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Late October, 2012. I’m not quite sure how to go about writing this. I suppose I’d better start by saying what it is that I’m doing and you’re seeing. I’m at my computer, looking at three short videos (8mins, 2mins and 16mins) that Kate made in her studio space about a week ago. Anna Orton, also on the MFA, suggested that they book out a couple of cameras, meet at the studio when things were quiet, have a drink and a chat, and then just see what happens. Good of Anna to suggest this, and just the nudge Kate needed to really get going on her Gaga project.

I think the videos work in their own terms. They give a perspective and are delivered in a way that gives the perspective a chance of affecting the viewer. I expect Kate will be developing their potential. But how do I compete with a human figure filling the screen and talking to camera? Rather, how do I complement that? I suppose I just have to take things one paragraph and/or still at a time.

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Video one. Before Kate gets going she puts on some of Gaga’s perfume. 4711 it’s called. Four-seven-eleven! Not a likely name for a perfume in these post-9/11 days. In fact, the name - along with the pinny that Kate had got hanging on the wall of her studio but is now wearing - conjure up an age of innocence.

The first clip is about 1974. With Neil Young music quietly playing in Anna’s space, which is next to Kate’s, Kate reads out a letter from her mother who is very worried about the fact that Gaga, who is living in a nursing home, is so depressed. In particular, Gaga wants to be with Ginger George, the cat named after Kate’s father, and her only companion of recent years, but the matron of the home won’t allow it. Kate’s mother encloses a card from Gaga herself, which, in very shaky handwriting, asks if Kate has decided on a name for her forthcoming baby. Gaga seems to have it in mind that Kate’s baby will be a boy, for her suggestions for names are Bertram or Alfie. Or Fri (deleted)..Frig (deleted)...Fred. The card is dated June 10, 1974. By October of that year, Gaga was dead. Kate was not able to attend the funeral because she was busy giving birth to her daughter, who was eventually named Elli after
Lady Eleanor, a popular song of the time. I realise that the anecdote involves four generations of women. Gaga, Gina, Kate and Ellie, names I’m now well familiar with.

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Kate thinks that she was attracted to this trilby that she bought from a charity shop recently, because of a picture of Gaga that she’s found and particularly likes. It’s the one of Gaga, wearing a trilby, cuddling Ginger George, that Kate has made a print of and stuck with others on the back wall of her space.

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While Kate has her back to the camera, looking in a mirror (moved, I think, by the life and death matters she’s been airing), Anna, who the viewer has been hearing in her space from time to time, sweeping up I would guess from the sounds she’s been making, approaches the camera and zooms-in on Kate. Is it just good luck that the close-up contains both the aforementioned trilbys and Ginger George? I don’t know but it brings the first video to an apt conclusion. Not that the zooming-in point will be that clear to the readers of this blog, because I’ve used iPhoto to retrospectively zoom-in on two of the preceding frames I’ve included here. As I said at the start, I’m not at all sure how to go about writing - or do I mean editing? - this piece. Oh well, a structure will reveal itself.

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Video two. Kate obviously had a structure in mind for her night’s work. The second clip is about a postcard that Gaga sent to Kate in September 1960. That was when Gaga was 61 and Kate ten. The postcard was sent from Montreux, Switzerland, where Gaga was on holiday with a friend. Kate’s had the card stuck to the wall while she’s been copying its landscape elements on a large scale. But she’s removed the card from the wall in order to present it to the camera. OK good: three children in Swiss national costume, they bring to mind Kate’s grandchildren, though they live in Dubai. Next, Kate removes the postcard from the shot in order to read what it says on the other side...

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“The postcard is addressed to Miss K. Clayton, 183 Allport Lane, Bromborough, Wirral, England.”

“Dearest Kathy and All, We are having a wonderful holiday. It has been lovely and warm and I am quite brown. I have a lovely bedroom with a balcony which overlooks a lake and snow-capped mountains. Much love, Gaga.”

I’m not quite sure who ‘we’ is. Gaga was married to a butcher, a man who wouldn’t travel abroad because of memories of the continent forged in the mass slaughter that was the First World War. Kate has told me that Gaga travelled with women friends. That’s fine, but let’s have those radiant children back again, preferably in traditional costume, populating the wilderness.

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“The postcard looks great in front of the backdrop,” says Kate. “Gaga’s backdrop!”

“Want some Johnny Cash?” asks Anna.

“Yip,” says Kate, and turns around to stop the camera.

“You can just leave it running,” says Anna. And indeed the 16 minute video that follows is effectively a continuation of video two.

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Kate paints. Johnny Cash sings:

I have sailed the peaceful waters of the ocean deep and blue;
I held my breath and watched the western sunsets golden hue.
I've flown above the mountain peaks and valleys wide and green,
But you're the nearest thing to heaven that I've seen.”

Whenever Cash sings the line: “
You’re the nearest thing to heaven,” Kate sings along with him. She’s whistling for much of the rest of the chorus. It’s quite funny to witness.

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“I have watched the silver raindrops fall to earth to cool the day;
Watched the rainbow at twilight when the clouds had blown away.
I love the pretty flowers but they cannot buy the worth,
Cause you're the nearest thing to heaven on this earth.

Up and down goes the brush, seemingly in time with the music.

“You’re the nearest thing to heaven, yes you are.”

Up and down. There’s something about this scenario that is incredibly upbeat. Good that Kate went with the flow of Anna’s suggestion of music rather than try and keep things quiet. I could watch a loop of this all day!

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The next track begins:
“Just around the corner, there’s heartaches.”

Kate listens, and paints in silence this time. Perhaps she’s not listening, because she talks over the lyrics, mentioning to Anna that the card she’s painting on is nice and thick. She further says that the guy at the college shop wouldn’t take any money for it: “He just said he’d logged it.”

“Maybe you got it for free,” says Anna.

“Hmm. I’m sure he
has logged it.”

“Just around the corner there's heartaches
Down the street that losers use
If you can wade in through the teardrops
You'll find me at the home of the blues.”

Anna says something about a coffin, perhaps in relation to the song’s dark theme.

Kate picks up on this by pointing out the piano that Gaga is leaning on in one of the photocopied prints that adorn the wall of her studio. In the picture, an infant Kate is sitting on the piano stool...

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“Duncan said the piano in that picture would make a lovely shiny coffin for Gaga.” She pauses then adds, pointedly.
I don’t think so.”

I shouldn’t make flippant black remarks. And you, Johnny Cash, shouldn’t sing flippant black songs!

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As Kate mixes her paint, I have to ask what is she actually doing here?

First, she’s painting. Kate was an art student back in the 60s. She was the youngest on the degree course at Brighton Art College. To her 17-year-old mind, the tutors were a bunch of predatory men obsessed with their own work, their own egos and absolutely uninterested in teaching. Kate became disillusioned and left long before completing the course, an additional distraction being that her parents were splitting up at the time. I know she feels good to be back in a studio with a second chance. With a course structure and solid back-up from teaching staff and home, this time around.

Second, she’s painting a postcard. She received the communication from Gaga back in 1960. Is she thanking her grandmother for the card more than fifty years later? I think Kate feels that her grandmother had an unfulfilled life. Kate is making sure she lives her own life to the full, which partly explains why she’s embarked on this challenging course.

Challenging? Well, not only are the students expected to extend their practise, they are expected to be able to put their work in a context. Kate has borrowed about a dozen books from the library and may well be dipping into some of them. When we go to London this weekend we’ll be spending most of our time in galleries which are showing work that Kate is interested in. Oh yes, it’s a hard life being an art student! (It is, actually.)

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Cash is now singing something else pretty damn downbeat:

Now I taught the weeping willow how to cry,
And I showed the clouds how to cover up a clear blue sky.
And the tears that I cried for that woman are gonna flood you Big River.
Then I'm gonna sit right here until I die.”

Stirring stuff, Johnny! As for me, I’m not altogether happy with my last bit of analysis and feel I need to work out the intersection between Kate’s and Gaga’s timelines. Gaga was 61 when she sent the postcard, Kate is just one year older than that now. Just 14 years after Gaga was writing about her lovely bedroom with a balcony that overlooked snow-capped mountains, she was living out her last days in a nursing home. Husband gone. Female companions gone. Ginger George-less to boot. Kate won’t want to be in that position when she’s 75, in 13 long-short years. But who knows how any of us will age?

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Kate has started to apply white paint to the middle of the backdrop. Cash is singing:

“I do my best to hide this lowdown feelin'
I try to make believe there's nothing wrong
But they're always asking me about you darling
And it hurts me so to tell 'em that you're gone
If they ask me I guess I'd be denyin'
That I've been unhappy all alone
But if they heard my heart they'd hear it cryin'
Where's my darling, when's she coming home?”

Of course, another reason Kate may be painting the postcard is that it means something to her. As I understands things, her parents relationship didn’t begin to break down until her adolescence. But before that, Kate was restless and bored at home. Gaga and her house were a refuge from negative feelings, whether they were justified or not. And when Gaga was on holiday, these cards, addressed to Kate, would have to stand in for Gaga’s safe house until her return.

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As ‘So Doggone Lonesome’ carries on weaving its magic, Kate tells Anna that the shape of the mountain reminds her of Mount Jalitsa (
Jal-eetz-a) in Albania. Kate lived in rooms in Kukes, a town in the shadow of the mountain, with Enrico and Sergé, fellow employees of a German NGO. Enrico would look out of their window and talk about climbing the mountain. Kate wasn’t interested in climbing the mountain, but she loved looking at it. She recalls Saturday mornings in the flat listening to Van Morrison. She smiles nostalgically as she recalls that the highlight of an otherwise hard-working week was taking their Land Rover for a ‘lavash speciale’ on Saturday.

Kate was an aid worker through much of the 90s. She was in her 40s when she did that, a change of career that took her to Albania three times, Pakistan and Georgia. Adventures she won’t be forgetting any time soon. No doubt she sent postcards home from these places. I’m not quite sure whether this perspective brings Kate and her grandmother closer together or places them further apart. Both, probably.

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Gaga was a grandmother with four grandchildren in 1960, one of them was 10-year-old Kate. Kate is a grandmother today with three grandchildren, one of them a 10-year-old. Can’t get much closer than that.

And Johnny Cash?

“Time stands still when you're a waitin'
Sometimes I think my heart is stoppin' too;
One lonely hour seems forever,
Sixty minutes more to wait for you.
But I guess I'll keep waitin' till you're with me,
Cause I believe that loving you is right.
But I don't care if the sun don't rise tomorrow,
If I can't have you with me tonight.”

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I hear knocking which I suspect is coming from Anna’s space. Anna says something about a clay turner that she’s got from upstairs. (The ten MFA students are split between two floors.) I wonder if Anna has also been making a film up to now. But, no, for now I have to stay focussed, just as Kate does.

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Kate steps back from her work and announces: “I’ve come to the conclusion I can’t paint a mountain. That is

“How about some more blue?” says Anna. “Or purple.”

“Yes, more blue... And it needs to be thicker.”

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Personally, I think she’s making steady progress. The blueing of the grey was a cool call.

What does Johnny think?

“Everybody knows where you go when the sun goes down.
I think you only live to see the lights of town.
I wasted my time when I would try, try, try.
When the lights have lost their glow, you're gonna cry, cry, cry.”

Anna asks what the time is. Kate tells her it’s 8.25.

Shit! Already! We’ve got to clear up as well. I won’t have time to do any clay.”

“You need to get a bit slapped-up there, don’t you?”


“You need to get some slapped-up there.”


“Get some slapped-up clay on there!”

Anna laughs.

“Get it slapped-up!”

There’s a pause before Kate says, “Now what’s behind you, little girly?” She’s not addressing Anna, of course, but one of the figures in the postcard she’s copying. Kate says aloud that she’s just got to get the space filled-in any old how.

The ‘sun goes down’ track fades away. Kate surprises me by saying aloud that none of her favourite Cash tracks have been playing while she’s been painting. However, as a new track strikes up, Kate is whistling along, hips shaking and shoulders jiggling.

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But she soon desists. Indeed, that’s about as far as Anna and Kate get that evening, work-wise. Not sure it has been one of Anna’s more productive nights. Except that she did kick-start Kate by being there, creating a warm ambience and sharing her working knowledge of the camera. I hope to catch up properly with her work soon. She got her first degree at Dundee and has been involved with Generator. So she’s bound to know her way around both her own work and the art scene in Dundee. Mind you, I suspect that every one of the artists doing the MFA will be at an interesting stage of development, almost by definition.

But where does the night’s work leave me? I believe that Kate can paint a mountain as well as anyone. Look at that snow-capped corker!

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Let me try and summarise where the video gets us to before the understanding I have slips away. Gaga at Kate’s age, sending her a postcard. Kate now returning the favour, sending Gaga a message that she won’t be receiving. Which just shows that it’s never to late to say: “Thank-you.”

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Gaga at Kate’s age. Living a conventional life that will peter out into senility? Or taking the opportunity to travel abroad and experience new things? I hope Kate will be able to investigate which it was. And I hope I’ll be part of the process.

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Will Kate and I be travelling to Montreux to stay in the same hotel that Gaga and her pal did? Or will we be travelling to Albania to see if a Saturday morning
lavach speciale is still an option? Of course, where we must go first is the Wirral, where Kate was brought up. Kate didn’t read aloud the address on the postcard just for the sake of it.

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Can I just say that I wanted to end this piece with Johnny Cash’s version of ‘The Streets of Laredo’, which I’ve been listening to over and over again on iTunes, but Kate has persuaded me that would be self-indulgent in a way reminiscent of her old tutors at Brighton.

Dundee is the new Brighton. Not.

Johnny Cash lyrics are property and copyright of their owners. All images courtesy of Kate Clayton. The text is a collaboration between Duncan McLaren and Kate Clayton.