Working at the intersection of art, science and medicine, British artist Katharine Dowson works mainly in glass. Her scientific sculptures brought her to the attention of the curators of Spellbound, currently on show at the Ashmolean, Oxford (to 6 January 2019). Katharine Dowson was one of three artists commissioned to make new work for the show which explores witchcraft and magical objects, and her piece Concealed Shield is an earrie installation at the dark heart of the exhibition.
Dowson studied sculpture at the Royal College of Art and you might have seen her work on a Paul McCartney video. She has exhibited internationally and collections include The Wellcome Trust, The Arts Council Collection, Microsoft Seattle, Cultura Englesa Brazil, The Ulster Museum, Aberdeen Art Gallery, The institute of Neuroscience Newcastle University and Private Collections. She was bought by Charles Saatchi and is included in ‘Shark Infested Waters, Saatchi Collection of British Art in the 90’s’.
WIA: What are you doing today?
Katharine Dowson: Trying to find solutions to problems. I have been on the phone trying to find fabricators, dealing with admin then off to the studio with my car boot full of sacks of plaster. My studio is full of the trials for the installation Concealed Shield, which I need to sort out, so there is room for the next project.
WIA: Tell us about your creative process
KD: My work is the result of discussions with academics, sharing the latest research in their field, and then creating a piece, which visually addresses this research. Normally these discussions are with scientists, but my most recent work was in collaboration with a historian. For me, it is all about asking questions and absorbing, like a sponge, as much information as possible. Often I find myself asking a question of ‘what if’ and then seeing the resulting answer in a sculpture. I then work through the problems until I get to the final artwork that I see finished in my imagination. Sculpture is all about problem solving and in the end, something that looks easy to make has gone through a rigorous, practical design process. I then work out dimensions on paper, but the ideas tend to come fully formed quite quickly.
WIA: Describe where you do most of your creative work
KD: A lot of the thinking may happen outside my studio, when I am out walking, on holiday or just during the space of time when normal life happens. Often it will be at the kitchen table (as it is in the warmest room in the house!)
WIA: What’s the most exciting project you’ve worked on?
KD: This is difficult to say – hearing about the scientific world from researchers is fascinating and I get a thrill exploring the subject matter they are working on. But each project has its own excitement and challenges. Probably the most exciting was Spectacular Bodies: A History of Anatomical Art from Leonardo to Now in the Hayward Gallery 2000. I made a 6 metre glass brain and spine called Pia Mater, which hung in the stairwell. The Art of Saving a Life Project for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was also a wonderful project to be a part of. I worked with Researchers at Imperial College London, who were looking into HIV Aids and the quest for a possible vaccine. The final work, A Window to the Future of an HIV Vaccine, is now in the Microsoft headquarters in Seattle.
WIA: What made you decide to become an artist?
KD: I can’t recall an exact moment, but I think it must have been an inevitability from the beginning. I have always loved making and creating things. I originally trained as a couture dressmaker after leaving school and worked in the fashion world for a while but eventually went back to my first great love of sculpture. It was like coming home when I finally went to art school in my early 20’s.
WIA: What are you currently working on?
KD: I have just finished working on an installation entitled, Concealed Shield that is in the Exhibition Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft at the Ashmolean Oxford. It’s a large glass heart hanging high up from the ceiling, in a blacked out room representing a chimney, with red laser diodes illuminating the glass and sending shadows that gently move around the room. Sounds emanate from the walls, suggesting animals or insects behind the skirting board, making it a disconcerting space to be in. I am now working on a commission to make a new work for an Exhibition in China in 2019 about the environmental crisis. I am also in the process of digitising videos made over several years of work that has movement or a kinetic component to it. I will be posting short edited clips of these soon.
WIA: Do you listen to music while you work, and if so, what’s your soundtrack?
KD: It depends on what I am doing but I love the radio. It’s usually classical, otherwise Radio 4 or 4Extra keeps me company while I do the boring stuff that every artist has to deal with. When I am drawing, I put on a high-energy playlist of music from all eras.
WIA: What are the key themes in your work?
KD: Science, medicine, the hidden elements of life, also the vulnerability of the natural world.
WIA: What would you like people to notice in your work?
KD: I want people to engage with the work so as to feel part of it. I hope they will spot aspects that draw attention to the fragility and vulnerability of life and what it is to be human, also uncover worlds that would otherwise remain hidden and the visual similarities found within nature.
WIA: What attracts you to the mediums you work in?
KD: I work primarily in glass, used in my work as a metaphor for a membrane or a window which you can see through to something beyond. Glass is a fascinating contradiction, fragile yet also very robust. I use light to reveal hidden worlds within the glass and often lenses to play with vision and perception.
WIA: What equipment could you not do without?
KD: Sketch book and pencil. Often it is so much easier to demonstrate visually what you are trying to describe verbally.
WIA: Who or what inspires you?
KD: The bravery of people who stand up to totalitarian regimes, scientists and the war etchings by Otto Dix.
WIA: How does gender affect your work?
KD: My work is not about gender but I have found that being a woman and a sculptor used to trouble others. Nothing irritated me more than when I was at art school having people being surprised that women could be sculptors, such a male occupation back then. I was only one of a very few women in the sculpture schools during my BA and MA but it has changed now thank goodness! Even the name of my occupation caused problems. I had to fight to call myself a ‘sculptor’, as it is non-gender specific, rather than ‘sculptress’, which is.
WIA: What’s your favourite gallery, or place to see or experience art?
KD: I was lucky to have been at school in London and so spent my years trawling the Museums and Galleries. The Hunterian in the Royal College of Surgeons and the Sir John Soane Museum are particular favourites, also the late Turner rooms in Tate Britain.
WIA: If you could own one piece of art, what would it be and why?
KD: Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical sketchbook. His shear brilliance and quest for knowledge and drawing ability and artistry and, and, and!
WIA: If you could collaborate with one artist, from any time, who would it be, and why?
KD: Leonardo. See above
WIA: Is there an artist, movement or collective you’d like to see re-evaluated, or a contemporary artist who is underrated?
KD: Not so much underrated per se, but there are two artists that certainly seem to be mentioned less now than they used to be. One is Eva Hess. She had a huge influence on my work with the anatomical suggestiveness of the materials she used. Also Graham Sutherland, whose drawings and paintings are highly evocative and full of energy.
WIA: What’s your favourite colour
KD: Dark Teal
Making of Katharine’s work short film: https://vimeo.com/281269896