Catherine Lewis

Catherine Lewis in Meduse

Catherine Lewis - Méduse Report 2004

Residence de Creation

January to March 2004

I travelled to Québec City with my family – my partner and four year old daughter. It was important to me that we all went; my daughter is an integral part of me and my work, and I would not leave her for three months. Also, it was an experience that I wanted her to have, even being as young as she is, she will always have it within her now. There are few residencies where this is possible, and that is a shame (as well as being discriminatory!). It cuts out a whole section of artists from the residence experience, and forces women to make unfair and difficult decisions.

After a long and tiring journey, a friendly face meets us at Québec airport: Celine - a member of Engramme - picked us up in the early evening. The first test of my French as she spoke only a very little English (as I came to realise is true of the majority of Québecois). It was snowing and about -25°C. Celine took us to Méduse, introduced us to Martine and our home for the next three months.

It takes a week to come down to earth, although I try to get into working as soon as I can. My first walk alone on the second day to find an art store; I find a leather worker, second hand shop, park, applied art gallery, digital print centre etc… all ten minutes from my door. I love it. The freedom to just BE in a new environment is stimulating, fascinating and wonderful. I consider reinventing myself - no one knows me, I can be whatever/whoever I want. In the end, I am just my usual self, but in such an alien climate and landscape I feel different.

Although incredibly cold, the air and landscape is bright, sunny and very beautiful. I spend the first week settling in with the family. We shop, play, meet and photograph. The temperature varies from –20°C to –45°C with wind chill. Ten minutes outside and you can feel your eyes and nose freezing.

Required - two sets of clothing carried around: indoor and outdoor shoes and jackets. Dressing and undressing becomes a different ritual. Shoes, bags, scarves, hats, gloves, snow pants etc…The fur hoods are for a purpose – to catch the vaporous breath and disperse it so that the water doesn’t freeze, and a warmer bubble of air is held in front of your face.

Within three days of arriving there was a big exhibition opening – ‘vernissage’: ‘La Disparission’, which was a film and photographic program organised by Vu, with exhibits in the Méduse spaces of Vu gallery, L’oeil du Poisson, La Bande Video and Engramme, with additional shows in the Laval University gallery and at gallerie Rouje. There were 16 artists involved overall, from Québec, France, Belgium and Poland. There was also a catalogue, discussion and conference. This was a fine introduction to the diverse, professional and unique nature of Québecois visual art.

Engramme were the hosts for my residency. This meant that for the most part I worked within their facilities. Everyone was friendly and helpful; the workshops are easy to work in, with explanations around on all facilities. The workshops are generally not busy, although there was nearly always someone around to help and answers questions. Louise was always very kind, always happy to help (loaning DVD’s to us, giving books to Mia).

In the second week we are all invited to lunch in the upstairs digital studio, which also houses the library of catalogues and technical books, as well as print editions from Members exhibitions. I met president Pauline who shared her wonderful collection of books featuring Inuit clothing and embroidery (The old Indian name for Québec is Ludovica). We also met ten or so other members. Engramme’s members cover a wide range of ages and disciplines, from very traditional lithography to new digital and sound installations. They are keen to integrate digital techniques and embrace new processes within their great experience of the traditional.

I went to Québec knowing that I wanted to pursue my work in mixed media print – integrating digital outputs with traditional techniques. The facilities and attitude at Méduse were perfect for that end. Also of great importance to me was the fact that I was under no pressure to produce a final outcome of any definite form. My previous research had me looking at skin and protection, and the basic human need to join and stitch. This need was to become very apparent to me in the incredibly harsh climate of Québec. That early inhabitants had survived here was a testament to this. In my youth I had been repulsed by the use of animal fur for clothing, yet here I was in one of the original fur trading posts! A strange coincidence – just before leaving, the BBC aired a Ray Meers survival program situated in Banff and Siberia, with Meers following a native family and their caribou heard. The women stitched boots made of skin and fur. I was hooked.

On the 5th February Mois multi begins. A multi media festival spanning a month, held in the two performance spaces in Méduse, and organised by Recto Verso. This was a real experience for me – I had little experience of professional performance work up to then. The opening ‘Par Bonheur/il y a’ by Marcelle et Louis Hudon, was spellbinding. Light, sound, puppetry, dance, comedy and tragedy – it was all there and I wanted to watch it all over again to capture all the nuances and intricacies that my eyes couldn’t take in all at once. Many other intriguing and strange pieces followed over the month. Artificiel’s installation ‘Bulbes’ was a captivating sight, one that I sat in on many times.

By the second month I had bought a fur trimmed coat (second-hand) and met a wonderful new friend! Georgia Volpe had been mentioned to me by a few people, all saying that we had to meet as there were similarities in our experience and ideas. She coincidentally works using textiles and body image. From Brazil originally, she met and married a Québecois man following a residence in Vu – tempting! She now has a young boy Joaquim, whom Mia adopted as a little brother. We go looking for ‘fripperies’ together! She is so happy, friendly and funny, with really inspiring, interesting and relevant stories and viewpoints related to my work.

My Skin arrives in week four. An artificial skin product called Integra, used in the treatment of severe burns, made from cow collagen and shark cartilage. I put it in the freezer and contemplate what to do with it. I cut a small square and put it out into the snow on the balcony to watch – it snows that night and I loose sight of it for five weeks. When it emerges, it looks the same. Eventually I dry it out – thread it, stretch it, print and stitch onto it.

The next exhibition in Engramme was a mixed show from print collective Circulaire, based in Montréal. A variety of print techniques and styles from some of Québec's best-known print artists were on display.

During the second month, I spend a lot of hours in the museum archives, examining details of Inuit garments and artefacts. The necessity of clothing, and the honourable use of animal materials fascinate me. It all links in – skin, stitching, protection, human need, desire and comfort; I could spend years recording and investigating this. I feel there is no rush to get to an end point – the result of a lack of financial restraints and pressure I suppose. This work is not for sale – not for anyone else. Just me.

Towards the end of the time, I spend many late nights working in the Engramme atelier Gravure. I loved those times of solitude; concentrated working. But I worry that I get carried away with the excitement of having the availability of new processes, and forget my concerns and the conceptual direction of my work. Does it matter – is there still a subconscious underlying current of thought that directs the practical work anyway?

I was fortunate to be able to fit in a three day exhibition of my work in progress, in the Engramme gallery.

For the opening, I displayed work in situ on the metal press beds where I had spent my evenings. The cold hard surface contrasts with the softness of the textiles and paper, akin to like cadavers on a mortuary slab. I gave a short talk about my work and the experience of being in residence in such a unique place.

Following me was an exhibition by Jean de Chantal Cote, a member of Engramme. ‘Eau, Lieu’ was a moving piece with large monoprinted hangings, a digital printed ‘river’ and soundtrack . Truly multi media.

I will never regret or forget anything done during my time in Ville de Québec – a huge thank you Wales Arts International, Ville de Québec and Méduse for the opportunity of a lifetime that will enrich and feed my creative practice, and hopefully those around me, for a long time to come.

By Catherine Lewis

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