An Interview with Gathie Falk
What the rest of us might see as ordinary, 89-year-old Canadian artist Gathie Falk sees as extraordinary. Born to Russian immigrant parents in Manitoba, Falk retains fond and vivid memories of her childhood: piles of fresh vegetables, bountiful fruit trees, the beauty of a homemade dress — all images that would later become key to her creative practice.
After studying art and education at the University of British Columbia, Falk became an elementary schoolteacher, devoting her spare time to art. In 1965, after a decade of teaching, she became a full-time artist, and had her first solo exhibition at a commercial gallery in Vancouver.
Since then, Falk has become one of Canada’s most critically acclaimed artists, known in particular for her ceramics, paintings and performance art. Her work has been exhibited in group and solo exhibitions across Canada, and can be found in many public and private collections. She was awarded the Gershon Iskowitz Prize in 1990, was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1997, and in 2013 received the Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts.
Based in Vancouver, Gathie Falk spoke with NGC Magazine about “the things in her head,” and how her practice impels her to create every day.
NGC Magazine: You have described your work as a “veneration of the ordinary.” What do you mean by that?
Gathie Falk: It seems to me that, right from the word go, I have made the things around me — the things that I use, that everybody uses — the things that are ordinary: food, clothes, games, men’s shoes, women’s shoes, furniture. I saw the power of making things that are ordinary. And by making them out of clay, they wouldn’t be a hard, flat surface; they would be slightly undulating — more like human flesh, so that everything that I make shows the imprint of my hands or the workings of my hands. There’s always a softness to it, rather than a hardness.
NGCM: You work in a variety of media, including performance art, ceramics, painting, drawing and sculpture. Is there one you prefer? Or does one inform works in other media? For example, does painting inform your sculpting?
GF: I use what the things in my head require. I used to use clay, but I had an operation to remove my tailbone about 26 years ago, which made it impossible for me to use heavy materials. So I painted for a long time, and painting is very important to me. I paint with oils, and I enjoy that and I can make things that I find important in that way.
However, occasionally I get a different idea. I was walking one day and, in my mind, there was a woman’s dress, and I can see it quite clearly. To make it more interesting, I noticed that I had cut the bottom of the dress in two places. I had cut the cloth to make a little shelf, and on the shelf there were things like a shoe. In another place, there was an orange, and that was the beginning of the dresses.
Then I thought, “What can I make this out of? I can’t make it out of clay because it’s life-sized. Clay would just break up in the kiln.” So I had to make them out of something else, and I thought of papier-mâché. I learned to make papier-mâché into a very hard material that will stand up to anything. So I made all these dresses, and each one had a little shelf at the front, and each had something on the shelf.
That was the beginning of the series of dresses. The National Gallery has one of those called Dress with Candles (1997). So yes, I get the idea, and then I decide what it should be made of.
NGCM: The NGC national collection contains several your works, including Theatre in B/W and Colour – Bushes with Fish in Colour (1984), and Theatre in B/W and Colour — Bushes with Fish in B/W (1984), both of which are currently on view in Canadian and Indigenous Art: 1968 to Present. Can you talk about how the vision or concept behind those two paintings?
GF: My idea was that you can paint something in colour, or you can paint it in black and white, which makes it more like a drawing. I thought it was an interesting idea, and I did a whole series of works which have something to do with presentation on a stage — like theatre, which is a presentation on a stage. So, in my mind’s eye, I have these staged settings of which there would be a repetition of the same thing — each one slightly different, and that I called “Theatre.”
NGCM: Who were your greatest artistic influences?
GF: Van Gogh, Giotto. Nobody in my family was an artist. I asked my mother to draw for me when I was about two years old. She drew me a woman. It was not what I would call a good drawing, or very strong. She said she would ever draw for me again because, she said, “I can’t draw,” and that was the truth.
I once asked my brother to draw for me, but I didn’t like what he drew so he said, “Make your own.” And I did. Nobody could draw for me to my satisfaction, so I had to do it myself.
NGCM: What would you still like to create?
GF: I am creating all the time. I was creating this morning. I’m making another dress out of papier-mâché, and it will be the template for a series of plastic dresses. There will be at least seven dresses, which I will then paint different colours; so I am just finishing that project. It’s a simple dress, but it has large frills instead of sleeves. So that’s the most compelling part of the dress — besides the fact that it has a little shelf and, on the shelf, there is a little jar of what might be cream, as well as a little doll, and other small things.
NGCM: What advice would you have for emerging artists?
GF: Just keep going. If you can’t make enough money from your art, teach and try to pare down your necessities. I was very fortunate to have been a teacher, and to have that long time of earning money, so that I had a few things that I could rely on by the time I quit teaching. Teach, save your money, be purposeful, buy a house or an apartment, and keep at it.
Gathie Falk’s paintings Theatre in B/W and Colour – Bushes with Fish in Colour (1984), and Theatre in B/W and Colour — Bushes with Fish in B/W (1984), are currently on view in Canadian and Indigenous Art: 1968 to Present.