The QT

Friday 14 June 2024

Mum’s the word for artist

After having a baby in 2018, Katie Cuddon felt a surge of creativity. She talked David Whetstone through her new exhibition in Newcastle
Katie Cuddon with A is for Alma at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle

There are many ways of documenting motherhood and while Katie Cuddon’s might not be the most conventional, it’s via a medium she understands and has loved since she was a child.

She still treasures the clay animals she made in primary school, early signs of an artistic calling.

Now here she is in the Hatton Gallery, her five-year-old daughter playing happily in the corner, surrounded by the clay sculptures that reflect their lives together.

They’re abstract pieces, not smoothed and glazed but well-worked and strangely organic with their orifices and protuberances; and they’re either painted in chalky blue, yellow or pink or left “naked”, as Katie puts it, the fired clay pale and unadorned.

There’s a narrative running through the exhibition which features a single vacant chair that you’re invited to sit on — and thereby feel strangely akin to these enigmatic works.

“Shall I start from the beginning?” Katie says, ushering me to one end of the gallery where the lighting’s subdued and another chair supports a bulbous piece with an opening at the end of a long neck.

Strapped to this mildly unsettling object the colour of blancmange is a rolled up hospital blanket.

A is for Alma is on display at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle

“I wanted this space to have that sense of the nocturnal existence you have with a very small child,” says Katie.

“In this piece I’m thinking of breastfeeding in a corner somewhere and this pink bit I think of as the mother – it’s called Mother and Baby – but there’s also something of the reproductive organ that it alludes to.

“Then there’s a blanket which I think of as the baby and it’s attached by the strap that holds a heart monitor in place when you’re heavily pregnant and which I kept and repurposed for this sculpture.”

Describing her working method, Katie says a vague sketch might precede her first resort to clay which is when intuition takes over.

“I build each piece up gradually with drop scone-sized bits of clay. If it’s a hollow piece and starts to collapse I just wait until it dries and strengthens.

“I tend to start with an idea of what it’s going to look like but that can change as I see different possibilities opening up. This piece I originally anticipated going on the wall.”

Katie, Alma and Self Portrait at the Hatton Gallery

Next is the piece that lends the exhibition its name, A is for Alma, which is also the name of Katie’s daughter.

Comprising the letters of the alphabet in roughly worked clay, it references the A is for Apple-type educational books many children encounter early in life.

“I made this when Alma started to make noises and put things in her mouth all the time, building those muscles which enable us to converse with the world,” says Katie.

“I was also reading a lot of books at that time and started this thing of biting into the clay, which I’ve never done before, so there are teeth marks in these.”

Best not to try this at home. Katie, who produced all this work in a studio at Newcastle University where she teaches, says her bites were through a layer of plastic film.

“Historically clay has been used as a literary material. Think of cuneiform-scripted clay tablets. There’s this paradox that it’s base and formless but also tells stories.”

She kept coming back to her alphabet letters, she says.

Alma’s contribution to the exhibition named after her

“It was important that they were in various states, almost as if someone had tried to ingest and then regurgitate them. I wanted that feeling of them being chewed on.

“Language is like a material, this shifting, changing thing, and this ties to earlier work I’ve done where I’ve thought a lot about it as something you try to grasp and pin down.”

Working in clay for her, she explains, is akin to handwriting as a form of expression.

Katie studied at Glasgow School of Art and then the Royal Academy of Art, and a year after graduating in 2006 won a year-long Lipman research fellowship in ceramic sculpture at Newcastle University.

A sculptor in clay for about 20 years, it was a timely break from teaching funded by a Leverhulme research fellowship that enabled her to focus on this body of work.

“The last thing I expected when I had a child was to suddenly be more productive,” she says. “I thought I’d be less. But it really injected a lot of creative energy into me.”

As a sculptor and space-aware, she found her home having to be reconfigured around this new presence in her life, and of a degree of disorientation. She responded characteristically. “Suddenly there was loads of work I wanted to make.”

In depicting motherhood, the exhibition’s warts and all.

Self Portrait, an unflattering construction with dents for eyes front and back (a necessity for the vigilant parent), is painted a queasy yellow and rests on a base chosen to resemble “spillage or something vomity”.

The long neck is “something about trying to keep your head above water, stretched”.

Overall, the exhibition amounts to an honest account, capturing the earliest maternal years with all of Covid’s challenges, but it has moved people in sometimes unexpected ways.

“This one’s called Lemon Sunday,” says Katie, pausing before a sculpture of two figures, unmistakably mother and child although of indeterminate species. (They’re yellow Clangers to me, the largest tenderly caressing the one it appears to be suckling.)

Tucked into a bodily recess is a mitten of the sort mums put in their offspring’s coat pockets, only to get lost.

“A student said when they saw that piece they burst into tears and rang their mum,” says Katie, confessing pleasure at that gut response.

Squatting on the table where it was made, Behind Mother’s Eyes, an assemblage of thighs and hands and saggy stomach, evokes the mixed emotions of motherhood.

A is For Alma is at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle until May 4. For more details, visit the website.


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