By Saria Smith
Catherine Rush is a freelance writer, consultant, and events organizer currently living in Atlanta, Georgia. She studied at the University of Georgia and received a BA in English with a minor in gender studies. Her multidisciplinary art practice involves many themes often explored through performance art and incorporates video, costume and poetry into her communicative creations. She has also written art reviews and interviews for publications such as Burnaway, ArtsAtl, Philly Artblog, and many others. She co-ran the artist’s live/work program at 368 in Atlanta and did their programming for some years. She has performed at DIY venues, dive bars, and house shows for years and booked and hosted shows at Go Bar in Athens while in college. Besides her work as an artist and organizer, it is notable that she also started a skincare line called Cicatrixia during the pandemic.
May marked the ending of her first ever Residency at Stove Works in Chattanooga where she was featured in two of the resident shows: Hot Doughnuts and Brood x. Catherine has a unique position as someone who is committed to exploring the strange, fun, slow, and enticing moments in life while also using her skills to create platforms for other artists. I sat down with her one afternoon to get a look into what it means to be a performance artist and poet. Within art as a whole there are nuances to what makes something art or not; Catherine touches on the importance of intention and what attracts her to performance. She appears to have a clear mind when it comes to ideas of performance and the meditative space she falls into when she is involved in a performance.
Saria: How would you describe your artistic style?
Catherine: I do poetry and performance art, and I tend to approach both in an intuitive way, while also responding to the audience when there is one. I aim for it to be interactive on some level, to open people up and help facilitate thinking in different directions. I guess the way that the sequences of images or words are organized in my work can be disorienting…but that’s reorienting too. As you’re changing or things around you are changing, that’s disorienting, it’s uncomfortable. But I think there’s also a “future logic” to my work, to borrow a phrase from Ed Pavlić. The meaning unfolds slowly, over time.
Saria: What attracted you to performance art?
Catherine: I started participating in readings in college, and would get really nervous sharing poetry. I wanted ways to help people engage with it and be more open to listening, while also having something else to do with my hands. Poetry, performed straight by itself, can be really boring. Personally I love watching people read their poems cold, especially for the first time, particularly in a shared space, where you feel the electricity between people and the tension and excitement and terror…I love that. But I started finding connections with my actual body beyond just kind of clowning or bringing in task-based movements and props. I started doing performance art more seriously with my friend and long-term muse, Aida Curtis, when she asked me to help with a tribute to the film Wicker Man where she choreographed these wild song and dance numbers at Go Bar in Athens, Georgia. She worked in a way that was very accessible, even for someone like me who didn’t have a dance background. And yet there is so much depth to everything she does. For me, performing was so painful and humiliating initially, but I was left wanting more. I ended up helping her with a few more group performances before she and I started making pieces together as a duo called The Clutching Dream. That was more purely performance art than poetry, although she’s an incredible poet. Now we’ve come full circle and are writing a poem together.
Saria: Where do your ideas come from?
Catherine: Ideas come from all kinds of places. I get inspired often while walking, or sitting somewhere hearing other people talk, seeing something funny or out of place, being hit by memories throughout the day and noticing how they sort of align or don’t with what’s happening right then, with what’s happened other times, etc. Books, film, research too of course. A lot of my poetry comes from looking at difficult things happening in the moment, and I’m passionate about finding ways to express or understand trauma, be it personal trauma, collective trauma, or just witnessing and being close to someone else’s trauma. That is where a lot of my earlier poetry was coming from. And now, there is a sort of folding into grief, finding space for that while being in a country where there’s not like, any scaffolding for grief collectively. That’s been something my work has come back to again and again for a long time. But I do it, I hope, in a really playful way to try and get people into a gentle place where they can open up or connect. My ideas come from everything around me I guess, mostly just from my everyday life…I’m a big believer in and fan of very “ordinary” poetry and “ordinary” art.
Saria: What is the difference between doing performance art and just being some weird person at a party?
Catherine: Right, like that sort of ties into questions of identity and intention. If you are aware, as a person at the party, and in your head you believe you’re doing performance art, then you’re doing performance art. I’ve known people who have had really sort of rampant unchecked mental health issues that also believed that they were just doing weird performances that nobody understood. Who’s to say they’re wrong? They’re not wrong, both things are true. In my experience, when I do a performance, it’s a different space than when I’m just walking on the street and dancing by myself or being eccentric at a party. I have some characters that sometimes appear, but a lot of the time, even if these characters appear, it’s sort of a mishmash, weaving, I guess, between different identities and images.
Saria: How do you feel when you participate in a performance? What’s it like to subject yourself to a certain role for an extended period of time?
Catherine: Usually it’s very calming. I kind of go into a different state. It’s almost meditative. Obviously, there are times when something goes wrong, or there’s something else outside of it in my life that’s keeping me from wanting to access that space. But once I am committed, the performance has started. I am in a really restful space, even if I’m doing something more endurance-oriented or awkward. It feels like I’m sort of sinking into a more fluid zone. I also love the idea that how someone is viewing something changes it…I wrote a poem in 2020 called “observer’s effect.” The people viewing my performances, or hearing my poetry, change it. When I have an audience, it undoes illusions of control over my work, but I also am acting on the audience, and I’m very fascinated by that exchange, even more so when there is no money involved, there’s no taking. I think people get a lot out of just seeing something surprising and different, absurd and funny…or even sweet and soft.
Saria: How does your personal identity Inform your work?
Catherine: I think that for a long time, though I didn’t realize it till I was in therapy, I was very afraid of being thought of as crazy. I think that’s something that I explored and wrestled with a lot in my early writing: what is it to be crazy? Especially like the “crazy woman,” right? I’ve found a lot of meaning through making my work, personally, that comes back directly to investigating my sense of self. I feel like performance and poetry are both ways to find your center again, to affirm your own reality. In James Baldwin’s Uses of The Blues, he talks about the blues, gospel, and jazz impulses in African American music, and all of these impulses as sort of universal ways to deal with suffering…and so much artmaking, in general, is a way of dealing with suffering. Sort of what he strips it down to is that one of the most isolated ways of meaning-making, the blues, is self-affirmation as a route to joy. So by transmuting your experience of suffering into something lyrical, you gain self-authority and joy. You can apply that to any art form, or you can apply that to other things that we don’t traditionally identify as art. What makes it really powerful in the realm of language is that you are actively changing language. So much of Baldwin’s words around writing point to how every writer is born into a language that they are obliged to change. The “every” I’m using here is hopeful, and also comes back to being aware at the party so to speak. I’m curious about how when you bring in physical elements beyond writing, it can maybe make the process even more alchemical.
Saria: What do you hope to accomplish in your art?
Catherine: On one level, it’s always about survival. It’s always about yourself. I think that sort of ripples out to other people. Because writing, even though you do it in isolation usually–or almost exclusively–it’s still deeply social. You are communicating, even if you’re writing the most coded, clandestine, redacted kind of thing. You’re still communicating. Performance also is deeply social, even when I’m not interacting with people, even when I’m completely ignoring everybody around me. In that sense, it’s also about fluency, harmony, and connection. All of those things are healing. And for me, especially as someone who’s not a career artist, it’s all bound together. There’s definitely a lifeblood of community, liberation, and survival running through all of it; even the things I do in total isolation. The more people come together directly though, especially through artistic expression, the more we find that we’re talking about and wanting similar things, and the more we hear each other the more we can identify the different and specific needs amongst us. Writing in terms of transformation gets back to changing the language…changing the story, changing the myth, changing the metaphor.
Saria: What have you been reading/thinking about recently?
Catherine: Well, I couldn’t sleep the other night, so I finally read, in one sitting, The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown. It’s really good, and engages with her early research in shame, vulnerability, and fear studies. I’ve been thinking about it a lot since, as well as this book I keep coming back to, Blood and Honey Icons: Biosemiotics & Bioculinary. I’m really interested in dealing with the symptoms and experiences clinically referred to as PTSD, individually, collectively, and structurally. I come from an army family and have complex PTSD as a result. I feel like almost everyone I know has some variety of PTSD. We are such a traumatized world. I’m really interested in how we can heal relationally through community, even on an individual-to-individual basis, and how we can approach and imagine solutions for mental health issues, especially those caused by war and imperialism, in new ways and through new rituals.
Saria: What was the best part about your Stove Works residency experience?
Catherine: Definitely meeting and connecting with the other residents and the staff here. In COVID times, learning to have a bunch of roommates again was a particularly revelatory experience. Being brought together with so many dynamic, inspiring personalities has been deeply nourishing, enlivening, and encouraging. I’ve learned so much from everyone I’ve met here, including you. Being intimately introduced to other residents’ practices while getting to know their individual stories has been an absolute gift. I’ve lived with many artists, my whole adult life really, but never in this more professional, neighborly setting.
Saria Smith is an artist, arts writer, and student currently living in in Chattanooga, Tennessee.