Kat Macleod – When sparks fly
November 20, 2008 § Leave a comment
Cover Story: The Age, A2, November 8, 2008.
Best known for her whimsical drawings that appear worldwide in inboxes everyday, Kat Macleod steps out from behind her illustrations and talks with Dan Rule
KAT MACLEOD IS NOT used to this. Her gaze is all but affixed downward; her shoes seem the focus, the much needed distraction.
Over the course of this afternoon’s encounter, the Melbourne artist spills a stream of diffident signifiers. She smiles mutely at some questions, shifts in her seat at others. She fiddles with inanimate objects – a piece of cardboard, her diary, a drawing pin – whatever is in reach. Nervous laughter fills the room from time to time.
Illustration can be a way of concealing oneself, the artist, from view. Exhibitions, photographers, interviews – for Macleod, it is all new and frightening terrain.
“Because of the way I’ve been working for the last nine years, I’m always hiding behind the books and the magazines,” she says, brushing a stray lock of hair from her face, letting it fall again. “It’s just so weird to come out and be there on the night and stand up in front of everyone and say, ‘Hey there, this is my show.’ It’s just bizarre to me.”
We’re sitting in the large, bright kitchen area of Macleod’s shop-top Carlton studio, from which she and two of her best friends run their boutique graphic design company Ortolan. The kitchen, it seems, has long been taken over as her extra-curricular workspace for her debut exhibition The Tiniest Spark, which opened at Fitzroy’s Lamington Drive gallery this week. Inks and pencils and boxes overflowing with misshapen relics of fabric and paper crowd what was once the lunch table. Stray buttons, sequins, bits and bobs scatter out in punctuation. Albums filled with brand-new, postcard-sized originals find their place on one end of the couch beside. It’s an incredible, visually striking jumble.
“I haven’t been sleeping,” she says, shooting a glance towards the clutter of her materials. “I think I’m well on the way to having a nervous breakdown.”
Her anxiety would seem perplexing to those who haven’t met Macleod. At only 29, the artist’s fragile, highly gestural line, watercolour, embroidery and collage drawings have made her one of Australia’s most influential and quietly renowned illustrators. Her beautifully tactile works have adorned personal projects for anyone from fashion doyenne Collette Dinnigan to ARIA-winning singer-songwriter Clare Bowditch, appeared in countless high-profile magazines and branding assignments worldwide, filled three hardcover books – including Jane Rocca’s 2005 recipe book The Cocktail and this year’s hilarious Michi book Like I Give a Frock – and helped make the wonderfully sardonic Michi Girl online fashion and weather forecast an international cult phenomenon.
“I’m just so used to someone sending me a story or a brief, and I read it and respond to it and really go through that graphic designer, problem-solving kind of process,” she muses. “So I’ve always kind of found it difficult to talk about what I do.”
There’s a pause, some more indiscriminate fidgeting. “I guess my work is about being indicative,” she admits finally. “Something doesn’t have to be the most perfectly rendered drawing of a hand or something like that, but can capture a subject and sum it up in a few lines. My dad calls my girls ‘the three-fingered ladies’ because they’re often missing a couple,” she laughs.
This sense of economy and fluidity of line is central to Macleod’s work. While glamorous and ornate, her depictions of femininity have a strikingly raw and minimalist quality. They appear to capture only the essential gestures and details. Crude embroidery or cuttings of coloured paper and fabric adorn her sparse, grey-lead forms. Drops of watercolour add subtle flourishes of hue and texture.
“I sit there with my pencil and my eraser and I don’t know which is more important sometimes,” she laughs. “When I used to do life drawing, my teacher was really fastidious about anatomy and really anti-outline. So I never ever told him that I did commercial drawings for the whole time I went to the classes because I thought that if he saw them he was going to be outraged.”
It’s a sensibility that always struck Chloe Quigley, the co-founder of the Michi Girl micro-empire and now Macleod’s business partner (along with Simone Elder) in Ortolan. “She can abridge a whole three-page story into just a gesture of a hand or pigeon toes,” she says. “She only needs one little facial expression or nuance and she can just condense so much thought and feeling into it, which is just so rare.
“One of the first ever drawings she did of Michi, she just had a duck on her hand, and to us it was just perfect. Here was this beautiful, glamorous girl, but she had a duck. It was kind of crazy and just great.”
While the spectre of classic fashion illustrators such as the late Rene Gruau – the Italian artist whose iconic work engendered the high-style visual identities of magazines such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Marie-Claire in the late 1940s and ’50s – resonates throughout Macleod’s work, she affords her characters a kind of humanity that is rare in the often alienating world of fashion and high-end design.
“Her work is quite glamorous sometimes, but never cold. She’s just connected with something truly innocent and there’s not a hint of arrogance about her talent, which is just an incredible quality.”
Macleod has always drawn, but never thought of herself as an artist. Growing up in Burwood with two older brothers and a younger sister, she remembers illustrating and dressing strings of paper dolls that her mother had made and recalls her grandmother teaching her to use watercolours. Nevertheless, she doesn’t think of her family home as a particularly creative one. “Mum was a school teacher and not really artistic at all and Dad is a civil engineer and really quite technical, so I don’t quite know what it was,” she says. “I think most little girls are into colour and dresses and things.”
It wasn’t until her third year of a graphic design degree at Swinburne University – in which she studied off-campus at 3 Deep Design as part of the university’s industrial-based learning program – that her illustration career abruptly and unexpectedly began. Her seniors at 3 Deep spied some of her drawings and illustrations in one of her notebooks and within months had commissioned her to begin an extended series of illustrations that would result in the 2002 limited-edition book Bird, which has since gone on to win more than 10 design and illustration awards. “I was still just trying to work out whether or not I wanted to be a graphic designer,” says Macleod.
David Roennfeldt of 3 Deep remembers being enamoured by the distinctiveness of the then 20-year-old’s approach. “She had an innocent approach to her work and was constantly doodling and day dreaming. The Bird project came out of a need to harness her talent.”
At a time when graphic design was flooded with computer-based art, Macleod’s work reintroduced notions of the object. “I think the tactile nature of a lot of her work, combining materials with drawing, opened illustration back up to the opportunity of being used in a variety of contexts.”
Macleod speaks of her long-awaited exhibition, which features 66new postcard-size originals and several A3 prints, in terms of process rather than theme. The Tiniest Spark – the title of which comes from a lyric in the Bjork song Isobel – refers to an indefinable inclination as opposed to heavily conceptualised schema. “The full lyric goes, ‘In the forest pitch dark, glows the tiniest spark, it burst into a flame’,” she says with a smile. “I kind of thought about how I work, especially on commercial jobs, and I really related to that.
“It’s kind of like people will send me a story or something – if it’s for Vogue or whatever – and I have to pick one little thing out of a story to draw. So it’s kind of like this tiny little spark of an idea that sets off the drawing, which then kind of develops a life of its own as it becomes more layered and polished. It’s very aesthetic and kind of intuitive.”
But as she goes on to admit, there is a more practical side to the show’s title. “It also kind of relates to the fact that the works are so small,” she says. “My friend Jamie keeps emailing me, saying, ‘How are the tiny sparks going?’
“I guess, because it’s my first show,” she pauses, stifling a self-deprecating chuckle, “I needed to give myself at least something to hang on to.”
The Tiniest Spark by Kat Macleod runs until Saturday, November 29, at Lamington Drive, 89 George Street, Fitzroy.