on the existential nature of bridging distance
I drive on roads flanked by huge up-ended trees, toppled like a line of sliced broccoli. Kathryn’s riverside suburb was one of the worst hit by the surprise supercell storm late last year in Brisbane. Cyclonic winds and softball-sized hailstones cracked and shattered glass windows and balcony doors on entire sides of older apartment blocks.
Even though there was only one window open in Kathryn’s home, the storm was so ferocious that it left a wet flourish of leaves and debris across her living room floor. But her paintings, hanging on 1970s wood panelling, were preserved dry and intact.
We cancel our first meeting so Kathryn can sweep the outside from her home. When I finally make my way up the overgrown front path, she’s airing the drawers and contents of a sodden window cupboard. She makes me a cup of tea and tidies the dishes off a small round table that sits to one side of the living room. Everything in the home directs your eye to Kathryn’s paintings or through the large glass windows that look out over the Brisbane River creating a sense of space even in the city.
Kathryn is a tall, striking woman with the long slim arms and legs of a teenager. As she talks, I realise I had expected, or perhaps wanted her to say that she found belonging in the midst of creation: at the moment when she begins her chaotic orchestration of layering oil paint and splashes of turpentine onto Belgian linen stretchers on the floor of her studio-garage. My pedestrian expectations were dwarfed by Kathryn’s insight.
”It’s strange because I couldn’t help but resonate with that sense that not belonging is a stimulus for creative work. Not belonging really interests me. It’s not that I don’t have moments of a sense of being a part of something or feel great at a particular time but I must admit that I get very animated when I talk about my paintings and particularly the more cosmic ones.
”I was talking with someone recently and she asked if humanity had to go to another planet what would you like to do there? I was the first person in ten years who didn’t blink an eye at going to another planet. I guess I belong to the universe. In terms of thinking in an expansive way, my horizons are not earth-bound. Where can you go with that really?’’
For Kathryn, who reads up on string theories, existential risk and cosmology to inform her art, belonging has moved beyond the tactile-emotional nature of motherhood and connecting intimately with another human being. Her belonging both includes and surpasses the human touch and even geography; it seems to exist in the expanding and contracting space between the vast and the intimate, between different cultures, between different individuals.
Even when she was growing up on the flat treeless Pirrinuan Plain of Queensland Australia, she was fascinated with distance and felt ”embraced by the horizon”. In this way she echoes the words of author David Malouf: ”your childhood experiences are formative in a way you can never escape.”
”I grew up on a farm outside Dalby and even though I really wanted to leave the country there is something about that landscape that still draws me. When I was a child I dreamt I could fly and indeed I knew what my parents’ farm looked like from the sky even though I had never been in an airplane above it.
”Much of my work is influenced by that landscape: treeless, flat, relentless blue skies, forty feet of topsoil that would crack open in the dry, amazing endless night skies that twinkled with the Milky Way, changing colours — like someone had flung jewels across the sky. As a younger person I couldn’t wait to leave but now the landscape is still home.
”If you want to get metaphoric about it, I feel I belong in a sense of distance. The cosmos is both near and far. It’s a type of distance where you can experience everything. You’re vulnerable but also inquisitive. Growing up on that farm of my childhood has been a major influence. I agree with David Malouf that everything comes back to our childhood.
”When we had foreigners visit our farm, they would often have physical reactions to our landscape. They’d get very tired. It was almost too much for them to cope with. When I see photos of those flat areas in America, like Kansas, Texas and Nevada, I wonder if I’d feel some kind of resonance there. I certainly do when I see the photos.”
Kathryn’s belonging lies not just in geographic or spacial distance, but in the intangible breadth between individuals, between cultures, between our varied histories. It comes as no surprise then that she’s inspired by both the plasticity of early Renaissance Florentine artist Paolo Uccello and the epic tribal pop of contemporary French musician Woodkid. Both artists create a heightened expectancy in their works by shaping depth and perspective.
Her first exhibit in the Middle East changed her. Discussions with people in the United Arab Emirates highlighted the fundamental power of art to draw east and west together.
”It gave me such a buzz because I had multiple conversations every day with people from all over the region and, in my paintings, it was the tree of life that I never needed to explain. They just knew. The conversations ended up not being about the paintings but about our common humanity. It had a profound effect on me because it made me realise tolerance of difference wasn’t necessarily a good thing and neither is sympathy. Sympathy can emotionally colonize people into continued inequality, whereas compassion doesn’t have that automatic hierarchy of sender and receiver. Compassion opens us up to similarities. To common human similarities. And tolerance is a hard word, indicating a kind of directive to tolerate difference that blinds us to these similarities.
”Yes, I had a sense of belonging but it was a belonging that also had a caveat on it: that I was now responsible to spread the word. It was too important to keep as my own personal experience. I had a desire to give.
”These conversations stimulated by art are agenda-less but not directionless. Sometimes there are agendas with art. But it’s the conversations that happen without agendas that open up worlds we hadn’t thought of.”
In Forever Connected, Kathryn presents her universal trans-cultural religious tree of life which becomes the burning bush in the story of Moses. She points out that this story is shared by three Abrahamic religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam and that it is through ”shared stories that we are eternally connected”.
”I’m sure the distance between people can be negotiated more compassionately through finding similarities rather than just focusing on differences.”
Part of the timeless wisdom and enduring strength of great art is that ability to unite us across time, culture and space. To provide us with a mirror that reflects our similarities. To arm us with language that moves beyond words into the universal conditions of being. To draw our vast distances of experience closer together.
Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox will be exhibiting at Graydon Gallery Brisbane Australia in July-August 2015. You can find more information on her paintings and her expansive interpretation of our world on her website and on her blog.
Feature photo by Edwina Fox. Photos of paintings by Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox. See the Wilfred Brimblecombe photo collection.