Tammy Mackay’s animal and bird prints are layered with meaning. Each one represents an exploration of her own feelings and memories, as well as stories about the creature itself. She uses light-sensitive photopolymer solar plates to give her prints detail and intensity, and often adds chine collé and hand-drawn elements. Tammy explains how animals became symbolic in her work and why she chose a coelacanth and a crocodile for her new “Hope” and “Fear” prints.
“Hope” depicts a type of fish called a coelacanth. What is it about a coelacanth that symbolises hope to you?
Coelacanths were thought to be extinct. They were known only from fossils until a live Latimeria chalumnae (coelacanth) was discovered off the coast of South Africa in 1938. Until then, it was thought that they had gone extinct in the late Cretaceous period, more than 65 million years ago. Museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer discovered the fish among the catch of a local angler, in East London in the Eastern Cape in South Africa. Courtenay-Latimer contacted a Rhodes University ichthyologist, J. L. B. Smith, who identified the fish. This particular coelacanth is one that is still on display in the ichthyology department in Grahamstown – my home town as a child in South Africa. I remember seeing it as a school child when we visited the department on a school trip.
I liked the idea of something that was thought to have been lost for so long still being in existence. With our natural world under such pressure, it feels hopeful that, against the odds, species can sometimes surprise us. Hence the title of “Hope”.
This is a photopolymer print with chine collé. What does that process involve? Why did you choose to work in that way?
The photopolymer plate I use is solar plate. The beauty with solar plate is that it is very sensitive and you are able to get wonderful detail that other photo etching processes don’t achieve (in my opinion).
In the case of my coelacanth print and my crocodile prints, they started their life as much larger drawings in pencil. Pencil can give you lovely detail, which, once printed in black or sepia, gives both detail and intensity. I have to get my drawings scanned and professionally printed on to acetate. I have learnt that the quality of the acetate is critical to the image you get. If the acetate is too dark or light, you have to start again.
To create your plate, you have to expose the solar plate to a halftone screen (aquatint screen) on a large UV exposure unit and then do a series of test strips to work out the correct exposure of the image. You can then expose your large final plate with what is hopefully the best exposure time. The plate is then developed in water and dried, and then exposed once more to harden the plate.
The main downside with solar plate in comparison to photo etching is that if you’re not happy with your image, you have to start from scratch, so it can be expensive and time consuming.
I’ve been a printmaker for many years and I’ve learnt that other variables such as paper colour, ink colour and mixes have a big effect on your final image. I also like the qualities that layering – using additional plates and colour or images using chine collé (thin Japanese paper) – can add to an image. I like being able to take a drawn image and essentially “push” the thoughts and ideas behind it further using printmaking.
You’ve also made what seems to be a companion piece to this print: a crocodile entitled “Fear”. How do these prints relate to each other?
I found an image of a walking alligator and loved the predatory feel of it. I had hoped to do a print of a crocodile walking, but I couldn’t find a live or stuffed or photograph of one I liked, so I settled for the head. In researching a bit more about the crocodile, I spoke to crocodile expert Simon Pooley, who explained the different ways crocodiles are perceived within different African cultures. In some cases, crocodiles are seen as spirits. The “spirit” crocodile is a kind of familiar sent to do magic business, which can be good or evil, i.e. the work of the ancestors/divine justice, or be sent by a sorcerer.
In East Timor, there are ancestral crocodiles, which never cause problems, messenger crocodiles, which are sent to exact divine justice on evil people, and intruders from outside the community or region.
I found these different perceptions and how conservation has to take all of them into account fascinating. I also found it interesting that not all crocodiles are feared. Do we have hope without fear, and do we have fear without hope?
What made you want to explore the themes of hope and fear? Do you think the current world situation has changed the meaning of these prints?
I think the current situation has changed the meaning significantly. I started the drawings at the end of last year/beginning of this year (pre-coronavirus). I felt even then that there had been a shift in the world generally – Brexit, migrants desperate to cross the seas in the hope of a better life, world leaders with questionable leadership, the state of our natural world and the lack of change to help it, and many other smaller events played a part in my thought process.
You use animals and birds to convey symbolic meanings. How did your work develop in that direction?
It started with a series of work I made called “Love [Loss] and Identity”. It was a series I started when my father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer, quite a few years ago now. The dodo, being such an iconic symbol of extinction, became my symbol of loss, and it became not only a personal symbol – as I lost both my father-in-law and father within a year and a half to cancer – but also a reference to our family history and those in my and my husband’s family lost to war. I made a few different dodo prints. This started my fascination with the dodo and using birds and animals as symbols in my work.
How did you get into printmaking?
I was lucky to have a separate art school called the Johan Carinus Art Centre when I was at secondary school in South Africa. The school had specialist art teachers, so it could teach different disciplines like printmaking, sculpture, textiles, painting etc. I was able to do painting and printmaking as separate subjects, so I started etching and printmaking when I was 15. I carried on with printmaking when I went to university.
What are you working on at the moment? Are you continuing your “Hope” and “Fear” series?
I took the opportunity to work on different things with the start of lockdown. My “Hope” and “Fear” series felt a little too 'close to home'. I still have some ideas to explore in this series, so I’ll return to it at some point. I’ve worked on small-scale paintings and drawings. I've tried to force myself to be looser in my approach (which is difficult for me!) and hopefully still create sensitivity. My gosling and bunny drawings are a product of lockdown. I sold my goslings as part of the Artist Support Pledge scheme, and you will find my bunnies up on the wall at Greenwich Printmakers.
Tammy Mackay has a special exhibition as our featured artist in the gallery until September 13, and her work is available at Greenwich Printmakers throughout the year. For more information about Tammy, see her artist’s page and her website.