Years ago, as part of a research project, Catherine Bagnall and Jane Sayle we went down to Paradise Valley in the South Island “looking for the feminine sublime in the context of Aotearoa”. Jane made field-notes and took photographs and Catherine sketched and filmed herself wearing a variety of outfits she’d made. “It was a crazy experience, trapped in a clearing in a magnificent beech forest in a hut full of mice for a week, and questions formed for which there seemed to be no immediate answers.”
Jane moved away and over the next decade the pair wrote long emails to each other. “We wrote about what we were wearing, the environment, how different the seasons were, what was being written about the climate crisis, what we were reading and so on. And we vaguely wondered how we might put our work together.”
In 2019 Jane returned to Wellington and an idea for a project started to form. “We had loved, shared and supported each other’s work from a distance and when we finally met up again we looked at what we had both made and saw how strangely good the work looked together. We decided to create a pocket book of our poems and paintings and try and get it published.”
The result is On We Go, a collaborative collection of poems and watercolour paintings. The book is developed from moments of intense connection with environments, landscapes and seasons, and the shared understanding that simple but inspiring moments are a source of strength.
We caught up with the artist (Catherine) and poet (Jane) to talk about their work, Wellington, and Winter Garden.
Did anything come out of your trip to Paradise Valley? We recently opened an exhibition at the Massey Wellington campus gallery, The Engine Room, called Winter Garden. It consists of works from On We Go and huge poems painted in watercolour directly onto the walls. As Catherine painted, the whole space took on the feeling of a pagan temple or a sacred grove in a clearing; some ideas do take a long time to manifest.
What has been the best thing about working together? The book itself, the material result of the play of ideas between us; it seems like a kind of magic.
Where do you work? Jane: In my study. It looks over a valley towards the western hills. Catherine: My painting table is under a window at home and I paint my watercolours flat on the table, sew my costumes at the dining table and use the town belt, Gollans Valley and some of our National Parks to do my Performance work in.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Catherine: I wanted to be a national park DOC ranger and a painter. Jane: To join the navy and be called Roberta.
If you could change one thing about Wellington, what would it be? Catherine: I wish we still had the huia.
What’s your go-to takeaways order? Jane: Crumbed tarakihi fillet and kumara chips (with aioli) from Leo’s.
What’s your favourite place in the Wellington region? Catherine: Butterfly Creek. In such a short walk you can get to a place with just trees, a creek and no other humans.
What’s the best local purchase you’ve made this year? Jane: An ingenious hand-lathed wooden nut-cracker from the Opportunities for Animals shop.
What do you hope Wellingtonians will get out of On We Go? We were both born in Wellington. The sense of knowing, and belonging to, our home place is strong for us so we hope readers feel something of what could be called it’s elemental spirit, and it’s history, coming through the book. Why is it so hard to find a word in English for this experience, this feeling?