Essay and Reviews by Professor Penny Florence

This page is dedicated to writing about various aspects of my work by Professor Penny Florence. She is currently planning a new piece on Desire in my work….I await with baited breath!
A Quiet Ecstasy “[…] a world in which every woman is the presiding genius of her own body,” “Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born)

These images by Kate Walters are immediately arresting in their simplicity and power. They seem to float, as if still in amniotic suspension – the world imbued with the infinite potential of new life. In these moments of metamorphic meeting, forms bond with the inevitable abandon of cells. In these watercolours, they come into being by means of a felicitous emergence through technique of genuinely deep meaning; that is, the flow of the paint is as much followed as directed, the image a result of fluid, of absorption, of tension and viscosity, observed until the moment of birth, then gently held. At this level, the interconnectedness of living beings appears as a given, clear, a matter of course. Procreation through the meeting of bodies is touching in all senses, and worlds away from the baggage with which struggling humanity weighs it down. I would call it innocence, except that it is deeply knowing. Perhaps this wisdom is the innocence of the fully grown, like Baudelaire’s willed return to childhood through desire. Time in these works is thus quite other than linear or even cyclical. It just is. I find that when I have been looking at them, they resolve into a simultaneous continuity, such as occurs in dreams, rather than a sequence. They are all one. Sanguine would seem to be their only possible colour, and white space the only possible ground; 1 the colours of blood. And sunrise.
Professor Penny Florence 2017
See also my short essay Becoming Sanguine
On ‘becoming the hollow bone’….

“Kate Walters’ fascinating new departure, which she brilliantly calls ‘becoming the hollow bone’, takes audience participation to a new level. Showcased in the summer in Hoxton, and most recently at the Espacio in London, participants are brought into the making of the work. The artist sits with her subject in the gallery (or indeed, anywhere) and “channels” them to create a unique monotype, which the person can take away with them. This is much deeper than setting work up to which people can respond in various ways. Yet – and this is the real master stroke – though the “audience” is brought right into the making of the work, the artist remains in the key rôle. This is no dilution of the artist, but rather a true sharing of her talent. Gallery, visitor, artist, artwork: they are all changed. I felt privileged and moved to witness it.”

Professor Penny Florence
March 2015


Becoming Sanguine

The dance along the artery
The circulation of the lymph
Are figured in the drift of stars

“Cadmium Red Deep, or Cadmium Red Purple or Scheveningen Purple Brown, watercolours or oil by Old Holland, safflower oil because it doesn’t go yellow”: this is what Kate Walters replied when I asked her about the media and the reds that predominate in her work.

It isn’t quite sanguine, her red, not exactly the red chalk you see in some of the Old Masters and in traditional drawing since. Sanguine has more yellow in it, and so is more rusty brown. But Walters’ cadmiums richly evoke it, and with that evocation come numerous connotations. Sanguine is a colour and a material, a noun and an adjective, a set of attributes. Above all, it relates to the life of the body. Sanguine connotes blood.

Kate Walters favours above all a near sanguine purplish red. It is darkly beautiful. Few paintings have none of it, many paintings are made exclusively in it. But it’s paint, it runs, like blood.

There is an old distinction between drawing and painting that does not apply here. Within the painting there is exquisite drawing. And it is sometimes impossible to say which is which – is this a painting or a drawing, is this section drawn or painted? Does it matter? Yes – because painting and drawing are traditionally mapped on to feeling and thinking in European art. Painting, colour, the emotive; drawing, black & white, the cerebral. These are inseparable in this work.

The same continuity exists between the media – the oil and the watercolour techniques segue into one another, so that the opacity of oil and the transparency of watercolour may equally be used to create difference spaces in the work. The bodies or spaces emerge out of underpainted areas as from oils, there are transparent layers, a technique from watercolour, key forms defining the bodies are charcoal lines, a technique from a graphic approach These spaces are often layered, but not always, sometimes bordered, or clearly delineated, but not always, and sometimes continuous (or consanguineous) with the bodies. They all contribute to the sense of constant formation and re-formation, of an unstable shifting of any given life into other life.

Watercolour layers convey time differently from oil. This is because you can never completely cover a mark. You can change it in various ways, but you can’t cover it. In oil, you can. The great colorists know that what is underneath influences the surface, but that is already a difference in spatio-temporality. The possibility of distinct patterns of time underlies the transfigurations of Walters’ bodies.

These bodies may be human or animal or plant, as in “Tree” (mixed media 2008), where the canopy is like a placenta, or a reddened brain, and the trunk is the nerves, growing through a blackening cloud. (The cloud has red in it, though, and blood turns black). Or again, in “Roots and Crown” (watercolour 2009). Perhaps this is the tree of Osiris, where, in the legend, the murdered god’s body was put into a box and thrown into the Nile. The box lodged in a tamarisk bush, which grew through the power of the god to become a mighty tree. Osiris’ wife, Isis, searched and searched, and eventually found him. Through her mourning for him, she wove a spell in song, turning herself into a bird and enabling Osiris to enter her in spirit. She conceived their son, Horus, the bird god, containing the sky. Horus is often symbolised either by the falcon, a man with a bird’s head or the wedjat, or eye of Horus. The wedjat is the healing symbol seen on amulets. This is a story of life out of death, of healing and transformation.

This last is taken up, for instance, in “Transfiguration” (watercolour 2009), with its deer/horse that is a kneeling human figure. Like Isis, Osiris and Horus, this body is animal and human. Bodies in Walters’ work are rarely simply one or the other, they frequently appear, containing or emerging from each other, or from an enveloping shape or smudge that either renders them permeable to the atmosphere or makes them seem to form out of it. This shift one’s attention to the possibilities of spirit or soul, call it what you will; the matter of life as it passes through all bodies. They are not separated or completed beings, but rather embodiments in transition, with previous forms and future forms held in suspension around the present moment.

To most of us, the most familiar manifestation of this is the pregnant mother. She holds another spirit within her, she passes from being one to being two to being one again, something the man can only fleetingly know through sex, and even then, he does not share the bloodstream as a mother does with her child. It is as if the capacity of the mother’s body to carry another being were a general metaphor for relating, regardless of sex or gender.

This is not an easy thought, but I think it is important to understanding not only the meanings evoked in the work, but also the quality of feeling, which is similarly original and rare. You can see it in the paintings where there seems to be another head appearing between the legs of figures. Of course, this invokes birth. But the figures can be almost reversible, an impression reinforced by the paint runs that can result when the canvases are turned during composition. Not every artist revolves their work to look at it with different sides at the top, of course, though many do, especially when drawing. Thin washes are especially prone to running unless you work flat, and even then, they can ooze, creating a different chance effect.

In Walters, the runs are evident and intentional. They become a powerful element of technique, one that she makes the most of. In the instance of the emergent heads in Man and Woman with their Babies (mixed media 2008), it suggests a dual orientation: the bodies could be giving birth, but they could also be either way up. Spirit must give birth to itself; we must become ourselves. We must all know in our bodies the maternal.

A bluish-red cloud hovers over the upper quartile of the painting. Looking again at it, the shape of a horse is incipient in it, and just below, the outline of a bird. The bird follows the shape of one head, indenting the cloud as the hand of the other figure does. They are all related through shape, they all seem to enclose or be enclosed. They are aspects of the maternal as a moment of transformation and of the entry of whatever it is that animates a body.

The other aspect of this polyphonic reversibility is the moment of moving on. Death is everywhere in these paintings, its proximity a constant reminder of the fragility of the shape-shifters that populate them. You can see through them, they are fragmented and partial, they foreground the visceral. At the same time, they hold before you the astounding facts of living, of life itself.

Professor Penny Florence
Professor of Fine Art History and Theory
The Slade School of Fine Art, UCL.
30 vi 09

Essay by Professor Penny Florence to accompany solo exhibition:

The Tree of Thought: The Art of Kate Walters

Kate Walters’ art speaks clearly. Yet because it is visceral, communicating to our bodies first, it can
be easy to underestimate the quality of thought it embodies.
Embodied thought addresses the kind of understanding that bypasses spoken or written language
because it is deeper. Precisely because it embodies rather than explains or narrates, it is not didactic;
Walters never preaches.
There is, nonetheless, a powerful and consistent message. It concerns the big questions: what does it
mean to be fully human; what is our place in the natural world; where are we going; questions that
echo Gauguin’s great philosophical work, D’où venons-nous, Que sommes-nous, Où allons-nous?
But, unlike Gauguin, the work does not so much pose questions as feel its way towards articulating
the mysteriousness of being.
This is a Shamanic understanding of what many of the ancient religions variously call the Path or the
Way – and Walters is a fully initiated Shaman. This is not a casual or loose similarity, but rather the
long-term commitment that underpins her art.
So what is this Shamanic terrain? It is paradoxical, because it is fully aware, yet indirectly evoked. If
you compare Child with Plant Wand and Buds with Babies , the eye-leaves of the first appear to be the
seed-children of the second, who resemble the child holding the plant. These eyes suggest insight as
much as sight, awareness and receptiveness to the cycle of rebirth, to movement out and movement in,
like breathing.
It’s an effect that reminds me of what Maleno Barretto said of the intrepid Margaret Mee (both
botanical artists), ‘She seems to be inside the plant’ . This suggests that art does 1 not distinguish us
from Nature, but rather is integral to it. Many of us who have known individual animals well
understand the absurdity of the idea that they don’t think. It’s the result of projecting our ways of
thinking onto creatures whose experience of the world is different.
But plants? There is increasing scientific evidence that plants, especially trees, do indeed think. The
interdependence of trees, for example, is such that they form something very like a community. Theirs
is a collectivity based on communication. It is extensive and applies to the entire tree: apparently their
more widely known capacity to warn each other of insect attack through the release of hormones
above ground, and to take defensive action, is complemented underground, partly through the
intermediary of fungi. Fungi are neither plant nor animal, but a form of life in between.2
1 Botanical Art & About Margaret Mee (1909-1988) (Malu De Martino on Vimeo.) Walters has recently looked
at the work and thought of Mee, along with Simryn Gill and the filmmaker and gardener, Derek Jarman.
2 See my forthcoming book Thinking the Sculpture Garden (Routledge, Jan 2020) for further discussion of this research.
The book is inspired by, and revolves around, Tremenheere.

Perhaps we might call this capacity to see into the life of things ‘Natural Intelligence’, not in
opposition to ‘Artificial Intelligence’, but as a complement. ‘Human Intelligence’ is only one form.
Mee always worked entirely from living plants, usually in their natural setting and including their
habitat, unlike conventional botanical illustrators. In this way, she shows that that they are integral to
their environment, an inseparable part of it. To capture the enigmatic Moonflower (Selenicereus
wittii), which blooms once and night and then dies, she balanced half the night astride a narrow canoe.
She risked herself alone with nature in order to convey the living energy of an organism in its habitat.
And it is a risk; like her, Walters risks herself. The result is demanding work that rewards the
concentrated looking of open awareness.

Truly look at the works in this show and you will see that living energy, a life-force that unites
everything that lives and breathes; for, as Simryn Gill, another artist admired by Walters, said, “If the
botanical world falters, so do we.” Our ability to breathe has evolved in exact synergy 3 with theirs. It
is an understanding that demands action and restraint from harm, a thoughtfulness about balance and
care. In this it is political; in Gill’s case, against colonial exploitation; in Walters’, in support of
Extinction Rebellion (XR) and taking personal responsibility.4

At the same time, the works are underpinned by a structural precision belied by their fluidity and
softness. This aspect of the work is evidenced in the approaches of two other artists Walters admires,
Christine Ödlund and David Thorpe. Both explore geometry and growth.
This sense of co-emergence is conveyed not only through form, but also through technique. There are
four methods in this show: watercolour, monotype, spit bite etchings, or a combination; and oil. Take
for example Kate’s three spit bite etchings: Breath of Plant or Horse ; Horse with Child and Planet ;
Mother Bird Feeds Human Infant. Perhaps the main characteristics of spit bite etchings are textural
similarity of figure and ground and closeness in feel to watercolour. And yes, spit can be an
ingredient, though not always. It seems completely appropriate here.

The image is not materially differentiated from its surround; it’s a matter of degree and, more subtly,
of construction, as in the figure-ground instability of Seeing Tree or Storm, World Tree with
Cocooned Infants and Untitled . Plant, tree, animal, bird and human life all materialise in these works
in the gap that is ambiguity, all part of the same miraculous planetary process. The oils foreground the
kinds of emergence to which the medium is so perfectly suited. Colour, marks (both ends of the brush)
and a fragile symmetry create a textural and layered becoming in which the animals both support and
merge into the human and plant forms, from birth to dissolution. From a distance, the palette and
composition evoke C17th Dutch still life masters; ‘still’ life here meaning ‘always’, not ‘motionless’.
They form a Tree of Thought.

For anyone who thinks they know more than this planetary tree, I offer this couplet from William
Blake’s Auguries of Innocence:

The Bat that flits at close of Eve
Has left the Brain that won’t believe

4 See Programme and Tremenheere website for events associated with the show.