Kate French is widely revered as a teacher of portrait sculpture. She travels extensively conducting workshops and as artist in residence.
‘The first medium I was drawn to was clay ceramics, focusing on figurative and portrait sculpture. I love to tell a story about archetypal characters who birth themselves in my studio.’
Interview extract from the Sculptors Queensland Website:
Kate French: An Afternoon with Gladys
What was the major factor in your becoming a sculptor?
My Father was a carpenter, and as a child there was an abundance of timber off-cuts to play with. I would lose myself for hours playing with them building outlandish, topple-heavy, constructions. In these buildings there were always windowish cracks, and lying on my belly I could peep through them into this other worldly place. Instinctively, I became aware there was inside to everything,and that it didn’t necessarily echo what could be easily seen from the outside. This is the very essence of my sculptural work today.
What are some of the experiences that have influenced you through your development?
When I started sculpting and painting, I was very enamoured by beautifully crafted representational work, which I still appreciate. Abstract art was for the pretenders. Several years ago I went to an exhibition curated by Sophie McIntyre, held at the Gold Coast Art Centre. It was a joint exhibition of Taiwanese artists. There was drawing, installation art, “sculpture”, all of it, to my eyes, ugly beyond belief. I had done the rounds of this exhibition several times looking for something to justify the effort of being there, and getting more and more annoyed by the moment. So, I finished up looking at the most seriously ugly thing that had ever called itself art, sending it hate vibes. Then, these spreading goose-bumps took over my whole body, the tears started, I didn’t understand what was happening, but it was exquisite. Five return visits later, the lights came on. This sculpture was notfor the head, it did not need my understanding, it simply needed to be felt, in an emotional sense. This one experience has changed the way I approached art in any form since, whether I create it, of take of it. It changed my life. (Sophie, where ever you are, thank you.)
Who inspires you from the sculptors of the past and sculptors of today?
There are so many, I can’t start listing them. In my early twenties I stood in front of Daphne Mayo’s “The Olympian”, and said out loud “if I could ever get anywhere close to being that good…..”. I look at that work now as a marker of my journey as a sculptor. Life experience, aesthetic preferences, a desire for a richer emotional connection have all changed the way I view other artists work and approach my own. Fortunately the goal posts change. John Bastow, Sculptor (dec’d), was a great mentor. His advice to me, “You are creative. Anywhere your imagination wants to take you is yours to go to, yours to use”. It was an amazing gift. I also have my Grandmother to thank, she of the busy hands…. always making things out of junk, broken bottles, old bits of tile, coloured string, eggshells. There was no surface that evaded her decorating touch, no material that was not a candidate for her use. She always said I would die of “ imaginitis”. This sounded like an exotic compliment as a child, so I felt no need to change.
Can you describe an artist/piece of art that has had a profound impact on you and why?
Jacob Epstein, his work in general, but his portraiture in particular. His is not ‘pretty’ work, but it is ripe with physical and emotional texture. He was a genius. “If I could ever get anywhere close to being that good……”
What achievement in your career as a sculptor has meant the most to you? Why?
More than any singular event or piece of work, it is a general confidence with my chosen medium and subject. In the past several years, it has been the art form of teaching. It was a conscious decision to view this element of my art life in this light, as an Art form in its own right. I have learned a stunning amount from teaching. To watch people come to the studio full of apprehension, sometimes fear, and then watch that be replaced by excitement, confidence and pride in their achievement is a treat and an honour – every time. On a personal note, it is to know that what I have created has meaning to someone other than me. An elderly lady came to one of my exhibition openings several years ago. A couple of days later I received a beautifully handwritten letter telling me she had been visiting galleries regularly for over 40 years and “she had never seen anything so honest and true. It had made her cry”. That was, and still is a highlight. In essence, the greatest achievements have been those where I have been able to communicate deeply, via art.
What do you believe are the greatest hurdles a sculptor must overcome to achieve success?
They are many, but the two most significant ones are to try to align the creative side with the business side. Every artist wants to immerse themselves entirely in the creative process, but without attending to the commercial side (galleries, exhibitions, artist statements, project proposals, pricing, networking, taxation, invoicing, advertising, web site maintenance, remembering to eat etc), we could all end up with an audience of one, ourselves. Alternatively, I recommend a very good Spouse.
What is the largest or most significant work you have ever made? What were the special considerations?
What were the special considerations? The most significant work, the one that I have the most personal interest in, and attachment to, is still in creation. It is also certainly not my largest physical work. It is my gallery of Poets, Explorers and Visionaries. The special considerations for these portraits, is communication with the people they were close to, who still remember them, the input from those people is in the form of photos, stories and critique.
What advice would you give to those hoping to achieve success as a sculptor?
Enjoy living simply, observe more, experiment more, wear gloves when handling toxic materials, forget the bloody Jones’s, learn to love lentils, delete perfectionism, accept that some of your life is going to be financially rough, know that your greatest failures are also the seeds of your most wonderful discoveries, judge all your own efforts with kindness but honesty, seek the company of other fringe dwellers ( for feelings of normality), seek the company of public servants ( for feelings of “phew, I am so glad to be a fringe dweller”) periodically soak yourself in galleries, museums, music, food and wine. Know that there is one person out there who belongs to each work you create, and, that they will mortgage their very dog to have it! Truly treasure your family and friends, accept the generosity of others with grace, be generous when the sun is shining on you. Have one person you trust implicitly to critique your work. Play. It is a life, not a job.
If a book were to be written about you, what would you like the title to be?
“The Ups and Downs of Crowsfoot and Frown.”