Catherine Richards defines herself as an artist and architect. A graduate of DAAP originally from Cleveland, she spent a year in NYC working for the renowned firm OMA (co-founded by Rem Koolhaas). She currently teaches at DAAP, lives in OTR, and works out of a gigantic studio in Newport filled with a mountain of fabric, as well as paintings, sculptures, and jewelry in progress. A partner in the art and design collaborative Hark + Hark, she has also lead several Cincinnati initiatives such as Future Blooms, Modern Makers, and Pop-Up Cincy. Her recent projects include Valance, installed for ArtPrize in Grand Rapids. MI, Frame Haus (with Pop-Up Cincy) in Burnet Woods, and Coral City, recently installed in the UnMuseum at the CAC.
Susan Byrnes: Why did you study architecture? How does that inform what you do?
Catherine Richards: It was the hardest thing I could do. It was intellectually interesting, and it combined art and science. I thought it was like studying the world of the painting, i.e. space. I was also interested in psychology and how people felt in spaces. It was challenging because it didn’t always fit, but it was so fascinating that I couldn’t stop. I worked for OMA and then for another place in London doing exhibition design, working in museums. It’s like my scale kept going down and down. Now I’m still working in multiple scales. Future Blooms looked at the scale of the whole city, when I was there we painted over 400 site specific installations all across the city, making small transformations.
SB: How would you define your current practice? What kind of artist are you?
CR: It’s all architecture. My practice is rooted in designing spaces, experiences, materials, and sensations that deal with the pursuit of architecture. The process of architecture is something that grounds me. One place that really informed how I work now is OMA. We did a lot of material experimentation there. The patterns that I’m making are really an exploration of texture and how it influences space, and then how space influences perception. That’s where it all connects back to architecture – it’s about perception. Especially in Coral City. The wallpaper, for example, is about my experience of being under water. I went to the Bahamas with geologists to research the project. In that kind of space it was so challenging to be oriented, and the wallpaper deals with that sensation.
SB: Beside architecture, what else influences your work?
CR: My husband Emil, who is a painter, and Ahn Tran, who is my partner in Hark + Hark and Modern Makers. My mom was a textile designer and buyer who traveled all around the world. She was constantly bringing me back fabulous fabric samples, She’s a huge influence. My background being around really creative people who did many things growing up influences how I work, as well as looking at tons of work of different artists and architects. For the last ten years I’ve traveled around the world and looked really hard, studying everything, drawing ideas out, preparing to be able to make the work that I’m making now, because I haven’t always been working just in this way. I’m very excited to finally be able to build some of these sculptures and other things that I’ve wanted to build for a very long time.
SB: Much of your work is collaborative. What do you consider a particularly successful collaboration and why?
CR: If you have opposing skills to someone, you can leverage those and each bring different approaches and ideas and skill sets. That makes a project more streamlined, that’s to me the key and the link. I like to partner with people who are really good at building things, and partnering with Ahn is great, because she has a great artistic vision and tends to simplify things, where I tend to complicate things. For Coral City, I partnered with Reeves Rash, who is a master builder and has worked with many famous architects. I designed everything in the exhibit, and he had a large impact on that. He can build anything by hand or on the computer. He’s an architect too. He teaches at the University of Kentucky.
SB: Do you have a particular philosophy or approach with regard to working collaboratively within a community?
CR: Simple interactions and talking to people is the key to everything. When you’re working in the community it’s not just about the grand idea, it’s about those simple interactions. Bringing in different people and sharing ideas is important. What I’m most interested in is an egalitarian approach. I like to design for multiple generations, multiple types of people where they can be in a situation to interact comfortably together and learn something.
I’m not working as a traditional architect; my work is conceptually and philosophically grounded in architecture, but the methods that I use are different. I’m not designing just a building, I’m designing an experience. The most important thing that Modern Makers does is not about designing a spectacle, but designing an interaction between people. That can’t always be quantified, and it’s not about the numbers always. That’s really meaningful for me. The Unmuseum at the CAC came to me and said they wanted something designed for multiple age groups, so that was what I was designing for (with Coral City). Kids definitely interact with the exhibit, they really play, but they also bring people with Alzheimer’s in there, and that was one of my other core groups to design for. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s, and I wanted it to be a meditative space where you don’t have to think about it, you just experience something – the sound, the light, the mood. It’s very calming. I wanted that for adults, children, and elderly people – I like work to span all those age groups. That’s the pursuit of architecture as I see it. I think something can be functional and egalitarian too. The furniture in Coral City is like that, it is supposed to engage your body in a creative way of sitting that is tactile and that helps your body and mind work together. Learning should be an all-sensory experience. That’s why I work in this process-oriented way. I’m interested in learning about new things and exploring ideas and having the space to take them out.
SB: How does the city of Cincinnati impact the projects you do? Have you done works in other places? Do you have a particular commitment to or vision for Cincinnati?
CR: I think it’s important to practice and have an impact on the place where you live, and also I’ve been given opportunities to enact these experimental methodologies on a city scale. I have done work in other cities and would like to do more. Hark + Hark just did an installation in New York for the Marchon Eyeware Company, and it’s travelling all over the world, to Japan, Brazil, and all their showrooms.
I love DAAP and the community at DAAP, and I do think it’s exciting to live in an American city that’s smaller. There was just an article published about the growth of the creative class in Cincinnati, and I do think that’s true. I’m really excited for more creative people, more entrepreneurs to continue to work here. I feel a little bit rogue here – if you live in New York or San Francisco there are lots of creative people doing things; here you can feel like you can spearhead things and create your vision. Cincinnati offers me that space. Because Cincinnati is so small, you can make a bigger impact. Doing Future Blooms, Modern Makers, and Pop-Up Cincy, I’ve been able to make an impact. That’s what excites me about doing work here.
SB: Are all of your projects ongoing? Are you the sole organizer or are they all collaborations?
CR: I like leading things and then working very closely with other people to make that happen. I left Future Blooms and started Modern Makers with Ahn Tran. For Modern Makers we approach these urban interventions with wild creativity, so we’ll just think of ideas and implement them, or partner with other people, and make their idea a reality, and that will transform the community. We’re interested in exploring parameters of how to organize a situation that is going to create some kind of transformation between different members of the community. We’re very lucky to have the opportunity to do this. We’ve been doing it for the past four years, and over the past four years we’ve done twelve events per year. Some events have one hundred fifty to two hundred people, others twenty to thirty people, but it’s more intimate. It’s really looking at the big scale of the city, but how to transform and engage a community in one location, which relates again back to the idea of architecture. I now run Pop-Up Cincy as well, working with the Uptown Consortium, with projects all over uptown.
SB: What are you working on now?
CR: I’m working on a large series of paintings that are floral/botanical inspired. I’m also working on a series called “The Precarium” inspired by Japanese screens, and the idea of precariousness that influences space and our understanding of space and perception, We tend to devalue something that doesn’t stand up well. The jewelry designs I’m doing are the same ideas of architecture and space and balance, but you are able to wear them. I have a show scheduled in September with Carl Solway Gallery, I’ve been working with them for the past year.
More about Catherine Richards’s studio and community-based art can be found on her website, www.catherinerichardsart.com, www.modernmakers.org.
Susan Byrnes is a visual artist, arts writer and independent audio producer. In 2014 she was the recipient of a Cincinnati Art Ambassador Fellowship.