People who haven't seen Kate Breakey's work might be tempted to make certain assumptions about the artist, particularly after learning that almost all of her subjects--unless they happen to be a flower--are dead. If those assumptions include the idea that Breakey has a morbid fascination with death, one look at the pieces hanging in her Small Deaths exhibit--on display in the Tucson Museum of Art's Cauthorn Berger-Hanft Gallery--should be enough to convince anyone that her work in fact represents a fierce celebration of life. Or, more specifically, individual lives.
Breakey, from "a small country town in South Australia, in the middle, at the bottom," moved to Austin, Texas, in 1988. After earning her MFA at the University of Texas, she served as adjunct professor there for a few years before moving to Tucson in 1999.
When she initially arrived in the United States, Breakey felt somewhat adrift. Her earlier work, she says, was "very much about the Australian environment, and some political work about the Aboriginal people. It was weird to be in a whole new place where national identity couldn't be a source for me anymore of the art that I made."
But nature--which Breakey says has always been an important part of her life, growing up as she did in a rural environment--could, especially the Southwest's desert.
"It's not unlike the Australian des-ert," she says. "Obviously, the plants are different, but a desert is a desert. I like it here; I can relate to it in a way."
Breakey has been working with her current theme, what she calls "small death stuff," for nearly 10 years, and has published two books--Small Deaths (University of Texas, 2001) and Flowers/Birds (Eastland Books, 2002)--the first containing some 80 images of the approximately 200 pieces she's completed so far.
"I'm the sort of person who gets upset when they see roadkill," she says. "I've always tried to save things; I just have great compassion for all these little things out there, struggling. There's a tremendous amount of death around us--as higher mammals, we all expect to live and to have our children live, but if you're a spider, a snake or a bird, it's pretty tough.
"Small Deaths is primarily about examining the small things around us in much greater depth and detail than we would normally see them; that's why they're blown up so big (36 by 36 inches). Also, it's individuals who have died, and my work is sort of about memorializing them. I have great respect for living things, some of the ones I've painted, I've actually witnessed their deaths--baby birds falling out of their nests, that sort of thing. So it's also about paying attention to all the lives and deaths that we disregard, and that goes on in some ways to be a metaphor for the fact that people all over the world are dying of famine and war, and it's very easy not to think about any of it. It (my work) isn't supposed to be so symbolic or political, but it extrapolates on the fact that we don't much have to think about the deaths of other things and people."
Breakey currently lives on a four-acre parcel of land, right next to Saguaro National Park.
"We have tons of wildlife," she says, "zillions of birds; javelina on the front porch ripping into our garbage; bobcats at the water hole--it's amazing out here. As freaked out as I am about it, I'm very honored when a rattlesnake shows up in the backyard."
She, in turn, honors the creatures she photographs and paints by referencing 15th-century Spanish paintings of cardinals, bishops, kings and queens, positioning her subjects almost formally against plain, colored backgrounds while working stunning detail into their feathers and eyes. The Latin and common name of each animal are carefully noted in tiny script at the bottom of the finished piece.
"The creature is already gone," Breakey says. "When I record it, I'm recording the fact that it existed, and I make it as beautiful as I can." (If only you could see the blue halo around the bird in the center of this article, you, too, would mourn the bad luck that put it on a black-and-white page.)
"Some people find it creepy," Breakey adds, "but I find it rather beautiful--even decay can be strangely beautiful. The whole thing about death is that people hate death; they hate to be reminded of death. The problem with that," she laughs, "is we're all going to die.
"We're all afraid of death in this culture; clearly it's been mystified, tied in with religion and so forth. But death is going on out here in nature in this huge wave of things, and we're all part of that. There's no real difference between me and the little birds, except that I'm lucky enough to live longer, hopefully. I would like to acknowledge that death is an entirely natural thing, not disgusting, not ugly, not horrible and not anything to be shied away from."