Katie Ewles refers to her 2020 Bermuda Biennial artwork Becoming as “a collection of individual experiences”, describing it as “a catalyst for people to safely connect, to feel part of something; to interact with people beyond the boundaries of space, time and six feet”.
The installation, which has taken on new meaning in the context of the pandemic, looks at the relationship between our individual and collective actions by asking viewers to select a coloured tile, write an anonymous personal message on the reverse and place it inside a block within the grid.
Katie began exploring the physical properties of art making after graduating from John Hopkins’ Peabody Institute with a major in composition. Colour plays a key role in her mixed media work – a counter to the monochrome palette of music notation.
Drawn to the impermanence of paper collage, Katie describes her art making process as “a constant state of exploration and discovery”. Working as a pianist and vocalist, she often juggles musical and artistic projects, and likens the “collective possibilities of creativity” to playing music in a group.
We caught up with Katie to discuss the relationship between art and music, how the installation has evolved over the course of the exhibition and why, when the Biennial closes on the February 6, she plans to recycle the tiles in her installation into other collage works so that they “ultimately become the essential building blocks of the future, much like we as individuals continue to create a life for ourselves, secrets and all.”
BNG: You trained as a musician and later turned to visual art. What made you make the transition?
KE: I have always had an interest in the visual arts, though my primary focus was on music. While in university, I started experimenting with graphic notation, a form of composition where musical ideas are represented through the use of non-traditional visual syntax, either in combination with or aside from traditional means of notation. This phase was hugely significant in my understanding of how traditional notation is fundamentally visual, and how it might be expanded to communicate a wider range of musical concepts.
I became increasingly interested in the relationship between art and music. One thing that really separates them is the inherent tangibility of art – while notated music is tangible, music itself is not. I was drawn to the physical properties of art and art making and started experimenting with different media.
I was fascinated with collage early on. I would cut out pieces of musical scores and stick them back together in a different order. I enjoyed the impermanence of creating with collage: I could always shuffle things around and create something completely different. I liked working with materials and how my art projects took up literal space. I liked using color, it was a refreshing element in the world of black and white musical notation.
Now, for me, creating visual art and using visual processes in my music-making has become a regular and valuable way to draw inspiration and communicate a wider range of expression.
BNG: Is music still a big part of your life? In what ways?
KE: Absolutely! Most obviously, it is a large part of my income – I regularly gig as well as teach and record/produce. Beyond that, music continues to play an important role in my self-expression. For me, music can be spontaneous. Of course, my creation of visual art can sometimes incorporate elements of spontaneity, there is most always some physical artifact. Comparatively, music is intangible and passing – it can exist almost in the same way that a thought or conversation might.
In this same sense, I also love the collaborative qualities of shared music-making. I am primarily a pianist and vocalist and regularly play as part of a group. There is something beautifully spontaneous, trusting, and vulnerable about this kind of experience, particularly when improvising. I think this has had a huge influence on my interest to create interactive artworks that incorporate elements of spontaneity and ephemerality and has helped to compel my interest in exploring the connective possibilities of creativity.
BNG: What is the relationship between art and music to you?
KE: I think in many ways art and music are very similar: they are both a means of human expression and have the ability to communicate ideas and feelings beyond what can be described with traditional language. They fundamentally differ in the sense that art is a spatial medium and music is temporal.
While artworks primarily exist spatially, they are observed and understood in time. This in itself doesn’t make art a form of music, but it does point to the essential component of the ‘observer’ that exists in both music and art – even if the observer is the creator themselves.
In principle, the observer is subject to the same essential conditions as both art and music: space and time – you cannot see a painting if it does not get within your range of sight and you do not take or have the time to look at it.
When I consider the significance of an observer in both of these forms, the role of choice and intention becomes critical: if one chooses to observe or create with intention, the creation is valid, whether spatial, temporal, somewhere in between, or even imagined.
For me, understanding art and music in this way has opened my mind to the endless forms creative products might take, both of themselves and through interpretation. Beyond that, this understanding has, from my perspective, solidified the creative arts as an extension of the individual, both expressively and perceptively, with the potential to become a catalyst for understanding when shared.
BNG: Do you approach the two mediums in different ways?
KE: In general, I think my music tends to express emotion and my visual artwork tends to favor expression of ideas and concepts. This is not always the case, but I have wondered if this tendency might be subconsciously influenced by each medium’s fundamental nature seeming more effective at conveying either emotion or ideas.
Often, music comes to me spontaneously: a melody that reflects my mood at that time. Emotion itself is quite an instinctive and transitory human quality, so I think for me, music is often the ideal medium for communicating and embodying this restlessness: with a form that is inherently transient and can in itself resemble the quickly changing flow of emotion.
Comparatively, when I am making art, my process is often more calculated; I have an idea I want to express and develop a concept to present it visually. Emotion often has a place within this structure, for example with use of color, however, for me, color is often a device with which to support conveyance of the idea. In some ways, I think the physicality and relative permanence of tangible art can make it a more accessible medium for communicating ideas – one has the opportunity to consider the artwork from different perspectives in their own time.
BNG: Are there any synergies between the two? In what ways?
KE: The most obvious synergy between these two mediums in my practice is the effect of listening to music while creating art. For example, I often listen to dance music when I am in the process of creating a collage that involves hundreds, sometimes thousands of square tiles. I think the precise, rhythmic characteristics of dance music translates into the calculated nature of the artwork. Comparatively, I might listen to jazz improvisation when creating something abstract. The spontaneity captured in the music often propels me to follow my instinct and explore unusual shapes, colors, and forms.
BNG: Do you work on musical and artistic projects concurrently or are the two very separate discipline for you?
KE: I am almost always juggling multiple musical and artistic projects – I like to think it keeps things fresh! I’m also always on the lookout for ways to combine these disciplines into singular projects, whether through blending the boundaries of each medium into a synthesized, synergetic hybrid or utilizing them separately in the same project, for example, with film.
BNG: You describe your 2020 Bermuda Biennial artwork as “an exploration of the human condition through paper collage.” What do you mean by this?
KE: The exhibit is titled Becoming because the installation is principally about evolution – the artwork is continually in the process of becoming. This feature is at the center of how the artwork might reflect the human condition and experience.
Our experience as a human is constantly in flux, both within ourselves and with our surroundings. Existing in a temporal and spatial world forces us to make choices within our finite lifetime. Our choices, whether big or small, passive or active, are influenced and determined by our personal experience and ultimately compound into our greater whole; our sense of self; our reality.
In ‘Becoming’, participants directly confront these principles – they are forced to make a choice, and their choice changes their perception of the work, and by extension, their reality in that moment. Moreover, their choice changes the artwork itself.
Consequently, participants are confronted with the choices and realities of others – both before them and those to come. What results is a beautifully complex transcendance of what is; we know ourselves and our reality, but we sense how much we do not know.
The constant and collective evolution within the artwork, propelled by individual participation, and in combination with hidden written elements aims to explore these ineffable human truths.
BNG: Your first solo show Refractions of Mankind, held at the Bermuda Society Of Arts in 2019, also focused on paper collage. What is it about this medium that intrigues you?
KE: I think what fascinates me most about collage is that it is fundamentally about the process: assembling various materials and forms into a new whole. I like that it feels spontaneous but at the same time methodical, like I am in a constant state of exploration and discovery.
I think collage is unique in the way that it can reflect our daily processes: one might think of arranging their schedule, cooking their meal, or decorating a room as a form of collage. Although the process of collage can at times become repetitive and somewhat mechanical, I like how this also mimics aspects of our daily lives: wake up, eat, sleep, etc. Though the process might feel mechanical, each day and each piece of material are ultimately unique.
I also am drawn to how collage, in itself confronts the dynamic between parts vs. whole; the individual vs. the collective. Materials are given context by what is placed around them, much like we are contextualized by the environment that we are in or the experiences we have over time. I like the tension that exists here, a constant push and pull between internal and external forces. These concepts are central to much of my work in collage.
I think the process-based nature of collage is also what makes it an appropriate medium for Becoming, an artwork that is characterized by the process of becoming: change and evolution.
BNG: Your Biennial artwork allows the viewer to take part in the art making process, by selecting a colored tile and choosing where to place it within the room. This takes the control of the finished artwork away from you and puts it into the hands of the viewers. Why did you choose this approach?
KE: This choice had a lot to do with exploring the fluidity between the individual and collective experience. When we look at a piece of art, hear a piece of music, engage with anything, we have an individual understanding of what that subject might be or represent based on our personal experience. In a sense, the subject becomes and is what we perceive it to be, but in the process, we project ourselves onto the subject – it becomes an extension of us.
When the subject is experienced by a collection of people what results is an array of different realities. Though each reality differs, they are all equally true. I wanted to find a way to visually portray this exchange: that ultimately art becomes what it is perceived to be – we as creators cannot control what people take from our work; we cannot control its final form.
This idea is explored through allowing participants to leave their mark as they interact with the work. For every observer the installation is not only introspectively unique, but also tangibly. The artwork ultimately becomes a collection of individual experiences, both physically and symbolically.
BNG: Before placing the square of their choice, participants are asked to write a secret on the reverse which shall remain private and known only to you. Why is this?
KE: There are a couple different motives behind this component of the installation. With the theme of the Biennial being Let Me Tell You Something I thought it would be interesting to invite viewers to literally tell me something.
More symbolically, this secretive component is intended to embody the experiences of other observers that we will never fully know – both within the immediacy of the artwork and beyond.
I like how this can be understood as illustrative of the complexities of knowing – we see things on the surface, but often do not understand the subject in its entirety, whether living or inanimate, in part due to the basic limitations of our own perception and individuality, but also due to the limitations of our communicative mediums.
I think even when I do read the reverse of the tiles, I will be subject to the same limitations that participants were: I will create my own understanding based on my experience, but I know while my understanding of what is written is valid, it is only one reality, and I have no way of knowing the author’s true, individual intention in their message.
BNG: Has the piece evolved over the run of the exhibition as you imagined it would?
KE: Yes and no. Yes, in that many of the expectations I had for how it would develop visually have materialized: groups of tiles creating larger formations, particularly on the far wall upon entrance; a concentration of tiles around eye-level; rogue tiles that frame the extremes of the grid.
No, in the sense that participation was hindered by the effects of the pandemic and so the visual is more disseminated than originally anticipated. It will be really interesting to read what people have written on their tiles as I imagine the events of 2020 will have influenced the content and it will trend towards something different than initially expected.
BNG: The work centers on how our individual choices affect the collective. This is a notion that has taken on renewed significance over the past year amidst the pandemic which has reminded us of both our individual responsibilities and how our actions impact the health of the wider community. Do you think that is something people are more aware of than before? Has it changed your approach to the work in any way?
KE: I think certainly, in general, people have become more aware of how their actions impact the wider community – I know I certainly have. What once felt like an individual choice, for example, going out to lunch with friends, now feels like a choice you are making not only for yourself, but for those you interact with. I think maybe it has always been this way, there are consequences of every action we take, however, with the pandemic these consequences have become more obvious and associated with greater risk.
In terms of Becoming, there are obvious ways in which the pandemic has added new context to the installation: a participant choosing whether to install their tile as part of one of the growing formations or to isolate it away from the other tiles might now feel the experience is strangely analogous to the choices and challenges we currently face as individuals in our society. Becoming is fundamentally about change and evolution – the artwork develops with the choice of every participant, and with the added context of the pandemic, each participant’s choice suddenly feels much more critical.
At the same time, aside from this pandemic-infused analogy, I have started to view ‘Becoming’ more and more as a catalyst for people to safely connect; to feel part of something; to interact with people beyond the boundaries of space, time, and six feet.
BNG: When the exhibition closes the artwork (in its current form) will effectively be destroyed when it is de-installed. This was a conscious decision. Why is this?
KE: Beyond logistics, I think this comes down to the artwork being fundamentally about the process of becoming. The work is subject to the same conditions and limitations that we are as people: a finite lifetime; the restrictions of our own physical being. I chose to embrace these conditions, rather than resist. These conditions have the potential to drive change and evolution. They don’t necessarily destroy what is, but rather, transform.
While I will be sad to see the installation deconstructed, I also know the components of this piece will go on to become other works, and even reveal their full form: the writing hidden underneath. In some ways, I think this isn’t so much destruction as it is liberation.
BNG: You explain in your artist statement that the squares will later be reused in other projects. Do you have a specific project in mind?
KE: My plan is to methodically uninstall the tiles and analyze the written material alongside information I collect about their relative placement. It will be interesting to see if there are any trends that arise. For example, are there words that consistently pop-up? Is there any correlation between the written content, the color of the tile, and where it was placed on the wall?
Though much of this analysis will be objective (i.e. the word family appears eighty-four times), when it comes to analyzing subjective material I will be at the mercy of my own individuality. I like this – it is a reminder that even as the creator I am answerable to the same limitations as the work I create and the people I share it with.
Ultimately, following analysis, fragments of the tiles will be reconstructed into new, double-sided collages: one side color, the other writing. My hope is that there will be clear trends in the written content so that the artworks might explore these subjects (e.g. the word ‘care’ written in many people’s handwriting collaged together).
This continuation of the installation is really about embracing the spirit of ‘becoming’ and giving new life to what was, and what will be.
Let Me Tell You Something, the 2020 Bermuda Biennial, closes on February 6. Click here to tour the exhibition.