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Monday, April 1, 2013

Community Art at Its Best

A Conversation with Katie Martin

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This week, Off the Cuff spoke with Katie Martin, an artist and educator who spearheaded the creation of 724 small owl sculptures for Renaissance Theaterworks’ upcoming production The Road to Mecca, which explores the life and work of South African outsider artist Helen Martins. Each owl—which loosely mirrors Martins’ artistic style—is made of plaster with décolletage including dried beans, broken glass and old jewelry. Members of PEARLS for Teen Girls, Journey House, Girl Scouts and Meetup contributed to the creation process, and each theatergoer will receive a souvenir owl after the show.

 

When did you become involved in this project?

Almost two years ago, so it’s been a long time in the making. I’m both ecstatic and extremely depressed that it’s coming to an end.

 

Have you felt a personal connection to Martins’ while working on this project?

I think that the connection to Martins was far greater than I ever imagined it would be. It’s interesting because there are these literary connections: I’m Kathryn Elizabeth Martin, and she’s Helen Elizabeth Martins. But, on a deeper level, I was given this project when I was pregnant with my child who’s now 16 months old, so that really shows you the range of time. Having this project and this sort of compulsion and need to create was a lifesaver for me because it was that thing that kept me connected to my life as an artist.

 

What do you think it means to be an outsider artist?

The outsider artist is an artist who’s doing it for themselves. They’re not doing it to please a certain aesthetic or doing it because they were told this is right. It’s to satisfy themselves and I think, in doing that, there’s a purity—an honesty—that really is seen in the work.

 

What is the historical and symbolic significance of the owl sculptures?

The owl was really quite important to the spirit, life and work of Helen Martins. Her house in South Africa—which we’ll see the interior of in the production—became known as the “owl house,” and she saw the owl as her totem spirit of wisdom, protection and insight.

 

What was it like working with members of the girls groups?

They were the most wonderfully respectful, mindful young women I’ve met and they really got into it. I knew that it was a success when, on day two, the PEARLS girls came back and said, “We could have gone sailing, but we chose this.” And it was a beautiful summer day and I was like, “I would have gone sailing!”

 

I also noticed there seems to be a feminist slant to the production, what with Mecca’s subject matter, the girls groups’ involvement and Renaissance’ mission as a women-founded, women-run company.

Yeah! And I didn’t really know that going into it, and it was one of those how-big-does-it-have-to-be-until-it-knocks-you-over moments. I think I’m just used to understanding that women are strong and that we do it all anyway. But it’s nice to see it and the successes of it. It’s been a phenomenal experience.