Frustration Overcome

Article by Cassie Proudfoot in Canberra Times, May 2000

"My gallery in Sydney went bust, and in the meantime I had realised that Canberra is a real centre for culture, so I decided to exhibit my work here," international printmaker Katie Clemson says of her first ACT show. "I hadn't realised when I first got to Canberra that people actually travel here to experience cultural opportunities."

Originally from West Wyalong, Clemson has been a British diplomat's wife for the past few decades, which naturally involves a lot of travel, and a fairly nomadic lifestyle. Against all the odds, she has maintained a career in printmaking since the 1970s, despite the disruption inherent in constant world travel.

Printmaking would seem to be one of the least portable art forms, but Clemson got around that - she brought her own printing press. "It's a table-top Albion," she says, "It weighs an awful lot, it takes two burly blokes to get it up and down stairs, but it really does the job." The poor souls who arrange diplomatic transfers and have to arrange transport for this cumbersome monster must curse the Clemsons every time they relocate.

Clemson concedes that a (relatively) portable printing press does have its limitations. "To be honest, what you are seeing here is the work of a frustrated printmaker," she says. The prints in her current exhibition at Beaver Gallery are mostly 30x23cm, the largest paper size the press can handle. "It has been interesting scaling down," she says. "When I am in England I make huge prints, but I have quite enjoyed this process. And I think it has made my work more accessible to people."

During her irregular periods in England, Clemson runs the Whitegum Press Print Workshop in the New Forest, which she established in 1987. "It tends to be an outlet for professional Australian artists in England, but not necessarily printmakers," she says. "So that tends to lead towards a very fresh and uninhibited output, because they have no preconceptions about the rules of printmaking."

For this show, Watermarks, Clemson has broken one of her own rules, and is exhibiting mixed-media paitings alongside her landscape prints. "The paintings take four to five hours out in the landscape," she explains. "They are bigger and look more worked on, and a lot of people find it hard to believe that they are the point of inspiration for the prints. But for the prints I start dissecting those larger paintings, and focusing on the essential elements."

"The prints are much brighter than the ... paintings, because the prints are about the momentary moods I might have had out in the landscape. I truly believe the colours were that bright out there, but perhaps only for a moment, here and there." Perhaps it is her Australian heritage, but Clemson prefers the Australian landscape, with its brash colour and misty light. "I find that misty mood of the English half-light quite depressing," she says. "I am more interested in the in-your-face brightness of Australian light."

Even when she's in Australia she prefers the bright sunshine of Central Australia and the Pilbara to the mood-setting sunsets beloved of many landscape artists. "When the sun sets or rises and the light goes all soft is the moment when I am packing up and going in for a glass of wine," she says. "I want the full-on colours and light in my work."

Clemson conceived and completed this work at Bundanon, the property on the Shoalhaven River that was dedicated to the Australian Arts community by the late Arthur Boyd, whose bridegroom-series painting was recently sold for the highest price ever received for an Australian artwork. Bundanon artists' residences are for six weeks, but because of her busy diplomatic lifestyle, Clemson had to split hers into two three-week periods, one in spring and one in the autumn.

In spring she completed most of the drawing and painting in the landscape, and in the autumn she took her printing press to Bundanon to begin printing work for this show. "I probably started these prints this time last year at Bundanon," she says. "It has taken eight months, and I have buried my head out at a cottage at Tarago for the past few months to get everything finalised."

Clemson is committed to exploring landscape in her work. "I react to what's around me and take what I want from the landscape," she says. "Landscape painters - it is very easy to say that they are just reproducing what they see. I've been accused over the years of not being a terribly cerebral artist. But I think this work is about me. It is very me."

Footnote by Katie's husband Alex
For those who are confused by some of the points above, I'd been in the domestic civil service not the diplomatic service before I was posted to Canberra. And Clemson is Katie's maiden name: my surname is Allan.

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