Pictured above: The Unsettled Holds the Future (2021) (detail)
Kate Butler’s mosaic art is infused with meaning. A quest for discovering patterns and connections drives her creativity. Rhona Duffy talks to Kate about her recent work, which explores the impact of human activities on our planet’s ecological systems.
By Rhona Duffy
Kate Butler created The Unsettled Holds the Future (2021) in response to the news that nineteen major ecosystems are collapsing across Australia, where UK-born Kate has been living for the last 20 years. “I was thinking about our disappearing planet in the way that I set the slate tesserae to create shadows,” she explains. “The shadows suggest absence; the loss of animals, plants and insects due to the climate crisis, land clearing and human greed. Australia has the largest mammal extinction rate in the world.”
Kate is fascinated by seed pods and has been collecting them for years. She says that the “constructed bio-morphic forms” in this piece embody seed pods and the bird beaks of endangered trees and birds in the Southern Tablelands region of Australia. “The idea of movement, undulations and repetition is heightened by the day’s shifting light,” Kate continues. “The prevailing winds of uncertainty are reflected in this shifting surface.”
There is also a message of hope in this artwork. “The gold lines are a homage to everyone, particularly First Nations people, climate scientists, environmental advocates, activists, journalists, farmers and students, who are – at great personal cost – striving to prevent the hellscapes of environmental collapse. I’m so angry by the way these people are treated just because they’re trying to protect our environment,” she says. “We have the knowledge and technologies to stop this environmental devastation. At times it feels hard to hold onto hope and not get overwhelmed by the uncertainty. But we need to step into our courage and do what we can. The choice is ours.”
Her artwork Thin Blue Line (2022) was inspired by her love of the colour blue and by exploring its symbolism. “In the past, the colour blue was associated with death and the underworld. Blue eyes were apparently the sign of a dubious character (I myself have blue eyes!). But in the Byzantine era, the colour became associated with nobility and the upper classes. So, from there, I started to think about, ‘who’s my nobility?’”
They are the same people Kate people celebrated in her gold lines in The Unsettled Holds the Future – anyone who is dedicated to saving planet earth. The phrase “the thin blue line” also refers to the concept of the police as the line that keeps society from descending into violent chaos. “The scientists, journalists, activists, farmers and students – they are the planet’s thin blue line,” she adds.
Kate has been creating mosaics for about 15 years, starting in her spare time alongside her job as a social researcher. Without any formal fine art training, Kate says she took “a leap into the dark”. In her professional life, she’s always made a point of learning from the best, so she carried that ethos into her mosaic practice. “I used to have to travel back to England regularly to care for my mother as she aged and became ill. So I tried to coincide my trips with courses by Emma Biggs whenever possible.”
People have often asked Kate why she moved from social research to mosaic art. “As a researcher, you’re dealing with thousands of pieces of data and creating meaning from them. Mosaic is exactly the same. Except now I make meaning from thousands of tesserae rather than data. It was a lovely transition from social research into mosaic art.”
Kate uses traditional mosaic techniques and a range of materials, including marble, rocks, smalti, glass, ceramics and porcelain, in her work. “I’m aware of a paradox working with rocks,” she continues. “Rocks give me a sense of permanence in a quickly fading world. But the hundreds of thousands of cuts that I make to these rocks symbolise humanity’s violence against the environment.”
She has a particular passion for slate, and she’s been working with it for about five years now. “There are so many memories embedded in materials, whether they’re manmade or organic, and that’s true of slate in particular. If I’m not in a great frame of mind, I wonder about what a piece of slate might have been a witness to – for example, the many people who were injured or died in quarries. It’s also beautiful material to work with. But you need to be aware that it’s less about what you want to do with it and more about getting used to it telling you what it wants to do! Dugald MacInnes was a huge inspiration for me in how I wanted to work with slate.”
Kate did a few commissions but decided that it wasn’t for her. “I’ve spent my life with constraints put around me. So I don’t want any constraints on my art. I’m in a lucky position that I can live in this way now, and I’m very grateful for that.” She started to show her work in galleries about ten years ago and she’s passionate about mosaic being appreciated as a fine art. “Over the last few years, in particular, I’ve worked hard to get my art into more mainstream galleries and shows.” Her first solo show Presence // Absence is taking place at X Gallery in Bungendore in New South Wales until 28 November.
So, what advice would Kate give other mosaicists considering approaching mainstream galleries? “Sadly, in some quarters of the mainstream art system, mosaic has a bad reputation and has been written off by some. So I would advise making sure you’re really good at what you do before you approach a gallery, to be able to grab their attention.”
And what does Kate recommend for getting better at what you do? “Creative research is essential. This process might not be the same for everyone. I spend a lot of time thinking about my creative research practice. I actually went way out of my comfort zone and did a masterclass on this topic. I was surrounded by writers, painters, designers and other creatives. It really challenged and pushed me. So while it’s clearly important to have a technical understanding and grasp of mosaic techniques, taking my practice to the next level has required thinking, talking, reading and writing. And then making. And then re-writing in response to what I’ve made. And that process repeats itself.”
Kate also advises experimenting. “Experiment, experiment, experiment. With everything – from cutting techniques to materials,” she says. “I’m a big fan of using tinted mortar and I have a library of different colours that I’ve created through experimenting.” And, finally, says Kate, “Step out of mosaic land. If we’re honest, most mosaic teachers don’t teach how to create art; they teach technique,” she says. “So I push myself to try other mediums – drawing, painting, ceramics and weaving. It really expands your mind. And it makes you think about what other possibilities there are for your mosaic practice too.”
“Welsh slate is a good type of slate to choose if you want to cut it into strips with a wet saw. From there, I then use a traditional hammer and hardie to make further cuts to the slate. And I use slate nippers (Knipex) to do any detailed shaping of each individual pieces.”