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illustration roundup #37
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Cathie Bleck
interviewed by Scott Bakal

Scott Bakal: Favorite food?
I should be eating soy. Recent piece for Health and Wellness Magazine art directed by Nancy Eato
Cathie Bleck:
Dark Chocolate

SB: Favorite alcoholic drink?
CB: A fine Cabernet or Merlot

SB: Coffee or tea?
One in a series done for Good Earth Tea packaging. They are a great company and one of the first to work with organic farmers, plus they keep sending me free tea!
CB:
I make myself a very strong cappuccino in the morning with a very unsophisticated machine and have Good Earths tea in the afternoon.


SB: What is the average amount of hours you sleep per night?
Desert Flower Study from "Open Spaces", collection of Theresa DeChant
CB:
Seven if I am lucky

SB: If you could choose to be a color, which would it be and why?
Sunset from a recent trip to the Catskills near Phonecia, NY where Laura Levine hangs out at The Mystery Spot
CB:
Midnight blue-the color of the sky just before nightfall when trees become silhouetted in black against the illuminated blue, I sense something magical and calm about the world.

SB: Describe fully the moment in your life that you realized you wanted to be an artist/illustrator.
This just reminded me of my grade school
CB:
I suppose I have to give the “nuns” some credit for their psychological twisting of my mind and of course my incredible parents. I was extremely shy as a child and attended a strict Catholic grade school. You know those nuns loved to torment and bring a kids self-esteem down low and then build it up. In fourth grade I was humiliated in front of my class because two nuns pulled me out of the class, took me out in the hallway and told me I was looking at the stage during a Christmas pageant while singing in the chorus, which I had been ordered not to do. They did not tolerate day dreamers very well. Anyway, I went back to my desk and cried. The next day the nun told me I could have the entire bulletin board to decorate with my art. I worked on it during recess for the whole week. I remember creating this gigantic green pond with frogs, fishes, flowers and trees. When it was finished she called me up in front of the class and presented me with a gold holy metal cross. So you see, I fell in love with doing large exhibitions of my work and an audience (my class) to appreciate them. "Our Lady of Humility" schools’ biggest offering to me was excellent handwriting skills though and that has everything to do with how I create my linework. Later on, my mother announced to me when I was 13 that I was going to be a commercial artist. I had seriously thought about becoming a nurse but then her confidence that this was my gift was enough for me to finalize my decision. Anyway, she said that God gave us gifts and it was a sin not to use them. One of my first projects that I did in high school was a backdrop for a dance routine I was in. It was immense, colorful and very 70’s style. She helped me complete the 10’ x10’ mural and has been encouraging me ever since.


SB: What was the one image you saw when you were young that you can go back to and say: "That's the one that started me toward being an artist."
CB:
My parents had a comprehensive library with everything from old medical books to poetry and art books. There was one particular book that I looked every day when I was 10. It was a book of photographs from World War 1. In black and white photos, the story of that war unfolded and impregnated my brain with just how powerful imagery can be. One image in particular called “Famine” impregnated my brain as a standard of just how powerful imagery can be. I set a goal to attempt to create images that might be as powerful as this one.


SB: The imagery in your work often combines nature and symbolism in a swirling atmosphere. Please talk about what led you to use such organic and rather sensuous imagery in your work. Where did this 'swirling' esthetic come from?
study for a painting of the Banana tree
CB:
The swirling imagery is a result of living in constant welcomed chaos from the moment I was born. My upbringing was a very creative environment which consisted of constant building. Building homes and boats, building relationships based on love, reciprocity and a respect for nature. My dad built and designed the two homes that I grew up in and my brothers built hydroplanes in the garage. Later in life, my baby brother told my parents that he used to sneak into the garage to use the ban saw at age 6. There were science projects everywhere, spread among the 9 kids interests from taxidermy, seismometers, horticulture to my own holography and ESP studies. My mother did all of the landscaping for her fathers tree business as well as doing her own personal artwork (she is a creative genius) so she was constantly in motion working with all the kids and commitments to her family including caring for her senile mother who lived with us for 5 years. My grandfather was an early conservationist and devoted his life to the farming of trees; seedling from the Black forest that would grow for 400 years. He also saved the Illinois Beach State Park from becoming a golf course. I adapted to a life that was completely filled with activity, beauty, love of life and all living things. Of course when I was in my teens this life did not seem to be half as exciting as my large urban high school with a diverse 4000 student body that offered daily events such as soul cheering, rioting and parades of drag queens and straights side by side. Experiencing all of this culture with a grand mix of all kinds of people left me with an appreciation for the sensuality of being human. I try to get that all in there-that sense of passion for being alive. It all seems to fall in place in some order which is instinctive at this point. Being productive is in my blood. Moving quickly to get to the most important things that need to be done that day and completing them is my mantra. So the motion is really formed by my pace and sometimes influenced by jazz and world music.
I find the human form seductive not unlike a sinuous leaf of a plant beaconing the sun. Sensual shapes project an essence of being alive, uncontrolled by a powerful instinct. In most species, some orchestrated dance lures the mate in, assuring survival of the species, thus sensuality plays a crucial role to all animals. My experiences as a woman, wife and a mother have had an influence. Parallels and contrasts are pretty constant in the work, which sometimes creates some tensions in the story. I would never say my imagery tells too much of the story and hopefully creates enough suspense to lure people into their imaginations; leaving it all up to personal interpretation.

SB: Do you have a garden or pets?
CB:
Yes, lots of vegetables and flowers as well as some exotic potted plants. Having grown up on a tree nursery, it is my therapy every morning to get my hands in the dirt. I never had indoor pets as a child, but have allowed my children an oversupply. At the moment we have a cardigan tricolor corgi that tries to sing on key to the piano, a black rabbit and a cockatiel.


SB: Growing creatively is important to an artist. Over the last few years, your work has seemingly become more intricate and you started using color in a big way. What led you to this place right now?
Detail from "Renaissance" 30"x60", currently hanging in my Elemental Stories exhibition in NY until Sept. 21, 2007
CB:
My artwork seems to be mimicking my life and its relationships, which are complex with having three children, a husband and aging parents. Now that my two oldest are in college and I am not currently caring for any parents, my work seems to be evolving in the other direction with less complicated compositions. So I guess I can conclude that my personal life has a lot to do with the intricacy-that and having some Swiss blood I suppose. When I was in school I loved microbiology and uncontrolled experiments, which makes me definitely drawn to art over science. I am drawn to the little details and the little flaws in life and art. Celebrating the details and flaws makes transitioning so much more palatable and forgivable. There is so much to be gained in having so many blossoming relationships with my family as well as with friends and peers. I feel pretty lucky to have had the experience to know so many talented artists and share in exchanges that have been transforming. Having muses has been crucial to nourishing shifts in my career. My main muse is my husband of 25 years, George Muschler. A scientist and constant searcher he is provocative and serves as a huge support to change and growth, helping me shape a vision and create a structure. Another force has been my great dear friend and colleague, designer and publisher Mark Murphy who invited me to publish a book of my recent as well as past works, entitled "Open Spaces". It launched in Chicago, my hometown August 2006. Mark encouraged me to work larger and let go. He pushed me to explore a lot of new ground and has offered me a lot of opportunity. Artist Irene Hardwicke Olivieri’s intricate oil paintings of personal stories captivated me when I discovered her work at ACA galleries in NY several years ago and we started a dialogue and friendship, art historian and dear friend Marianne Berardi, has offered a keen perspective of the art world, and seeing the large scale works of Waldon Ford at The Brooklyn Museum of Art last year transported me to a greater understanding of composition. Regarding the color works, I made egg temperas in the past with pigments and have now started to make my own colored clays, experimenting with textures and larger scraping tools.

SB: That being asked, is there anything creatively brewing in your mind that you can share with us that may be your next creative output?
My daughter Ana and I took a grand roadtrip out east this summer which included staying in an airstream down by a river in the Catskills, detail from "Trespass" book cover by Amy Irvine : FSG, weird curiosities
CB:
More nature and nurture on both the illustration and gallery fronts. I am going to try not to censor my work as much. I have been drawn to stronger compositions, but still maintaining the intricate qualities. I have been looking at a lot of Classical paintings lately. Also seeking out some of the weird and wonderful old scientific and medical illustrations. Mexican printmakers, Covrubias, Hiroshige, Hokusai have offered up some graphic focus as well. Pretty big range, but I love it all.
I expect to put in a really productive year after a very inspired summer of travel and good visits with friends and family. I am fortunate to have a lot of great illustration projects to work on from an identity for one of the foremost gardens in the country, Hollister House Gardens : the 18th century garden of George Schoellkopf . I happened to be traveling out east this summer and he invited my daughter Ana and I to visit him in Washington, CN. Spending time drawing in his gardens was an illustrators dream job and I can’t wait to contribute to this Garden Conservancy project. If you live in the area, he has Friday night wine tastings in the summer for $10. I am beginning to incorporate some of my etchings into assignment work and would like to do more of this. These have been done for philanthropic type clients that need to raise money and the etchings add an extra offering for benefactors.

I have an upcoming book cover for FSG called “Trespass” by Amy Irvine, art directed by the gifted Susan Mitchell. Susan was inspired by one of my gallery pieces, “Forest Passage”, which afforded me a great deal of freedom to venture into newer ground. On the gallery front there are larger works for my upcoming museum shows.

SB: Do you create or have thoughts about creating art outside the scratchboard medium?
A recent sketch reflecting on my sons departure to college and the separation that will take place
CB:
I am a member of a cooperative press here in Cleveland called Zygote press which has afforded me the opportunity to get back to printmaking again. So far my focus has been on etching and I have plans to do some soft ground as well as aquatint works this year. Another medium that I would like to explore would be woodblock printing. Right now my focus is to create new paintings for all the upcoming gallery exhibitions and museum shows. Most of my studies are in pastels, charcoal and ink washes and are starting to attract collectors as well. I began as a watercolorist, so immediacy with painting has always been natural to me but like Chuck Close once said, something to this effect: it is difficult to justify the art as being worthy enough unless I spend a good deal of time on it.
Maybe that will change, but I am having a great time exploring this new way of working on a large scale, scraping off layers upon layers of clay and achieving somewhat of a fresco feeling.

SB: While certainly not abandoning illustration, your life has taken you heavily into the gallery market. What led you to take this direction and do you see it continuing?
CB:
I find myself getting so much more absorbed into all of the work right now; both the illustration and gallery works, especially since two of my three children are in college now. I have begun to take over several rooms in the house to accommodate pieces as large as 45”x90”; a huge contrast to my vast collection of works that were 4"x4". Balancing the illustration work with exhibitions has been invigorating and they are feeding into one another. Change is good and it is the only thing that will make you grow. Vehicles are necessary for me in order to move in new directions. Doing my book, “Open Spaces” was the catalyst for this new direction. After all of the shows this year, I have come to realize just how wonderful it has been to work as an illustrator. The experience of collaboration and playing a role in the culture at large has been satisfying in a way that working by myself cannot compare. I have met so many incredible people through illustration: writers, art directors, CEO’s of companies, movie directors and publishers to name a few. I wonder how many artists have that experience or even get to know their collectors? It is such an isolated existence as a gallery artist, far more than illustration. My commissions for illustration have blossomed since the book was published; more imaginative and risk taking than in the past. I have had more autonomy as well. The exhibitions have been celebrations, of my past and where I am going. They have served as family gatherings and renewals of old friendships, making some new ones as well. Artists can’t survive without support, financially as well as from those closest to them. When people come out for openings it is a great gift to an artist. I used to really get attached to my work, but this is rarely the case now. I can’t wait to move onto the next piece. Maybe because I am sending my biggest creations, my children out into the world, my mindset has changed. Perhaps it is the bliss of midlife that I am ready to shed. I have two solo exhibitions in Cleveland this November and am part of a group show at the Robert Berman Gallery at the end of that month. I have two solo museum shows to prepare for in the next year; the first is February through April at The New Britain Museum of American Art in Conneticut and the second at The Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio in September. These museums don’t distinguish fine art from illustration and the works hang side by side in the museum. I am planning to do a catalog with the Butler exhibition and present a new body of work. All of these incentives push me and offer me the opportunity to be vulnerable again, which only makes one more committed and willing to take risks.
Thanks for the opportunity to share some personal stories Scott! I also want to invite you all to my closing reception for "Elemental Stories" in New York City, September 20, 2007, Thursday from 6-8 at 4 Times Square-in the Conde Nast Building. Hope to see you all and kind thanks!