The studio, Katherine Hattam explains, “was a lean-to,” cobbled on to the back of the house. It sounds makeshift but on a muggy day, it’s cool and inviting. “I am not a rugged person,” she says. The comfort of an air conditioner is important to her, as is having a working space on her doorstep. Works in various stages of completion dot the room; some are stacked against the wall, she’s just had a show so a lot of works have actually gone.
However it was the commute that didn’t suit her – it’s also rare that she has long stretches of time to work on a piece. “I’ve always worked like that – I’ve had three children.”
“Realistically, I am in the studio, probably four, maybe five days a week. Quite often I have the weekend in the studio because otherwise I can’t go and do my banking – or whatever it may be.”
The domestic space has long been a concern of Hattam’s – her daughter, Harriet Kate Morgan, once wrote, “Hattam has chosen to be a mother and a dedicated artist and nothing has or will come between those two things.”
Hattam doesn’t see the domestic space as inconsequential. “I see it as a place where a lot of important, dramatic, family events take place.”
“I have three or four areas of practice,” says Hattam. “The collages with book pages I’ve been doing since 2004 when my mother died. She was a great reader.” The yellowing pages of vintage paper-backs create a negative space among the gouache and charcoal compositions on linen or board.
For the artist, incorporating them into her work was a way to give them “another life.” The spines are also used in the work and provide instant titles. “I’ve been very interested in psychoanalysis,” points out Hattam. In one painting, text comes together to form a secondary picture, ‘Friends and Relatives,’ ‘Afternoon Tea.’
“A lot of artists younger than me connect their work to film but I connect mine to literature. I am married to a writer. I read a lot and I studied literature at university – I went to art school later.”
Large-scale paintings are first painted flat at a large table in the centre of the studio, then finished while hanging on a wall. She cites contemporary British artist Rose Wylie’s “amazing, big paintings,” as an inspiration.
Hattam’s recent paintings feature a window in the central part, giving a view of both the interior and exterior scenes. “The window makes it more ambiguous. There’s this whole psychological aspect in how much your internal life informs how you experience the world and the other way around.” An opaque glaze-like white oil paint obscures the scene around the window also, allowing just a chink to be seen into. You could be looking at the scene from the outside, just as much as the inside.
“At the moment, I am very interested in painting. I have this space of six months before the next show, so I would like to paint.”
Hattam is also well-regarded for her printmaking – her prints have been collected by several state institutions. For now though she is moving away from the very involved, collaborative process.
Philip Guston’s My Pantheon was a starting point for one feminist painting. In between an easel and a light bulb, Guston painted the names of past greats – Masaccio, Tiepolo, Giotto and others. “I looked at it,” says Hattam “and thought, that’s not my pantheon – I don’t think of those men when I am in the studio.
So in my version, I include the names of women – Louise Bourgeois, Joni Mitchell, Rose Wylie.”
“I grew up in the 1970s and was aware of consciousness raising but I never did it. I wasn’t quite the right generation.”
“I wouldn’t make pictures about politics,” not overtly, she says but she feels strongly about politics in terms of women. Women artists, she concedes, have gained more prominence of late but there are still glaring disparities. Hattam points to the recent inclusion of four female artists including Del Kathryn Barton and Helen Maudsley at the National Gallery of Victoria in solo shows. This came “after a series of 18 exhibitions of men and they’ve opened four women at once. It’s like it takes four women to make a man.”
“I’ve been reading in two groups, one that is young, much younger than me. We did Bluets by Maggie Nelson who wrote The Argonauts. It’s a terrific book and I did a series of pictures in response to that. Similar to the Guston painting, I’d like to do a bit of that but I need to find the right tone where it’s not too preachy and didactic.”
“Each picture leads to the next when you’re in it – I find it hard to get going but very hard to stop.”