Isa Catto: Finding her nature

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Stewart Oksenhorn/Aspen Times WeeklyWoody Creeker Isa Catto has an exhibition of her watercolor works at the Harvey/Meadows Gallery, at Aspen Highlands Village.

ASPEN ” Forget psychoanalysis and the infinite, newfangled methods of getting to know yourself. For Isa Catto, at least, there is watercolor, clay, paper, found objects ” and nights alone in her studio. Art, she is finding, is the means that she recommends to self-awareness and consciousness of one’s surroundings.

“We’re all creative,” said the 42-year-old, at her home studio in Woody Creek. “And the more creative we are, the more curious we become. You become engaged. You look at things in a different way.”

When Catto approaches a canvas (for the multi-media collages she has favored in the past) or a piece of paper (for the watercolors that have been her most recent medium), she does so with some idea of where she is going. She has built an arsenal of images, forms and especially colors that she considers her vocabulary. But once she gets to actually making the art, the things that Catto already knows tend to slip away, in favor of those that are hidden from ordinary sight. As she says, “I don’t know where I’m going till I’ve finished. It’s entirely subconscious imagery.”

Last year, for instance, Catto began a series of collage works. At the forefront of her mind was her mother, who had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and for reasons that were unclear, octopi were swimming about in her subconscious, and thus kept appearing on the canvas.

“I asked, what is going on here?” said Catto. After some research, she learned that the octopus “is a symbol for death in the subconscious mind, for the other-world. It is the symbol of the underworld in many cultures, death and darkness.

“It takes on meaning I was not consciously aware of. It was therapy. It started pouring out of me, but I had no idea why I was so attracted to this imagery. Then I looked at the imagery and symbols, and it all made sense. It all coalesced. When you have illness in your family, you’re trying to sort through that. You’re searching.”

Catto eventually finished that series with several pieces about regeneration. “That was my therapy, hoping that she would regenerate,” she said. “I guess it’s a prayer in a way, a hope. It’s just another way of trying to make sense of what doesn’t make sense to you.”

Going back a few years, Catto launched a series intending to engage with her love of poetry. She settled on making works that featured quotes from Pablo Neruda. When the series was finished, Catto looked it over and realized the art was influenced by more than the poems. Neruda’s Chilean heritage, she saw, was a link to her own past, specifically the three years of her youth spent in El Salvador.

“I realized he was speaking to something I experienced in my childhood,” said Catto. “I asked, why did I choose Neruda, out of all the poets I love? There’s a memory that I was reaching for. Those images are burned into my memory. They are evocative to me.”

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Catto’s father, who lives next door to her in Woody Creek, was in the foreign service. So when you ask Catto where she was raised, she has to hesitate a moment before deciding just how deep into the question she wants to get. When I inquired, she said that she had lived on and off in Virginia.

Catto took to such interior-focused hobbies as journaling and painting. But they weren’t serious pursuits; at Williams College, in Massachusetts, she studied history and, with a lack of passion for any particular career path, contemplated law school as the path of least resistance. But while living in New York and working an uninspiring job in the recycling program at the Environmental Defense Fund, she enrolled in a night-time art class at the Parsons School of Design. “And I couldn’t wait to get out of work and go to school,” she said. She also took classes at Snowmass Village’s Anderson Ranch Arts Center, her family having owned property in the valley since the ’70s. Eventually Catto gave herself over to art, and went to the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she earned a master of fine arts degree.

In 1990, she moved back to New York City. She loved the city, but found it a less-than-ideal place to launch her art career. “That was hilarious,” she said. “That was moving in and out of studios, showing wherever I could. I think I spent more time moving studios than making art.”

Her New York years were spent living in Chelsea, where the city’s cutting-edge galleries are concentrated. Catto was not a perfect fit among the experimentalists, the video installations and the realm of art as social commentary. Her work is meant more to comfort than it is to provoke; her fundamental creative grounding is in the natural world, and she considers herself, first and foremost, a colorist.

“I like whimsy,” said Catto, who returned to Colorado three years ago, so that she and husband, Daniel Shaw, a freelance journalist, could raise their two young children here. “I want my work also to be playful. I’ve never been too interested in being desperately earnest.”

That desire is evident not so much in the new series of watercolors, which are featured in a three-person show at the Harvey/Meadows Gallery, at Aspen Highlands Village. But it is clear in how Catto came to making the latest works. One of the primary influences she can pinpoint are the “Blue Planet” videos that her daughter, 6-year-old Fiona, loves.

“The nature videos are incredible,” she said. “One of them, ‘Sea Worm,’ is slow-mo, it shows how it pulls apart and eats something dead.

“It appeared in my work, and I stepped back and said, ‘Oh, that’s a sea worm.’ It’s a delight to see how you tuck these images away, and then they come up. It’s nice to know you’re using that, you’re not just this mommy-brain nonsense.”

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Those videos also tie into one of Catto’s more serious concerns, the environment. It is a subject so much on her mind that she can slip from talking about family videos to the fragile state of the planet in an instant. In fact, on a conscious level, Catto sought to make her new watercolor series about the four elements, which eventually got whittled down to two.

“The two elements that kids really grasp are fire and water,” she said. “So I pared it down to those two and worked from there. Climate change is a big influence on my work. Frogs are obviously the canary in the coal mine. Octopi are beginning to vanish, and jellyfish are beginning to increase.”

Politics is another strong interest, and it naturally makes its way into her work. A recent collage called “Debutante” addresses how, she says, “the whole idea of a political election has nothing to do with the issues. It’s a courtship, and I’m interested in that. I realized that as I was working it out.”

The next conscious step Catto would like to take with her art is into ceramics. Aspenite Jody Guralnick, who moved from collages ” which have a kinship with Catto’s ” to clay, is an example, she says. And Catto also is interested in narrowing the gap between art forms categorized as either high or low.

“This tension between craft and fine art, I think is crazy,” she said. “I love looking at something that is decorative and lyrical. I can’t see any reason why we can’t have that cross-over.”

Her own cross-over into ceramics may have to wait. Catto says the demands on her time from two young children often require putting art on the back burner. And she is still in recovery from moving and building her house. Catto designed the interior of the ultra-green home, in a spectacular spot at the end of Little Woody Creek.

Still, Catto’s studio hardly looks as if it has been neglected. She manages to make time for her art. She’s got to find out what’s going on inside her.

“That’s what one hopes,” she said. “That’s what I’m striving for. I’m always hoping to keep the abyss of ignorance away.”