Kristin Headlam turns poetry into prints in The Universe Looks Down

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How to make her long-term partner Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s poem The Universe Looks Down into a cohesive and interesting set of art pieces was Kristin Headlam’s central concern when creating her series of etchings that function together as an artists’ book, and as works in themselves. Wallace-Crabbe’s epic book-length poem, in the vein of historic literature, includes multiple characters who undertake adventures and incorporates ordinary life with the mythic and fantastical. “I wanted to bring a sense of beauty that I felt in the writing and transmit that through the images,” says Headlam. “But I don’t think of them as illustrations, I think of them as parallel works.”

Headlam’s etchings were commissioned by the University of Melbourne’s Baillieu Library where Wallace-Crabbe has a long-standing connection.

As in the poem, Headlam’s figures stand-in for the quests they undertake. Many are rendered as silhouettes to avoid inner psychology, while others are depicted as objects associated with what they do. “Most of the characters aren’t represented as themselves. It’s more what they do because they’re sort of allegorical. They are what they’re seeking,” says Headlam. “The knight represents the heroic drive that certain people have. They want to rush in and fight things and take things on. And there’s another character who’s driven by eroticism and I’ve represented him looking at a nude through binoculars.”

Perhaps the main difference between Wallace-Crabbe’s poem and Headlam’s series of etchings is the central character Milena who, unlike the others, does not function as an allegory but is rather fashioned on the artist herself.

“She’s looking at other characters. She’s like a ‘seer.’ On reflection, it’s a little like my life as an artist,” says Headlam. She depicts Milena with deft New Yorker style lines wearing an oversized sweatshirt and glasses undertaking common tasks in her day-to-day life such as working at her computer, making a cup of tea, watching television, and reading in bed with her dog. Portraying her as such was also a way to circumnavigate issues that can arise when representing women in visual form. “My little quest in this was to portray a female who is not really thinking about who is looking at her,” explains Headlam. “It’s a very sub-textual line in my point of view and had nothing to do with the poem but it was something I was aware of wanting to do. Why does one have to be out there being an example of one’s sex? There are times when you’re just thinking about what you’re thinking about.”

Kristin Headlam, Milena with a fox and hedgehog, 2017, Etching & Aquatint on Hahnemuhle paper, edition 6/6 & A/P, 38.00 x 56.00, copyright the artist, courtesy Charles Nodrum Gallery.

Animals appear in Headlam’s The Universe Looks Down as metaphors, and as characters in themselves. One etching shows Milena flanked by a fox and a hedgehog as she stares down on another version of herself in the studio below, looking at a blank canvas. “Chris and I have a little joke,” says Headlam. “I think Archilochus the Greek philosopher first used it, and Isaiah Berlin wrote an essay about it called The Hedgehog and Fox, saying that creative people can be divided into two categories: the hedgehog knows one big thing while the fox knows many little things. I always thought Chris was a fox and I’m a hedgehog.”

The Universe Looks Down
Kristin Headlam
Charles Nodrum Gallery
20 October – 10 November

The Universe Looks Down
Kristin Headlam
Noel Shaw Gallery, Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne
23 August – 17 February 2019

Zara Sigglekow