Cait Clements was a classmate of mine, both of us graduating with our Master of Fine Arts in May of 2014 from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Soft spoken but articulate, Cait is influenced primarily by experiences in the natural world and atmosphere. Her work ranges from huge tapestry- like paintings that envelop the viewer in soft scenery and moods, to installations that are completely immersive and almost spiritual in nature. In one of her installations I visited, she blacked out an entire room. When you entered the space, your eyes needed a minute to adjust to the light. After you got used to the velvet darkness, you could make out a star like construction in the corner, slowly twirling, reflected softly by mirrors on either corner and illuminated by a barely-there light from the ceiling. A meditative art piece that was made of mostly natural elements, I wanted to stay in the space for a long time. The paintings reflect this meditation on nature by wrapping the viewer in an atmospheric experience. Cait invited me into her studio this May to talk a little bit about her process, inspiration, influences, and future plans.
J: Thanks so much, Cait, for having me in your studio today!
C: No problem!
J: Where are you from, Cait?
C: I’m originally from Jersey, so actually only about 20 minutes outside Philly.
J: When did you know that you wanted to be an artist?
C: Actually, when I was really, really little. I remember in first grade—and I’m still trying to find this picture in my mom’s stuff, but I remember in first grade they asked us to draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up, and I drew a picture of myself with this purple french beret and an easel.
J: That’s awesome! Have you found a purple french beret?
C: No (laughs).
J: So, where did you go to undergraduate school?
C: I went to undergraduate school at Rowan University, which is a small state college in New Jersey. I did a dual major of education and art, and then I also studied art history, so it was a lot of different aspects.
J: Cool. What mediums do you work in?
C: Well, I’ve done pretty much everything, from performance and video to sculpture and painting and classical stuff, but right now, the body of my work is the large scale paintings on drop cloth. They’re started with acrylic and oil, and charcoal, and then a lot of them get pastel and ink, and other traditional materials that are typically laying around my studio. But as the layers build up, I also add in organic materials like vines and leaves, and a lot of soil—for some reason I love using that, embedding it in the paint or dry petals. Anything that fits into it.
J: And what is the subject of your artwork?
C: I would describe it as the sensations of nature—not depicting a landscape or even a flower or tree, I’m depicting or describing what it feels like to really look at that tree, or really what it feels like to lay in a hill of grass, what it feels like to look at a waterfall, or fog, or snow. Usually a lot of weather.
J: So a lot of the elements really influence your work. What issues do your latest body of work deal with?
C: My latest body of work deals with being able to describe the sensations of elements and nature, but one of the things I deal with is trying to pinpoint how to put that in two dimensional form, and then also allowing that the viewer to feel that “Oh, that’s what it feels like,” to stand in fog, for example, or whatever I’m trying to depict. It’s kind of this transfer between me and the viewer.
J: So it’s a lot about experience. Have the impressionists influenced your way of making art at all?
C: Yeah, you know when I first started making paintings, I always loved them. I love Monet and Degas, and the classical impressionists. They definitely did influence me early on, when I first began my painting practice.
J: Yeah, that makes sense, because I know a lot of their goals were to create the impression and the feeling of the place.
C: And when you look at those paintings, you feel that way! And I remember being mesmerized by that: how did they know that this mark here would be what it looks like, for example, to look at the sun?
J: So what are some things that inspire or influence you in your work?
C: I guess one of the most inspiring things for me is looking at other contemporary work. Whether it’s going to the museum or a gallery opening, or a lot of times I’ll make artwork with another friend who’s making artwork. I feel like that energy play between myself and the other artist is inspiring—I love that. And then also I’ll find myself looking at one thing in particular– and I know I’ve referred to the fog before, but for the past three or four months this year, every time I saw fog, I was completely captivated by it. So those things kind of come naturally. I’m sure I’ll move on from the fog, and I don’t know what the next thing is going to be, but let’s say it’s a certain color of a twig—I’ll notice it everywhere. It’s those things that really inspire me.
J: So details within nature, combined with the experience of seeing them.
J: How do you begin a piece, from the idea?
C: When I begin, I usually have a pretty direct image in mind of what it’s going to look like. But I also work a lot with materials, and materiality is a big thing with my work. On the drop cloth, there are a lot of layers. So I’ll start it off with how I think it’s going to look, and then I like to tack them to the wall at first. Then I’ll put them on the floor, and I’ll take a bucket and pour water over it, and certain things will stay and certain things will wash away. I’ll see things that I like. I keep working on the painting, especially in the beginning, until it tells me what it’s going to look like. It’s like I’m solving a puzzle—pieces keep coming to me and then I realize that they should stay. Then I build on them. It is half me and half the material.
J: Interesting. What do you hope the viewer will feel or think when they see your work?
C: I hope they get a sense of how I felt making it. I feel like I work pretty intensely, and they’re very emotional for me. I think at the end of the day every artist hopes that their audience can get a glimpse into how they felt making it. But for me its almost like a diary—every painting I can remember where I was or what I was feeling and what was going on in my life at the time. And I know that they’ll never see that, but I hope that there’s something intense about them that gives even a half of a second of the emotion that went into it.
J: Cool. Could you tell me about how you choose the color palette for each piece?
C: When I started painting I was using a very muted palette—I was into the tonalist painters. And then I got worried that it was too muted, so I started using a ton of color. But it just wasn’t me, and it didn’t feel authentic, it felt like I was trying. So then I got angry in the studio one day, and everything when to black and white. And I still have some of the paintings that are totally black and white—a greyscale. I had some critics come in who were like, “Well, maybe you should try color”— monochromatic yellows, or whatever. So I very hesitantly started adding in like one color at a time to the greyscale. So a lot of them start in greyscale. And then I slowly let color introduce itself into the painting. This one (motions to a painting) is really grey right now. But when it’s done, it’s going to be pretty bright, at least in spots.
J: It’s interesting though, with them being so muted, you really notice any color that’s in it.
C: Yeah, I really like that. The other reason I think I liked greyscale is that is that using a simple material like a drop cloth is that I really feel like I can push getting a lot out of a little. That’s what I focus on in my installations, and my performances— how much can I get out of this very simple material? And I feel like that also acts a metaphor for life. So in my thesis I talked a lot about that. The beauty in simplicity.
J: Do you look at a lot of Asian art?
C: I do! I knew the very famous Japanese prints, but I never really looked that far into them, and then someone lent me a really huge, thick book of all these Asian prints—mostly woodcut, and I loved it. I was trying to think, how can I take a gigantic piece of wood and carve into it and maybe start playing that into the painting, because I feel like they kind of reference that.
J: They do—they remind me of it. Like the ones with the huge hills and the grandness of nature.
C: Yeah, I feel like there’s a flatness to them, the Asian prints, but there’s also a depth to them, and that’s what I love about the prints, so I think that definitely plays into the paintings.
J: What contemporary artists would you be happy to be compared to?
C: I would be honored if I was compared to Pat Steer. And Ansel Keefer—definitely a Keefer fan. Which, both of them work very, very differently, but I look at their work all the time, and I feel like pieces of their work end up in mine. Actually, there’s an installation artist, her name is Claire Morgan, out of the UK…she does these suspended sculptures, and she uses organic materials. She’ll use feathers, and recreate a bird that flies through the exhibit, and she’s used petals–I mean, you can’t even list how many materials. Even though I’m not making the installations right now, I look at her a lot, and when I’m making my paintings, I’ll remember something she did. They’re pretty romantic, and epic. I haven’t seen one in person yet, but I’m dying to.
J: Describe some interesting technical details about making your work.
C: They’re very physical. And they start with a lot of paint build up and washes. Then I take pieces of wood and start to carve into that paint.
J: Do you carve lines, or images?
C: Usually lines. Like I love crosshatching. I don’t know what it is, but everything I do I find myself going horizontal, vertical—it’s a love of scratching, a lot of muscle going into them. I also love that the paintings are free, not on stretchers. Actually I wish they were a little more free. They get a little rough around the edges when the paint is on there, but eventually I want to find a lighter material so they have a little air flow to them, like a tapestry. So I scratch in them a lot, pull them to the floor, fold them.
J: How do you know when it’s finished?
C: Scott Noel asked me that at my final review (laughs). They can be done in two days, or they can be done in two months, and it’s just a matter of layers. But each layer, there’s going to be something left over–it’s not a complete covering. And I just keep working on it until they’re these worlds to me. I’m very in it when I’m creating it. There has to be this moment when there is nothing else besides me and the painting, and it’s not two dimensional anymore. I get this glimpse into it where I feel like I’m in it. And when I get there, I try to stop.
J: What is a transformative experience that would tell us something about your work or why you became an artist?
C: When I think of why I kept going with it, I think of when I was in high school. I feel like it wasn’t really accepted in the high school I went to. I didn’t try to stick out with it, except I would show my high school art teacher things I made. I remember others kind of putting their stuff out there a lot, and I didn’t do that, so nobody knew that I really did art. But I loved it, and I think I kind of felt competitive with it— I wanted to draw the best, you know? And at my high school graduation, for the awards night, the art award was “Most outstanding artistic ability for our graduating class.” And I didn’t even consider that I would get it. I got it—and it meant so much to me that my art teacher knew, and I realized that this was something I could do. I always wanted to do it, but that really gave me the courage. My art teacher was really cool. We still keep in touch, and she attended the Annual Student Exhibition for my graduation.
J: You saw great success with the ASE at PAFA. What are some ideas that you are working on towards the future?
C: For the next year I just want to show as much as possible, anywhere and everywhere. And I also would like to do a residency. Somewhere, no matter how short, I just think it would be cool. So this year I will just focus on showing in Philly, but I would like to show in other cities and meet other people from different art worlds and different cities. I would really like to show in Chicago and New York, and I have this thing where I really want to show in London. I think if I get a show in London I would be really happy. I just love that city. I’ve been there before and I love how much they love their art.