Monday, January 30, 2012

Ten Minutes with Cellist/Artist Kathy McTavish

The haunted, dynamic quality of Kathy McTavish's cello is fairly well known here in the Northland. What is probably less well known is how articulate she is, as you will see in this interview. Her multi-media collaborations open new horizons for the imagination, and those who choose to engage are rewarded.

Ennyman: What is it that first drew you to the cello as a vehicle for communicating the deep things stirring inside you?

Kathy McTavish: I first heard the cello the summer after third grade. The public schools in Minnesota used to have more arts programming. At my school in St. Paul, kids were shown different instruments and given an opportunity to learn to play in the school band or orchestra. I heard the cello and completely fell in love with its sound.

Despite the frustrations associated with learning the physical aspects of playing and the new language of wordless sound, I kept at it. I practiced for hours. The cello became an escape from a school world that I felt outside of. It was like a boat. I was taught Western classical music. It was the only path. I excelled for a time and then I felt a longing to be more engaged in the creative process in some way other than being an interpretive player. At the time I didn't know of how to do that. I studied music theory / composition but couldn't find my way. I pursued other things for a time and then I came back to the cello.

I started to explore the cello's sounds more broadly. Thanks to the generosity of local musicians, I started to explore improvisation. Free improvisation was a door that opened up a creative voice for me. It changed my relationship to my instrument.

E: I was fascinated with your Phantom Galleries Superior presentation last fall because of the multimedia experience and how you wove so many mediums into that space. How did that project come to be?

KM: I loved the idea of the Phantom Galleries and I respect anything that Erika Mock is involved in creating. I was drawn to the space between the old Androy Hotel and the Main Club and I wanted to interact with that vacant storefront. I had started expanding my sound work to include light and images / moving pictures and I brought this fusion work to that project. Many of the images used in the still-motion films were from the area around Tower Avenue. I collaborated with the poet Sheila Packa to embed words in the final installation. It was challenging for me to work without being able to use sound directly. Because the space is locked the viewer is left to gaze in through the window and the only sound becomes the streetscape ambient sounds. I wrote music for all of the films and included this in the online companion site for the exhibit.

E: You also write in an evocative manner that captures imagery in a lot of dynamic ways. Have you always been a writer? What prompted you to produce your book Birdland?

KM: I'm not really a writer. Thank you for your kind words about that book. I wanted to improve my ability to talk about what I do. I also wanted to explore in words -- the dream story that lived for me while I created the "birdland" exhibit. I found that writing helped me bring to life the ghosts that were present for me while I worked. I feel that an artist needs to risk something and for me, this was a vulnerable process. I felt very emotional trying to wander the strange world of words -- quite adrift.

E: Who have been your most significant influences as an artist?

KM: I love Patti Smith, abstract expressionist artists, beat poets. I love collaborating with Sheila Packa. I learned so much from working with Richie Townsend in the cosmic pit orchestra. I am inspired by local artists, writers and musicians. We are very lucky to live in this area. We have an openness to new ideas, experimentation and cross-media collaborations.

E: You've done a number of collaborations. How did those come to be?

KM: I have been lucky to have the opportunity to work with some wonderful people in a broad range of styles / art forms. I have worked with other musicians but also with poets, dancers, visual artists, and film makers. I like to learn from other artists. Collaboration brings that learning to a very visceral level that changes a person in ways difficult to describe.

E: My guess is that with each completed project you have something else in the wings. What will you be pouring yourself into in 2012?

KM: The multimedia installation "birdland" is at the Duluth Art Institute until April 8 (more online at: On February 3rd another collaborative exhibit will be up at the same Phantom Gallery space that I now occupy. This project is called "cruzando / crossing". It is a bilingual installation created by the Argentinian visual artist Cecilia Ramon, poet Sheila Packa and myself. I am working on a film called "night train / blue window" that will be complete sometime this Spring. The Jerome Foundation just funded work on a project called "graffiti angel / holy fool". This work has two aspects. The first, an experimental music / still-motion film will premier at the Zinema 2 this summer. The second, a multi-media live performance, will premier at Sacred Heart this Fall. All of my creative projects have a companion online exhibit space so you can watch them unfold at:

1 comment:

My Inner Chick said...

*** I feel that an artist needs to risk something***

Fabulous line!

Thank you.