Organic Alchemy: Kari Cahill

Kari Cahill

Kari Cahill is an artist based out of Sligo. She is a painter who has presented work throughout Ireland, and abroad in countries such as France and Brazil. Kari is also Co-Director and Co-Founder of Lay of the Land (LOTL) – a site-responsive arts organisation producing residencies and exhibitions in remote locations around Ireland, and participates as both artist and curator. In the last year or so Kari started working out of the Model Art Centre’s Artist Studios, and that is how I came across her work initially. It was fascinating finding out about her approach to creating pigments. It really adds an extra layer to her paintings. It’s important to share practices like Kari’s because some might not be aware that it is possible to creat pigments this way. It was an eye opening experience for me and really broadened my knowledge.

What does an average day in the studio look like for you?

I have a pretty healthy work routine. I always paint at least two days a week, and the other two or three days are made up of admin, pigment making, shipping, and all the other parts of my business. On my two days of practice I’m pretty loose and don’t plan too much. I like to explore the materials and let that inform what happens; I usually don’t have a specific idea in mind. If I’m working on a commission I know it will occupy that particular day. I’m a true believer in just turning up over and over again – allowing space for the work to emerge through you.

I often work on a large scale and there are constantly things lying on the floor, tacked to walls and spread all over all the surfaces. The experimental nature of my painting calls for a lot of pigments and inks at hand. I pour water onto surfaces and let it dry over time, then add more materials on top.  All of my paintings are built up with various layers. I work on horizontal planes, never upright. Having a big studio has been a game changer for me in terms of working at a larger scale. I’m generally working on about 30 or 40 paintings all at once, in varied scales.  I may be developing one painting while doing the finishing touches on another, and these works move around the studio a lot. They go up on the walls, then come back down and join the other pieces. I really like to have a visual of the overall series. 

Studio 2021

I also usually commit around one day of the week to creating pigments from materials that I forage from the natural landscape. There is a lot of work that goes into that. All of the different processes in extracting pigments take time and energy. There are oxidation processes happening throughout the studio.I have different barks that have been stewing in buckets of water for a couple of months and jars of questionable materials – rusty nails, vinegar, plants, rocks and soils.It feels like a kind of lab to me, which I really enjoy.  My favourite thing about working with pigments is how they interact with each other on the page so I spend time modifying the colours using a range of other processes. I oxidize them or tweak the pH levels. In these moments, the process unfolding on the canvas is kind of alive. There are these alchemic processes happening that are outside of my control. I combine and layer the materials but after that, they take on their own life and movement. I love the energy that comes from that because eventually, as they dry, they’re frozen in this moment of interaction.

Materials used for making colour

My practice follows the seasons, both logistically and conceptually. This allows me to spend more time outdoors in the warmer months, whereas the winter months sees me inside more.  I collect materials at different times of the year, and they feed directly into the paintings. I am spending a lot of time outdoors at the moment searching for pigments; I’ve started to do a bit more research into earth pigments specifically in areas with water and try to almost read the land with the hope of stumbling across something buried beneath it. 

That’s a really interesting aspect of your process. Where does the preference for foraged-material pigments come from?

It happened very organically. To give a brief history…alongside my painting practice, I’m one half of a project called Lay of the Land, which is part collaborative duo, part arts organization which curates and produces outdoor art exhibitions in wild landscapes. I was spending a lot of time working with the land and the elements in that role, and at the beginning I felt a separation between that outdoor sculpture work and my painting practice. Of course, over time these started to come together. In 2018 I created a couple of massive stretched canvases with acrylic paint that were strung up in a forest overlooking Knockomagh Wood Nature Reserve and I remember during that  time I kept coming back to questions about how a petroleum-based material fitted into the landscape. I was working primarily in acrylics (which were able to stand up to the elements) but there was this feeling that it didn’t really work. 

When I went on a residency in Brazil and met an Uruguayan artis Diego De Los Campos. Even though I only spoke a little bit of Portuguese, we had some great conversations about colour and materials. He gave me this little jar of ‘nogalina’, which is a beautiful brown lustrous colour extracted from dehydrated walnuts. I started using the nogalina but it just wouldn’t work with the acrylic; I couldn’t layer the two. I love when materials do not bend to my whims. And from here I started looking into more waterbased natural colours and then began making my own.The acrylic and bio colour coexisted for a while in my painting, but, over time the process of making pigment just fed into what it was that I wanted to express. Especially how I felt about the land. Everything kind of clicked into place since then. 

You mentioned site-specific sculptural works – paintings on canopy. 

That particular Lay of the Land project was a turning point for me, as I mentioned before, this was the first piece that I felt represented the two sides of my practcie – outdoor sculpture and painting. This work was challenging.  I had imagined these large green paintings stretched out between trees, at one with the lush forest. But if you place a green painting in a green landscape, you find out pretty quickly that the colours never stand up to the natural chlorophyll hue that happens when the light shines through the canopy! Nature has its own story to tell; you can’t decide to build a fragile sculpture in strong wind, you can’t ask the skies not to rain. Lay of the Land taught me to listen to the landscape and the elements, and work with what is in front of me. I discovered through observing the site that red completely complimented and contrasted with the green. I learned a lot about being responsive to the landscape in making these works which could only really exist in a forest.

Installation shot Ceannbhrat Dearg, Red Canopy – Silva, by Lay of the Land, (2018), Stretched Canvas, Acrylic Paint, Spray Paint, Eyelets, Builders Twine, Rebar.- Photo Lay of the Land

 You’ve said before that there is a more muted aesthetic to your sculptural works. 

I guess these different parts of my practice just developed at different times. I focused on three-dimensional work in college and my sculptural aesthetic had always been quite minimal and monochromatic. When I travelled to India for a residency, I put my painting practice to the fore for the first time. I don’t think I could have possibly had a muted palette in India. Now the lines are more blurred between my 2d and 3d work, and my pallets are dictated heavily by the land and the materials I find in each. Later in the year I’ll be painting directly onto rock formations creating site-rsponsive works along the coast, I think colour will feature heavily but perhaps the marks will be more minimal. 

Land Flutes, Collaborative Piece, (2016), Steel Piping

Does painting continue to be the focus? 

My buzz is applying colour to surfaces. This doesn’t necessarily need to be as ‘paintings’ in the traditional “work-on-paper” sense. I am interested in exploring colour, and surface and bringing these ideas into larger scales and three dimensions, as well as continuing to explore on a two dimensional scale. 

Kari Cahill Hazel McCague – Directors of Lay of the Land – Installing during Silva 2019 – West Cork – Photo by Fellipe Lopes

This past year myself and Hazel Mc Cague, who is the other half of Lay of the Land, decided to take a step back from the project and assess where it was going, and to focus in on our individual practices. For me, this meant a deepening of my approach to painting and colour.  The time away has allowed us to regain our energy. Lay of the Land projects were massive productions requiring so much time, energy and creative input. For four years we were constantly moving forward. We created over 60 sculptures and collaborated with almost 30 artists, not to mention the crews, volunteers, locals and audiences we engaged with. My role was curator, artist, administrator, director and producer. It was amazing but very labour intensive. It didn’t necessarily allow for the space I needed to pursue painting. So since taking a break we have been able to identify which elements we want to bring forward and which ones we are happy to leave behind, both in terms of LOTL and our own personal development. This has been super empowering! Lay of the Land will still exist, but it will be different, and it will be more aligned with both of our individual practices. 

Are your pigments directly influenced by your given environment? 

My work is completely site-responsive. Even before I worked with natural pigments I always responded to site.For instance,  I made a series of work in the depths winter while living in West Cork. The colour schemes were dark and gloomy. I wanted to capture the essence of how the light suddenly burst through the clouds and hit the mountains on a dark day. Even though my work isn’t formally representational, it does aim to capture the essence and emotional of the experience of different landscapes. Colour has always been a means for that. 

Dugheaimhreadh – Depths of Winter, 100x100cm, Mixed media on canvas

Now, the pigments that make up my paintings come from things I’ve gathered in that space and the processes that follow. Let’s say I gather walnut husks in a specific spot; the colour produced will be different from the husks I collect elsewhere. So, those paintings will have totally different qualities. This creates an additional dimension to the resposnsiviity of the pieces and informs the visual quality of the finished piece. I allow the colour to direct the work. 

Materials used for making ink, Calafort 2019, photo by Fellipe Lopes

You work in a range of scales. Could you talk a bit about that?

The pigments I use are made up of tiny particles; I can’t just scale up in the way I could with acrylics or printmaking. When I go bigger with bio-pigments, I’m zooming in on those tiny bits of plant matter which morph the colour. I think of my work as maps, visually they often look like aerial photographs, and they trace the colour of a specific landscape.  My smaller paintings tend to be more minimal than my larger paintings; the lines and marks are somehow more delicate even when not applied in that way.

‘By Equinox Drenched, (2021), Earth pigment,Kelp,Shell,Berries,Sloes,Lichen,Oak Gall,Liquid Iron,Copper Scraps, 200x140cm
Flattened Out Site, Copper, Walnut, Dandelion, Soda, Bog Myrtle, 17.5 x 26cm

I am constantly looking for anything that will give me an interesting texture and experiment with the scale of how I present the marks. I pour, drip, soak and spray colour onto paper or canvas. I might then sprinkle pigment on top or use salt. It can all seem a bit haphazard to an outsider looking in. There are jars, pots, pipettes, syringes – all sorts of crazy stuff that might encourage the colours to interact in different ways.

I intuitively know how these colours can potentially work together because I created them. There is definitely a state of flow in how I respond to whatever is happening on the page. Experiences feed into the gestures. I often think of my paintings as drawings because they’re not really complete. Often I’ll do a drawing that feels more like painting.

Are you interested in exploring the fluidity between these two mediums?

For sure. I was first introduced to that idea by the artist Kiera O’Toole, my studio neighbour. She also works with pigments and it’s brilliant to be able to bounce ideas off of eachother. In my mind, the drawing had always come before the painting. Those conversations with Kiera kind of allowed me to be less concerned about the labelling of my works as paintings or drawings.  Now there is more of a blurred line; a work in paint can be a drawing, and a work made up of drawn elements can be a painting. Regardless of how people refer to my work, I am more interested in the process than the end result.

You can find out more about Kari Cahill’s work through her Instagram pages and websites, links below

thank you Meadhbh McNutt for your work editing

You can support Painting in Text through Patreon, link below


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