I was recently privileged to be able to enter the Frankston home and studio of artist Sara Catena. I walked through to her studio in wonderment. If ever there was a house that portrayed its owner it’s this one, with many of the walls and spaces adorned with Sara’s own work, as murals, canvases hanging on the walls or the furniture she’s salvaged and made her own.
Sara is participating in this year’s Immerse exhibition program, creating a mural at Coonara Community House. Titled “Radiant Threads”, it visually ties together the history of the area, and reflects all that goes on at Coonara. Sara did her research on the local area, and found many threads of stories and histories of the location, but she says: “There was not one clear idea, there were little threads of information”.
Coonara is located between two small waterways, and in Indigenous history it was a place where the local Indigenous community would take their sick to be healed in the waters at particular times of the year. To represent this, Sara has placed water on either side of a circle of eight dancing people, all from a range of different backgrounds, creating a community circle. One of these dancing figures is Mary Selman, whose home was the stone building the community house now inhabits.
“Every time I’ve been there, there are so many interesting threads of things going on… it feels very alive.” said Sara, and her mural absolutely reflects that. An extension of the work is a series of 8 Lovebirds accompanying the eight figures, which are being lovingly embellished by community members and will be placed on and around the mural area.
Where previously applicants for Immerse have been asked to select their preferred venue for exhibiting from a list of locations, this year applicants were asked to explain in 150 words the kind of work they wanted to create, and the Immerse curators would find the perfect space for them. Sara said her work is about getting people to connect to the beautiful place of joy deep inside them: “Give me a place with high traffic, that’s maybe a flat space, a grey area, and I will energise it.” And from that she was given a wall at Coonara to bring to life.
Her bold, bright paintings are full of life, meaning and narrative, and the more you look at them, the more you see and learn both about Sara and about yourself. She uses a variety of mediums including canvas, paint, textiles and beads, as well as a range of symbology, primarily the lovebird as a representation of spirit; we are more than just physical beings and we have the ability to transcend the ordinary. These birds accompany the figures in her paintings. Wings also play a prominent part, which Sara says started with “a desire not to be tied to the physical, to be more aware, and not to be caught up in the physical stuff” and that life is “about the heart, the love and the joy of staying connected to that aspect of ourselves”.
For Sara, it is important to be able to connect to feelings of joy and love regardless of everything else happening in the world: “Finding that core of peace, deep place of joy, regardless. I call it deep radical joy”. Working through the grief of losing her husband two and a half years ago really emphasised this, and made her grow as a person and as an artist, and this can be seen in her work as it spreads past the edge of the canvas, creating a sense of freedom and discovery.
Poetry also plays an important role in Sara’s work, acting as a starting point, particularly for the large pieces. She sits, and lets the poetry come through her in a lyrical, rhyming way, with the imagery coming from there. Often you can see fragments of these poems in her paintings, adding another wonderful element and layer of meaning to the work.
Cheekily, I questioned if she had a favourite artwork of hers, and was told it was the 'Shiny shrine of the apple crate Madonna'. This piece is one of the first that you see when you enter Sara’s home, and was inspired by a Rumi quote - “Shine like the whole universe is yours”. The crate itself was found discarded on the side of the road, and Sara couldn’t help but reclaim it, finding something intriguing about painting into odd, dead spaces. The 'Shiny shrine of the apple crate Madonna' “has all the different elements of what I love about my art and how I love to work” she says.
Finally, I asked Sara what influence she hoped her work would have on future generations. The word she used instead was legacy, and had been thinking about what the gift was that she was leaving for others, which has lead her towards community art, “I love art that’s in the streets, that’s out in the world, that everyone has access to”. She wants to inspire people to connect with that place inside themselves, and believes art in public places will help do that. Sara also says that she can do that not just through the art, but through conversations with people, and by being her true and authentic self she can leave an impression on the world. Sara is currently mentoring another artist, and says she gets just as much from it as the other artist, and enjoys planting the seeds that give her mentee that spark of inspiration. Facilitating growth within others is rewarding for Sara, and she hopes that people will be inspired by seeing her push the boundaries within her work, and encourage them to think differently and authentically.
It was such an honour to be allowed into Sara’s home and studio, and to get an insight into how she creates her beautiful paintings. I highly recommend having a look at her website www.saracatena.com to see more of her work. And, of course, make sure you visit Coonara to see the finished mural and accompanying lovebirds created by members of the Coonara community and myself!