Artists at Home: Catherine Mellinger

Catherine Mellinger is mixed media collage artist and certified Expressive Arts Therapist who has shared her creativity with learners of all ages through KWAG’s Public Programs, from mentoring teenaged artists through our InSight residency program to supporting seniors in Meet Me at the Gallery. In her own practice, she seeks to create works of beauty whose themes are not always beautiful; grappling with trauma, loss and mental illness. Inspired by female surrealist artists such as Hannah Hoch, her works use vintage paper ephemera and personal photographs mixed with pencil, pen, and watercolour.

While Catherine was originally scheduled to open a new exhibition, Post-Part, at Kitchener City Hall’s Berlin Tower Artspace this week, the COVID-19 pandemic has postponed those plans along with many other creative pursuits. We reached out to Catherine to learn more about the impact of this cancellation on her practice and cultivating creativity with her children in this week’s Artists at Home interview.

Have the circumstances of isolation impacted the work you’re making?

When the social distancing protocols started I felt lucky I could still be in my studio at home and working on my solo projects. Then the realities of having two kids at home and the protocols of social distancing set in. To be able to really support my children (almost 7 and 2) through this time and continue to help them thrive, it has just not worked to keep my own schedule in the studio. I can still do some elements of work, and continue to research my new series, Let This Be Mine, but it has halted more than I expected.

I was working with contemporary choreographer Jennifer Dallas of Kemi Contemporary Projects in Toronto in preparation for portrait shoots to build images that would be cut and pasted into collages. However, I can’t work with her in person anymore. Nor can I hire my photographer, Melanie Gordon, for our photo shoots, or go into Toronto to do any work. I have become quite limited in moving forward until further notice. I am continuing to do research and connect with Jennifer by text and we will potentially work together over FaceTime but it’s not the same as in-person work. The lack of in-the-moment feedback and movement learning has been difficult. Since I am a “non-dancer,” her feedback and prompts for movement investigation were paramount to the building of the work.

You also had an exhibition scheduled for May that’s now been cancelled – have you been able to find a way to keep that project going?

I knew the decision to cancel Post-Part would be coming since the exhibit would require groups to be able to come through and for in-person interaction to happen in order to succeed. Thankfully the Ontario Arts Council, who funded the project, extended my funding period to May 2021 so we can still mount the project next year.

Blue and yellow graphic for Post Part, with text overlaid over a faint image of a mother and her infant

I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a big deal despite the generosity of the OAC, because it complicates the administration of the project since others are involved. It complicates my home as well since the structure is now being stored here indefinitely so I don’t have to go to an outside space to have access. It’s not easy to keep six eight-foot walls in your hallways with two kids running around. It’s not just my time and space that is affected, but the time and energy of those in my collective and those we hired (audio designer for example) to work on the project. It also means I can’t pay people for the remainder of their work until the project is back up next year. So money they had budgeted to receive in May 2020 is now delayed since their work has halted.

One positive is that in lieu of the in-person exhibit, we will be running an online exhibit format through Instagram over the course of May 2020 to keep some momentum going and not have to halt the discussions of the themes we are presenting. The project focused on women’s health and postpartum mood disorders, and those are topics that need to be discussed now, not when COVID-19 is over - particularly because there is increased risk of mental health complications for mothers giving birth during this time. If anyone would like to follow the Instagram exhibit, I would be thrilled to have more voices in the discussion. May marks Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month, under the umbrella of Mental Health Awareness Month, and now is a crucial time for us to think about how we are supporting people’s mental health with restrictions on services.

How has the pandemic impacted your work as an educator and arts therapist?

I have also had to stop all of my group facilitation and Expressive Arts Therapy groups. Our Seniors Supporting Seniors program through the Gallery is halted, for which we were going to be delivering arts programs in the community. I have not seen my participants at the Chartwell Westmount Long Term Care Facility since March 12th, as they went into full lockdown immediately afterwards. Their health is much too at risk. We had plans to exhibit the works of various senior community artists from my groups at the Button Factory in June 2020, which has also been cancelled due to COVID-19.

Due to the nature of the work of Expressive Arts Therapy, it is extremely limited what I can offer online or over the phone - unlike psychotherapists and other mental health practitioners who still have some options for telehealth offerings. I miss my group very deeply, and since they are all extremely vulnerable during this time there is the reality that they may not all be there once I begin my groups again. Not just because of COVID-19, but because some participants were nearing end of life - four women in particular are on my mind. Three who are aged 103, 99 and 96 respectively, and one who has struggled with pulmonary issues these last six months and was put on oxygen months before COVID-19 became a threat. I hope they are all healthy, but there is much unknown.

What have you - and in your case, your children - been creating at home?

Since my kids are now home with me full time, I have been shifting away from my own work to activities that focus on works I would present to my groups - both arts groups and Expressive Arts Therapy groups. These are often activities my kids can grasp easily and can even give me new perspectives on how they can be accomplished. I am lucky that my kids generally naturally gravitate towards making something if I am making something. If they see me working, they want to work too - which I have always loved.

Two collages by Leo and Remi

Even before school closures and the current COVID-19 pandemic, I often asked my son to make samples of works with me when I was prepping for groups. I have still been bringing ideas to him, to stockpile for when my groups begin again. I also sneak in curricular connections where I can. We created symmetry collages not long ago using scraps I had left over from previous groups. Even my two-year-old did one - picking images and telling me where to glue them. Was not symmetrical in that case, but who cares! He had fun. My oldest did a beautiful symmetrical piece he was quite proud of. We went over lines of division on the page and options for which centre line to use - vertical, horizontal or diagonal. He made a piece with a vertical line of symmetry and even chose images that mirrored each other - cars facing the centre - which actually blew my mind that he had thought of that element.

Are there limitations or significant changes in your way of working that have made creativity more challenging? How are you adapting?

Absolutely! As I was beginning a journey into using movement in my work, I was in a phase of heavy coaching to gain comfort in it. That has halted quite a bit and I am trying to find new ways to continue at home. Hard when I have kids with me all the time and limited space.

I think for me it’s less a challenge of creativity but rather a shift in the focus of the creating. I am adapting by focusing on what I can do with my kids rather than what my work needs. I also keep reminding myself that it’s a “for now” situation and not a “forever.” I think time is the biggest challenge. I am one of the fortunate ones to have a husband who is also home and does not have to work from home since his capacity to do so is limited. So we can switch off. But my toddler’s needs are still high on the mama scale, so if he hears me he’ll want to be with me. Hard to hide in your own home sometimes! It has opened me up to including him in my activities more, realizing I can adapt things to make it work for him. He can still collage if I cut out images. He can draw crazy scribbles all over a page, and then I can use that glorious mess of colours to cut up and make monster hair. It flexes my creativity in ways that are quite liberating.

What do you hope to receive by sharing your work with others? What do you hope they receive from your sharing?

It’s an interesting thing to think about because with Let This Be Mine I have been worried about sharing images. It’s a very vulnerable project in which I’m reflecting on my experience of living with OCD. It is my first project under which I am self-identifying as a disability artist, which I did not know I could do before. The topic is VERY personal and includes imagery that can be uncomfortable for others, as part of that reflection includes looking at my intrusive thought patterns - including thoughts of harming my children, members of my family or myself. This is called violent intrusive thoughts. These thoughts can morph and become more or less violent depending on the stress in someone’s life.

To play with those is liberating for me, but can be shocking or worrisome for those seeing that play on images. If we see images of a violent nature that reflect history, it does not cause as personal of a concern. We know that war has happened. We know that people have or are dying. If we see that type of imagery within works that are known to be a personal reflection not based in reality but based in mental illness - it causes a very different response. Discomfort, concern, outright disgust. But creating the work means needing to be open to sharing it, as you can’t make art to hide it. That is not the point. And part of why I wanted to finally take on the subject is because the education around OCD is so limited in terms of how it is actually experienced. What it looks like in someone’s head. And the trauma that can come from having those thoughts. People with OCD don’t want to think those things and never want to act on them. In fact, people with OCD can begin to experience PTSD symptoms due to their intrusive thoughts and the experience of having them. And if we don’t share ourselves in those ways, then no one will ever understand let alone begin to decode and destigmatize the experience. So I am now in a sense forced to confront the sharing of that.

The current face of OCD in much of social media is false. OCD has become a catch-phrase for overly organized spaces, superbly clean cupboards and a hyper sensitivity to mess. It is damaging to the disorder and those suffering from or living with it. My hope in sharing is to increase a truthful dialogue around OCD. And to have it be my own and not something imposed on me. In social media this is extremely important.

Many great talks have been had about OCD, much sharing and story telling, but not enough. Especially as it relates to the postpartum period, which I am tackling within the series. My hope is that if someone is concerned or feels a strong negative response in showing my work I can entice a dialogue around it rather than it being simply shut down. My hope is that I can in some way heal from my experience in doing the work and sharing it. That I can present a piece of myself that I have been taught to reject or keep to myself and actively work against the shame that it brings by inviting dialogue around it. It is my desire to identify as myself in the entirety of who I am. If I don’t show and share those parts I am not being truthful. What I have shared thus far has been so deeply responded to by other women that it lets me feel I can keep sharing. And that is an incredible gift.

In what other ways are you cultivating care in your life? What comforts you?

Gardening is a big one for me. When we began social distancing, the first thing I said to my husband was “well, our garden is going to be amazing this year!” It was the first silver lining to all of this. I love growing things - particularly vegetables, and we have a lot of fruit bushes in our yard. I often feel it’s overwhelming to stay on top of it, but now it feels like a gift of time to immerse myself! I have started seeds already, which I am usually late to do. My kids are choosing seeds to plant, my husband has re-built our garden boxes, and we have many pots of butterfly attracting flowers starting to sprout in our house. I have even germinated paw paw, black cherry and service berry seeds to grow indoors until next year when they are hardy enough to go outside. Not sure where I will fit them all but I’ll figure that out next year!

We have even secured a piece of garden on a friend’s farm (where we don’t have to be in contact with anyone so we can still follow COVID-19 protocol unless lockdowns become more severe) to grow many varieties of heirloom and heritage string beans I have been saving seed from for the last three years. Some we will grow for dried beans (dutch brown, black coco, desoronto potato), some for fresh eating and freezing for winter, and we will save seed from all of the plants to continue with them next year. It’s incredibly fulfilling for me. And it will mean that my kids and I can go to a field once or twice a week to take care of our plants and just be in a bigger outdoor space where we aren’t putting others at risk since the field is away from where other food is being grown. I am so grateful to have farmer friends right now, particularly who can provide us with secure and local food! This is a time like no other to support them, as they are the bedrock of our local agricultural community and our food security in the future. And they can provide safe ways to have access to food.

Food definitely comforts me. Making food, feeding my family. I think I have baked more in the last three weeks than I have in the last year!

I also definitely find comfort in being with my family. I love time at home with my kids and my husband. I love hour-long book reading sessions and fort building and movie nights. I have always been a home body and I think that is definitely working to my advantage right now.

What other artist/creator/organization/collective is inspiring you online right now?

We have also been following some artists and children’s book illustrators online that have amazing ideas for at home activities. Gabe Thirlwall is a friend in Toronto who posts daily craft activities and they are incredible and simple. She includes downloadables to print off at home for some of the activities. We have done quite a few - including matchbox scenes and monsters, egg carton monsters (do you see a theme here?), and paper plate turtles. I post them all on Instagram at my personal account. I joke with her that I am getting more out of her activities than my kids are! Mo Willems runs a lunchtime art club and Donald Robertson has hilarious and incredible videos he posts with art projects or stories of his work. I have always admired his work and now feel I get more behind the scenes stories from his career which I am thankful for. There is a shift in our world to more personal story sharing through social media, and it is lovely to see. A nice break for all of the curated stories and snippits of people’s lives. Perfection becomes boring.

Two photos of small paper monster sculptures built on egg carton cups

I have also discovered new artists that I have connected with thanks to newsletters I am a part of. I recently discovered a few through the Other Art Fair newsletter as they are featuring artists in their newsletters to promote their work. Through them I recently discovered artist Stephanie Kilgast, who has downloadable colouring pages on her website that are deliciously whimsical.

I have spent so much time on Instagram just following artists and discovering new ones. It’s been very artistically fulfilling - both for me and for my kids. Jennifer Dallas, who I mentioned before did an incredible live performance of a work that was to be presented publicly for the National Arts Centre series called Love’s Tenacity on Facebook Live. I saved it until after my kids were in bed to watch and was just mesmerized for 45 minutes. They have an incredible amount of videos on their Canada Performs website that I just found and am now dipping my toes into.

I was deeply inspired by MT Space last week when I read about their initiative to support local artists who have been impacted by COVID-19. There have been so many cancelled performances - dance, music, theatre. If anyone wants to donate to their fundraiser they can do so here: