This interview with Katie Whyte has been one I have been aching to do for quite a while! I originally met Katie at Bailey Nelson where she helped me excitedly with my new glasses, right around the time of her first mural for First Coat 2016. It’s been a pleasure to watch Katie and her art transform and grow over the past couple of years. It’s impossible not to be proud of her as her art finds it’s way onto walls around our city, uplifts people’s homes and now graces a new line by Jericho Road Clothing. A couple of weeks ago Katie and I finally got our chance to have a cup of tea, a chat and a laugh with her cat Steven. MJ: Your work definitely has a way of making people feel different emotions. Your last blog post “Floating Potatoes” was really interesting read on that topic. You were saying that you put your shapes out into the world without necessarily meaning them to be anything but then everyone has to attached a label to them. I didn’t even realise but I’ve been doing that since the very beginning! To me they’ve always been little colourful jellybeans. I’ve attached this happy persona to them, which is why I have two of your pieces in our bedroom. So despite knowing you for some time I’ve never asked, where did your artistic world begin? When did you start painting?

KW: When I was really little. My mum and I were always doing craft stuff at home, making Barbie Doll dresses out of leaves… I remember making paint out of colour pencil shavings in Grade 2… Just always basically. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t making stuff. My mum has all of my old art from when I was little. Actually she gave me a folder of all of my drawings from primary school recently! They’re hilarious. It’s all I did in high school. It was the only option, I don’t think I thought of another option after I finished high school. I went to uni to do it.

MJ: When did you first discover your shapes?

KW: It’s funny because I had an eight year break that ended about two-three years ago. Before that eight year break from painting, I was at uni. I did some paintings in my second or third year, that were about movement. There was this idea I had that our vision, our sight, when we’re looking at something it bounces around. I wanted to try and give that a visual interpretation. So there were these gestural but still quite confined shapes. A lot of people said they looked like music, which I thought was so cool. Coincidentally they were in the same colours I use now! The only difference is I used to use a really chocolatey brown colour that I don’t use anymore. But soft pink, jade green, dark blue… all my favourite colours I use in every artwork. Pink with red, which is a favourite of mine as well. So I was working with those {shapes} and got to a point where I was really happy with them. I didn’t make too much art in painted form after that. I did some works on glass, some installations, trying to reduce those shapes into something more simple. Then I just stopped making art…

One day when I was paying some bills a few years ago at home, I started doodling on a piece of paper and then realised I wasn’t paying any attention to my bills and three hours later I hadn’t had dinner, the sun had gone down and I was still drawing with the pastel pencils! I just had all of these shapes on the page. I was studying vision therapy at the time. I was working with kids teaching them about vision and interpretation, representation and how they attach meanings to things. I was looking at these blobs (they were more circular, which I didn’t like) and from there I started doing heaps of little paintings. All of a sudden after work instead of just cooking dinner, having a glass of wine and watching TV, I would paint! The dining table became my studio, and that was it!

MJ: You’ve spoken a few times about how your work as a vision therapist draws from your artistic world. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

KW: There’s a thing in vision therapy called an “A Ha Moment”. Having an Ah Ha Moment is that big realisation of a concept that you’ve probably been using, that you’re familiar with, but it doesn’t make sense until that moment. All of a sudden it’s like someone has turned a light on, and you’re like, “A Ha!”. I had a literal lightbulb moment at my last vision therapy conference, which was how I did my study. There were three or four day conferences at the coast, and my mentor was talking about how we make sense of the world around us, about how everybody is different and how vision is our way of exploring, labelling and connecting with everything around us. He turned a projector light on to explain that and as he turned that projector on I realised, “That’s all art is!” That’s literally all art is! I realised that the two things I’m in love with, that I’ve spent years studying – they’re exactly the same! Then I looked at the art I was making and went, “It’s the same!” Then I told everyone I knew and no one cared {laughs}. They asked “How does this change what you make?” To which I said, “It doesn’t! It just means I get it now!” I realised I’m not on two different journeys, I’m just trying to figure out how people connect to each other, how they do it, how they grow to be different humans and how, even though we have differences, we are all the same blobs!

As a vision therapist I learnt that as our vision is forming, everything starts off as a weird blob of colour & shape, and you learn what they are by labelling them, but you need explore them. Is it bigger than me? Am I bigger than it? How far away is it? Can I touch it? Is it coming towards me? Is it soft? But with vision you make all of these judgements by looking at something. Art is very, very similar. When I realised what I was trying to do with art is the exact thing that I was learning in vision therapy, that was the connection that I wanted people to view my art with, and why I was doing it.

MJ: That’s wonderful! Now we met while you were working at Bailey Nelson. Can you tell me more about your vision journey?

KW: Call it the ever-evolving adventure of the day job. Nearly every artist I know has a day job. Bills happen, and you can make art in the middle of the night in your pyjamas. You can do it for you so a pay check doesn’t effect what you make, so you need a day job at the start. I worked in a job as an optical dispenser (so someone who helps people pick glasses) at a really awesome local company for a few years which is how I got into vision therapy. I wasn’t really looking for a job when I found the Bailey Nelson one. But when I found that they were coming to Toowoomba for the first time, that they were a relatively new company (three years before I started working for them they were a market stall in Bondi) and I wanted to be apart of that exciting journey that was this little Australian start-up.

I really resonated with the two owners of the company, Nick & Pete, and their reason for having the company is the reason I worked in optics. I’ve worn glasses my whole life. The act of going to buy them, having an eye test is a lot scarier and more daunting than it should be. It should be fun, it should be really personal. It’s an opportunity to make people feel really good about themselves but often they just don’t because it’s really difficult to work out what in the world is going on. That was my favourite part of my job.

MJ: Then Bailey Nelson took you to Tasmania! Can you tell me about that adventure?

KW: I worked at Bailey Nelson in Toowoomba for about a year. They have an annual conference where everyone gets together, celebrated the wins and losses together, it’s really moving every time. The last one I went to after being with the company for 12 months they were saying we are growing and moving! They urged us to think about if there was anywhere we wanted to live, or any opportunity that we want to put our hand up. I had just learnt how to put my hand up, so I exercised that. I said, “I’ve always wanted to go to Tasmania!”

I hadn’t even gotten back to Toowoomba from Sydney and I had already booked flights to Tasmania for a holiday. As soon as I stepped foot in Tasmania for my holiday I just cried, I was so happy. It’s such a beautiful place, the people are amazing and they are sooo Bailey Nelson, it’s ridiculous. They think for themselves and they’ve got style. They’re really individual which is a huge thing. I knew it was not only going to be an amazing business opportunity for them but I wanted to be part of it.

MJ: So then you trekked down there!

KW: I packed up everything I owned, got in my car and did the drive!

MJ: I suppose it’s time to ask, what brought you back?

KW: I think the whole town knows what brought me back! {Laughs}

MJ: Ah love does crazy things!

KW: Over the last few years I’ve started realising what’s really important to me. I’ve had a lot of big changes happen in the last five years. All of those big things that people say are the biggest stresses in life, I’ve had them all in the last couple of years.

When I planned to move I thought I’d be single. I thought I’d be having a fresh start in a place I always wanted to live. I wanted to settle in Tassie. I met someone at Bailey Nelson, as a customer, before I left. I didn’t think a relationship would happen, but it did. We didn’t really know what was going to happen when I left, but it really didn’t matter how well everything was going in Tassie. Everything was amazing too. I had a great shop and great support from the company. I had an amazing place and made friends really quickly. I was painting everywhere, it was great! But I was away from my family. I was away from my partner and his family. I was away from all of my friends in Toowoomba. It didn’t matter how great the idea was to live there, my heart was somewhere else. I realised then how important my people were. You can have big dreams and go and do them, but you don’t have to make big life changes just to be around the things that make you happy.

MJ: You started creating your little stickers that we now see on cups, mugs & pots, just before you moved to Tassie. How are they going?

KW: The oldest mug I have, I still haven’t sold it. I don’t know why, but it’s just a runt. {Laughs} I sell out of mugs all the time! This one is a really good brand, I mean, they’re all recycled, but it’s a really good one with really good colours on it but it never gets picked! So it’s like a runt. I’ve still got it and it’s 12 months old.

Basically it’s offcut vinyl and they’re second hand mugs that are boring because they’re plain white. I found this TED Talk the other day about the world we live in and how grey it is, and how it’s not colourful and it’s not full or beautiful patterns, colours and shapes. It’s quite bleak and it effects our emotions and mood. That’s what these white mugs are to me. I find them in op shops and think “No no no, this will not do!” I correct them all! That’s where the mugs kind of started.

Having a cup of tea is one of those things that makes me extremely happy. Sharing a cup of tea is probably the only thing that makes me even more happy. It has become an automatic thing I would do when I didn’t know what to do, it was my way to get back to reality.

MJ: Has your creative process changed during the time you moved to Tasmania and came home again?

KW: I think it’s refined the more I’ve travelled. I’ve become really good at being really selective with what materials I’m going to use. I used to be like, “I don’t know what I’m going to use so I’ll bring EVERYTHING with me!” But when you pack your entire house into an apartment, then your apartment into your car, you realise you can’t have everything all the time.

I have travel sketchbooks. Two of them. I sketch heaps of things all the time. Sometimes I block things out, like I did a huge stint where I only drew life models. I did a stint of that when I moved back. Then I’ll go through a phase of only drawing plants. Then when I go to paint I don’t look at anything. I just paint. The shapes come out based off my visual memory from all the things I’ve spent hours and hours sketching. All of these things I’ve seen, things I’ve already experienced, it’s all in there.

The thing I learnt in the last year or so is to trust that stuff in your head. Trust your ability when you’re drawing to just do it, and if you do an ugly drawing it’s ok! If you do an ugly painting, it’s ok! Also, something you think is ugly someone else might think is awesome! That happens to me all the time. I’ll do a painting and go, “Yes this is the best painting I’ve ever done!” Gerard will be like, “Really? It looks pretty bland…” Then I’ll do one I really don’t like. For instance, I ripped one up the other day and Gerard went, “NOOO! That’s my favourite!” So they’re different to everyone and you can’t stress about the outcome when you are in the middle of creating something.

MJ: You have told me before that you tend to paint when you’re unhappy. Do you therefore sketch when you’re happy or do they both come from a place of melancholy?

KW: I sketch when I breathe {laughs}. I sketch all the time, constantly. It’s actually quite hard to sketch when you’re unhappy, because it’s really therapeutic.

MJ: That’s good, because I know we’ve spoken before about how creativity comes from a place of melancholy, which I can relate to myself with music. So painting specifically comes from that place?

KW: I think it comes from a place of need. Sometimes when I paint, and it’s been like this when I’m most productive, I’m not painting because I want to paint. I don’t go, “Oh I think I want to paint tonight…” I don’t even think about it, I just know I need to. It’s almost like reconnecting with myself. It’s that self time. Like most people with any kind of depression or anxiety, they’re not very good at looking after themselves, or looking after their own thoughts. They’re too hard on themselves. Creating art for me is therapy in the way of doing something for myself in a really kind way. I don’t ever paint aggressively. I’ve only just started using the colour red! Mostly because I’ve realised it’s just a colour like all other colours! But for me, painting is a very calm, natural response to me not feeling great. I might miss my family, I might be going through something I can’t deal with. It’s sort of like a reliable way to find myself again. I think a lot of that has come from my hiatus of not painting. It was just doodling on a piece of paper that brought me back to it, but realising how it made me reconnect with myself… it’s almost like I woke up after eight years! What was I doing? Why wasn’t I doing this thing that I love?

MJ: Do you find you feel better after having been productive?

KW: I come back to a good place. It doesn’t solve any issues {laughs} but it’s good to keep myself busy. It’s like having a cup of tea! I think the only thing to get yourself back to feeling good about yourself is being good to yourself and being around people you love. It’s different for everyone. I don’t necessarily understand other people’s stories with mental health. I don’t expect anyone to understand mine, but for me…

MJ: I think it’s great that you’re starting to talk about it though. You’ve posted briefly about it on social media in different ways.

KW: Yeah I don’t think it’s right that it’s seen as a weakness.

For someone who naturally takes responsibility for everything they lay their eyes on… sometimes you need to put your hand up and say, “I’m not ok! I need to take a moment to be good to myself so I can be ok.”

The other thing I learnt from Bailey Nelson, which I use now particularly when working with people younger than me is – You don’t come to work with a broken leg. You go and get it treated by a doctor. If you see it like that, you would not go to work with a broken mind. If you’re unable to cope with the way you’re thinking about things or feeling about things, it is the equivalent of having a broken or at least a fractured arm. You wouldn’t continue working in the same way as someone who is completely able and ready. As soon as someone said that to me I realised I no longer felt ashamed of it. The more I talk about it, the more everyone around me puts their hand up and says, “Me too!”

Someone said to me, it was about my pants. They said, “They’re very bold and confident!” They’re like, “Katie, is that who you want to be?” I though no, that’s just secretly who I am. When I am feeling good about myself, that is who I am. The thing with getting treatment for mental health issues is you realising that you no longer want it to affect you or your life. Trying to work with a broken arm, or trying to do life with a broken mind… No, I want to go to the people who have studied this. The doctors who can treat it, the psychologists. Being able to understand mental illness, that’s the biggest thing I think. I think the thing that’s helped me the most is talking to other people. It’s so hard to do, but that’s why I said on social media that it is risky thing to do because everybody’s story is deeply personal. Some people will not want to talk about it, or want to know it exists in you or themselves or anyone else. Some people so desperately want to talk about it, but a public forum I don’t think is a good idea for personal conversations.

interview katie whyte

MJ: I personally love watching the process you’ve been going through, and the journey you’ve been on. Your work has really started blowing up ever since we met!

KW: {Laughs} You were one of the first people who bought my artwork!

MJ: Really? Well you’ve gone from paintings, to murals, to stickers adorning kitchenware, and now to textiles. Can you tell me more about how you began your collaboration with Jericho Road Clothing?

KW: They needed a print and approached me. I’ve always had dreams of people wearing my art, especially as a dress. I was so happy they did a dress! It was an easy decision for me to make. They challenged me by saying they wanted black fabric. I’ve never used black like this before! When they first told me I was like, “Ah black?! What do I do?!” Other artists I was talking to at the time said, “It’s not a hurdle, it’s a challenge!” So it was interesting to see how all the colours and shapes look when they’re on black!

In terms of scale and looking at the actual shapes, I had a series before this in a solo show in Toowoomba in which the series was called Doodle Patrol. My shapes had managed to look like penises! So I was like, “Oh no, they’re going to be called Penis Pants! What do I do?! I don’t want them to look like that!” So I tried to play around with the shapes.

They really did move around when I was in Hobart. They were more like puddles. They were really really different. I’d been drawing heaps of plants, landscapes and trees. I was living near Sandy Bay, so heaps of water! I’d go and stand at the dock and stare at the water and try to draw it, which is really difficult by the way! So all of that sketching of fluid shapes began to come out. My shapes became less angular and more rounded. More like clouds. Then it was a series of back and forward decisions like any good collaboration. “This is what we’re thinking for the colour.” “This is what I’m thinking for the design.” Back and forwards. It was an awesome collaboration! It was fantastic to see their journey as well.

Floating Potato Dress & Pants by Jericho Road Clothing

MJ: So you created a painting that they then created the clothing from?

KW: Yeah! So I’m in no way a digital artist, so I said to them, “I have no idea how their process works but I can provide you with a painting.” It was quite a big painting. I said that the scale and shapes and colours were what I thought would work, and they loved it. It was one of three. I did one with very very small shapes, and one with very very big shapes. The one in between was the right proportion for a person wearing it. The little one was a bit too much like rainbow leopard print {laughs}. The big one we could have gotten into danger with the shapes being chopped off and looking too angular. Yeah so a bit of a learning curve! It was just me and my paints in Hobart and the girls sending emails back and forwards!

interview katie whyte

MJ: So now that all of this has been accomplished, do you have any plans for what’s next?

KW: Well I no longer have a day job. I’m probably going to take a lot of time for myself to maybe make art because I want to, not because I need to. I’m not sure actually. I think if you’d asked me a couple of weeks ago I would have had a long list of things! I think at the moment living with no plan, is kind of the plan. Just enjoying the day to day stuff. I have lots of art things I want to do. I’m not out of ideas, if anything I’ve got so many! I want to work with sculpture. I want to work with installations. I’ve already got so many paintings to go up on my website! I’d like to see my work evolve into different areas more. I’ve been working with polymer clay which is heaps of fun! Yeah just playing… {laughs} there’s my answer. Play!

interview katie whyte

You can find Katie at hiwhytey.com and on instagram as @hiwhyteyIf you’re keen to have your own piece of wearable art, check out Jericho Road Clothing on their website and Instagram too!

All photos by Morgan Smith for the Morgan Journal and Katie Whyte.


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