) in the leafy green suburbs. We lived next to the school sports field. It was a very free outdoor life; I could ride my bike everywhere and catch the bus to the bottom of West Street and then skateboard up to North beach to check out the surfers…I mean…surf! My mum had green fingers and our garden was a tropical paradise.
When did you realise that a career in the arts was something you wanted to, and could, pursue?
I wanted to work in the arts for as long as I can remember, but it took some time before I was brave enough to leave gainful employment. I grew up thinking that if one wanted a career in the arts one ought to get training in something useful like graphic design or textile design. I applied to study Graphic Design at Durban Tech but at the last minute changed to Fine Art at Rhodes University.
Though you completed your BA Fine Art Degree at Rhodes in 1994, it was only in 2002 that you committed to painting full-time. Tell us more about your journey so far, and how you’ve come to be where you are today…
After my degree I moved to London. My friends who had studied Graphic Design all had fabulous jobs in advertising agencies and I was quite jealous. I was a waitress for a while and then a nanny. Those ‘humble’ jobs gave me time to explore a hundred other things. I had studied English Literature at Rhodes and had always loved books and so I applied for and got my first job in publishing with Dorling Kindersley. Our offices were in Covent Garden, which meant that I could go to the National Gallery in my lunch break! I worked in publishing for about 6 years eventually re-training as a book designer and finally becoming an Art Director.
When I was 29, my father died, and I had an early mid-life crisis and decided it was time to paint again. I took a shared studio in London for a while and painted on the weekends. I then met a chef at a bus stop and was lured to the Victoria Hotel on the Holkham Estate. I lived on the remote North Norfolk coast of East Anglia for the next 6 years. I began working part-time for Miv Watts (the fabulous interior designer) who gave me my first opportunity to exhibit. I also spent the summer of 2003 working at the Painting School of Montmirail in France (near Toulouse) – as a waitress and taxi driver and I returned to that area for many summers thereafter to paint.
I moved back to South Africa in 2008 and had my first show here at the Irma Stern Museum in 2009. Last year I did a year’s post-graduate study at Michaelis School of Fine Art under the nurturing supervision of Virginia MacKenny, which set me on my current path.
How has your experience in design and art direction continued to influence you in your artistic practise?
I think that all image making must have the fundamental components of good design; a balance between areas of visual excitement and areas of rest. In book design the white spaces (the negative spaces) are as important as the typography and images. The publishing world required me to be quite organised as I was often juggling a number of jobs at the same time and working towards a deadline. Being able to design my own cards and invitations has been really helpful over the years too. I also learned quite a bit about marketing, sales and the importance of good presentation. I love working with photographers and printers. I worked on a number of gardening books. A highlight was working with Howard Sooley, an amazing gentle man who had taken heart-wrenching photos of Derek Jarmen and his garden at Dungeness. The ‘garden’ has remained a favourite theme in my work. I love projects.
What does your process typically entail?
I’m constantly collecting images. I do admin in the mornings and get to the studio about 11am and then I potter. I look at stuff, I turn my paintings around, I look and look and then I mix a palette. I like to start with a generous amount of paint and I spend quite some time pre-mixing delicious colours. I usually work on a few paintings at the same time. I work best in the afternoon and I like to work into the night; I kind of accelerate into the day.
There’s a wonderful sense of playfulness to your work. What do you think accounts for this?
I’ve spent half my life learning to draw and paint figuratively and it has been rather a joy and relief to finally throw off those shackles and embrace pure abstraction. These days I really feel like the paintings paint themselves; I start somewhere and end up somewhere else entirely. I make a mark here and that makes me want to make a mark somewhere else. I put a colour down and then that makes me want to put another colour down somewhere else…I have no idea beforehand what the painting is going to end up like and every day is an adventure and full of surprise, and flops, and then little resurrections.
Can you tell us about what it is that you explore or express through your paintings? Are there any themes that seem to occur, or reoccur?
I started out as a still life painter and I suppose that the age-old idea of ‘memento-mori’ re-occurs; the cycles of life and death in nature.
How has the act of painting changed the way you look at (or think about) things?
Paintings have their own time and you can’t force an outcome. Expectations are rehearsals for disappointment. Painting is a kind of surrender; a constant balancing act between decision making and letting go. For all the lists and plans and grand schemes that I have in my head, when the paint is ‘flying’ something else just takes over. I’ve had to learn to trust that something else.
How important to you is the physical space you create in?
Very. I need natural light and space. My paintings start to reflect the environment around me and so I need to choose and create those environments carefully. I like to have visual stimulus around me. At the beginning of the year I was very lucky to be the resident artist at Luvey ‘n Rose then on Rose Street in the Bo-Kaap (now moved to Loop Street). The architectural grid, colour and chaos of the Bo-Kaap, is reflected in my recent work. My new studio in Woodstock has amazing kaleidoscopic views over rooftops and is a daily delight.
What do you love most about what you do? Alternately, what aspects do you find challenging?
I love the freedom of my days and not having anyone breathing down my neck. I like the spontaneity of my studio practice. I like to keep things open ended. I tend to prefer starting things to finishing them. When I get stuck on something I usually just start something else. I find exhibitions challenging because they require closure but they are also a good time to reflect on the fruits on one’s labour.
What are some of your current inspirations?
There is so much amazing stuff everywhere these days; design, animation, movies, magazines, art, the internet, art blogs…there is really just a glut of inspiration. Right now I’m in love with the works of John Murray and Paul Senyol.
Your solo show, Connect the Dots, opened at the Casa Labia cultural centre on 25 October. Tell us about the paintings you’re exhibiting?
The paintings are all about movement; strange shapes, dots and dashes flying through space. I was playing with mixing very gestural brush strokes with more graphic, flat and iconic shapes. As I layered colour upon colour strange shapes starting to emerge which I would choose to isolate or animate by pumping up the colour contrasts or hardening or softening the edges, flattening certain areas, dropping shadows or repeating patterns. The paintings are very upbeat.
What else are you working on at the moment, and what’s next?
I’m working towards the group shows Equus at the Cavalli Estate, Seeking Eden at Casa Labia and Golden Haze at Salon 91. I then start working on a two-man show with Paul Senyol at Salon 91 (on Kloof Street), which will take place towards the middle of next year.