I had the chance to send artist Caitlin Hackett some questions about her work….
1. Tell us a bit about yourself…
Well let’s see, I grew up in northern California in the misty redwood forests, I moved to NYC 8 years ago just about to go to school at Pratt Institute where I was a fine arts major, specializing in Drawing, and where I got my BFA. I am planning on moving back to the west coast this year, to San Francisco, it’s an over due move. I will miss New York but I’m looking forward to getting back to the Pacific Ocean and the rolling hills of the west. Other interesting facts about me, I wanted to grow up to be a cat when I was a child, I am an identical twin, and I love animals of all kinds but in particular cats. And unicorns.
2. Are you left handed or right handed? Do you think that this affects the way that an artist will create work?
I am right handed, I am not sure how much it affects artists to use different hands, but I do notice I have a tendency to draw all of my creatures and people facing to the (my) left. I don’t know if that has something to do with my hand or if it’s just because I’ve gotten in the habit of doing so, but sometimes I look at all my work lined up and realize I’ve made them all facing the same direction! I have to put in a conscious effort to have them look to the right.
3. Looking through your work, I get a sense that the characters you draw are from another world; that they are familiar yet unfamiliar at the same time. How important is storytelling in your work and what is your favorite piece of literature?
I have always loved a good story. Fairy tales and fantasy were my favorites when I was young, and all of those tales still echo in my work to this day. I would often be the story teller when I was young, in elementary school and middle school I would always make up stories for my friends. I don’t know if you recall those “choose your own adventure” books that were big in the 90s, but I would sort of create my own with my friends, I would tell a story and then give them options as I went along, a. or b., open the door or walk away, fight the dragon or run, etc.
I love narrative work in general, I like art that tells a story, art that pulls me in, I like to feel as though I am being swept off to another place or catching onto part of a secret. I have always been something of an escapist and a day dreamer, and while my work is not based on any particular narrative it is meant to be evocative of another land. In my mind all of my creatures exist together somewhere, in a world both similar and eerily different than our own. I want my drawings to be reflections of the world we live in, echoing both its beauty and its tragedy and distorting them so that they confront the viewer more powerfully. I also know that when I create a piece and release it into the world so the say, that it’s story will grow as people view it. In that way it becomes a collaboration, with each new person adding their own story to it, finding their own connections, I like that my work can become someone else’s day dream as easily as my own.
I also love narrative music I’ve found, I listen to a lot of contemporary folk and I enjoy the way it weaves a story, and the dark undertones frequently present.
It’s hard to pick just one book, I have always loved “the hobbit”, my father read it to me as a child and I have been re-reading it every few years since. Recently I have been quite taken with the short stories of Karen Russell in “St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”, they are eerie, charming, tragic, and filled with a simple and heart wrenching sense of nostalgia. I am drawn to stories that evoke nostalgia, and a sense of something lost, I’m not entirely sure why.
4. Have you ever considered experimenting with another artistic medium such as video or photography? Is it important for an artist to experiment?
Well I actually art direct and style a fair amount of photoshoots with my boyfriend David McHale, who is a photographer. I enjoy doing it, it gives me a break from my normal routine. I am considering doing some stop motion video work using paper puppets of my creatures, hopefully later this year if I have time. It’s something I’ve never done before but have long been drawn to. I used to do some 3D work, puppets and things like that, perhaps someday I’ll get back to it, I miss creating the physical manifestations of my beasts but I’ve been so busy with shows and commission work I’ve scarcely had time for myself this year. I do think it’s important as an artist to branch out and experiment, mostly to have fun with something new, just so you don’t burn out.
5. If you curate a group exhibition involving yourself and 4 other artists with the theme ‘The Twilight Zone’, who would you choose and why?
I’d probably go with Martin Wittfooth, Jeremy Hush, Allison Sommers and Jaw Cooper, mainly because I adore all of their work and it all goes together well, and also all of their work has a dark, surrealistic edge that fits the twilight zone concept quite well. The difficult part would be picking which episode I’d want to make art work based on, probably I’d want to draw something inspired by the episode “the lateness of the hour”.
6. Do you think that the imagination is the key to success?
I believe that it is. I think creativity, imagination, and the ability to make unusual connections between seemingly unrelated concepts, images and objects is key to success in just about any career, but especially in the arts and sciences. Science is in fact a lot like art I believe, in terms of creativity and the desire to explore and build upon pre existing ideas, to delve deeper into the mysteries of life, to come to new understandings and open up new ways of thinking. A certain amount of flexibility and openness of the mind is essential in all jobs in order to attain success though, no matter the field.
7. What are your thoughts on digital art? Will its popularity due to the advancement of technology kill off traditional methods of creating images?
I don’t mind digital art, some of it is in fact amazing, I am not very good at it myself although I do take on some jobs as a digital retoucher with photoshop, which I am rather skilled at as it’s very similar to painting. I don’t believe that traditional methods of creating art will ever truly die out though, they will evolve and change as digital art becomes ever more popular, but they won’t die. Just as people feared that the advent of photography would kill off traditional painting and printmaking, people how fear that digital art will replace traditional painting and illustration, however I’m not very concerned about that. I do think that more and more people will take on creating digital art, and many people will (and already are) start to combine traditional methods and digital painting to create work. However as long as they sell paper, paints and canvas there will be those who are driven to create in a more traditional way, those of us in love with the texture of paper, the rich and varied sensations of using different paints, the weight of a pen in your hand. I love the slick velvet of oil paint, the beautiful translucent quality of watercolor spilling over paper, the scratch of pencil and pen on bristol, I can’t imagine these methods will ever fully be abandoned.
8. Does there need to be more focus on the business side of art? Did you find it hard when you started to become an artist?
I hate the business side of art, it’s the worst part of my job, and I wish to some extent that I didn’t need to know anything about it haha, but alas it is necessary. As a fine art major I really didn’t get much information about the business side of the art world, and there are still things I’m shaky on, especially when it comes to gallery drama. It was not until after I graduated that I was sort of thrown into it, and I had to ask a lot of questions of a lot of other more established artists and curators to guide me. I made mistakes too, and got taken advantage of a few times by clients and galleries alike, there were lessons I had to learn the hard way about writing contracts for clients and dealing with galleries and all kinds of payment issues, as an artist it can be very, very hard to get people to pay you on time, as I’m sure it is difficult for many small companies and independent contractors. Schools definitely should focus on the business aspect of being an artist more, given that you are your own small business and there is much you need to know to protect yourself and your work. I also think artists as a group need to come up with a list online of galleries that they have worked with, and which ones were a good experience and which ones screwed them over, and how. My artist collective, PRISMA, does this among ourselves, but I think it would be helpful to have had sooner after I graduated, and in a broader scale.
9. Do you agree with the quote, ‘Everything you want is on the other side of fear’?
I suppose I came into the art world with a sort of blind, good faith; I was not afraid, I don’t think I really knew what I was getting myself into. So while I would say I do agree with that quote for the most part, I would also say that more fittingly everything you want is on the other side of hard work and endless drive; it does not matter how talented you are, if you are not driven and if you are not productive you cannot succeed. I am certain that fear is a part of that hurdle; fear of just how hard the work might be in order to become successful, fear of rejection (and you will, undoubtedly, be rejected at some point or many points in your art career), fear that you won’t be able to create the work you strive for. It is the uncertainly that you have to contend with when going into the arts, and courage is the willingness to follow your passion regardless of the uncertainly of the outcome. It was not until I got to my junior and senior year in school that I became really aware of both what I was passionate about in my work, and of the uncertainly of my future, so perhaps that awakening of both passion and fear is a necessary combination, but it’s probably different for all artists.
I had never in my youth planned on being an artist when I “grew up”, I always wanted to be a wildlife biologist, or a vet, (or a cat), and so I never thought much about the risks of going into the arts because it wasn’t even my plan. When I started at Pratt I don’t think I even really knew what it meant to be an artist, I thought I did I suppose, but it was a much dreamier perspective, and an unclear one at that, and now I cannot even recall what I much have thought of artists because the reality has so long since replaced the fantasy. Not that the reality is bad, but it’s stressful and busy and full of pitfalls, and indeed, some fear is always present, it is not the most financially stable route to take. I never got those lectures from my parents about what a bad idea it was to go into art, because I am very fortunate to have parents who wanted me to follow my passions, whatever they were. However to get back to the point, back to fear, I am sort of my own disapproving parent now, I am at times filled with a dread because I know I have no backup plan, (although I have at times considered going back to school for biology if this art path didn’t work out), I don’t work for a big company or have health benefits or a 401k, I am just me, alone, working and saving and pushing forward with my art. However for me fear of failure or fear of rejection have nearly nothing to do with my artwork now, my work is in many ways about a very different fear; fear for the world I live in, fear for the loss of the wilderness I love, fear of extinction of species, fear of human apathy and cruelty, and I don’t know what lies on the other side of these fears that haunt my work.
10. If you could interview any artist, dead or alive, who would it be and what one question would you most like to ask them?
That’s a tough one, I think I’ll cheat and give two options.
I would love to meet James Audubon, and I would want to ask if it gave him sorrow, ever in his life, to have killed so many birds for the sake of his art. I love his paintings, and they inspired me so much as a child, but I was horrified when I found out that he killed all of the birds he painted, (and many, many more) he hunted them and then stuffed and posed them in order to create his paintings, and truly his work was a revelation, never had birds been captured with such realism before. It had always seemed to me that he must love birds so, must be so obsessed with them, but then to know that he hunted and killed so, so many birds casts a shadow over his work for me. I just want to know if it ever gave him pause, if it ever made him sad or made him doubt his methods, or if it was just a part of his work for him, part of his obsession.
The second artist I would want to meet and ask a question of would be Jim Henson, I adored the muppets and all of his puppets as a child, and was obsessed with his work in “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth”. I would want to ask him what his dreams were like, if he could remember them. I remember all of my dreams and they are odd and at times frightening, I just would want to know what he dreamed, he was such an odd and wonderful man.
11. When producing large scale work, do you plan out the final image or do you improvise?
I usually have an image in my mind that I want to create, but I don’t tend to do preliminary sketches or anything like that, I just start drawing. The end piece is usually a combination of my original concept and improvisation, and the longer a drawing takes to complete the more it tends to evolve, because my original idea has more time to gestate and mutate. I like that aspect of working on large pieces, the idea that it can change over time, so that the end result is never quite what I envisioned at the beginning, it’s more exciting, and it gives the piece a life of its own.
12. What are the benefits of drawing on a larger scale as opposed to a smaller scale? Which do you prefer?
I prefer to work large scale, I actually have a hard time drawing things smaller than life size, I prefer to draw animals at life sized as much as possible, and I always draw too large when I first start out on a small piece so I have to be very careful in the composition to make sure I don’t cut off my creatures at the edges. I’m not sure what the benefits are really, given that I am very much biased towards working large scale. I don’t think that I can really give an opinion on that, since there are artists who work only at very small scale and create amazing and enviable work. However in my case I think my large works are much stronger than my small, indeed I would say that I am not actually very skilled at creating and composing small works.
13. Can you survive as an artist without social media? Is the internet in some ways harmful to art and artists?
Well artists used to survive without social media or the internet, although I often catch myself asking how they did it, it’s such a different world now, and it’s the one I graduated into so I am very entwined in it. I think it’s why so many artists used to go unknown until after they died, because you had to get into a salon or a gallery to get recognized, or get a patron. These days you can still use galleries, but the internet has made it easier to sell your own work and be your own business manager without having to use an agent, although it can be quite stressful. I am on all kinds of different sites and use a variety of social media to promote my work, fb, instagram, twitter, society6, etc. it’s exhausting to update them all haha. Most of my sales come from people who find me through social media and email me to purchase work or start a commission, rather than at gallery shows. The internet, while helpful, can at times be damaging and very frustrating, it’s much easier for people to steal and claim your art work as their own. I’ve had it happen on a multitude of occasions, people using my designs on t-shirts, for album covers or band posters without permission, or putting them up on their deviant art accounts and websites, I even had a band from Brazil email me a while ago to tell me they had purchased a design from a woman there to use for an album cover a few years ago, and then recently found my website and saw that the drawing was actually mine and not hers, but her site had long since vanished. In any case, for me the pros outweigh the cons, but you do have to be careful, I try not to put out hi res images on the internet where they can be taken and used for prints and clothing, etc, and keep my copyright updated.
14. Do you ever think about how people will perceive you through your art? Should you care about people’s opinion of your work?
I don’t worry too much about other people’s opinion of my work, or how they will perceive me after viewing it. Once I release my artwork into the world I accept that people will make it their own, giving it their own meaning and symbolism, and since my work is narrative in nature I know that everyone will have their own story for each piece. I like to think of this as a collaboration between myself and the viewer, I create a piece and its story grows and grows with each new person who sees it. I create what I am passionate about, and while I have had negative reactions to my work, usually from people who don’t understand the concept behind it and think that it’s cruel or gross, typically people enjoy it, but either way I will keep creating what I love. I like to surprise people too, the way I look does not tend to match people’s expectations after viewing my work, and that’s part of the fun for me at gallery openings.
15. Do you think that seeing an image of an artist changes the way you view their work?
I suppose it can, I like when artists don’t match my expectations, and it at times feels like getting in on a secret, getting a peek at the man behind the curtain so to speak. I have always had an interest in back stage work as well, in the process of building sets and costumes and special effects, the secret rushing and bustling behind the scenes, it doesn’t ruin the magic for me but increases it, like getting into the gears of a clock. It is amazing to me to see how the parts form a whole, and seeing and especially meeting an artist after knowing only their artwork is like that for me.
16. What was the last book our read/ film you watched or image that you saw that changed how you view art?
Reading “the Object Stares Back” by Jonathan Berger definitely changed how I see art and the art world, along with “Ways of Seeing”, another Berger work. Watching the film “the diving bell and the butterfly” was a remarkable experience as well, it’s a beautiful film that captures something of the deep importance of imagination, of having a robust dream life, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg for that film, it must be watched, trying to explain it just doesn’t do it justice. I also recently listened to a radio lab podcast about the nature of Color that was very eye opening.
17. What is your favourite quote?
“i want to spend the rest of my life everywhere, with everyone, one to one, always, forever, now”
18. Do you have any tattoos? If so, how many do you have and what do they represent? Are tattoos an art form in themselves?
I have one tattoo, a blue bird about two inches wide on my leg, I got it when I was a freshman at Pratt, I drew it myself all those years ago, but it’s fairly simple in design. I’ve considered having it reworked, adding some new elements to it, or getting another tattoo, probably another bird as I’m obsessed with drawing them, but I don’t know that I ever will. I suppose to me birds, especially small songbirds, represent survival in the face of all odds, they are small and fragile, surrounded by predators, whipped by storms, ceaselessly in search of food, and yet they survive. They are tenacious little creatures, tiny modern dinosaurs, ferocious in their own way. Little birds are lovely to look at, charming in song, and enviable with their power of flight, there is something so enchanting about them to me. Perhaps it is because they seem so free and yet they are in a furious battle against the elements to live. To me it is something like watching a ballet, from far off they are elegant, effortless, free, but up close you see the sweat, the strain of muscles, the intensity of their moves.
19. What would the world be like without art?
It would be a hollow place, a world without art would necessarily have to be a world where beauty, passion, and horror could not be translated nor represented nor held captive by the human mind. It seems to me that if beauty and sorrow alike could not be translated by the human hand or the human mind then that would mean it must not even be recognized or understood at all, and a world like that is an empty place, devoid of thought. Art is akin philosophy and to science, it is a curious force in the human spirit, a drive to create, to take what we see and what we think and what we dream and translate it onto the canvas, onto paper, or in a photo. It is the desire to capture a moment, to stretch a tenuous thought into an eternity, or to question the bounds of reality. If there is no art, if human kind does not have the desire or capacity to create art in this alternate world, then surely there is no philosophy either, no science, no literature, because all of these things are linked innately into creativity, and creativity is a driving force in our ability to grow not only as individuals but also as a species, it pushes us forward.
20. Do you consider yourself to be a professional artist? At what point do you become professional?
I am a professional artist, since it is how I make a living, and what drives me. Art is not my hobby, it is all that I do, and it defines my actions and shapes my thoughts. I am filled with images yet to be translated to paper, dreams of creatures and mystic landscapes, mutated beasts and spirits, I have lists that float around my studio of ideas I think up in the night when my mind runs wild. In my opinion you are a professional artist when that is your livelihood, your life, when you spend more time creating or plotting new creations than you do anything else. Many people love art, many people enjoy drawing or painting in their spare time, and that’s a wonderful thing, but I think you really have to live it and risk it all to be considered an artist. Perhaps I’m being a little snobby about my definition of an Artist, but the artists who I know and who I work with and consider my friends are that way; their art is their life, not a weekend activity.
21. What is your favorite image you have produced and why?
I don’t really have any set favorite image, I have a few that are my current favorites but I find it changes all the time, I am always very attached to an image right after I make it, to the point where it’s difficult to even sell it. However as time goes by and I create new work my extreme attachment fades and shifts, but some pieces remain dear to me. “Insatiable” is a work I made back in 2009, it’s one of my larger pieces at 54” by 55” and I still have the original, it takes up a whole wall in my apartment, it was one of those pieces that just flowed out of me, it just worked, some pieces are a battle to create, but this one just happened. I also love a new piece I made this year for a show at Thinkspace gallery, it’s a black and white piece all in ballpoint pen, “the king’s lost knight”, I am very taken with it, I think I achieved my best line quality so far in that work. The piece is still at Thinkspace and I miss it! I also love another of my older pieces, one of my most popular drawings, “In Memory”, it was for an enchanted forest themed show at Strychnin gallery a few years ago, part of a diptych of two deer, a sort of before and after. “In Memory” was the before if you will, it was an ode to the forests that once were, the wilderness that spread vast and feral across the country, tangled and lush. It remains one of my favorite pieces.
22. Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
Work hard, be relentless in your creation, and don’t be afraid of rejection because it is inevitable that you will at some point have your work rejected, simply keep creating. Do what you are passionate about, not what you have been told is “art”, you will always do best in your work if you are doing what you are passionate about. Also make use of the internet, as much of a hassle as it can be, put yourself out there on social media, make some kind of website or blog for your work where people can find you and contact you for projects, and reach out to blogs and magazines to try to get your work featured, even if it’s a small start you never know who will see your work. You don’t have to limit yourself to one field of art either, I am a fine artist who does gallery shows, but I also take on illustration work, do album covers, and do creature concept design work. It’s important to learn how to write a contract, that way if you get a commission for a painting or a poster or an album cover you will have it in writing what and when you will be paid (always make sure you get 1/2 or 1/3 or the whole payment in advance) and what the timeline for creation is. Never simply trust that a client will make good on their claims without one even if it’s a friend or acquaintance who seems trustworthy, you just never know. Try not to burn too many bridges, be calm and be professional, there are relationships with companies and galleries that I wish I had not lost, but I have something of a temper and these things happen, it can be challenging at times to keep a cool head when you feel you’re being screwed over, but it’s best to be level headed as much as possible even when dealing with difficult clients. I guess most of this is common sense, but still it’s what I wish I had heard more of after I had graduated and when I was in school.