“Art can be liberating, a vent for those who wish to let out the inert. Art can be salubrious for those looking for rebound. Art can sew lives back together in one piece as though nothing was ever torn. Art can purposefully be cynical just as how a desire can be. Art can be forbidden love, an act of endurance. Art can be submission of subliminal mind. Art can be a happy space or a fragment dead and buried over time.
What do I leave home, when I carry the burden of my passion inside me? What do I conceal when everything about me is a secret? I am an artist; my art is the remnant of my extremity. If you fall in love with me, you will never die. My art will be a testimony of your existence.”
– Manvi on Catherine Schwalbe for ‘Real Life Heroes’
My unremitting fascination for art bribes me to connect with every possible artist in the world. It knows no boundaries. Over years, I have seen and keenly observed how artists reciprocate to other artists and how it is nothing short of a graceful admiration, even when they may or may not defy each other on several grounds. Nancy Pirri, an artist based out of Chicago, introduced me to Catherine almost a year back. Since then, I have been following Cathi’s work and finally today, I got a privilege to share her story with you.
With much adoration, I welcome Catherine on my platform Real Life Heroes. “I grew up in a big family in a very old, stone “broken down house”. Both my parents were inventive and curious about life. I appreciate that so much more now than I did then. My mother, particularly, moved with ease with materials of all kinds. She sewed voraciously and beautifully and made many of her daughter’s wedding dresses. She made so many things all around us. She did chair caning and wicker repair, metalsmithing, and countless craft projects with community groups that included even puppetry and theater. When I became an adult, I wanted to get close to my mother, know her as an adult. It wasn’t easy. She was reserved when it came to matters of the heart. When I started in making work, I chose corn as a springboard to have a dialogue with my mother about her roots, my own roots. It became an excuse to consult her about facts and experiences about her agricultural background. She was a child of ‘The Depression’ and her family was deeply resourceful with growing and canning their own food. So, in short, yes, I credit her for much of my ease with a variety of materials. Well, sometimes it isn’t ease so much as ignorance and bravery! :)”
A drop of hazy rain when penetrates the ocean, becomes a part of it with no trace of duality between the two. Likewise, when a mother gives birth to a child, it’s her own reflection taking shape and form, there is no trace of duality between the two. Why do we say, mothers know everything?
Cathi continued, “Indeed, my mother was very special. You know, when each of her daughters were wed, they received a sexy nightgown and a tool box full of tools.”
As I closely studied Cathi’s artwork, I discerned that it is a unique assimilation of her experiences. As an artist, she has widely explored inner commotions in response to outer realities. She displays her own impression of the world and just how everything is connected.
Her work – Polar Vertex (mini): version 1 and Polar Vertex: version 2 is influenced by the record breaking cold of January 2014 in The United States. In reference to that, she said, “I was struck by the unprecedented cold and freezing of our Great Lakes. I had seen a satellite image of the Great Lakes captured from Mars and it was frozen over with snow appearing as if it was blowing over a tundra. I knew I had to render them in porcelain. There were two Polar Vortex years in a row. During the second one, I was going to Buffalo, NY, to represent my work in a gallery there. I had rented a car (with a heated steering wheel!), got a speeding ticket about 200 miles in to the journey, and it was minus zero. I started crying as I was driving, and wondering why am I really doing this? I didn’t NEED to go there. Then it dawned on me, that, I could witness 4 of the 5 Great Lakes frozen over. I could collect snow/ice from each one and supplement the porcelain rendition of the Great Lakes. So, I collected Lake Erie at Buffalo, Lake Ontario at Toronto, Lake Huron at Port Huron, and Lake Michigan at Chicago. A neighbor’s, father’s friend collected another one for me at Lake Superior. Receiving that package was so much fun! Labeled: Lake Superior Water. I further sent him a mini version of the Great Lakes to acknowledge him.
This work is one of my favorites because of the experience of collecting in the bitter cold, finding myself a bit along the way, and calling attention to crazy temperatures because of the climate change. A fellow artist from Chicago describes herself as a Great Lakes artist. I was stunned by that beautiful viewpoint of our region and sometimes say the same.”
Cathi is ancestrally associated to corn and a lot of her compilations exhibit field corn blended with labyrinths. I remember one, where, a corn is cut into two halves and both the halves have a labyrinth engraved on them. A labyrinth is a meandering path that goes back to 4000 years. While, it made me wonder how the two could be possibly connected, she seemed to be at ease with that…
“I made that piece several years ago. The show that I am currently taking down, titled “Mistakes were Made” is exploring labyrinths more deeply and in a varied fashion. I have three major works inside, along with some finger labyrinths. The three inside are made of extruded clay, old time cards leading in to a sewing machine, and the third with found objects and soil maps and water charts of the Mississippi. When I went to the space back in January/February, I looked outside from the third-floor gallery/studio and immediately expressed my interest in doing a labyrinth or two outside. The two outside are very temporary in nature. I knew it would be spring when the show was mounted and being outside is one of my favorite things.
There are farms, here in the mid-west that have agri-tourism and sometimes have corn mazes. The public pays to enter these autumn corn mazes for thrill and fun. My intent, through exploring labyrinths, is more meditative and recreational. Even soothing. I like the idea, that you have alluded to, that cultures from all over the world have explored the labyrinth for thousands of years. The fact that, we have always needed calm, always needed to create, always appreciated pattern and beauty, and integral to the human experience, is grounding for me. I think of Ellen Dissanayake and her book where creativity comes from and why? Her definition of creativity is “Making special.” Isn’t that freeing? I completely relate to it.”
(Picture Credits – Cathi Schwalbe)
It’s not easy to be an artist, you spend all your life challenging your vulnerable extremes until that moment when eternal insignificance swallows you. But, there are some who do not let that happen, they convert their experiences into an art form. When you exude what you have been absorbing for long, you feel lighter, stronger and a sort of immune.
“I used ‘TRUTH’ as a theme a couple of times in my work. It came to me as my marriage was unraveling. My (then) husband told me of his unethical behavior and infidelity. Through his own counseling and our marriage counseling, he had never felt that he could be truly himself, long before we met and in his adulthood. During (what I call now as the theatre of…) our attempt at reconciliation, I wanted him to speak the TRUTH, always. Without that, there really is nothing to build in a relationship. I realized through all of that, you can only know someone as much as they are willing to let you know them. I was literally digging for the TRUTH in my 27-year marriage. He decided to leave the marriage and sometimes I think to myself “I miss the marriage I thought I had.”
It was the most difficult time in my life. I realized, that, out of so much ugliness came many gifts, most of which were deeper relationships with family and friends, and an empathy towards so many that experience the similar awfulness in their own lives. I genuinely think, because of the trauma, I am more present for loved ones and strangers. We are all in this together.
The work was also related to the soil and how the soil never lies. Without soil, we have no food. It is TRUTH telling at its most fundamental level. So, some of the TRUTH series came out of conversation with farmers, the soil, and reading/research.”
(Truth at Walnut Creek Farms, created when we separated that Summer while he was trying to “figure out his values.” Picture Credits – A. Peter Schulz)
(Picture Credits – Catherine Schwalbe. These are newly found artist friends who have started an organic farm about 90 miles outside of Chicago. They are practicing artists/writers and farming with beast only. No mechanization or equipment. They have come a long way in a short period and I have boatloads of admiration for them. In some way, I think they are searching for TRUTH too.)
Apart from functional art and installations, Cathi is also actively involved in field projects and gives elderly care. In 2013, she gave 100 terracotta cups at a public well in Ashton, IL, as a gesture to celebrate and advocate for clean water everywhere. In 2014, she did another project – Sewing Forgiveness: City of Chicago. She is also a Recreation Therapist. As she was happily narrating, my heart was searching for a purpose behind. Putting an end to my restless quest, she said, “You know Manvi, in the end, I find art deeply intertwined with all parts of my life. They are not separate in thought or deed. When I get an idea to do something, I generally carry it out. With that, there is a fair amount of privilege that I do not take for granted. As a recreation therapist, I have spent my career engaging people, most often with each other, which is the best part. It seemed quite natural, years ago, to engage people in my art practice. I had a woman, now friend, interview me a few years ago, about those aspects of my work. Robin Dluzen, who was writing for Chicago Art Magazine at the time. After I explained some recent works to her, including some of the works you mentioned, she told me “Oh! That is relational aesthetics!” (This term coming from art historians and academia) I said, “Oh… that is interesting. I just know I have to do this thing!” It’s true. I didn’t know that, part of my art practice had a category and was being taught in full semesters. I think it is the academics, and obviously, the historians, that follow the artists, categorize in neat little boxes, and archive accordingly. Sometimes, I am onto something and like to repeat it in different locations, seasons, and shift things a bit. That can be enriching and provokes a deeper meaning based on those variables. Timing and context are huge.
I know that much of my work has meaning to me first and foremost. When I show, conduct, or install a piece, it becomes something else to every viewer. I find myself wanting to listen more to others viewing and experiencing my work. I think that comes with maturity. It has taken me awhile to get to this point, that is for sure. When you are an artist and putting your work out there for the viewers, it is an incredibly vulnerable place to be.”
I wondered, if, she had favorites too?
“Ohh! I have so many. I look up to Georgia O’Keefe, who was born in the 20th Century. Ann Hamilton for her ability to create thoughtful events and environments that engage the head and the heart. Her multi-disciplinary approach along with the use of her own body in works seems very real to me. Robert Rauschenberg for his response to the chaos of the 60’s and his bravery therein. I also think of amazing artists that I happen to know personally: Theaster Gates, Corinne Peterson, Marj Woodruff, Lee Tracy, Nathan Mason, and others, all from the Chicago area that have inspired, stopped to observe, and fueled my work in various ways. I will be forever grateful to all of them.”
(This journey has been personally shared with me by Catherine)
Know more about our ‘Unconventional Woman’ – Catherine Schwalbe @