Katka Adams


I was born in Prague during the 1960’s and lived there until Russia invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. I can remember a tank rolling past on the cobbled street and feeling the vibrations underfoot. My mother and I left our country and family to go to Vienna carrying a fake passport and one suitcase. After several months, Australia offered to accept us as political refugees and we stayed at Bonegilla (in the State of Victoria) and other migrant hostels for many months. This was when I found my passion for drawing. In an unfamiliar environment I found that drawing opened a window through which I could explore many worlds. This discovery has remained with me all through my life.

Drawing became a way of connecting and communicating with others, when a language barrier made this impossible. A drawing can be a form of voiceless speech, a way of expressing ideas and instincts directly through the hand without the need for words. People respond to art no matter what their language, culture, age or background, and this is a very liberating experience.

My artwork has a strong narrative element to it. I love the communication that occurs between a finished work and the viewer. Art has the power to reach people in unexpected ways. I have seen people cry in front of some of my drawings. That is a very moving experience. They have seen something there, which has touched their own lives in some way. It can be a very healing process both to produce and view art.

When a close friend died after struggling with cancer, her children decided to invite friends and family to come to their house and prepare their mother’s coffin by covering it with photos, messages and painting symbolic images on it. They were very clear about what they wanted to paint, and it was an honour to bring my paints and help them mix the specific colours they wanted to use. To paint on that coffin was the most profound and meaningful experience I have ever had as an artist. It was not about the finished product, though the coffin was very beautiful, it was the raw and powerful process of expressing our feelings and emotions, all together, in a creative, visual way when words are hard to find.
For me art isn’t something I create as a product to sell. I do sell my work, but I don’t let that dictate what I draw. Sometimes people will look at a drawing and declare that it won’t sell. Usually they are wrong. Someone will come along to whom that particular drawing has something to say. There are all sorts of things that people will relate to and they want to have the drawing to remind them. It can be as simple as the title. Often what I have in mind while creating the imagery will be different to things other people will discover in the work. I like how versatile a drawing can be in this way- that different interpretations are possible for each viewer and all are relevant, valid and true.

We moved around a lot when I was young so it was difficult to keep friends or connect to a school or community. Reading and drawing were a great way to spend my time, allowing me to entertain myself and escape. I was able to lose myself for hours and go to that place where time passes and you are not aware of anyone or anything, where you feel completely calm and peaceful. I still love that feeling. I’m sometimes late or don’t show up for things because I am in what I call the zone – where time disappears.

There is a book called “ Flow: the classic work on how to achieve happiness”
by professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that discusses the creative flow which people experience as I do when I work on my drawings. He introduces the phenomenon of “flow” as a state of joy, creativity and total involvement, in which problems seem to disappear and there is an exhilarating feeling of transcendence. The book goes on to describe how this pleasurable state can be achieved by all of us.

The author illuminates the accuracy of what philosophers have been saying for centuries: that the way to happiness lies not in mindless hedonism but in mindful challenge.

For me art-making is a challenging process that requires a great deal of thought, technical problem-solving, and mental exercise. Lots of decisions are constantly changing and evolving to resolve the drawing. It is like a great, complex puzzle that I need to solve, without knowing the outcome. All sorts of elements come into it both in terms of emotional or narrative content and the technical solution of visual basics such as tone, colour, line and composition.
It makes sense to me now that even during times of difficulty or trauma I have been able to remain grounded and at peace with myself through the process of making art. I deal with all sorts of issues through my art-making process. These include concerns about our environment, climate change, materialism and over-consumption in our society right, through to personal details that may be going on in my life.

One of the series I created I called “ Pearls of Wisdom” and they included a proverb for each piece. At the opening exhibition I had a great response, and I realized it was because the proverbs had so much relevance to people’s lives, even though some were hundreds of years old or from different countries and cultures.

On the Opening Night someone bought her very first work of art, titled “ When the music changes, so does the dance’” and told me that the music in her life had changed recently. The drawing was a very significant one for me also, but I remember restraining myself from telling her my story because I knew that she had her own and the drawing was now hers.

Proverbs have been passed down from generation to generation to caution and advise us in the practical matters of life. They take on serious concerns with playful wit and are surprisingly relevant to us today. It seems we have always been concerned about what happens to people in our world. I have embraced these messages from the past and would like to create contemporary fables relating their wisdom, knowledge and gentle humour.

The series of drawings that I am currently working on are based on my childhood memories of living in Prague and coming to Australia. The theme of red, my favourite colour, ties them together. My mother’s sudden death six months ago has brought back many of these memories and I am dealing with my grief the best way I know how, through my art.
While watching a David Attenborough documentary recently, I realized why the colour red has such a strong attraction for me. He was explaining how a particular baby bird was drawn to it’s mother’s yellow beak and even when he dangled food right above it, the baby reached for a couple of yellow sticks, because it was imprinted from hatching to do so for survival.
In that instant I realised that Prague in the 1960’s when I lived there had very drab colours of ochre and yellowing creams, army greens, beiges and greys and soot black from the coal fires people had in their homes. Among these subtle, sombre tones was the leaping magnificent red of communist flags and slogans, star-shaped flowerbeds in parks full of red blossoms, and red poppies that grew among the grass and weeds behind our building. I learned to love red because it boldly stood out from everything else.

A north easterly wind is heaven’s broom
Estonian proverb

The memory that informed this particular drawing follows:

Traditionally in the Czech Republic people dress up as a devil and an angel to visit children on St Nicholas day delivering small presents. I remember clearly my shock when these visitors came into our kitchen while my cousin and I were eating pancakes. I can vividly recall the sense of awe I felt for the angel who looked as though he arrived straight from heaven all clean and white and beautiful. St Nicholas was dressed like a bishop, and I thought he was God. He gave me an orange and walnuts, however my cousin Vita who was shaking with fear had squashed himself under our seat and wouldn’t come out. The devil was black and hairy and shook his chains at us. He had one hoof and horns and gave my grandmother a black branch with red ribbons tied to it. This was left behind as a weapon to hit us with if we were naughty. My mother later put it on top of the wardrobe where I could always see it in the room. I was never threatened or beaten with it, but I could glimpse it on top of the wardrobe and was aware of its presence and purpose.

When this drawing came back from my framer, I saw it in a new way. The fires in Victoria had blazed over the weekend, and hundreds of homes had been burnt and people killed.
Suddenly the tree growing from the wardrobe appears eerily as though it has been burnt black, the red ribbons moving in the breeze representative of the fires, with smoke visible through the hole in the roof. The room is empty of people and their belongings.

This is an example of how a drawing can reveal different meanings over time.

“Do not put each foot on a different boat”
Chinese proverb

This drawing describes the emptiness left behind after my mother died
suddenly in her bed. The shoes worn and left where they were.

Read the full article in the Artist Profile in Vol 2 Issue 27