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Painting by Cathy Woolley: Lady Girl

Lady Girl, 2004.

Melissa Mostyn talks to Cathy Woolley about her work and inspiration as artist and friend

Cathy Woolley did a fabulous job of Deaf Arts Escape, the landmark residency-based initiative of 2002-3, and since she shuttled off to Platform for Art save one or two exceptions Deaf visual art has seemed frankly rather colourless.


Cathy's recent solo exhibition at London's Bancroft Library, One Eye Open, One Eye Shut, explored the local history of Tower Hamlets through watercolours and drawings, all of which can be seen on Four more of her watercolours were also selected for a LDAF exhibition at the ICI building off Oxford Street.


Being a great friend of mine, I couldn't possibly build an objective portrait of the artist as a young woman, so here she is in her own words:


How long have you been practising? Do you take your sketchbook everywhere you go?

I graduated in 2000. It would be hilarious of me to pretend I carried my sketchbook everywhere when you know I don't.

According to your exhibition's blurb you can live in one place for years and yet certain local buildings and landmarks remain hidden, never questioned as to their sense of history. Is this something you have always thought about?

No. Last year when sitting in my living room opposite St Andrew's Hospital, separated by railway tracks that run parallel to my block, I did a quick sketch, which evolved into a painting. I knew nothing about the building. Some months later I realised it was a neglected, half-empty hospital that rented out wards to film crews.

I later learned during unrelated research (I worked in heritage at the time) that it was once a health asylum for the working classes serving hundreds of factories in the Docklands. During the exhibition one local resident emailed me to say he was born at St Andrew's and his family had worked there.

Thus begun an adventure - looking through my sketchbook and discovering places I had drawn impulsively without knowing their histories. Another example is the Sewage Cathedral, a stunning, isolated temple-like building in the middle of a wasteland. For years I had wondered about it but couldn't get near. I remember asking one of the local older people I was working with on a community arts project who said, I've lived here 50 years, and it's crossed my mind now and again but I've never known what it was for.

I then found that it was a flagship processing plant designed to filter the appalling toxic sewage swamping London a century ago. It originally had the most beautiful Byzantine-style towers that were sadly demolished in WWII. Some of the areas I have drawn may be demolished by the Olympic regeneration too so their histories may always remain hidden.

From there I developed ideas for an exhibition in the library where I had made my discoveries. I planned six large scale canvasses and had arranged time off work and studio access. Sadly sudden family illness caused me to abandon that idea. Instead I decided to exhibit works I had done instinctively or at random.

truth, lies, inspiration

Painting by Cathy Woolley: St. Andrew

Some artists prefer to draw or paint without thinking too much as this can prevent them from seeing things with a clear head. Do you not think that by looking at local architecture in the way you have, you are risking affecting the quality of your work?

What a fantastically classic art critic question! There are always some artists who do one thing and others who do another. Art would be very dull if we all drew with a pure mind. Some draw with dirty minds, others clouded, fogged, or drugged. I don't think it's sensible to suggest a technical approach offers more or less quality over an emotional approach.

But of course people lie. Artists are as much incredible liars as they are truth tellers.

Apart from the trappings of London's East End, who or what are your artistic inspirations?

My father was an architect, so my childhood was full of trips to building sites and desolate tower blocks where people still lived in Glasgow and London. Now I can never view buildings like the one I live in now as empty shells; there's too many stories behind the walls. My mother is a great story teller and actress so there's always been a literature/theatrical interest for me, giving my work a narrative element.

Like many contemporary artists, my work is multi-disciplinary and multi-faceted. I try not to worry about stylistic identity and am more interested in forming responses to concepts, emotions and individuals I meet in whatever medium I choose. I won't set myself boundaries or constraints - that would be artificially contrived.

Funnily enough my artistic influences are not painterly, even though I now mostly paint. I like drawing from the ideas rather than focusing on technique and end product.

Iain Sinclair's writing was an interesting reference in my recent thinking. Tony Paterson's explorations of iconic buildings fascinates me; I like that he won the Becks Future prize on observations of buildings he came across on a skateboard ride. Helen Chadwick's humorous, multi-disciplinary approach to communicating her ideas was instrumental in my decision to study fine art. Aaron Williamson is a role model to aspire to. I've also long admired Niall McCornack's architectural compositions.

Where do you see yourself heading as an artist? Can you see yourself becoming a fully fledged creative talent?

I'm unsure what level of fledginess you think I am currently at. But yes I don't aspire to becoming unfledged or quarter fledged or half fledged. So fully-fledged sounds interesting.

Related information

For more information about Cathy Woolley go to