A sense of reverence

By Aaren Madden, June 2013

With light and shadow, Catherine Moffat creates sanctuaries in paint.

Picture a girl of 17 standing in front of a gallery window staring at a painting. Intently—with intent, in the truest sense of the word. She is absorbing what she can before she returns from her lunch break, back to pressing down, ca-chunk, on the keys of an old Underwood in an office of the Legislature building. 

That was Catherine Moffat, creating her life as an artist. “I had to stand in front of [the painting] until I learned something that you could put into a sentence,” she recalls. “I really tried to study, and fantasized that I was studying under a master; I would give myself exercises to do. It was just so corny,” she laughs dismissively.

She may say, but one can’t dismiss the determination and self discipline that brought her to where she is now: Since first exhibiting in 1978, she has had 24 one-woman shows and countless group shows and enjoyed great commercial success. Locally, she shows at Avenue Gallery in Oak Bay and Peninsula Gallery in Sidney. She has taught at the Metchosin International Summer School of the Arts and juried exhibitions for the Federation of Canadian Artists and the Sidney Fine Art Show. This with no formal training (“there was never any money”), only the insight that “you don’t know what you don’t know,” coupled with the desire to figure out what that was. 

“That was my gift,” she says—not the ability, but the unrelenting drive to learn and create her art practice. “I didn’t have it for anything else. I’m not a well-rounded person; I’m a single-purpose person. I’ve always been that way.” To the frustration of her friends, she would leave a night out early in order to go home and paint. She took her work to galleries, only, at first, to have it rejected. “You go home and cry, then you get up and start again,” she shrugs. 

What compelled her to persevere in the early days motivates her still. Her intent is not to create “art” per se, but to create beauty. More specifically, beauty as sanctuary. Chiaroscuro—the controlled placement of highlight and shadow—is the main device of technical precision that Moffat applies to this end. Referring to a painting of a dancer entitled “Satin Ribbons,” (see cover) Moffat describes the challenge as simply knowing when “the colour has to stop being one thing and start being another.” Achieving that perfect transition requires endless recalculations of colour value. Whether still life or portrait, Moffat’s result is an otherworldly verisimilitude that, through subject and composition, trades harsh photorealism for visual repose. 

“I want to make things that are beautiful and elegant,” Moffat states. Certainly it’s not every artist’s goal, but for Moffat it is deep-seated, stemming, she believes, from a tumultuous childhood. “Some people like to show chaos in their paintings if that’s their experience. I’m the opposite,” she explains. “This is the place I can control, have absolute harmony. The placement, the lighting, everything is terribly important to make things safe and appreciated and beautiful, with a sense of reverence,” she shares. “I’m not doing pretty things because I’ve never seen the rougher sides. It’s because I’ve made the choice to create that world for myself—and anyone else who might appreciate it.”

In the process, Moffat has developed her own visual idioms. She has been painting eggs forever, she says, and they speak directly to her interest in pure form and its relationship to light. A clutch of eggs appeals “because you have great light and shadow.” A shiny red snooker ball appears in different contexts, as does a shadowbox cube; contrasting patterns in a backdrop or, say, a plate heighten the effect of the shadow’s subtlety. Intricately carved Chinese cinnabar vases provide the ultimate challenge in shading and show her fondness for the visual riches of chinoiserie, but she exerts the same effort to achieve just the right colour in a ripe bunch of bananas. Interplays of colour, line and “design for its own sake” provide Moffat with endless stimuli.

Constantly reappearing in her paintings—as either background to a still life or as subject in and of itself—is a bold black and white striped fabric. It refers directly and literally back to her interest in light and shadow, but the stripes further emphasize form. Since seeing Leonardo da Vinci paintings reproduced in books as a child, classical drapery has fascinated Moffat. Indeed, since the Renaissance, its realistic depiction is one of the challenges presented to any traditionally trained art student, and it involves none other than the ideal placement of light and shadow. “The stripes just seemed to heighten that. I related to it personally somehow, she says. 

Instead of comfortable repetition, however, these mutually defining elements offer constant challenge for Moffat. For three years, in fact, she has been revisiting one painting of a square glass jar filled with eggs. The gleaming glass surface, the shadows on the eggs—“it demands a lot of subtlety,” she says. 

Similar patience came into play when, in 2005, she made a clean switch from 22 years of watercolour to working in oil. “I always thought the things I was painting lent themselves better to oil,” she explains, having always preferred dark backgrounds in her compositions, for instance. That and other challenges specific to watercolour—creating highlights by omission rather than applied gouache, “the blush of a plum”—had been accomplished and she sought new ones. 

“I remember how very clumsy [oil] felt initially,” she says. “I would have these little revelations…It was very trial and error.” Along the way Moffat valued mentorship from portrait artist David Goatley, a close friend who has painted her portrait twice now. 

Moffat also credits artistic and personal growth to Bob Wright, who passed away recently. For 11 years she has participated in Painters at Painter’s, an annual gathering at Painter’s Lodge in Campbell River sponsored by the Oak Bay Marine Group, which Wright helmed. It includes demonstrations and formal discussions among artists and with the public. Moffat credits Wright’s encouragement for drawing her out and giving her confidence. “At this point, I enjoy public speaking—I have fun, I tell jokes, I make people sing—and all of that is as a result of Bob Wright’s generosity. I appreciate him so much,” she says.

Lately, Moffat has been further emboldened to reveal her lighter side in paint. Most of her artworks, imbued with serenity and elegance, might only hint at her sense of humour through a whimsical title but some of her new imagery, like “Pig Racer,” is downright playful.

As always, though, that technical precision prevails. She remains true to her contemporary self and that girl looking in the gallery window. “Painting, to me, is the fire I hold above my head when I am crossing the river,” she concludes, referring to imagery from the film Quest for Fire, and the vital importance of guarding the flame. “This is my holy place,” she says. 

After meeting Catherine Moffat, Aaren Madden was stopped in her tracks by the sight of a lemon sitting on her counter. The sunlight on its dimpled skin, the shadow it cast: beauty amid the daily chaos.