It has been said before, but I will say it again; Caitlin Hackett’s work is exceptional. The first time I laid my eyes upon this New York-based artist’s drawings, I was enchanted. Using ballpoint pen, ink, watercolours and pencil on paper she knowingly explores the relationship between humans and animals and the outcome is a world of miscellaneous creatures that drift between the possible and impossible, beautiful and frightening. As an artist she has managed to create a world where nature, animals and humans intertwine in a colourful yet curiously surreal way. Her creatures possess wings and fins as well as hands and beaks. In their billowing hair hide long-tailed rats and any gaping wound can easily be closed up with a zipper.
However, what truly makes Caitlin’s work stand out is that it goes beyond mere beauty and conveys reflection over our relationship with the natural world and its inhabitants. By dissolving the limits that humans have built up to separate themselves from the rest of the species she draws a picture of a different outcome, she creates temporary mythology.
So Caitlin, you started to paint …
I’ve been painting and drawing for as long as I can remember, ever since I could first clutch a crayon or a marker in my little hands. My parents and grandparents have boxes and boxes of drawings that my twin and I did when we were children. We used to sit together for hours and draw, my parents would give us piles of printer paper and we would slowly work our way through it all. As we drew we would tell the stories of what we were drawing, explaining the characters and landmarks of our illustrations to whoever would listen.
I have always drawn animals, as a child I wanted very badly to be an animal, namely a cat, and would gallop around my house and our backyard, through the forest, and in my school playground, meowing and lashing my invisible tail. Even as a child I was very interested in the mechanics of animals, in their physiology, bone structure, psychology and ecosystems, and I would invent different animal species in my drawings, and come up with entire worlds for them to live in. I grew up enveloped by my fantasy life, drawing unicorns and winged cats, reading fairy tales and inventing new ones myself. I have always been influenced by nature, and by animals, and only rarely did I draw people, because I just wasn’t very interested in them. All I ever wanted to draw were animals, and that passion for animals has continued to this day.
What is it that fascinates you about the relationship between humans and animals?
I suppose in the beginning what interested me wasn’t the relationship between humans and animals, but simply animals themselves, they enchanted me, they had a power and a mystery to me, something wild yet innocent, something brutal yet beautiful. It was because of my love of nature and of animals that I began to study our relationships with them, as I got older I began to realize that not everyone shared my view of the natural world, in fact, many people were entirely indifferent, and if not indifferent, actively malevolent to the natural world and to animals in general. Deforestation, pollution of our water sources, our soil, our oceans, we are practically suicidal in our destruction of the natural world, our society values immediate gain over long term well-being. In addition to our rampant destruction of the natural world, think of the value placed on an animal’s life in comparison to our own, in comparison to our cosmetics or our medicine. The value placed on an animal’s life is minuscule; how many rabbits, rats, cats, dogs, chimps, mice, etc, are killed each year in the name of medical and cosmetic research? There may be an argument for the medical labs, which have created life saving medicine that would not otherwise have been found. However, cosmetics companies also torture thousands of animals in labs around the world to test out different mascaras, soaps and nail polishes. Of those animals that die so that we can have makeup, what can we say of their lives? We value the life of a rabbit, a cat, a rat, less than a tube of mascara, or a stick of eyeliner, or a bottle of shower gel. Their lives are tantamount to a tube of lipstick. So that we don’t get a skin rash from a lotion, how many rabbits will die in testing laboratories? For every shampoo and body wash, every eye shadow and lip gloss, how many cats and dogs and mice being tested on will suffer and die, unknown? And how many people would care, even if they knew? Even in medical labs, there must be a better way, in a society that claims to be as advanced as ours, its’ shocking the kind of treatment animals receive, and what companies can get away with. Even those people who sadistically torture animals for nothing other than their own enjoyment, or abuse them for their own purposes, get barely more than a slap on the wrist in our judicial system in the USA, maybe six months jail time and community service. Think also about the factory farming of livestock, for how long can we put our bottom line before humane treatment? How many dogs are worth one human life? How many rabbits? What does this say about our society where a living creature is worth so little? Why is it that companies that don’t test on animals say so on their products’ packaging, but all the companies that do test on animals don’t have to post it on their products? These are questions that haunt me, and drive my work. I think I’ve probably drifted slightly off topic with this question, but ultimately it is my love for the natural world that drives my interest in our relationship to it, and how that relationship has changed over time, and in different cultures.
A common theme in your art, besides animals, is branches. What’s up with that?
I have always loved trees, I grew up in the woods of northern California, among the redwoods, and I have always had a love of forests and wild places. I love the way nature mimics itself, how a tree branches out in the same way arteries branch into veins, how rivers branch and break apart into smaller streams, even within a tree, the veins within the leaves mimic the greater form of the tree itself.
For me there is also something simply potent about trees and branches, the idea of growth, of the amount of years it takes for a tree to grow, that seems powerful to me, their lives are so much longer than our own. Also the way trees clean our atmosphere, replenishing our air, purifying it, amazes me, and I think we should put a greater value on our forests, instead of allowing for their wanton and ceaseless destruction. Growing up among the redwoods I really got a feeling for the power of trees, because where I’m from there are trees that are 1000, 2000, even 3000 years old, they are massive pillars, so wide around it would take 10 people to circle them. The old growth groves are like massive, green cathedrals, to walk amongst those trees is to be taken back to another time, when the whole world was forested. It is wonderfully lush, and silent, with these giants watching over you as they have watched over the world for centuries. I’m not a religious person, but among those trees it feels like a holy land and it’s the closest thing to magic I have found. Also the branches have a strange sense of nostalgia for me, a feeling of something that once was, an old world creature that is so familiar, yet so foreign to me. I keep a lot of branches in my apartment, I find their form to be sculpturally beautiful, and they always remind me of home. I live only two blocks from Prospect Park in Brooklyn where I frequently go to soak in the greenery, and often I am stopped in my tracks by certain beautiful trees that I see. There is something oddly human about a tree to me; perhaps because our own bodies branch out as they do with our torso as the trunk, our feet and toes as the roots and our arms and head reaching out to the world. Even as a child I tended to personify trees, and I still do to this day.
When you draw, how do you go about the process from idea to finished project?
Well, when I start a large piece I usually do a sketch first, or several composite sketches of different creatures or plants so that I can use it for reference. I begin the drawing using pencil, I’ll start drawing with the paper pinned to the wall so that I can get the proportions correct for everything, after I’m done with the initial pencil sketch on the paper, I usually then take it down and work on it on the floor, which is where I do most of the inking. I get a lot of my idea for drawings right before I go to bed, or from odd dreams that I have, so I like to keep a notebook by my bed to write down ideas I have. Often I’ll wake up in the morning and look at what I’ve written the night before and have no idea what I was thinking, haha, but I find it’s still a nice practice, and I save lists and lists of these ideas in various sketchbooks in my studio. I have a lot of ideas for pieces sort of backlogged in my mind, so sometimes instead of doing initial, smaller sketches, I’ll just jump right into big piece without references, and just see how it works out, it’s more exciting that way usually. Because I work with ballpoint pen, I have to be able to incorporate any mistakes I make into the piece, but I enjoy that part of the process as well, finding a way to make any mistake work into the whole of the drawing. I also do a lot of commission work, which takes up a good portion of my time, so many times I have to leave my larger pieces for a couple weeks to work on side projects, but I always leave them up in my studio so I can look at them and think about what I want to do next. Because of the time lapse that occurs my concepts tend to change and evolve a great deal, since many months can go by in the span of one drawing, by the time it’s done the original concept will have grown and changed a lot. I’d say the hardest thing with my drawings is knowing when they’re done, because I always feel that I could work more into them, more detail, layer more colours and so on, and it’s also hard for me when I do commission pieces to send them off when they’re done, I enjoy keeping my pieces around, although I know that I have to sell some of them to make a living, it’s hard to give them up. I put so much time, so much of my energy and thought into each piece, it really feels as though I were adopting them out, and there are still pieces I’ve sold that I miss having. In the end though, it’s nice to know that somewhere in the world my creatures affecting other people’s lives, which they couldn’t do if I kept them all!
But if large scale illustration is that time consuming, what makes it worthwhile?
The large pieces do take a long time but in some ways it’s nice to sit with a piece for so long, it allows the concept to really gestate, and allows me to really work into the piece. For me it’s necessary to spend a lot of time just watching my pieces, looking at them, to get a sense of where I want them to go, and to make sure that the proportions are right, since they are so large. I usually work on two large pieces at the same time, and bounce between them, so that I don’t get too bored with either one. I actually prefer making large pieces to smaller, I used to do a lot more small illustrations, but I always found myself exceeding the bounds of the page, always making the image too large to fit, so I gradually started working larger and larger. There’s something wonderful to me about creating life size or near life size creatures, it makes them feel more real to me, as if they could wander off the page and out into the world on a whim. It’s powerful, they confront the viewer on a more physical level at that size, and it gives them a sense of possibility, as though they truly could exist somewhere. It’s difficult for me to work small. It takes more work for me actually, to create a functional composition in a smaller drawing, perhaps because I’m out of practice, or because I have trouble keeping the things I draw within the boundaries of the smaller page, but either way it is much more of a challenge to create a small drawing. However, since small works make up the majority of my commission work, I’ve had to get used to that level of restraint.
You have also made a tea set, how did that idea occur?
I was invited by the good folks over at Strychnin Gallery in Berlin to take part in a collaborative group show where various artists from around the world designed images to be placed on teapots, cups and dishes designed by The New English. It was something I had never done before, and I was really excited to see the end result. I still have all the original drawings that I created for the tea set design as well, which hopefully will soon be framed and put up in my new studio in Brooklyn.
What does a typical workday for you look like?
Well, I do work a day job to pay the bills, which is less than thrilling of course, but New York’s an expensive place to live after all, so I spend a good part of my week doing that. When I get my days to do art though, it usually starts with responding to emails for commission work and print requests, then I am either in my studio or my living room working on various pieces for shows and commission work. My large pieces are all up in my studio, so I spend most of my time there, going back and forth between different drawings. I try to spend at least five hours drawing, though it’s usually somewhat broken up between different projects, which can get a little stressful. I like to work at night best, although my studio room gets the best sunlight during the day, I find I can focus more after dark, it’s too tempting to head to the park while the sun is up, so I usually end up drawing until the small hours of the night.
If ever needed, what do you do to jump start you inspiration?
I usually have a surplus of drawing ideas, since it takes me so long to finish my large pieces I tend to get backed up with ideas, however there certainly are days when I feel creatively drained, and for that I have dozens of table top books that I go back through for inspiration. I collect national geographic magazines, animal encyclopedias, books of bird photos, coral reefs, rain forest plants on so on to inspire me when I’m feeling empty. I also collect a lot of art books from artists like Walton Ford, Hannah Dougherty, Giuseppe Arcimboldo and Caravaggio. I have more books than I have book shelves or coffee tables for, but I always want more, haha! I also have some great, ancient animal illustration books, one of my favourites which I found in a dumpster actually, but I love the old 1940s style of illustrations, I even cut some of them out and framed them in my apartment.
How do you deal with the marketing and business side of what you’re doing?
The business side of creating art is not very entertaining for me, but of course it’s something that must be done. I do most of my marketing online, I use Society6, Carbonmade, ArtSlant, B-Uncut, twitter and Facebook to put my work out there and sell prints and inform people about upcoming shows. I have also been in a few magazines, both printed and online, such as Hi-Fructose and Kismet, along with a few others that have really aided me in gaining attention for my work. I also work with a few nice curators, such as Samantha Levin from Anagnorisis, who have helped me to put my work out there in shows and promote me through their own websites. It takes a lot of work, figuring out how to price commission pieces and gallery pieces. Actually, I find pricing my work to be the most difficult aspect of it. I am also constantly having to sift through my inbox going through dozens of requests per day for interviews or tattoo designs or commission drawings or prints, although many of the people making these requests expect to get the art for next to nothing, if not for free, which is incredibly frustrating, especially considering the amount of time and effort that go into any of my works. In any case, I try to get my work out into the world as much as I can, through interviews and shows, blogs and magazines, trying to create a presence in the world. A lot of the blogs and magazines come to me and request interviews or to use my work, however I also send out a lot of requests to different art magazines and blogs to see if they’ll feature me, it’s the kind of thing I have to put some amount of work into each and every day.
Some people describe your paintings as somewhat gruesome. Would you agree on that?
I suppose some of them are rather gruesome, although I don’t create them intending for them to be horror pieces, they do not seem frightful to me at all, though that may be because I’m the one who made them. I realize that some of my creatures are somewhat frightful, with open wounds, zippers and human limbs, but when I’m drawing them I don’t think of them as Frankenstein type monsters, chopped up and sewn together, but rather as natural amalgamations, creatures born out of the swamp of an invaded world; they are animals at the edge of humanity’s grasp, where the natural world and the human world have intertwined and mutated together. I want people to have a physical reaction my creatures, to be able to relate to the bodies of the animals depicted, to feel what it would be like to have your arm be a wing or a your hand be a paw. My hope is to be able to get people to relate and empathize more with the other animals we share our planet with, animals which so many have worked so hard to separate themselves from. We are after all simply another species, a dominant species, and we have very successfully expanded to take over this planet, more so than any other creature. I want my work to serve as a reminder of our own gruesome battle with the natural world, for we are very destructive creatures, and in our ceaseless expansion we have torn apart the natural world, blown up mountains, leveled forests, mined deep into the earth, even through the sea floor. Human expansion has not come without casualties; we have pushed our planet to the edge, and lost many species along the way. Even the natural world is not a magical, peaceful realm; animals live often brutal lives, hunting each other to survive, struggling against the elements in ever decreasing pockets of wilderness. So yes, my work is somewhat gruesome, but ultimately so is the world we live in, and so is the wilderness I cherish, beautiful and terrifyingly brutal.
If you weren’t painting, what would you do?
When I was young I wanted to be a wildlife biologist, and even while I was applying to colleges I applied to three art schools and then a lot of university in California and it was up to the last moment to decide what style of school to go to. I ended up choosing an art college, Pratt, but I know that if I were not an artist, I would be a wildlife biologist. Even now I play with the idea of going back to school for it, it’s my other passion, and there are days I even wish I had taken that path. I have a few friends that I grew up with who wound up pursuing that career, and I can’t deny that I am envious of their life, studying animals around the world, being able to be so intimately involved in the natural world. I’m glad to be doing what I am, I have always loved to draw and I can’t imagine a life without it, even as a biologist I am certain I would have kept a sketchbook of the creatures I met along the way. My hope is that I can reach out to the world with my art, and make a difference for the animals I care for.
Finally, good art is…
This is a hard question, but I suppose for me, good art is art that moves me, art that lingers in the back of my mind even if I’ve forgotten the name of the artist or the place I saw it, the image remains with me. Good art is art whose style I find leaking into my own, so that I feel almost as though I have collected styles over the years by observing the art I love the most. Regardless of artistic style or medium, or the personal taste of the viewer, good art is art that reaches people on some level and creates an emotion that changes the viewer. It is something that cannot be unseen, or unfelt.
Caitlin, thank you so much!