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INTERVIEW: Catherine Beaudette

Catherine Beaudette is a Canadian artist based in Toronto, Ontario and Duntara, Newfoundland & Labrador. She is the founder of 2 Rooms Contemporary Art Projects and Bonavista Biennale which had its inaugural exhibition in 2017 on the Bonavista Peninsula, Newfoundland & Labrador. In Toronto she is director of Howard Park Institute, a window gallery on Dundas West, and founder of Loop Gallery, a collective gallery in the arts district. We spoke with her about her experience launching creative initiatives, living in multiple locations, and how these impact her painting practice.

Where did you grow up and when did you move to Toronto?

I grew up Quebec City and Montreal. When I decided to become an artist I went to Champlain College in the Eastern Townships and then to Ontario College of Art, now OCAD University in Toronto. I spent my second year of art school in Florence, Italy at the OCA off-campus studio program. For my last year I moved back to Quebec City and pursued my ‘ Independent Studies’. I was trying to figure out my place and what it meant to be an artist and a lot of those discoveries had to happen on my own. I returned to Toronto after that year and 10 years later I started teaching at OCAD. I have returned to Florence many times as the OCADU Program Coordinator.

Does travelling play a large role in your practice?

Yes absolutely. I've done a number of residencies on my own- they’re listed under "Self Directed Residencies" on my CV. My Quebec City experience was really raw. I was trying to figure out a direction for my work and was influenced by the place and by being a stranger in a strange land. I like putting myself in these unknown precarious situations where I intensely make work for three or four months. I've done self-directed residencies in Berlin, Sicily, New York, Prince Edward County, and more official ones in Banff, Havana, Spain, Fogo Island. I've done this over the years to really focus on my work in a solitary way. It’s become an important part of my practice. My work needs that time to be honest.

That’s really interesting! Can you tell us about your experience doing your MFA at NASCAD?

Well, in the early days OCAD hired practicing artists who could deliver the material. After six years of teaching, I had my first sabbatical and thought I should get a degree since I had none. I returned to school at age 36 and graduated at 38. It was an amazing experience! As a prof, I often get requests for reference letters for students who want to go to grad school right after their undergrad. I usually advise them to wait a year or more, until they’ve spent time developing their own art practice. For me going back to school in my late 30s, after I had worked as an artist for 15 years, was a huge benefit. The idea of Conceptual Art was more important as time moved on and my training at OCAD was technical, learning to be a representational painter. A lot of my teachers were lovely older gentlemen who painted the figure and landscape. It was all about technique, we never talked about content, it simply wasn’t in the curriculum. Grad school made me not only discuss content but helped me figure out and identify what my own content was. I think it was always there, I just didn’t know how to articulate it. Grad school turned out to be a bonus, and better late than never! Your exposure is what it is. OCADU is much more conceptual now and I teach from that perspective, very different than in my OCAD days when no one ever talked about what I was painting; it was only how you were painting that mattered. NSCAD was a great experience for me and it ultimately brought me to Newfoundland.

Can you tell us about how to first came to Newfoundland and how you found the community here?

While at grad school I went to Cape Breton regularly for research and to work directly from the artifact collection at the Fortress of Louisbourg. I would set up a trolley in the lab and use it as a portable studio. And that was the stepping stone to Newfoundland because the ferry to Argentia left from Cape Breton. So it was a holiday that brought me here, but I connected right away. Didn't plan on staying, but it seemed like a nice remote and undiscovered kind of place and the pull was strong. I had no idea I would return after that first holiday, but as it happened I did and it felt like the right fit. I never liked the heat and avoided spending summers in Toronto. I usually left and went somewhere else for a few months. Because I was teaching during the year summer was a good time to pursue my painting practice in a more disciplined way. It all made sense and I found this big object of a house and I fixed it up a bit.

What is it like to split your time between the two places?

Well, it has many good points and some challenging points. The good points are the change of pace, peace of mind and meditative quality you can have looking out at the ocean. At the other end I live in a storefront building on a main street in downtown Toronto, it’s a completely different life. I like the contrast, by the time summer is over I’m ready to go back to my urban life, and when the school year is over I'm ready to come back to Duntara. The constant re-connecting part can be challenging and my friends are always asking "where are you"? As time has gone on people know my routine, and with 2 Rooms Residencies more artists from the Toronto art community are coming out to Newfoundland. It’s the thread that connects the two parts of my life. Some artists have come for a residency and later returned to rent a place of their own. We’re building community out here. I live and work very differently in both places. In Toronto I have a large studio in Toronto where I mostly paint in oil. Here in Duntara, I make smaller watercolour paintings, photographs and installations of objects and specimens from my collections. The opportunity to walk and hike and think, I need that. One is a balance for the other.

That makes total sense, they both give a break from a good thing.

I have spent a winter here and it was wonderful. I did a lot of painting. I'm also interested in walking meditation and I do a lot of hiking. It’s become an important part of my practice. I am drawn to the old sites of resettled communities and it’s often a hike to get there. So there's a goal at the end but it’s also the process of getting there on ancient coastal trails. I started hiking at grad school and that’s when I first started collecting rusted objects. I remember walking on a beach with a friend one day when I found this big rusted funnel that was absolutely beautiful. I picked it up, held it high and yelled I'm working! I think it’s that different headspace, you know, as a painter you're supposed to be in your studio with your paints, that’s what working is. It took me awhile to accept that I could go hiking, and that could be part of my practice.

Do you ever wish you were in the other place? Is there every a pull to be in the other location?

I don’t really think about being in Toronto when I'm in Newfoundland. There are times when I’m in Toronto that I think- oh yeah there's a little house on the cliff by the sea awaiting my arrival. It's a nice thought, a nice memory, but mostly I live in the present. I rarely look at pictures of Newfoundland when I'm in Toronto, both are quite separate. However when I first arrive in Duntara in June and open the door it’s like OMG! That’s a good feeling. And I do travel a lot, and I think that also changes my perspective. I go to Europe every two years, last year I went to Mexico and did a residency in Havana. These feel like the extra things connected to my Toronto life. I travel much less in the summer, often not going any further than the end of my driveway. I'm very social and I'm also somewhat introverted, needing to spend time on my own so both locations satisfy different things.

What do you teach at OCAD?

Well In fact I'm just leaving my position as Associate Professor to become Adjunct Professor. I no longer have to teach, only as needed or as wanted. I don't get paid either, but I'm making that step towards retirement. The Biennale is a big time commitment that has replaced my teaching. I've taught many different courses, from figure painting (not figure as content but as a means to learn how to mix colour) to landscape, composition, independent painting studios - a lot of odds and ends because my practice is so diverse. In more recent years I taught the final year thesis course with five faculty and up to 70 students. We had group seminars but mostly we did individual studio visits with our group, brainstorming ideas and helping students find their own direction and develop an art practice. I really liked this hands on approach, learning how to be an artist. I also did a lot of supervision in the MFA program which I loved. One year I bought a group of students to Fogo island for a 3 week graduate residency. We christened the Long Studio!

That experience eventually morphed into what I’m doing here at 2 Rooms. Seven years later I still host residencies for OCADU Graduate students- they’ve all been fantastic. Since my early days of teaching, I have initiated projects that were outside the institution’s mandate. They were all successful and OCADU started to support and encourage me in this capacity. It’s been a great journey and I'm ready to move on, I've taught for 25 years.

What was the starting point of 2 Rooms?

There were two things. First, I bought the house which is now the gallery. It had been for sale for quite some and one day I decided it needed a new owner. I bought it for a bargain and fixed the roof, but otherwise it just sat there in disrepair. I didn't have a plan. Meanwhile I was collecting objects and they were adding up. There are now 1010 ‘artifacts’ in ‘the museum’s collection’ - beautiful wooden handled tools, all kinds of things I picked up on my hikes and forays into abandoned sheds. My neighbors would bring me special items from the dump. When I went to Fogo Island for the opening conference at Fogo Arts, they kept using the terminology “art as an economic stimulator”. I thought the whole thing was amazing. I came back to Duntara and thought how can I do that here? Meanwhile, the streetlights in our community had been turned off because as the town hadn't been paying the hydro bill and eventually dissolved. We no longer had a mayor, which means we had no way to bring anything forward. The town went dark all in one night. You hear about resettlement and how it’s still going on. What could I do to prevent that? I thought if I could use art to bring people here, especially artists, perhaps that would help. My main goal was to save these old houses, and this could be the means. If I started by hosting art exhibitions, people would come. That was in 2012.

Michael Crummey's book Sweetland is the story of a community in the midst of resettlement, which is still happening today. If you talk to the teachers in the local school they will tell you the student population is shrinking radically and the school closure is imminent. There are a few more people around now, the Biennale has brought people- artists, hikers, visitors and culture enthusiasts. There is a buzz in the air on the Bonavista Peninsula, you can feel more life in this town than there was five years ago, and that feels good.

How did the Biennale come out of 2 rooms?

Well, when I think back, early on a friend suggested our area would be a great place for a sculpture symposium! The idea transitioned into ‘Bonavista Biennale’ because we liked the sound of it. Then we did a little research and came up with the idea to use empty buildings since there were so many around. In 2012, still a year before 2 Rooms, I began to do site research more seriously. I soon realized we needed a home base and that’s when I decided to start 2 Rooms as a gallery and museum. I didn’t think again about the Biennale idea for the next three years until I met Pat Grattan who came out for an exhibition at 2 Rooms. So Pat and I grabbed a coffee and two days later she sent me an email with all of these thoughts about the idea I had proposed.

In the end I would say the impetus for Bonavista Biennale was 2 Rooms. I thought the Biennale could be 2 Rooms x 25, and based on the same principle of using empty buildings for curated exhibitions. The paperwork was daunting but I could easily envision carrying out such a plan. I thought it would be interesting to create conversations between the artworks and the historic or cultural spaces they would inhabit. It all seemed possible and Pat identified 2017 as Canada 150 which meant there would be money! We applied for and were well funded by Canadian Heritage, Canada Council and NL Arts Council as an official Canada 150 Project. The timing was perfect. Bigger picture, Toronto will have a biennial soon, Montreal, Vancouver and Quebec city all have biennials. For a large country like Canada with a major art community that’s not a lot. Bonavista Biennale would be unique in rural Canada and a first in the Atlantic region. To share and bring artists to Newfoundland felt wonderful.

Back at NSCAD, when I was going to the Fortress of Louisbourg, it was an exhibition of artifacts that had drawn me there. I met the head archaeologist who said they had a wealth of information, and what they needed most were communicators. I was in the audience when she used the phrase “artists as communicators” and I realized that could be me! The archeologist then invited me to Louisbourg as a researcher with easy access to the historical material available there. She was convinced that artists were the ones to communicate and translate the wealth of information contained within the Fortress of Louisbourg. I agree with that notion- artists are communicators, they bring a fresh perspective to the world around us. The art community In Newfoundland is well established with many great artists. And yet the community can be viewed as provincial simply by its islandness. So how can we share this remarkable place with the rest of the country, creating an exchange of ideas and conversations with the broader community. My philosophy is ‘more is more’ and when good things happen to our friends or colleagues, we also benefit. Another way of putting it is “what goes around comes around”.

E: High tides lift all boats.

C: Yes, exactly!

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