Monday, April 21, 2014

Spotlight on Multi-Media Expressionist Kathy McTavish

The haunted, dynamic quality of Kathy McTavish's cello has become fairly well-known here in the Northland. But in recent years she is an emerging artist extending the bounds of installation and collaboration. Her most recent project “the ørigin of birds” created immense excitement amongst those who gathered recently at the Prøve Gallery’s opening. What is probably less well known is how articulate she is, as you will see in this interview. Her multi-media interactive collaborations open new horizons for the imagination, and those who choose to engage are rewarded.

EN: What did you learn from this most current project, the ørigin of birds?

Kathy McTavish: I learned many things. I think one of the surprises was how engaged the writers became with the collaborative writing-to-projection aspect of the installation. There were several points of entry for writing volunteers. I thought of these as the voices of three main "characters." I was moved by the layered, poetic threads that emerged from that part of the project. I will store these the next time so that I can play the co-written, improv work back. On Friday I loved playing live with Richie Townsend. That element kept me in the moment. The joy of live improv kept me from stressing about the digital pieces of the puzzle. In the end I felt lucky that everything went smoothly and that people were so warm, kind and open to the experiment of it all. I love that about our arts community here in the Northland.

EN: How would compare and contrast installation vs. wall art?

KM: I think that everything is an installation. People that specifically call themselves installation artists perhaps have more of a relationship to particular place. They use space as one of the materials in their work. What felt different about my work on origin of birds was my relationship to time. There were many circles inside of circles that emerged while working on the project. A previously-developed store of data, text, image and sound was woven live into the multiple projections in the room and into an infinitely running online version. But also there were some elements that are ephemeral like a twitter stream, text written live to a writers' interface and live, improv sound that were tossed into the mix. These intersecting elements felt like a collage, a mobile, an evolving story.

The backbone for the project is a codebase that I have been working on for a while called the "graffiti angel." I am using that toolset to create a live, immersive score for the Zeitgeist New Music Quartet. That work is performed May 16-18 at Studio Z in Lowertown. On the 17th we will be offering both the new work called høle in the skY and origin of birds as a "double feature" of sorts. On June 14th Joellyn Rock, Rob Wittig, Cathy Podeszwa, myself and other collaborators from Duluth head down to participate in Northern Spark. We will be installing a work called Sophronia Two at the Walker as part of that event. Again, the graffiti angel will be creating live film. You can learn more about these projects on my website:

EN: I was fascinated with your Phantom Galleries Superior presentation in 2011 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.

EN: 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.

EN: 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.

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

KM: 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.

EdNote: Most of this interview originally appeared in The Reader. 

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