And it’s done

Today Penny Kirk and I gave an artist’s talk at Left Bank Art Gallery in Greymouth to mark the end of our joint exhibition. I’m so proud of Penny for putting herself and her art out there.

Here’s my talk: Good afternoon, my name is Cath Sheard, and I come from Patea in South Taranaki. In 2008 I graduated with an Advanced Diploma in Creativity (Honours) from the Learning Connexion. At the time my mentor, Pete Adsett, said “your art surface has relentlessly been attacked by a single mark to deface it. It’s a form of violence where the viewer can see the speed in which you work”.

Peter queried my process when I painted large cream lines on a black wall as part of the final exhibition, asking if I stood back regularly to check the work. He recorded my response in his final letter to me … I had said at the time “I feel the mark, not see it. I feel when it is right”.

14 years on I think Peter would be surprised to see the works Penny and I have created. To explain why, I need to go back to 2016 and the start of this journey.

In 2016 I had weight loss surgery and, in the aftermath, I met Penny in an online support community. We quickly discovered we had a lot of common – fat, weight loss surgery, jobs in local or central government, and art. Oh, and we live in different islands! I come from Patea, a rural town of around 800, on the west coast of the North Island, 90 minutes from Mount Taranaki. That distance became a crucial part of our art journey.

Penny was nearer the start of her art journey than me, but quickly found a fearlessness that has created room for formidable growth in her art practice. She’s also been fearless in exploring the why of her weight issues, a journey I’m on. It’s a truism that most obese people eat their feelings. Art provides a way to process feelings we can no longer eat and may not be able to express in words.

For me, the spoken word is a tricky thing when it comes to emotions. As a library manager I can look you in the eye and talk about books on any topic at all, but ask me to talk about my own emotions and I have no words. I art journal daily, and my journals are a safe place to download my head and say the things I can’t verbalise.

As part of her Learning Connexion studies Penny needed to do a collaborative project and asked if I’d be interested. Absolutely. We weren’t sure exactly where it would go, but I don’t think either of us could have imagined this!

We sent work back and forth across the Straight, working on the same pieces over and over. I can remember my excitement the first time I got a huge parcel from Penny with her for me to work on. Working ON someone else’s work – wow! I can also remember how tentative those first explorations were. What if she didn’t like what I did? What if I changed a piece she really liked? What if she hated it?

I did some careful, safe work and sent it back to Penny. NZPost loves us, by the way. Each time we received work from each other we talked about what we thought, used Messenger to look at and discuss tiny sections of individual works, and talked about the processes we used.

Over time we got braver, less concerned with the response of the other creator. It wasn’t long before I was comfortably gluing collage materials over Penny’s work or running huge drips of paint down her carefully articulated linework. At the same time, I got used to opening a parcel from Penny and discovering orange gauze stitched on, swathes of oil pastel and miles of delicately traced pencil work connecting the work to the edges.

As the collaboration developed it became more and more firmly embedded in the body, in our experience as obese women working to save our own lives from the costs of being fat, and the physical and emotional scars that journey holds. As we covered paper with paint, ink, pencil, and collage materials we were also covering the paper with our emotions, the feelings we were learning to identify, and the remnants of the lives we were leaving behind.

Part way though the collaboration we started to develop an interest in words – adding words into the works, writing poetry, cutting text from books as collage material. My art, and my art journals, tell stories I don’t have the words for. Yet it turns out I do have the words if I write poetry. If you’ve been through the exhibition, you’ve seen some of our writing, and heard me reading the poetry. I would like to read a piece for you that I wrote for this closing talk, knowing that standing here would make me feel exposed.

My scars are a record
Of all the times I’ve been broken
Of all the ways my body has been fixed
My scars are
Thin thick
Short long
Flat raised
Red white silver
Ugly beautiful
My scars are a book a surgeon can read
A map for a lover’s fingers to trace
A litany written on my soul
My scars are
Ugly beautiful
Mine

The more Penny and I talked, created, talked, created and then talked some more, the more we learned, and the less we knew with any certainty. Some things we were sure of. Losing a huge amount of weight means being seen for the first time in, well, forever. Being seen is deeply uncomfortable. I hope she doesn’t mind me saying this, but Penny and I have both put some of the weight back on from our lowest point, which admittedly was too low. Part of that is about health, sure, but part of it is also about the discomfort we felt it being SEEN.

The ’fat positivity’ movement might be popular on social media and with fans of Lizzo, but obesity is still seen as lazy and disgusting. For most women, and presumably men, being fat equates to being invisible in Western culture. Lose the weight and people start to look at you and, bizarrely, feel free to comment on your body. These artworks, and the accompanying words, speak to the journey we’ve been on, from fat and invisible, to slimmer and seen.

Which brings me fill circle, back to the works themselves. What did the collaboration do for my art practice? The lazy answer would be “it reinvigorated it”. That’s true but misses the richness of the experience. I learned to let go out the outcome, to trust Penny’s vision, to focus more on process in the early stages of a work, and not to get too attached to anything. It’s incredibly freeing to know that what you’re doing might stay, might get covered up, or even ripped out.

I’m incredibly grateful to Penny for the opportunity to share my life journey, and my art practice, with her. I’d like to thank Alan Fowlie for welcoming me into his home whenever I come down to work with Penny. Thanks also to Cassandra for her support, and Left Bank Art Gallery for being a wonderful venue. Thank you all for your interest in our work, and for being here this afternoon.

I learned to be more fearless in the early stages of a work, then slower and more thoughtful as works felt like they were nearing completion. Sometimes Penny would send a work with a post it note saying “I think this is nearly done” and I’d add one line, one small mark and know the work was complete.