Catherine O’Leary: Felt in the Soul
Catherine O’Leary, one of Australia’s leading felt makers passionately discussed dynamic and sculpural art with our Fibre Arts Take Two team.
Catherine’s Friday Feature Artist Interview can be found at the bottom of this page.
With formal training in Fine Arts, Catherine O’Leary’s portfolio spans thirty years. Crafting wool felt since the 1990s, Catherine is a master of form and substance. Her three-dimensional forms, whether wearable or not, are all strikingly sculptural. She uses mostly recycled fabrics to create her garments which she styles into elegant, evocative designs. Artist, author, mother, grandmother, teacher, and now even filmmaker, Catherine took time out of her busy schedule to talk with Fibre Arts Take Two.
Catherine began her artistic career in fine arts. “I studied fine arts in the early 80s, majoring in drawing. I have been drawing for four years, which is a good foundation. It’s developing an eye and being able to see things and break them down into basic shapes. It was a good basis, but during my downtime, I always enjoyed stitching, embroidering, knitting, and textiles. That was my happy place. I suddenly realised one day, why can’t I just be doing this? I decided to do what I love and see where it would take me.”
A feel for felt
As it happens, textiles went a long way for Catherine.” I didn’t know a lot of technical skills. I just did what I thought was an idea, so in some ways, that made my work entirely original.” Eventually, Catherine found her medium in wool felt. “I came across felt making in a book, which looked interesting. I wanted a cloth to embroider that was soft on the hands. And so I made awful felt for about five years trying to work out how to do it well.”
Catherine honed her skills and found a support base in Australia and abroad. “In the early 90s, different groups started up. We brought tutors in from overseas and European tutors who felt making was part of their culture. We got hothoused in Australia in feltmaking, and we could jump ahead creatively independently and individually.”
Catherine has applied her feltmaking skills to clothing and sculpture but doesn’t see much difference between the two. “I see clothing as wearable sculpture. Clothes have to be 3D and have to sit around an organic form, the body. So I find whether you wear it or have it sitting as a sculpture, it’s still a 3D, beautiful shape. A lot of my work involves looking at shapes, patterns.”
Clothing workshops that are so much more
Catherine’s highly successful clothing workshops break down the barriers between fashion and art. “People often come in thinking they’re going to make just a garment, and they don’t realise it’s like a painting. I don’t advertise it as that because sometimes people get intimidated by the idea that ‘I’m gonna have to be designing’ because I know they’ll do a wonderful design anyway. So I like them to work more instinctively and do surface design.”
Catherine lets her workshops expand each student’s concept of their artistic capabilities. “I don’t know what happens to people when they become adults! They lose that sense of adventure or get a bit too stereotyped in fashion. Or set in their ways about which two colours go together. But I think anything goes really if you want it to. You make it happen.”
One of Catherine’s most fascinating pieces is called Refugees. “It’s about two metres long from the top and very lightweight. So if you walk past it, it sort of moves; even breathing on it makes it move. It has these hollow forms inside it like babies belted over a baby doll. And then I’ve extracted the doll, and it’s all been heavily stitched. So they are hollow, but they don’t look alike. They look heavy, and they’re all entwined and trapped. At the time, there was a lot of refugee political talk, and I felt so sorry for the children. So I made the sculpture as my comment on it.”
Catherine enjoys adding an air of mystery to works like Refugees. “I like making things that people can’t work out how I did it. It’s fun to make things that are hard to understand, that other feltmakers can’t work out.” At the same time, this playfulness can even surprise Catherine at times. “I always work instinctively and never plan anything; I just let it grow. When it feels right to finish, I finish. But it’s only looking back that I understand why I have done it in lots of ways.”
Recently, Catherine has made a foray into filmmaking. “I’ve been making it with my partner Patrick. He’s been filming, and we’ve been working together. It’s trying to capture the idea of male beauty. It’s quite striking what you can capture with photographic equipment. To have the cloth moving around with the body. Trying to break down those barriers of stereotype, that’s what the film is really about, just a celebration of beautiful cloth on beautiful bodies, not traditionally beautiful, but they’re beautiful anyway.”
Art has always been with Catherine and always will be. “It’s for the soul; you do it for your health; you do it because that’s what you need to do. And you’ve got to get as much made and created in our short life. And I feel strongly about that. Everything is creative with me, and my brain never stops. I’ve been fortunate to be able to do that.”
About the artist
Catherine O’Leary is an Australian Artist based in Melbourne who works primarily in the Textile Arts. With formal training in Fine Arts, Catherine’s portfolio spans thirty years. Crafting wool felt by hand is a technique Catherine has explored since the 1990s.
She has mastered the art of feltmaking and utilises it as a vehicle for the creation of three-dimensional forms. These forms include wearable garments such as jackets, dresses, skirts and innovative sculptures.
Silk fibre, fabric and wool fibre are Catherine’s preferred textile mediums. Hand-dyed, printed, hand-embroidered and illustration techniques make each piece a unique work of art.
Garments are constructed from few pattern pieces and styled into elegant, evocative designs. Most of the fabric used has been recycled, making her practice sustainable and environmentally conscious.