Kathy Chambers Interview

Herstory: Kathy Chambers
Interview: 28 June 2010

Helensburgh, Scotland
Present: Kathy Chambers, Frances Robertson and Sharon Thomas

Kathy Chambers was the Exhibitions Coordinator at Glasgow School of Art from 1990. The exhibitions programme in the Art School is not only a visual resource and inspiration to all the students at the school, but has also given training and financial support to many students (including Sharon Thomas) who have found work as exhibition assistants. The programme has allowed students to gain knowledge of the processes of hanging and organising art shows, as well as being employed to invigilate exhibitions and assist at opening nights. Kathy is now retired, and is in the process of moving to France with her husband Tom, more or less permanently, although she retains a base and many family connections around Scotland.

During the period of our interview and portrait sitting, Kathy is staying in Helensburgh, a coastal town on the River Clyde west of Glasgow where the enclosed river gives way to the picturesque jumble of mountains and sea lochs of the Firth of Clyde. Sharon and I travel out to this visit on the suburban train that connects Helensburgh to Glasgow along the line of the river, and in the pleasant summer weather of June our journey has an excursion-like quality. As Kathy is retired, and because Sharon had such good memories of working with her as a student in the exhibitions programme, this particular interview has a warm reflective quality. In addition, Kathy has her own personal story to tell, reaching further back to the times when she herself was a student at Glasgow School of Art.

Kathy’s career as a Fine Art student during the 1960’s was cut short when she became pregnant to her husband Tom during her third year at the school. As was a typical scenario during this period Kathy put her art studies on hold whilst Tom finished his degree to care for their growing family. This period involved relocation abroad as her husband Tom (a painter and educator) pursued his career in art schools outside the UK, with Canada being a base where they spent a good deal of time. Therefore it was not till 1980 when her children were grown up that Kathy returned to full-time study at the Glasgow School of Art, to complete her Fine Art: Sculpture Bachelor’s degree.

Returning to the school 20 years after her original entry, Kathy had to start again at the beginning. Over this period of time the degree programme had been introduced into art education replacing the diploma system. At this time the Art School became affiliated with Glasgow University to facilitate degree authorization. Kathy remarks that though  it was tough in some ways returning to education as an older student, and often difficult to pay the fees,  the advantage of this life experience was that Kathy was no longer felt shy and clueless, to the contrary Kathy had a clear strong sense of waht she wanted to achieve artistically.

Kathy and Tom Chambers

Helensburgh 2010

Photo credit: Sharon Thomas 2011

Kathy recalls that the first time she went to college in the 1960s, women were definitely treated differently compared to 2011, when it was looked on very much as a ‘finishing school’ for middle-class girls. The second time she went to college, she was informed personally and politically by contact with the women’s movement. This is one aspect of women’s self-knowledge she feels has waned since then, and she laments the apparent sexualization and self-objectification that young women seem to have taken on today.

In respect to this project and the portrait sitting that she is currently providing, I ask Kathy if she has any particular favourite portrait painter whose work she enjoys, and why? To prompt conversation I mention one of my own choices: German painter Hans Holbein The Younger (b1497-d1543). Kathy agrees that Holbein is an artist that she similarly admires, on account of his draughtsmanship and the way that his portrayal acts as a clear mirror capturing facial likenesses of the past. But above all for Kathy, Rembrandt (b1606- d1669) is the key figure that she respects as the king of portrait painters that expressed humanity. Other favourites artists include Ingres (b1780-d1867), Picasso (b1881-d1973), alongside the more contemporary David Hockney (b1937). Kathy notes that the painting by Hockney of Mr and Mrs Ossie Clark and Percy,1970-1 had a striking impact on her as a young student.

After graduating in 1990, Kathy worked for a while in ‘community arts’, running classes and activities in Govanmainly for people over 50. Many students were ex-shipyard workers, with a fund of stories, reminiscences and opinions. Some of the work produced in these projects included a clay relief cast in concrete of notable buildings and sites in Govan, and also a complete replica of a ‘single-end’ apartment built and then furnished by the group through negotiations and reminiscence. This installation was exhibited in the Pearce Institute in Govan with the concrete relief sculpture being shown at the Newbery Gallery at the Glasgow School of Art.









3D Map of Glasgow, Sculpture by Kathy Chambers, 1990

Buchanan Street, Glasgow

Photo credit: Sharon Thomas 2011

A key work that Kathy produced at this time was a public sculpture, funded by Glasgow City Council in relation to the City’s status as European City of Culture, which can be found today in Glasgow City Centre. The bronze Topographical Relief Map, 1990 is now a well-known landmark in Glasgow situated on Buchanan Street at the junction with St. Vincent St. A second work is situated at Kelvingrove Art Galleries (1996). These projects and exhibitions meant that Kathy’s professional practice and ideas became familiar within the Glasgow School of Art, which no doubt supported her successful application for the newly created position of Exhibition Officer at the School.

At this time the exhibitions programme at the Glasgow School of Art was directed by a cross-school committee: which pooled together ideas and inspiration from artists, designers and academics from all parts of the school. Some of the highlights that Kathy recalls from this period of her tenure were the projects that were developed for 2001, which was the year of Japanese culture. That year the School hosted two exhibitions of work by respected Japanese artists: Shinguand Satoshi Watanabe, alongside an exhibition focusing on contemporary Japan: Manga comics. Kathy recounts the input that the department received by Academic staff member at the time: Juliet Kinchin, who researched the Schools’ archives and to find such unfamiliar images as Japanese prints of boats, that were built in Glasgow for the Japanese navy that were given as gifts to Glasgow.

In respect to the women artists and feminist ideas from Glasgow that have made in impression on Kathy, artists such as figurative painter Jenny Saville(b1970), who graduated from the School in the 1990’s are strongly commended, as well as powerful curation, such as that implemented by Jude Burkhauser (b1947-d1998) who presented the 1990’s ‘Glasgow Girls’ exhibition and publication at the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery. This theme was recently successfully reinvigorated by a new ‘Glasgow Girls’ exhibition at the Glasgow School of art by curator by Liz Arthur in winter 2010.

The Glasgow School of Art was originally set up in 1845 at the Government School of Design, and the Design School is still a major part of its output and culture. Hence the exhibitions at the school have included not only the more male-dominated high arts such as painting or sculpture, but also decorative art and design that have had more female input such as textile design and manufacture. Key exhibitions that are testament to this cross-pollination of practical and fine art production are the 2003 exhibition of designer Lucienne Day (b1917-d2010) and the 1990’s exhibition of Chinese MIAO costume. Yet the show that Kathy feels most proud of directing during her time as Exhibitions Officer is exhibition: Kathleen Mann: Embroiderer, artist, teacher presented at the School in 2004.











Kathy Chambers: Exhibitions Officer, GSA (1990s)

Photo credit: Sharon Thomas 2011

Kathleen Mann (b early 1900’s- d2000) was an important figure in the first half of the twentieth century because of her embrace of technology in her understanding of textile design and production and move away from a more ladylike model of studio practice. Unfortunately Mann’s own career as a teacher was cut short when she married due to the so-called marriage bar on women’s employment in teaching. Kathy recalls even in her own childhood how this bar resulted in a vast body of spinster teachers at all levels from kindergarten to higher education, a group that has now almost vanished from consciousness. In this light Kathy recalls the unkind epigram invented by the mother of one of her friends that sums up the scornful derision once routinely given to women put into this unenviable position by legislation, not by personal choice:

Soor faces
Attaché cases
Big bunches o’ flooers

Fortunately now Kathy remarks that there are more practicing women artists in the arts industry than there were during the early part of her career: as noted in Kathy’s experiences as undergraduate in the 1960’s and 1990’s, then later as curator. Kathy is pleased to see how much more at ease women students are today with a professional working idea of what they are doing, rather than as a kind of fun thing to do before getting married.











Kathy Chambers: photo from install of 100 Years of Painting: GSA 1990’s

Photo Credit: Sharon Thomas 2011

Nevertheless, there are still less ‘stars’ in the contemporary art world who are women,which seems illogical considering the proportionally larger percentage of women over men that annually graduate from Art Schools across the globe. In contrast however Kathy notes that there are many art administrators, curators and gallerists who are women, which Kathy suggests is possibly due the female intuitive ability to utilize tact, negotiation and team working skills to achieve success.

But as the interview draws to a close final questions lead to questions about heroines. For Kathy this is difficult question to answer in relation to visual artists, with many writers and poets being key influences and inspiration in her life. Yet, after some thought, Kathy nominates French-American sculptor: Louise Bourgeois (b1911-d2010) as not only inspiring because of her unpredictable output, but also because of her durability: in Kathy’s mind Bourgeois , by way of her art practice negotiated the wastage of youth in a remarkable way.

Frances Robertson, 2011
Copyright Frances Robertson

Comments are closed.