An artist's life

The Border Mail’s series on identity continues with the creative journey of East Albury artist Kate Bland

VARIETY: Border artist Kate Bland loves the magic her work can create under the gaze of others. Picture: MARK JESSER

VARIETY: Border artist Kate Bland loves the magic her work can create under the gaze of others. Picture: MARK JESSER

Moods and colour, indefinable stories, a whirlpool of daydreams, shades and drive. It’s a lyrical journey she’s on, Kate Bland’s favourite.

Nothing obvious or easy to grasp in a fleeting look, yet it makes a generous kind of sense.

It’s more soothing and genuine. It’s not (she laughs) the sell-out or sham of the proverbial one-trick pony.

Her aversion to staying in the one lane – I love variety, and that’s in everything in my life – means the portraits, the nude drawings, the planning for the wall murals she paints around town are always on rotation, in whatever room she fancies of her East Albury house, her home and her kind of studio.

A mum and her teenage boy.

There’s no grungy shed. Art’s her life, so she sees no worth in keeping her work at a distance. When a piece finally goes on exhibition, she lets herself wonder what others might think.

And if it’s an abstract, their interpretations add to the story she’s told free of the constraint of words.

I especially love doing abstract work because it’s just a different kind of approach. It’s really therapeutic. Through translation, through different eyes it’s like music; songs can remind people of different things. If just one person loves it I’m happy, or at least gets something out of it. Everybody sees something a little bit differently.

At home: Border artist Kate Bland lives and creates in the one space. Picture: MARK JESSER

At home: Border artist Kate Bland lives and creates in the one space. Picture: MARK JESSER

It is a lyricism that asks you to forget about objects as the only way to paint the story of life.

Art has always been the soul, the fall-back reassurance for Melbourne-born Kate, whose builder-boilermaker dad so tired of the city that he moved his family from Richmond to Albury when she was three.

A soothing constant, at least from when she began school, in kindergarten and Year 1.  Waking excited by the thought of conjuring-up all those drawings and paintings.

I remember really clearly enjoying that so much and I’d look forward to that every day.

The creativity at the end of a crayon or a brush or paint-caked fingers made an easy leap into everything else.

Dancing and singing with cousins. Little girls dabbling in make-up.

All that sort of stuff. Loved all of it, anything creative.

Something that almost unknowingly consoled as life got a bit heavier as a teenager.

It was a way of expressing myself that felt safe. In a way it’s direct but non-direct at the same time.

And so it is with her abstract work, where the lack of boundaries means others are more likely to uncover their own fables.

With art, like music, you just love certain things. It moves you or speaks to you. You have that passionate kind of reaction that I can get from other people’s work. If someone gets that from my work that’s awesome. It’s a bit of magic.

Kate Bland in 2009 when she was fined for not getting permission for stencil works she created at Albury's David Street skate park. Picture: KYLIE ESLER

Kate Bland in 2009 when she was fined for not getting permission for stencil works she created at Albury's David Street skate park. Picture: KYLIE ESLER

EVEN for someone attuned to the unpredictable and at ease with doing it on a whim, it was an odd detour.

Melbourne was Mecca in her High school years, as it was for the creative bunch of girls in her circle of friends.

The art, music, culture and food. When I was growing up Melbourne was known for everything creative.

What made it even more appealing was how this was all wrapped-up in the multicultural fabric of the inner city, where there was the even greater pull of meeting people of a different ilk.

Art had been Bland’s obvious focus at school and she excelled as anyone with the talent and passion should. But at 19 she instead moved to Canberra, knowing it was a left-field decision even by her usual reckoning.

The job was with a legal publishing company, working on computers for eight hours a day.

It was very different to what I’d choose but I thought “I’ll give that a shot”. It was a good job, secure and I’m glad I did it. At that age doing that was probably OK for six months, and then I got itchy feet. I just knew it wasn’t for me and I was thinking “I just can’t wait until I go to Melbourne to take advantage of living that kind of life”. And that was great for my art.

In Melbourne it was fine to jump in unprepared, to be that slightly disorganised person feeling like she was always doing five things at once. The pitfall was the way she would compare herself with others.

They might be creative themselves, but only to a degree and always, it seemed, of a more organised bent.

Bland tried it for the stability, the money, but her hunch was it wouldn’t work. It went against what she knew she was – an artist.

Teaching others, in this case helping Albury youth in 2010 appreciate the storytelling of street art, is something that has given Kate Bland unexpected joy.

Teaching others, in this case helping Albury youth in 2010 appreciate the storytelling of street art, is something that has given Kate Bland unexpected joy.

Share houses and casual jobs were the constants over her five years in Melbourne, a time that included a year studying beauty therapy at Victoria University.

That paid the bills so she could focus on her art and meet the free spirits who guided her on her creative path.

When she did sell, Bland made decent money as she often got commissions.

But while the rent and the other bills persisted, these opportunities didn’t. Sensational when it happened, but not a weekly event.

I’d do cafe work, bar work, hospitality mainly because that’s easy to get in Melbourne. I always had that as a backup too so I could survive. And then you get resourceful when you’re share housing. It works out.

One turning point was an older guy with a gallery in the hubbub of Fitzroy’s Brunswick Street. Mutual friends got her through the door and it allowed her to get some work on show that gave the confidence a boost.

Out of that flowed a new way of approaching and tackling her work.

It just opens your eyes a lot. It’s the same as moving to a bigger city. You’re just much more inspired and stimulated. I do like painting people. It’s broad though what I like doing, and I do go through phases.

The most immediate result was doing larger-scale paintings. She’d knocked over a few at High school, but now there was a greater confidence in her work – such as with her nudes.

One she sold almost straight away, giving her another confidence boost as did the creative crowd in influencing her and giving her more exposure and opportunities.

Because it is hard. I know from starting out when I was younger and I didn’t know as many people. You sort of think “where do you start?”. At one stage when I first started I was highly critical of my own work. People say they like it, but do they meant it?

Kate Bland at home with her dog, 10-year-old Coco. Picture: MARK JESSER

Kate Bland at home with her dog, 10-year-old Coco. Picture: MARK JESSER

ALBURY pulled her back, Melbourne did it stronger. But nothing had as much force as this life within a life. It was overwhelming compared with anything she could muster on canvas.

And for all the opportunities, inspiration and fun of the big city, leaving again was simply meant to be.

He’s now 13, her boy. Often he’ll chill-out in one room while Mum paints and draws in another. Running around for school and every other kid’s need gets first dibs, but Bland’s joyful demeanour and gloriously bright space at home shows it works.

The textures and colours, the composition and feelings inherent in her work.

She’s followed her dad, who’d whiz-up a quick sketch (Dad, draw a kangaroo!) or would always be making things with his hands, and look to home. It was a no-contest that Albury would be a better place to raise her son.

It changes everything. I’m first and foremost a mother. If I’m going off doing murals around town that seems enough for now, as well as the make-up art. I’m interested in lots of different forms.

If there’s a cost it’s that she might not be so productive, dropping things to do the parenting stuff. When her son’s at school, Bland’s doing her most to do her best for her art. It’s much easier now he’s no longer a small boy.

It’s also enough that she is surrounded by her art. Some artists, she says, produce far more but she doesn’t want to be like that, so accepts the quiet times, is not preoccupied with her work having a shelf-life.

You need that scope of freedom. Me as a person, I love variety. That’s the key to my work. Life’s not perfect but I don’t have big regrets. I’ve found a way to manage that balance pretty well.

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