INTERVIEW: Katie Blair Matthews

Fòcas Programme Director Katherine Parhar interviews Fòcas India shortlisted artist Katie Blair Matthews, a photographer based in Edinburgh, about her project Propagation, and her growing focus on environmental stories.

© Katie Blair Matthews

F: Propagation follows the lives of seedlings grown to revive Scotland’s stocks of Caledonian pine. This is perhaps the most delicate and intimate of your work with the forestries in Scotland – what has drawn you to this long-term interest?

K:Encased in a stone wall within the small village of Fortingall in Highland Perthshire, Scotland, is an ancient yew tree which is believed to be one of the oldest living organisms in Europe. The yew tree is threatened worldwide and so the seeds of the Fortingall Yew have been preserved and cloned for future genetic diversity. This initial insight into the preservation of endangered species led me on to discover the multitude of fascinating projects in which seek to preserve Scotland’s dwindling native tree species caused by centuries of deforestation and an imbalanced ecosystem. What became most interesting to me was the notion of humans interfering with the preservation and restoration of nature; the attempt to reverse nature’s clock and restore balance.

Simultaneously to this research, I was writing my 4th year dissertation which explores the commercialisation of Scotland’s landscape through art and literature in the 19th century and how Victorian photography had contributed to the romantic view of Highland Scotland as wild, untouched and devoid of humans. What became prominent to me was that this idealised representation has dominated our understanding of the Scottish landscape, consequently shadowing the reality that less than 1% of our native Caledonian forests remain. I would love to think that my photographic work is a response to the commercialised view of Scotland’s landscape, offering a more 3-dimensional representation of our landscape history.

F: Do you think of your work as both advocacy and documentary? There is, of course, also a personal element too, I think…?

K: Yes I do. We are too used to reading about the environmental destruction in other countries but often fail to look at our own. I want to acquire a deep understanding of Scotland’s landscape so I can educate people about a topic which is largely ignored and misunderstood. There is an overwhelming amount of information I must learn and Propagation is the beginning of my journey. The way I present my work – like museum artefacts– is my way of dissecting the subject so that the information is more palatable.

The project is hugely personal both in relation to me as an environmentalist and my fascination in the history of Scotland. Most significantly, I’ve been able to rekindle my relationship with nature, and benefit mentally from the freedom of the outdoors. Whilst creating Propagation I met many people who were in the process of doing the same thing and this became another potent theme that I knew I wanted to explore photographically.

© Katie Blair Matthews

F: You’ve just been selected as one of Retina Festival’s top emerging artists, and you’re currently on an Outlandia residency in Glen Nevis. How’s the residency going?

K: My residency lasted for a week and finished on Monday 10th of July. It was an amazing experience of working independently in a wooden studio hut within a forest in Glen Nevis. Propagation was similarly produced in a wooden hut on the site of a tree nursery and so I was well acquainted to setting up a little studio in an unconventional space.

Katie on her residency

The residency really provoked me to think about my process in creating new work. Influenced by my focus on commercial work for the past year, I put a huge amount of pressure on myself to achieve a solid body of work within the week and I quickly realised it was effecting my enjoyment of the experience and made me more distracted than productive. The residency offered me the perfect opportunity to rearrange my brain and fall in love with creating personal work again. I will be writing a blog post about my experience soon!

Katie is a recent graduate of Edinburgh Napier University where she studied a BA (Hons) in Photography for 4 years. Whilst carrying out her own ongoing personal projects, she also produces editorial, commercial and event photography for various small and large businesses in the UK.

Her current photographic research looks into the history of Scotland’s landscape and how humans intervene in the regeneration and preservation of nature.