Late last year I visited the Dowse as part of their Guest Voices series to draw a selection of ceramic cats in their collection created by Bronwynne Cornish. The cats are stowed in one of the Dowse storage cabinets and are wrapped in sumptuously utilitarian padded jackets – they look like very comfortable straitjackets:
I spent most of my time drawing one of the cats in the series that had a pout-nose, and a smokey grey splash of colour down one side. I was surprised by how challenging it was to draw a clay object. The ceramic material, the hand-plied quality of the dimensions made it difficult to find the edges, the precise shadows and contours of the object. I like the thought that ceramics maybe elude translation into pen on paper or, at least, that the translation requires some sort of negotiation:
My aim in drawing these cats was to put objects in the forefront of my mind as I was writing a screenplay for a short film. How can objects help build or contribute affect to a character or dramatic scene? How can they advance plot?
There is something alien about Cornish’s cats that gives an edge to the qualities that are recognisably and definitively cat-like. Objects carry with them their own markers of strangeness, their own ontological presence or magnetism that infuses them with kinds of thoughtfulness. An object can work like a compass, pointing to certain coordinates of intimacy. An object can also be a decoy, the thing that attracts the characters and the action to a particular place and time.
A man receives a parcel. He puts the box on the kitchen table and leaves the room. He comes back with a beer and a knife. He sits drinking the beer and looking at the parcel. He picks up the knife and opens the box. The man puts his hand inside and takes out an object encased in bubble wrap. He runs out of the room with the object in his hand.
We see the man spit into the basin in the bathroom, he retches twice. The wrapped object is clasped in his hand. He looks at himself in the mirror, runs his hand over his mouth. He starts to pick at the wrapping. The object slips out of the plastic and lies in the man’s hand. It’s a cat, made out of clay. He turns it upside down, traces his finger over some marks on the bottom. ‘One hundred and thirty two centimetres,’ he says out loud, ‘he’s one hundred and thirty two centimetres’.
The man goes into the hallway and takes a small notebook from a drawer in the cabinet there. He writes down the date and ‘132 cm’ at the bottom of a long list of other measurements, incrementally increasing over time.
A special thanks to Courtney Johnston for inviting me take part in Guest Voices, to the Dowse team who were generous with their time and assistance, and to Bronwynne Cornish and her wild ceramic cats.