Creative Process as Meditative Practice

The Imagery of Katherine Monaghan



Manadala Series 3 by Katherine Monaghan

In today’s world, we are exposed to and often bombarded by imagery so many times a day that it would be next to impossible to calculate. Imagery informs our choices, our options, our narratives and thus our understanding of the culture we live in. Imagery is designed to serve on so many different levels today. Some imagery is meant to sell products and lifestyles. Some imagery is designed specifically to trigger emotional response. Other imagery sparks our memory or harkens us back to earlier times.

Following another path, there is imagery that has been created throughout time and across the globe specifically to encode the magic of The Unseen within their work. Tibetan monks create mandalas made of impermanent sand while chanting prayers. Buddhists have created sacred thangka paintings in Tibet and Nepal, depicting sacred symbols as visual pathways for meditative practice. Navajo/Dine spiritual healers have constructed their own version of sand paintings as healing tools to address unseen forces interrupting the flow of good health in tribal members for generations. Most recently, contemporary artists working along these lines have produced imagery referred to as “visionary” or “transformative” art. Often, these works include extensive reference to the Hindu chakra system or illustrate cosmic energies at work in the natural world.

The art work of local artist Katherine Monaghan reflects a very personal relationship with the idea of the creative process as a meditative practice.

What inspired you to embark on the visual arts path?

I have always loved to investigate how things work. As a child, I would get lost for hours in the yard, turning over stones to find out what treasures were underneath, and I still look for and find treasure everywhere I go—plant life, feathers, bones, rocks, rusty objects. I have always been motivated by curiosity.

As a child, my sense of curiosity was fed and supported within the culture of my family. My father worked at an ad agency in Manhattan; he was a “Mad Man” while also being an accomplished painter and photographer. My grandmother was a couture designer in St. Louis and I also have a rich familial history of needlepointers, quilters, lace and doll makers. When I think back to my childhood, I have memories of patterns everywhere, from wallpapers and furniture fabrics to clothing. My mother was a researcher and writer who loved and supported the arts. We lived about an hour from New York City so we would go to museums often. She was also a bibliophile with an extraordinary collection of books, including beautiful large format art books. I grew up in a rich, stimulating visual environment.

How did your formal art education unfold?

My first degree was an Associate in Arts in Ceramics from a small school in Massachusetts. From there, I enrolled in The School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, where I took classes for a year. There, I came across a brochure about Western New Mexico University, located in Silver City. The cover of the brochure had a beautiful image of Mimbres pottery on it and I knew immediately that was where I wanted to continue to explore ceramics. It was such an otherworldly experience when I first arrived. Moving from a huge metropolitan city like New York to the desert where tumbleweeds and two-stepping were a fact of life amazed me. I was blown away by the landscape and the “treasures” I discovered in the desert: prickly pear, cholla, juniper berries and the gorgeous landscape.

At one point, one of my instructors recommended the University of Arizona as a better fit for me. I ended up transferring to the U. of A. where I pursued a BFA in Illustration. That course of study included classes in drawing and painting, graphic design and printmaking.

Did you continue directly into MFA studies after completing the BFA degree?

Actually, my undergraduate studies were postponed when I had my first son at age 23. I returned to complete the BFA when my son was a bit older. In 1999, I was recruited to enter the MFA at the U. of A. program in printmaking.

Was your graduate work in printmaking aligned at all or related to your current body of work?

I came to the MFA program from an illustration background which meant, initially, my prints were all narratives related to my childhood. My drawing skills were recognized, but I was always encouraged to find more to my art making. It became my goal to find methods of making work that I had never seen or heard of before.

How did your current body of work evolve given your time in the MFA program?

I was steeped in the work of contemporary minimalists like Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd. I also loved the grid and circle work Eva Hesse created. I was doing a lot of drawings of knots during my MFA program, thinking about how to transform something usually regarded as “ugly” and annoying into something beautiful. Around the same time, I focused on some old rust circles created by a shaving can in the shower. For some, household rust might be considered ugly and unwanted, but I found the circles to be quite beautiful.

My studio was across from the railroad track where I would often have scavenger hunts. I found a large, rusted metal washer one day and started wetting it, allowing it to rust on paper. I made beautiful prints with it and wondered how it might look if thousands of washers would work as a piece. I started placing metal washers on paper and experimented with a variety of rusting agents like water, tea, coffee and vinegar. Ultimately I created large pieces that were largely monochromatic.

How did your approach shift over time?

After my MFA program, my life continued to evolve as I became mom to two more sons and I included the practice of yoga as part of my life. Working with the washers became a way I could still my mind. My studio time slowly evolved into a counting, prayer and mantra practice. Originally, the washers were used to create large shapes from smaller units. Eventually, the work evolved to be more about patterns.

At one point, I went back east to help my brother go through our mother’s things when she was no longer able to live without assistance. I found a small chest filled with hand-work created by my grandmothers and my great-aunts. These pieces included embroidery, handmade dolls and clothing, quilting and lace. I was so moved by the sense of feminine lineage as I held those objects. Each one of them was composed of a myriad of intricate patterns. I felt such a connection between these pieces and my own imagery. Hand-work requires hours of intense, focused, meditative attention just like the rusted washer pieces. Finding these carefully curated pieces made by women in my family allowed me to feel connected to the work of women both in my family and beyond.

Your work clearly serves as a tool for your own contemplative practice. How do you feel the work serves the viewer?

I have been told by many people that standing in front of these pieces brings them into a state of calm. It seems that the work draws viewers into a related state of being to what I experience when creating them. In this way, I am able to share that quiet and sense of reflective inner calm with others as they experience the work in person.

Connect with Katherine Monaghan at KatMonaghan14@gmail.com.

Carolyn King, M.A. in Arts & Consciousness, is a local practicing artist who has worked with communities as a teaching-artist for over 30 years, both in the U.S. and Mexico. Earlier this year, she founded Heart to Hand Studio, where she offers visual arts experiences for Tucson residents and beyond. Connect at CKing72@cox.net.

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