Artists in lockdown: Kate Fitzharris | Sarjeant Gallery Whanganui
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Artists in lockdown: Kate Fitzharris

Artists in lockdown: Kate Fitzharris

Kate Fitzharris

Kate Fitzharris is an artist working primarily in clay and part time as a librarian. She lives in Waitati not far from Dunedin and in 2018 she was artist-in-residence at Tylee Cottage in Whanganui. Her post-residency exhibition ‘Things Don’t End at Their Edges’ was on view last year between March and June.

This is a strange time for us all, how’s lockdown been going for you? Who’s in your bubble with you?

I’m in a bubble with my husband, two kids aged 10 & 13, one cat and 4 chickens.

You live in Waitati not far from Dunedin, are there any disadvantages to living in a smaller place during lockdown?

I think there are only advantages. We are by the ocean and an estuary so there are plenty of wild places to visit either walking or biking. The roads have become very quiet and I’m really enjoying walking down the middle of them. Even though they aren’t too busy in normal times, there is still something glorious about feeling like we are taking over the streets. We are also lucky to have a local dairy that has remained open, that lessens our need to head in to Dunedin.

I last saw you in mid-January and at that time you were still processing ideas that generated from your residency in

Fitzharris’ work bench

Japan last year, has this time of enforced lockdown given you focus to develop those ideas? Have you been busy making? People assume that artists given unlimited free time will go into creative overdrive, has this been the case or are you busy making something else…… bread, a garden, knitting a sweater?

Yes I’m definitely still thinking about my time in Japan. I’m going back through photos and my workbooks from that time. What has stayed with me the most is the appreciation of clay surfaces, the textures and colours of the huge variety of clays available there. I was based in Shigaraki, a small town southeast of Kyoto, one of Japan’s six ancient kiln sites, known for its unglazed ware. I have been making a lot of vessels and some bigger work, with plain clay surfaces, hoping they sit quietly in the room and exude some warmth, from the materials themselves and the memory of the kiln.

I’ve don’t feel like I’ve been very productive, but it has been a good catch up around the house and I’ve been trying to remember to be kind to myself in these strange times. I’ve dusted off a potters wheel I was given about 15 years ago and had never used, and mostly been drawing and playing with arranging things.

Also lots of preserving fruit from our garden: the best of which is tomato kasundi, and quince syrup which is fabulous with fizzy water and a splash of gin. 

Were you working on anything major when we went into lockdown? Did you have any big projects on the boil that have

Small pottery pieces in Kate Fitzharris’ studio

had to be cancelled or put on hold?

I had an exhibition just opened at RDS Gallery Dunedin, which should have run for the whole month of March. The work is still in the gallery which has a great street frontage, so I like to think the work is still there like sentinels, looking out to the city. The Dunedin School of Art celebrates its 150th birthday this year and a show I was contributing to as a part of this celebration has been postponed. I have another couple of group shows later in the year that are in limbo.

What’s surprised you about being stuck at home 24/7?

How life has so easily shrunk to such a small circle of home and immediate surrounds.

It shouldn’t really be surprising but also the level of quiet that has set in. I’m not sure how we fitted in all the things from life that we have stopped. The days seem to be going by in a sort of daze.

What’s the one item or items you wished you’d acquired / purchased to keep you occupied during lockdown?

I was lucky to get some clay in at the last moment. But I have had some sewing urges that couldn’t be met.

Are you more disciplined in your making or a bit distracted?

Definitely a bit more distracted. I think the open-endedness at the beginning of lockdown felt quite unsettling. I am normally quite a home body so enjoy being at home but I also really like being at home by myself, which hasn’t happened much. I am easily distracted.

Clay testing in the studio

What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened since you’ve been in lockdown?

The self-consciousness about personal space is weird. We live in a small community and it’s hard to avoid seeing people you know when out for a walk – I imagine it might be the same in Whanganui? Having to pass by good friends, with appropriate distance, without a proper chat or a hug is weird.

Are you developing a new routine that’s helping you stay focused on either making art or just staying sane?

The best days are the sunny ones or those when I go for a long walk. Cooking with the kids. Reading more. Family pot luck on a Friday night where we all organise something edible, can be a bit random but makes it feel like a party! Coming together for cups of tea throughout the day, trying to vary the location but mostly sitting in the back yard under our maple tree, or on the front porch. Today we busted out to the road to sit on the deck of our ute, we can see the bay from there and the cows in the paddock across the road. The daily unmissable is gathering around the wireless at 1pm for the daily update, except the wireless is my smartphone with the RNZ app. There seems to be a sort of hyper reality to things, and a bit of a time warp, where things seem endless but also the days keep rolling by.

Read any good books, listened to any good podcasts?

I subconsciously hoarded a good pile of books from the public library before it closed without warning the weekend before lockdown started.

I’ve been reading and looking at McCahon Country by Justin Paton. It is bittersweet because I know that Land of Granite, McCahon and Otago, is at Dunedin Public art Gallery and I can’t visit! Paton writes “So often, entering a landscape by McCahon we encounter a kind of doubleness or flicker. Distance lives within the local and the familiar discloses mystery” p13. I’m carrying these words with me as I go for walks in my neighbourhood, seeing familiar things but in a different way when this landscape has become the whole wide world for the past 5 weeks, and perhaps for some time to come.

And I have revisited a long time favourite from my bookshelf, Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost . So many good things in this book: the joys of being lost in one’s thoughts or in an activity; being lost in the landscape, but also knowing where you are.

I have just started The White Road – a journey into obsession by Edmund de Waal. It tracks his travels to sources of porcelain in China, England and Germany. Crisp white porcelain is vastly different from the more dirty, stony, earthy clays I am using but the quest to go to the source of our materials and know the history of things is something I can definitely relate too.

Dunedin musician Nadia Reid has formed the sound track for my lockdown. She was meant to be touring her newly released album Out of My Province but instead she beamed into our living room last Friday, with about 380 other people, for a zoom concert. It was a strangely wonderful, intimate experience having her right here at home. One of my favourites from the new album is Oh Canada.

I have been really enjoying the humour of Sarah Laing’s lockdown diary on instagram @sarahelaing, and the Artists in Residence at @blumhardtfoundation for some really nice personal insights into people’s making, their histories and their own collections of objects.



Please be aware that due to COVID Level 2 restrictions, Sarjeant on the Quay can only admit 20 people at any one time into the gallery space to allow for comfortable social distancing. When that number is reached, a one in one out system will operate. Please use our QR code on arrival or sign the register.
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