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Cat’s Owls

An Interview with Catherine Bourassa-Hébert

Catherine Bourassa-Hébert was born and raised in Montreal. She began painting before she began forming memories, and soon discovered a love for abstract art and, as a teenager, photography. She currently lives and works in Boston, making jewelry — in addition to prints and pictures — and playing keys in the band Japanese Monster.

How did you make your owls? Are they screen prints?

These owls are screen prints of cut-outs I made, inspired by pictures of owls I have actually met.

How long have you been making screen prints? And how has your process changed recently as the shapes you’ve been making have evolved?

I have been making screen prints for about 4 1/2 years. When I first learned how to screen print (my friend Tin showed me how to do it at home, while we were making tee-shirts for her former band Squids) I used pictures that I took myself. Then I realized that this didn’t resonate so much with my abstract tendencies. So I started making cut-outs and exposing those on the screens. Cut-outs are a direct extension of the shapes I imagine. It’s a straight line between my brain, my hands, the scissors and the paper. When I decided to use recognizable images, I would take the images, process them in the computer, print them, then cut them out. Adding these steps to the process helped me treat the images just like any other shapes I make. This helped me realize that my hands need to be involved as much as possible for me to feel I have acquire these images. My body is substantially involved in my process.

Part of what’s fascinating to me about your owls is how strikingly different they look, while still ringing true. Was the polymorphism of the creature something that intrigued you? Each pose is quite different, but by changing up the colors and shapes behind the bird in each iteration, the image is further changed, modulated in its impact.

I think what you see as polymorphism of the creatures is the way I chose to interact with the images. I treated the image as a combination of shapes rather then seeing it as an owl. This is reinforced by the fact that the images go through a variety of processes before the final outcome. Thus creating more of a distance between it and my brain identifying it as an owl. The reason they look different while similar is because I played with the same shapes in different contexts.

Since a lot of your prior work is abstract, how does it change the way you think about the pieces to have them staring back at you?

It actually doesn’t change much of the way I think about the piece. The only difference is that the image has to go through more steps for me to perceive is at as shape an not an image of an owl. That is how I work: I play with shapes that I create from cut-outs. In the case of the owls, I cut out an image that is universally referred to as ‘owl’. Which is much different than other shapes I work with, where the viewer just sees a nondescript ‘shape’. I decided to work with the owls in an effort to connect with the viewer in a different way. Therefore it is less about what I see and more about what you see.

One of your owls resembles a cyclops. Athena kept owls, and so they watched over Athens. The swooping owl menaces, but the stolid, profile-owl radiates imperturbability — to what extent are the poses you create intended as intellectual provocation and to what extent are they simply inspired by seeing the birds for real?

Owls are majestic creatures. They seem to take these poses quite naturally. Their stolid quality is exactly what attracts me to them. I purposefully chose those images based on the ability that this animal has to move with such grace and poise, as if always in perfect control — I envy very much their machine-like behavior. And this is all due to the fact I saw them for real. To answer your question more directly, I would have to say it’s a little bit of both.

How close have you been to an owl? How did it make you feel?

I have met all the owls from this series. The closest I have been to them was between one to two feet away, some in cages and some on my friend’s arm who works with them (all the owls are from “The Dan series” — my friend Dan Burton works at Blue Hills Reservation [outside of Boston] and he is the one who made this possible). Meeting them up close enhanced my desire to hug them! But, I restrain myself because they most likely would not like that and would probably proceed to attack my face viciously. They are lovely predators. They provoke feelings of dissonance and admiration. Cute fluffy killing-machines.

I understand you’re making these owls into tee-shirts … where are they available? And what do you make of the notion of “wearable art?”

Yes, I am making owl tee-shirts! They will be available at the SoWa Open Market starting with the weekend of May 15-16, and then every Sunday until the end of October (I have a booth under MASS.prod, an art collective in which I participate) . For the moment, they are made of recycled tee shirts, so no two look the same. I will eventually try and get them online, but it’s a little tricky because, using recycled tee-shirts, the sizes vary a lot. It’s better to come see them in person.

I’m not sure I would go as far as to say that I make “wearable art” since they are just tee-shirts. In my opinion that term refers more to haute-couture, which I think is wonderful! I simply designed a few tee-shirts … I would like to design fabric and collaborate with clothing designers though, that is on my to-do list.