Interview with Katherine Gili

1 October 2021

We had the pleasure of asking Katherine Gili, one of the artists featured in the Arts Council Collection Touring Exhibition Breaking the Mould, a few questions about her work in the Collection and her process.

Katherine Gili is a sculptor and teacher whose works Pistil, 1979 and Vertical III, 1975 are part of the Arts Council Collection. Although abstract, much of Gili's work in mild steel appears to reference the human form. Works such as Pistil, 1979 have an energy and a sense of movement reminiscent of dance. This vitality is achieved through Gili's ability to exploit the expansive surface of her sculptures in a highly sensuous manner, transforming weighty pieces of steel with a lightness of touch.

 

Read the full interview below and watch a short film of the artist at work in her studio in Kent from 2017.

 

#WomenInSculpture

Special thanks to Cameron Amiri at Felix & Spear Gallery.

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1. Both of your works in the ACC - Vertical III and Pistil - are made from steel. Can you tell us why you enjoy working with this material?

As a student at Bath Academy of Art, I worked in many materials and it wasn’t until my second year at St Martin’s in London that I began to work exclusively in steel. Actually, it is a very simple material, technically. You do not have to keep it damp as you do with clay. Or mix it up as you do with plaster and wait for it to dry nor worry about the grain in wood and keep your chisels sharp, nor do you have to cast it. You can get quick results; you can see what you have done almost immediately, this can be an advantage or a disadvantage.

I find the material a challenge and I like that. Steel is hard, cold, and heavy, it comes pre-formed in girders, sections, plates and bars. It also appears resistant to manipulation, but that is only an attitude of mind. To make anything with it you must have a purpose strong enough to overcome this. Whatever the purpose, the material gains an energy and a new character. When you join pieces together even more aspects start to appear. All manner of feelings emerge if you are alive to them. Even the heaviest lumps can have a feeling of lightness in a certain context. You can also change what you have done if dissatisfied. For me, steel and the use of construction continues to have huge potential as a material for making sculpture, still so much to discover.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Right: Image of Katherine Gili's Vertical III, 1975 on the roof of the Stockwell Depot, London. Courtesy of Felix & Spear Gallery.

Arts Council Collection: Interview with Katherine Gili
Arts Council Collection: Interview with Katherine Gili

2. Can you tell us about your experience of working in the field of welded sculpture, which is often considered a particularly 'macho' domain? What barriers and opportunities did you face?

I was not particularly conscious of any barriers and I was not looking for them. I was absolutely absorbed with my subject and keen to learn as a student and as a professional I was considered to be a serious sculptor by my contemporaries and the wider art world. Maybe I was lucky to be in a conducive environment. Of course, over a career of nearly fifty years there are bound to be fluctuations of fortune and interest, disagreements and disappointments. I lost my teaching job in the 1980s and had to find other ways of supporting myself financially but I never let that, or any other difficulty get in the way of pursuing my interests in sculpture. As for opportunities, I was included in many exhibitions in the 1970s notably surveys of British sculpture organised by the Arts Council at the Hayward Gallery, and those organised by other bodies and Galleries. The art scene changed in the 1980s – a shift of interest and attention occurred – but I still managed to show my work.

 

Left: Katherine Gili working on Pistil, 1979. Courtesy of Felix & Spear Gallery.

3. Pistil seems to occupy a place between abstraction and figuration, and there is a strong sense of movement and of gesture. Can you reflect on your interest on this inbetween the space?

I have often felt that applying labels such as abstraction and figuration are somewhat artificial and can get in the way of experiencing the sculpture. We can generate words very easily but our eyes are wonderful things which I feel we do not use as much as we should. Maybe my work does sit in the in-between space but I do not want it to be diagrammatic, I want it to have a life of its own. In Pistil and other sculptures around that time I was trying to make parts that would feel that they were bearing down upon; or increasing tensions with; and precipitating reactions with other parts to energise the form of the whole. This was a result of my search for an understanding of what physicality in sculpture might mean. When looking at the sculpture I hope the viewer can feel and relate to the experience not just intellectually but viscerally as one does with music.

 

4. Can you describe your studio practice: do you work alone, as part of a team? Do you work with fabricators or is it important to you that the work is made by you?

I work alone, making sculpture is an emotional and intimate experience, it is important to me not to have any distractions. It is difficult to hand the work to an assistant because I need to get to know everything about the work until it is finished. I do sometimes use an industrial process, such as anti-corrosion treatment which must be done by professionals away from the studio. But even there I have to find someone who is sympathetic to what I am doing. I have worked with other sculptors outside the studio in a group context, to discuss and share ideas and to conduct some experimental work in the past and found it fruitful at times, but I always go back to the studio to consolidate on my own.

5. Can you comment on the wider artistic influences of your work, past and present? Have any particular female role models, historic or contemporary, been important to you?

The painter Jean Spencer, who was part of the Systems Movement, was my art teacher at school. To her, art was not just a pastime but an enquiry to be taken seriously. Her expansive approach resonated with me and sparked my interest in art. She encouraged me to apply to Bath Academy of Art where I discovered my feeling for sculpture. She was the most significant female influence.

 

6. What are your perceptions of discrimination within the art world today. Many gains have been made and there are many exhibitions by women and artists from diverse cultural backgrounds. Is the battle finally won?

I think the artificial barriers have gone.

 

7. Your work was acquired by the Arts Council Collection on two occasions. How important were these acquisitions to you at the time and since?

When my work was first acquired by the Arts Council Collection it was a great confidence booster, recognition does matter. I was very pleased to sell a second sculpture because it showed that the Arts Council were interested in my direction.

Since then, my two sculptures have been shown by the Arts Council Collection many times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Left: A short film of Katherine Gili working in her Kent studio in 2017. © Cameron Amiri and Felix & Spear Gallery.

Breaking the Mould is an Arts Council Collection Touring Exhibition initiated in response to Women Working in Sculpture from 1960 to the Present Day: Towards a New Lexicon, a research project led by Catherine George (University of Coventry) and Hilary Gresty (independent). 

After the first presentation at Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park in Spring 2021, Breaking the Mould will tour to Djanogly Art Gallery Nottingham Lakeside Arts, The Levinsky Gallery at the University of Plymouth, Ferens Art Gallery Hull and New Art Gallery Walsall.

More information about artworks and artists featured in Breaking the Mould can be found via our exhibition page.

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The Arts Council Collection is the UK's most widely seen collection of modern and contemporary art.

With more than 8,000 works by over 2,000 artists, it can be seen in exhibitions and public displays across the country and beyond. This website offers unprecedented access to the Collection, and information about each work can be found on this site.