PLAY x PLAY: Catharine Cary
Play by Play is an ongoing series in which we invite a variety of creative minds to explore the importance of play.
Discover how engaging their physical selves helps them to stimulate their creativity while also liberating them from the often stressful and sedentary confines of our technologically dominated era. We hope this series will motivate you to take regular tech breaks and make time to play everyday. It’s good for your physical health and crucial for your imagination.
CATHARINE CARY is an American artist in Paris. After building big bad urban projects in New York City, including the New Amsterdam Theatre for Disney, Catharine Cary settled in Paris to paint in 1997. Known for her fulgurant gestures and her elegant handwriting, she is both a painter and ‘la tagueuse élégante’, and now doing both in front of a public. Her work has been featured in the offs of the FIAC, art basel/Miami, Art Chicago and the Venice Biennale, and for private clients such as Courrèges and the American Friends of the Musée d’Orsay.
I’m trained as a diplomat, I’ve sold steam irons in Asia, and my installation ‘Whisper’ was at The Venice Biennale in 2010. But when I was a kid, I did musical comedy. I was too shy to pursue it then, but today, there’s nothing stopping me. When you hit 50, you realize you have nothing to lose.
I started taking dance improvisation classes in 2002. My lover had just died of cancer; I was desolate, outside any semblance of body, floating.
Soraya Djebbar, my first teacher, said I was pregnant with something. That concept has stayed with me, and many people have said it since. I think I was pregnant with a pudding, but more on that later.
I threw myself into my dance. There were 12 of us who formed the core of an evening atelier, no one ever missed a session. For two years, we all danced together on Thursday nights, and apart from a beer or two after class, we did not meet outside of the studio. Yet I felt connected to these people and knew them better than if they had told me what they did for work, had recited their woes of love and family, or had told me what they ate for breakfast.
That was my first indication that I was onto something.
I pursued my painting, which was the reason I had moved to Paris. My gestures danced across the white void of the canvases and papers. I was writing too – in my studio, a gesture of color gave birth to phrases and poems, which I collected on rolls of vellum that I date and keep. I started doing sculptures, did three, sold three.
I then joined, three years ago, a laboratory of instant solos at a studio called Canaldanse. Informed by the work of Andrew Morrish, an idea of Marika Rizzi, with the flag taken up by Martha Rodenzo, we are 10 each week working on instant composition for three hours. Instant composition is improvisation done right, says Julyen Hamilton, another master.
In 2002, the idea of dancing alone in front of an audience was impossible. Today, some of my best work is in front of a public.
At first this dance informed my painting. I was quite simply energized by it. Having attempted and achieved, risked and hurt, in front of others, well, doing it all alone in my studio was a cinch.
Then I took it one step further and started painting in front of a public. With the presence the dance taught me, I could hold the breath of 20 or 30 onlookers for 20 or 30 minutes.
And then I started ‘la tagueuse élégante’. Writing in public. On walls, windows and storefronts. Elegant because I have nice handwriting, elegant because I’ll take the tag off if you don’t want it, but mostly elegant because of my clothes and my presence. And this presence of spirit comes from the dance. I look like I have every right to be tagging the windows of Le Bon Marché at 10 in the morning. The last time I did it, a beggar yelled at the window cleaner, who cleans the windows every morning at 11, «Stop, he said, it’s one of YOU that did that». The window cleaner hiccuped and said, «Please don’t tell anyone then».
My work is about flow and movement, and gestures. I work on many drawings and canvases at the same time. Once, a few years ago, there was a painting sitting to the side, that I thought finished several months before. I had a big rounded paintbrush with chocolate colored paint in my hand, and as I passed this set-aside painting, I swooshed the brush across it. Just what the canvas needed to become the title work of my next show.
I don’t think I would have done that if I had not been dancing improvisation every week.
Doing improvisation asks me to really notice what I am doing, to correct it if need be, to pause when necessary, and to breathe.
It might sound easy, ok, pay attention and get to it. But the noticing is like the zeros and ones of a supercomputer, adding and adjusting at a speed that is faster than consciousness. Each gesture is informed by everything we have done before, everything and everyone around us, and the idea of a future. When I dance, paint or tag, my heart and soul is breaking the speed of light.
Three years ago, I stared a family secret in the face. We had known forever of the existence of my brother John, but the details of his birth and death remained foggy. What’s important in my story is that his presence and non-presence ended up in me trying to replace him, trying to live his life as well as my own.
So here I was, my brother gone, my lover gone, and my dance teachers asking me to be present, to be me, to tell my story fully, with body, soul and mind. Shit.
What a fabulous gift.
Last week, I said that my dance is my painting that has thrown itself off the wall.
I place myself and objects into space just like I do on a canvas.
The work has also spilled over into everyday life. Maybe I set out to cross a room from left to right, in 10 steps I’d be there, but at the 6th step, I choose to stop, because I have noticed something, or my body knows that it’s time to do something else. Jump, say a word, turn left. Buy a croissant, call your mother, eat a peach.
Life is improvisation. We spent so much precious time trying to nail things down. Yet my best work, in dance, in painting and performance, is the opposite. I am in my risk zone, I am completely naked, I have absolutely no idea what I will do next. Strangely enough, that is exactly when I feel best. And I humbly submit that is where we should be.
Oh, and about those puddings. I created a platform for Instant Composition in Dance called Instant Pudding! My mother found the title when I was telling her about a performance I had just finished in the Espace Pierre Cardin. There were 4 of us in a glittering art opening, composing in the moment, with the drawings, the guests, and each other. It had been a success, and in telling my mother, I said «Sometimes it takes, sometimes it doesn’t.» And she said, «Oh just like instant pudding!»
We created Instant Pudding!, with Marie Desoubeaux and Marguerite Papazoglou to salute the body as the primordial prism of artistic expression. We cherish and nourish that instant of comprehension, the moment of shared understanding, the here and now of noticing.
In addition to doing ‘puddings’, we power projects around us, imagine immense undertakings, and are seeking links between improvisation in dance and other disciplines, like music, science, psychology and esthetics.
So all those diplomatic and commercial forays I did before becoming an American artist in Paris are serving me now. Nothing is lost.
I have seen how this dance has seeded my painting, how my painting generates writing, how I can be ‘la tagueuse élégante’ and command the room so no one will stop me. I can see how I stand graceful, waiting for a train. That presence is life, is composed in an instant, it is my dance. I improvise, with the tools of my trade, with no one or a hundred people looking on. And I love it. It’s not Finian’s Rainbow, it’s better.
Published: July 8th, 2014