Dewar Arts Awards interview – Celebrating 15 years

Posted on Monday 20th March, 2017

Interview with Katri Walker by Faith Liddell for the 15 year celebration of the Dewar Arts Awards.

Read the interview in its original location here.

Katri Walker

I’m a visual artist specialising in video installation. I think that idea of being an artist was always there, basically since forever.

A key turning point was when I had a place to study social anthropology at Manchester Uni. I’d deferred for a year during which I travelled and worked and I had a bit of an epiphany. “What am I doing? I want to go to art school”, and it was funny because I remember telling my parents, I’m really sorry, I’m going to turn down the university offer because I want to go to art school and my mum said to me, “I always thought it was weird that you applied to university. I just assumed you would go to art school”. And I said “Why didn’t you tell me!” And she was like, “Well you know, you had to take your own path”.

I think I got caught up in the system, everyone’s applying to UCAS and it was just what everybody did and I did it. I ended up taking two years out, applied to Glasgow School of Art and got in and was obviously very delighted.

My art teacher at school, James Gillespie’s, Mr. Cockburn had studied at Edinburgh School of Art and he was a great teacher. He was very encouraging and we got on really well, but he was very much a painter.

I remember when I actually had to hand in my portfolio for Glasgow School of Art. I’d prepared it and left it and my brother had to hand it in but I hadn’t realised on the form that you had to pick a specialism. And because it was pre-email, nobody could contact me, I was in Uganda working, and so my mum and dad didn’t know what to choose for me, so they asked Mr. Cockburn and he said painting. So I got into painting and after about 6 weeks I was like, “Oh I don’t want to be here, oh no! I ended up going into sculpture.”

At the time, painting was more painterly and sculpture was more open to things like video and installation and that kind of thing. It’s not so clear cut anymore, but it was more like that at the time. I found much more freedom in sculpture.

I had some of the best years of my life at GSA, on the undergrad and then the Masters in Fine Art (MFA). The undergrad was great. I didn’t know what the word installation meant when I started at GSA. Installation? Are they talking about bathrooms? So it was a big eye opener for me in terms of contemporary art because I had come from this high school teaching, which was very traditionally focused. I loved every minute of it although I didn’t find it easy. I found getting into the conceptual side of stuff was really, really challenging, talking about your work without being embarrassed, getting over things at that age, which I think is normal.

And then I remember in the third year in the metal workshop, Alan the technician, a metal genius, said, “Aw, you’re going to go into fourth year and I’m never going to see you again because you’re going to start making videos”, and I was like “Nah, no way, no way, that’s not for me. I’m not into that. I’m 3D, all about making stuff, hands on”. And what happened is I went into fourth year and started making videos.

But the reason that happened is because I did an exchange to Finland. I’m half-Finnish which was partly why I went. It was a one-term exchange and the school was really technology focused. The course was called Art and Media. Students didn’t have studio space but they had rooms full of Apple 3Gs. I thought, “Wow, if I’m wanting to learn any digital skills this is the place to do it”, because at the time at GSA there was about 5 computers in the library between 200 hundred students, so I really went all out learning digital media in Finland over three months, came home and never looked back basically.

That was the transformational point for me. My degree show was all video. And then after leaving GSA, my flatmate Emily and I, who had also graduated, we decided to travel for a month to Mexico to see my brother who was living there. We got 2 for 1 flights to the States by collecting Walkers crisp packets!

It was so naïve. We looked at the map and thought ok, we need to get to Mexico so where should we go and thought “Ah right, we’ll go to San Diego and just go down from there.” We got a bit lost in Tijuana, found our way to the bus station, – neither of us spoke a single word of Spanish – and thought “Ok, we need to get a bus to Mexico City, how long is that going to take – 46 hours”. And we were like “What?!” The concept of those distances coming from Scotland; we couldn’t comprehend sitting on a bus for 46 hours and still being in the same country.

Anyway we made stops and it took us two weeks to get to Mexico City. When I went back to Scotland I decided I was only going home for six months to save up the money and come back to Mexico. I stayed in Mexico for two years, and then decided I wanted to go back to Scotland and back to GSA to do my MFA.

So that was 2005, and I had two of the best years of my life without a doubt. Brilliant course, brilliant people, brilliant tutors. It had its problems but in general it was a great experience. And it was Sam Ainsley’s last year of being the course leader of the MFA.

There were only two Scottish people on the course and it was Sam who said, “You need to apply for a Dewar Arts Award” towards the end of my final year. She wrote a glowing recommendation letter, I think it was purely on the basis of her reference that I got it to be honest.

Myself and a Spanish/Australian artist friend, Dani Marti, decided to do a video show for the second Glasgow International when it was still under Francis McKee’s direction. So we applied and Francis accepted our proposal. The Dewar Award let me create the work for that show.

I knew what I wanted to do. As I was leaving Mexico to go back to Glasgow in 2005 I became aware of professional mourners. The basis of my proposal was to look for these women, these professional mourners. It was open ended and that was the path that my work has taken since then, it’s discovery. That’s where the social anthropology comes in. I wanted to find these women, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do once I found them but I wanted to find them and see what happened.

What was amazing about the Dewar Arts Award was not having to be super-specific about an outcome, which was very hard for me at the time. Whilst I had great interest to find out I wasn’t able to say, “Ok it will be this and it will be 15 minutes long etc”. The fact that I could present it in a way that was open ended and that that was ok was amazing because not all funding allows that.

In the process of looking for these women, who I found in the end, I found other things along the way, and ended up not with just the one piece that I had proposed but with three, about very different themes.

2007 awardee Katri Walker on location.

2007 awardee Katri Walker on location.

I found an essay written by an anthropology professor at Toluca University. She wrote about a mourning tradition and referred to a tiny village a couple of hours south of Mexico City. I found her and went to visit her and asked her about it but she was quite evasive.

Eventually I found the village and went to speak with what you could call the town mayor. They said “We’re ok with you doing something but we’ve got this academic, an anthropologist working here. She’s been working with us for a couple of years”, they trusted her because they saw her as a smart academic, so they said, “If you speak to her, and she’s ok with it, then we’re ok with it”.

So I came back to Mexico City, met up with her. We got on super well and we’re still really good pals now. She was like “Yeah, totally, go for it”. So she introduced me to a family there who I went to live with for a little bit. It wasn’t really what I was looking for but in the process of staying with this family and living there in their daily routine I ended up making a short film about them.

I needed to keep moving though, because I still hadn’t found what I was looking for. And then my brother’s girlfriend came across an article in a magazine and it mentioned a mourning tradition in another tiny town in a different state. The town was called Matamba and that’s where I found this woman, Catalina, who was a professional mourner. She was very nice, I went a couple of times and stayed for a few days each time. She invited me to her wedding and that ended up being part of the work as well. To get to that point took nearly four months, to find the ideas I needed to make the work that I then brought back for the GI show with Dani.

The Dewar Award was fundamental to this. If I hadn’t had it, I wouldn’t have been able to have that time. It was six months in total. I also bought my first video camera with the award. Up until then, during the MFA it was a case of relying on shared equipment from GSA and beyond that it was renting, but if you want to go and do a six month project you can’t be renting equipment, it’s not economically viable.

I was able to buy a video camera and be completely independent. That was the first time I had that so it was absolutely amazing. Totally amazing. It also had a domino effect because at a later point I sold that camera and bought a better one, because technology changes so fast.

That’s how I’ve worked ever since because everything I do requires these big chunks of time. It’s always the tricky thing with funding because maybe if you’re a sculptor, or a printmaker or a photographer or a painter, it’s materials you need. With video, if you have your equipment already, what you need is time and that’s it. And I feel like some funding bodies are not keen on that. It’s like giving you a wage or something, but that’s how it is, that’s how it has to be, so Dewar was absolutely fundamental because it allowed me time.

“To be an artist you have to be ambitious, have faith in yourself and have faith in your ideas. I feel like those elements are harder for women to do, to sell yourself, to talk yourself up, which is what you have to do in applications.”

Those works felt like a shift for me as well in terms of my progression as an artist. There was another very key moment in the last term of the MFA. I was chatting to one of the tutors, Nathalie, about this idea of professional mourners. Up until that point I was appearing in all of my video work, and I didn’t know how to get out of the performative thing. She said “Why don’t you make a documentary?” It hadn’t occurred to me because I didn’t know I was allowed. This was visual art. To go into that kind of realm, a different genre “But oh surely that means I should have gone to film school or something”.

So that was the first time that this idea of using documentary in art felt ok. Then being helped to go and actually do it by the Dewar Arts Award, it was the beginning of an entirely new practice for me, to be honest. Everything since then has been along those lines. Coming back from Mexico with three works for GI totally laid the foundation of where my work has gone since then. I sound like I’m exaggerating, but it really did.

The unknowing, the unpredictability of things, that’s what I’ve found always very challenging in terms of getting funding. You try to write an application and you say “This is what I’m interested in, this is what I want to do but I don’t know what the outcomes are going to be. I know it’s going to be good, I promise you it’s going to be good but I don’t know exactly what it will be. Trust me please”.

I think it’s taken a long time, a series of particular events and conversations for me to make certain decisions, which finally led to me feeling comfortable saying “I’m an artist”. That took me years to say without feeling like a total wanker. I never doubted my creativity but to have that confidence to say, “I’m an artist” is different. And there’s the financial struggle. You’re always working other jobs in order to make it up.

The show at GI, allowed me to make that statement “I’m an artist” for the first time. It gave me a great deal of confidence because I felt that I’d finally found where I fitted in terms of what I was making and I had faith in what I was making. I believed in it probably for the first time and that was a huge boost.

From there, I applied for a residency show in Perth, Australia where I spent three months and made a work all about the black swan, which is indigenous to Western Australia and has links to colonialism.

Between graduating from the MFA in 2007, and 2011, I was between Australia, Scotland and Mexico – on a bloody shoestring but it was great. It was what I wanted. I didn’t want to feel tied down anywhere, I wanted to be travelling and I felt like that’s what was going to stimulate my work as well. I wanted to find really curious, interesting things to investigate.

Then on one of the trips to Mexico in June 2011, a trip for six weeks to do a show, I met my now husband who is Colombian. It took another year and a half of continued travelling before we decided, team decision, to say ok this can’t keep going like this anymore, we need to make a decision, a commitment. So in October 2012 I moved here full time.

In that year and a half of contemplating not living out of a suitcase anymore, I won a commission from NVA for the Edinburgh Art Festival to accompany their Speed of Light project where they had all of these runners on Arthur’s Seat. I loved that project and the NVA team were great. I’m a runner, a hill runner, and I think that’s what convinced them that I was the person to do the commission. It was really nice for me because up until then I had made work everywhere else except Scotland.

I loved that commission. It was a fantastic opportunity and also because it allowed me to say, “Now that I’ve done something in Scotland, I really can live anywhere, I don’t have to be living in some little village in the middle of nowhere in order to make something interesting. I can be in Edinburgh, where I grew up and still produce”. So it was a bit of a fear of mine, which I was able to overcome.

I think my biggest achievement so far was an exhibition at the Laboratorio Arte Alameda in May last year, as part of the year of cultural exchange between the UK and Mexico. The embassies and the British Council were doing a whole bunch of projects across literature, art, cinema, music, all sorts of stuff, and I was invited to be a part of that year.

What was also a huge compliment, was it was alongside two artists, Melanie Smith, who is English but has been in Mexico for the last 30 years and represented Mexico in the Venice Biennale, is a big name and a lovely person; and an Irish artist, Jaki Irvine, again, on another level in terms of professional practice from me. I’m like the little tadpole compared to them. They’re really established and maybe 10, 15 years older than me. It was a massive compliment and they didn’t in any way look down on me at all. It was fantastic.

The Laboratorio had this whole production team and I’m used to doing everything myself. I’ve learnt to do everything in terms of filming but also in terms of install, you know, projectors, cables, sound, everything. At the time I was 9 months pregnant. I was due on the 2nd of June and the install was the 15th of May so I was like, ok, I can do this, I might not be able to get to the top of the ladder but I was getting totally psyched up to do the whole install myself and then they had this amazing production team. I just stood there watching, and thought “Ah so this is what it’s like to be professional. Wow, this is the life. This is how it should be.”

I’d definitely still describe myself as a Scottish artist, I don’t think that will ever change, partly because that’s just how I feel but also partly because despite being here a long time, I guess for physical reasons, I will never be looked at as Mexican.

I’m in the process of getting Mexican nationality because that means I’ll be eligible for public funding here. But I will never be accepted as Mexican. The first question is always, “Ah where are you from?” and then people get a bit confused because they say, “Ah your Spanish is brilliant and you have a Mexican accent as well but you don’t look Mexican”. It’s a funny mix, despite making this my home I’m reminded daily that I’m not from here.

To be an artist you have to be ambitious, have faith in yourself and have faith in your ideas. I feel like those elements are harder for women to do, to sell yourself, to talk yourself up, which is what you have to do in applications. It’s not an easy thing unless it’s something that comes naturally. I don’t mean that in a negative sense but for a lot of people it’s very hard. I found it hard. And then you get a positive response, you get the Dewar Arts Award, you get the grant, you’re like, my ideas have value. That’s a huge confidence boost.