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Not Completely Off Topic: with Caitlin Robb

2020 was a difficult year for graduates. After working for 4 years towards their degree show, it was snatched away in a moment, following months of encroaching pandemic induced panic. The staff and students at Gray's managed to pull to together an impressive Virtual Degree Show in just a few months with the help of Look Again, and Design and Code.

Caitlin Robb was one of the exhibiting students at the virtual degree show. Her work caught my eye admittedly out of personal interest in spirituality, tarot, and the intimate process of sketching skulls. Caitlin creates reverential art for the dead with an empathetic focus on animals. An impressive skill set, Caitlin is a draughtswoman, poet, talented observational artist, analogue photographer, and printmaker. Following the virtual degree show, this young graduate can add this impressive technological feat to her already extensive skill set.

Robb's light and airy degree show space was a contrast to her subject matter (death itself), which immediately drew me in. In a physical space, I could imagine considering the work at length with a sketchbook in hand - an experience which I hope is realised sooner rather than never. Her work challenges our perception and reaction to death as a society whilst making us consider our impact in life, and on the lives of other creatures.

I had the absolute pleasure of sharing some vegan bakes on my couch with Caitlin on a sunny afternoon in July. Below is our chat; trying not to go completely off topic, with Caitlin Robb.

[Kirsty]: Hi Caitlin! Thank you so much for chatting to me today. Could you start by just giving us a bit of background about you and about your practice. How did you come to choose this creative path?

[Caitlin]: So hi, I’m Caitlin Robb. I’ve always been into art for as long as I could hold a pencil. Drawing is what started my creative direction. I would always be that kid that would be sitting drawing while other kids were doing more physical things. It’s just the way I observe the world and I was very lucky that I had a really supportive family who encouraged me to go down this path. When I was deciding at school what I wanted to do, art just felt like the right direction. Of course there were times when I felt like I didn’t know what I should be doing but art always felt like the constant thing. I applied for painting at Grays School of Art, but they actually accepted me for contemporary art practice and I’m so glad they did because I was able to experiment with printmaking and photography and so many other things. The first few years were learning about the processes, and third and fourth year were figuring out what I wanted to do. Nature has always been something that has inspired me, and I was thinking about life and death of nature, and I’m also vegan, so I took that into it as well. Then I decided just to focus on the death part. It felt right for me to do so because I was going through a loss myself, but also because I wanted to use my voice to show respect for another creature - in life and death but focusing on the death part because the taboo of death is quite a powerful thing in western culture. It’s kind of a mix of my veganism and compassion and how it meets with the taboo surrounding death.

[K]: So you were doing your degree at Grays then COVID-19 hit. What was that experience like?

[C]: When it started, we had no idea what was going to happen, the university had no idea what was going to happen, and suddenly on March 20th, we had to pack everything up and move everything to our homes. It was a really quick turnaround so for the first week, it was just a bit of a shock. Luckily people were helping me because I had a lot of stuff but I was quite panicked because a lot of my practice focuses on using the workshop at Grays. For ceramics, you obviously need to be able to use the kilns and the glaze and the clay so all that was kind of pushed out the window. I was using dark room photography so I had to figure that out by processing film myself. I got a lot of support from my tutor to help me do that, and luckily I have a bathroom with no windows so I was able to use that space. It was just a shame that I couldn’t do dark room printing anymore because there’s something really special about being in the dark room and printing. It just gives a certain character to my work I feel, especially lith printing. I couldn’t do printmaking anymore which was sad but I just did a lot of drawing to replace that, and I did wax casting to replace ceramics. There was a lot of procrastination because you know, you’re adapting to a new environment, in a space you’d normally just be chilling in, and suddenly I was there in my one bedroom flat all the time. I just had to make it a studio space. In a way it’s prepared me for my future because I would have had to of gone through all this anyway. It is a shame though because I wanted to have a physical degree show. That was a real hit. I feel as though my work speaks better in person than online because I use so many traditional processes which are very ritualistic and very slow, and everything that is kind of against technology. And having to put it on technology was very difficult to manage. We had to do the documents for handing in our work but then also the virtual degree show so it was a real lesson. We figured it out. We had to really. It was good to have this going on now, rather than being finished and then having COVID because I think if I was finished and COVID was just starting that I’d be feeling more lost. It gave me something to do and something to focus on and not get stressed about what was going on in the world. Instead I was focused and stressed about my degree {laughs}.

[K]: You were part of the Grays Virtual Degree Show organised by Grays, Look Again, and Design and Code, what was that experience like?

[C]: It was very difficult because it was completely new to me. I had to email them a bunch saying “help me please, it crashed again!” so they must of been sick of me. {laughs} They were very supportive which was fantastic but it did take a while to figure out what I wanted to do. I decided to stick with the gallery type space because I felt it was easier for me to start that way. I had to make my space I think three times because of crashes and stuff. I suddenly very much realised that I’m not a technologically minded person. It was a good lesson to learn though. I wanted to do more of a catacomb type feel. I wanted the corner of the space with the 3D skulls to feel like a catacomb but the internet did not like the fact I was trying to copy and paste so many. I was at over a 100 skulls and I’d only filled a small part so I had to ditch that idea. I just had to adapt to having mostly flat work.

[K]: Has there been any mention of a physical degree show?

[C]: No plans. The university were very much saying they can’t because when it opens again, they’ll have new students so there just won’t be room. At this moment, we still shouldn’t be having large gatherings and so it’s just not realistic, especially not for opening night which gets pretty intense. I understand why but it’s pretty upsetting to hear. I think my course would like to something and I think my tutors would like to do something too. If they don’t do anything, I’ll do something. I’ll contact my fellow students and ask if we can do a mini show at least. Just make something out of what we’ve done for the last four years. I was lucky though, I did a solo show in January at Foodstory. This years actually been kind of crazy. In January I had that show for a whole month, which was a great experience and then in February I was doing a mural for a coffee shop in Glasgow, and then March hit and everything just shut down. I’m glad I had those two things. It’s made 2020 feel like an impressive year for me.

Caitlin's mural in Honey and Salt Coffee Bar

[K]: I think you touched on this earlier so don’t feel like you need to go into any further into it if you don’t want to. Your degree show was all about death, does that have any personal reverence for you?

[C]: So, when I started all the artwork in third year, I did lose a grandfather. I wasn’t close with him but it just kind of worked at the same time that I was starting to make artwork about death anyway. I think most of my work comes from showing respect to another creature and tackling the taboo rather than personal. It’s all personal because it’s about how I feel and it’s about sharing a feeling of reverence but I think that where it mainly comes from is wanting to educate and share a feeling rather than about my personal experience. I haven’t actually experienced a whole bunch of death myself, but I think what is important in work is about shining a light away from human towards creatures and tackling our fear of death.

[K]: You mentioned the perseverance of life through drawings and photography in your artists talk over on your IGTV (@artisticgreen) How important is remembrance post mortem to you?

[C]: I think it’s important because when you grieve someone, you’re often thinking about the memories you shared with that person so I feel although that’s more important that dwelling and mourning. It’s more important to remember what was good about them. Death is a natural part of life and that’s something we need to remember and allow a conversation to occur. I would like to see humanity showing this sort of reverence and remembrance to animals as well. Most of us do this with pets, but why not other creatures. Their deaths are important as well.

I’m just trying to shine that light towards animals that are forgotten about and the ones that humanity have hurt. Whats important about remembrance post mortem is that that is what is left of us - the memory of who we were and who we impacted. Thats what’s important.

[K]: What do you think happens after death?

[C]: It’s hard because there’s things that I want to believe are true. I’m coming at this from an agnostic point of view - by that I mean I’m open to other people views on religion but I’m just not personally religious myself - I’m more spiritual than religious. I think I would like it to be a recycling of souls, kind of like what Buddhists believe of going into another life form. I think that’s something really special because our souls are so powerful and I think it’d be really nice if we lived many lives. I’m not so interested by the whole hell and heaven idea. I understand why people believe it because they want an after, but I think in a way I’m kind of the opposite. To me it’s either another life than we live, or it’s nothing. We live on this planet for a long time. It seems short in terms of centuries that we’ve been around but most of us will live a long life. Even if you only live until you’re 18, you had those 18 years. You had those 18 x 365 days. Thats what’s important. I’m not nervous about what’s after, I’m nervous about what I do in my time alive and how I impact others. I want to impact to impact people in an empathic and thoughtful manner and with kindness. Not with fear or regret or sadness. That is what is important to me.

[K]: You made a really interesting point there about not wanting to impact people in a hurtful, regrettable or sad manner, but we also wouldn’t want to leave people in that sad manner which is what your work is all about.

[C]: Yeah. It’s something that’s happened only within the past 100 years. In Scotland, our wakes used to be more like parties rather than sad and mournful events. It’s interesting how we changed from that and a big part of it was Christianity. It’s interesting how our mindset has changed from celebrating life at a funeral to being very mournful and reserved. When I die, I’d like to be buried in the ground without any coffin, or embalming and just be naturally decomposed and be given back to the earth. I’d also like the living to remember me without those mournful moments, have a nice time together. I want to bring people together but not in a sad way. Be sad that I’m gone but also remember the good times!

[K]: Of the other cultures that you looked at, was there any particular culture that celebrates life and death in a way you found interesting?

[C]: There was many but there was one in particular that I found really fascinating. Particularly in Bolivia, although it also happens elsewhere, they honour Ñatitas. They take skulls that they find - often not relatives - in cemeteries or other random places that they are found by dreams. People will dream about them and find the skulls. They believe that there is wisdom that comes from the skulls so they will ask them questions and rename them. Theres something really beautiful about that. The dead are giving something back to the living and the living are caring for them in some sort of manner. That’s why I did my ceramics with words on them - it was inspired by the Ñatitas. It was also inspired but the tarot because to me that occupies the same kind of head space. There was something similar to that in Italy. They had this cave where they put bodies after the plague, or after wars - basically any unnamed bodies would go into this cave. Years later people would visit the bones there and give them names and treat them as though they were their own which I thought was really special. Even though they didn’t know them personally, they would respect them.

Dia de las Ñatitas - Reference image from Culture Trip

[K]: You work in a lot of different mediums - observational drawing, analogue photography, ceramics, installation, and poetry. Do you have a preferred medium or one you can see yourself taking forward?

[C]: I always thought I was draughtsman - or draughtswoman as I like to call myself - and I think that is something that will always be part of my practice. I never thought I would go into the three dimensional world but I went into it and did ceramics because it gives a sense of physicality and gives something to the space that I’m inhabiting. It’s impactful. It’s very much like death is here, notice me! which sometimes you don’t get so much with my drawings. Printmaking allows my drawings to be taken to the next step. Photography is different. It allows me to create this eery environment which I think is really special as well. I did a series with people holding the skulls. I have a big box of skulls which a tutor gave me - which I’m very grateful for - and I allowed some friends to choose a skull which called to them. That part was very important to me, that relationship of them finding the skull because it spoke to them in some way. It relates back to the Ñatitas. I got them to stand with the skull and I took photographs of them. I found it really special that I could share my feelings with them and I’d love to do that again with people that I don’t know and maybe people that might not be so open to it. I’d like to capture some people being nervous about it. I also want to hear peoples stories because I’m finding that when working with people that they would tell me stories that they otherwise would have never shared. I had a girl who I did not expect to be interested at all who was very eager to take part. She said it was very mediative for her and I thought it was really beautiful that that exchange happened so I’d love to explore that more. There’s something really powerful about photography and how you use light to make your work. Poetry allows me to share my emotions with people who might not get it from my artwork. My emotions are very much in my work but people don’t always understand what I’m trying to say. Poetry allows me to share that with people - especially those who aren’t necessarily arty. My mum, she’s not in the art world but writes poetry, and she found my poetry far more impactful that my other work.

[K]: When making work, how does the reaction of the viewer affect your process, if at all?

[C]: My work is about sharing my thoughts which are a bit unusual to western culture, so I think the whole idea of people viewing it negatively would impact my work too much so I try to not think about it. I just think about what I’m making as I’m making it, and what I want to say. I’m very lucky that I’ve not really had much negative feedback. I’ve had a lot of people share their stories or find it really interesting. I’m focusing on keeping my message strong rather than panicking on what people are going to say about me or my work. Maybe if I lived when the witch trials were happening, I’d probably be burned at the stake {laughs}. It’s something that I took a long time to learn - to not dwell on what people are going to say, dwell on what you’re wanting to say yourself. What do you want to be known for, especially as an artist. What do you want people to think about when they leave your space? For a long time I was worried about it, I was worried about what people would say about my practice and about me but I’ve had a lot of open-ness and thought provoking conversations. I know some Mexican people and they shared their stories about Dia de los Muertos. The person I was speaking to spoke about how they leave food for the dead to take with them on that day. One of the things was sweets. She was saying when she was a kid, she ate a sweet before the ceremony then she ate a sweet after the ceremony and apparently the sweetness was gone after the dead had left. So I found that really interesting. It’s interesting that my work can be like that for people. I love hearing what people think about it.

If you'd like to see more of Caitlin's work, check out her instagram or her website.

Thank you for reading, and to Caitlin for chatting with me.

Kirsty xo

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