The cats in the padded jackets

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:

Cat3 crop web

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:

Cat1 web

Cat2 web

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.

Are fathers like prizes? Sketching a screenplay via The Dowse collections

The Dowse recently invited me to come into the gallery for a day or two to observe and learn and see and do, and then create a record of my time – all part of a Dowse initiative called Guest Voices. I love projects like this with plenty of scope, and also the way it could help energize something I was already working on.

At the time of my first visit to the Dowse I had been doing some initial work on a screenplay. On my way to The Dowse one of the characters asked one of the other characters ‘Are father’s like prizes?’ (the conversation was going on in my head, obviously).

I love and loathe when this happens.

One bit of wisdom I’ve latched onto as a beginning screenwriter is that it helps to have a solid scene breakdown on paper before you even begin writing the thing itself. (Trust me when I tell you, it’s a tough moment when you are 85 pages into a feature-length screenplay and you realize the vague ending you thought would work, is still 90% vague and actually only 10% ending). So, a strong sense of what’s going to happen, when and to whom, before you begin is a good rule of thumb. But sometimes bits of dialogue, images and plot ideas come as you write, think, or take public transport.

What do you do when they don’t seem to obviously slot into what the plan is, but are kind of more interesting than the said plan? What I find curious is that these things sometimes inspire you to raise the stakes. You’re only concerned with the particular reality of that story, so it’s a great challenge figuring out how an idea can work in that very specific reality.

Anyway, the good/bad thing was that I had a line that interested me (and that was potentially tangentially connected to the screenplay as I’d so far imagined it) while I was looking around The Dowse, wondering what I might do for Guest Voices. I was drawn to a series of cabinets on temporary display bursting with amazing ceramics from their collection store. A series of large ceramic cats by Bronwynne Cornish were on display as well as a few other works of hers, including some lovely heads with mouths that were to varying degrees open and closed. I returned again and again to the cats though as they immediately sparked some ideas in relation to the screenplay.

So in short, I will be doing a series of blog posts on the process of sketching a screenplay via my explorations of a few pieces from The Dowse collections. I’ll post images from my sketchbooks, and hopefully some drawings that I want to do of Cornish’s works.

To kick things off, here is something new from my sketchbook called ‘Are fathers like prizes?’

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