Artist Kate Mackenzie. Photo: Florence Charvin

Kate Mackenzie has just won the World of Wearable Arts Supreme Award for the second time. Her first was in 2014. Her second time entering. It’s an accomplishment gained only once before. And yet another notch in Kate’s constantly growing list of artistic achievements. In the past 21 years she has never failed to add an art related award to that list, including being named a Local Great in 2017 by Hastings District Council.

WOW World of WearableArt 2022 Wellington NZ Preview show 28 September 2022 Photo credit Stephen ACourt

Of the 21 award winners, Kate’s entry stood out. With a deep pot of more than $185,000 in prize money spread across three recurring sections – Aotearoa, Avant-garde and Open plus three new sections for 2022 – Architecture, Elizabethan Era and Monochromatic. Kate, who also won the Open Award entry, competed against 88 final entries by 103 designers from 20 countries and regions around the world. 

Before taking up her brush, Kate was adding to the household purse working in accountancy. That was her day job midst raising three children. Art came at night. She always knew she had creative genes – which she credits to her mother. 

But doing something constructive about it only happened when her second child Lochie was born. “I saw a watering can under a hedge – one of those lovely old-fashioned ones and I painted it – folk art style,” she recalls. 

Friends started turning up with their watering-cans wanting them painted. Her husband Ian encouraged her while she investigated pastels and paint. But still at night. “Going to bed at 3am was constant to create my art. And it was not until local couple Iain and Ray McLean, who were fundraising at the time, needed a work of art for an auction and asked me for one of my artworks to auction. And it just snowballed from there.”

Her work is constantly evolving. And as a strong environmentalist she adds, “The environment is a big part of a library of ideas I have. I paint what is current – so my work is a snapshot of history. But very subtle.”

Art is now her full-time job. But her entries to WOW are “like a drug”. She has entered every year of WOW, missing only one final since she began in 2013. And has been placed in and won many sections as well as winning the Supreme Award the second year she entered. “It’s the icing on the cake for me, not necessarily the driving force, but it’s part of the whole and a ‘must’ in that whole.” Another essential outlet for her creativity.

As her entries take a year to create, it is easy to understand how they fit into her schedule. In 2019 when it was announced that the show would not be staged that year – another result of Covid – Kate put her entry aside and did not bring it out again, until quite late after they had announced that WOW was happening again this year. “It turned into a bit of a rush. The china cabinet inspired me, and I knew I was always going to use it, yet I needed something cohesive with it – and that is when the Singer sewing machine inspired by my mother’s came in.” The result: award-winning Wanton Woman. 

“The narrative of the entry plays a huge part in the judging. I started with history – the 19th century – Wanton Woman was a bit of a rebel and was not going to be hindered by the societal mores of that time. She wanted to grieve openly – and the whole idea of black conveys that. It was Victorian times so when Prince Albert died, Queen Victoria introduced her mourning protocol – wearing only black for the next 40 years of her life – Wanton Woman wears a hat instead of a veil indicating her desire to have a new life, maybe marry again.”

When entering WOW, Kate always creates a story. And she starts that process by choosing her main component of the entry. Having selected the china cabinet with the balancing force of the sewing machine she started the critical process of evaluating the overall structure of the costume.

“For instance, when reviewing the sleeves which were the drawers from the sewing machine, they definitely suggested the opening of new possibilities for the Wanton Widow, so had to be. But I found them overpowering so I needed to rethink those.” 

Actually, some last-minute editing in the 48 hours before submission was needed as she felt the original was too heavy and clunky. “I rethought the juxtaposition of the pieces I was using cutting away some of the wood and getting rid of some of the polycarbonate. By then I had 24 hours to make and 24 hours to photograph the entry. I rushed off to Spotlight to find the fabric I needed. This was obviously going to be another all-nighter.”

Making the box for it to be dispatched was another story. A particularly stressful one.

“My mother got sick and was taken to hospital, so I was running up to the hospital to see her. Then rushing back to continue with the box which had been designed specially to hold the wheel of the entry which folded up in front.” The bike wheel represented a need to be brave and bold – getting on it was an escape – so it conveyed the image of one night, perhaps one night only.”

When Kate was announced as winner, she says she was initially surprised, “but I think I was protecting myself and in retrospective I think it was worthy. The costume must have great stage presence. And I was so fortunate in that I had a great model who interpreted the story of the entry perfectly. When she came on stage she just transformed and became the Wanton Woman.”

By that time Kate had also incorporated pleating into the skirt “that looked like the old accordions of the 19th century” and a new veneer, which she felt looked more cohesive because of its wood finish, had been applied. Obviously, it had been finally dispatched and delivered, complete with written narrative, an essential part of the entry. “I think the judges liked my story,” she says with a slight smile.

Ever changing artwork

To gain inspiration for her artwork, Kate will “sometimes sit and rest my mind – and often the first image that I come to will be the one that I use.” Surrealism and symbolism are an inherent part of her work and for her new exhibition at Muse Gallery in late October and the month of November, she has moved forward – something which is consistent with her creativity. 

She explains that her thinking is constantly evolving so every exhibition is a surprise. The fundamentals of her style are there but what transpires is always different. So, what craziness has she moved on to now? (Note, ‘craziness’ is Kate’s own interpretation of how she would like to see her work processing.)

This one titled The Rise of the Tattered is based on the use of paint, in an original way. Her last exhibition focused on incorporating plastic tubing into her work, “I liked the paintings,” she explains, “but as an environmentalist, I did not like the plastic I was using, and I was searching for something to replace it. I have found it. With the paint application I have used in The Rise of the Tattered I have moved on from the cables. 

“The paintings reflect the fact we are all feeling rather tattered, so we need to get up again and find new ways of doing things. Our social fabric has changed the way we are put together, how we think and now with this messy fabric we have as a result we need to realign.” 

Her progression from her use of paint in this exhibition is also apparent in a single work which fools the eye yet hints at what is coming next. Upon initial viewing it looks as if the wall has been painted. It has not. It is fashioned with pieces of tulle which float together to make the whole – a delicately crafted face. 

“I was determined I would do different,” she says firmly. “It’s a bit like WOW. I do not enter to win, but for the pull of creating something unique which has an underlying message. That is the drug.” 


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