Kym’s story: I do my art to give women a voice

Brisbane Portrait Prize Picture

Kym, 62, is an artist who creates handmade paper sculptures that reflect women’s lives.

In the book I used her story as an example of the habit of Building Resilience, something she learned a lot about through having thyroid cancer in her 40s.

When we spoke in 2016, she said cancer had forced her to slow down, take a breath, prioritise her health, and stop trying to please everyone.

For the first time in her life she did what she wanted to do — art — and enrolled in a TAFE course to study it.

Since then she’s experimented with everything from embroidery and whittling to painting and sculpture.

But Kym’s best known for the life-sized sculptures she makes using paper made from banana-leaf fibre.

In 2016 we talked about one called Breathe. She explained that she’d wanted to say to women that “we need to stop and take a breath and a break from the busyness.”

Since then, she says, “a lot of little things have changed”.

For one, she now has five grandchildren, and like many other women, has had to rationalise the amount of childcare she can provide. It’s easy to be generous with the first one, and often impossible to replicate that for each of them.

Kym is diligent about her health. She walks, does tai chi and breathwork, and gives a lot of thought to her diet. Because of her cancer treatment and the medication she still takes, she has hot flushes which may never go away.

Sometimes though, even the best-laid plans to stay healthy go awry. She got covid last Christmas, then pneumonia, and it’s taken months to feel well again.

“I know I’m responsible for my health and that habits can take a long time to set,” she says, “And I strongly believe I’m no good to anyone else if I’m not looking after myself.

“But I still need reminding. It’s easy to get caught up with life. It still sometimes stops me and says: ‘hey, take a breath’.

“One issue I have is thinking I can do things the way I did when I was 40. Working in the garden, for example. I can do it all day, but then I can’t walk the next day. So I have to remind myself to do it for two hours, not eight.”

Her latest work is on the way our experiences shape us. It’s called Becoming. It features a woman’s body overlaid front and back with a honeycomb structure she’s used to represent community. Again, it’s made from her banana-leaf paper.

“I love that this paper has both strength and fragility — like women,” she says. There’s no other medium that speaks to me the way it does.”

Her sculptures usually involve contributions from other women. When she asked her database about their interest in sharing a significant memory that had shaped them, 150 women put their hand up within two days.

She sent each one a six-sided piece of paper on which they handwrote their memory anonymously and sent it back. She then slotted the memories into the beehive cells on the sculpture. You can see it here.

Some, such as the birth of children, are happy. Others are difficult — a cancer diagnosis, leaving a violent family situation, or drug addiction, for example. And some are tragic. Like the woman whose memory was finding her baby dead in their cot.

Occasionally one of the women will contact Kym to tell her that the act of writing down their memory, sealing it in an envelope and sending it off has helped them let go of the burden of it.

As in previous works, she’s used her own body to create the sculpture. This involves standing for hours in a plaster bandage while the paper dries. It’s hard work and she’s ready to do something different.

Her next work, which is still in the planning stage, will be about surrounding ourselves with people who lift us up.

Although she’s won numerous prizes, Kym says she sometimes feels invisible as an older woman in the art world.

“Everything is focused on the young emerging artists,” she says. “But you’ve just got to do what you love. I do my art to give women a voice and I’ll keep doing it for that reason alone”.


Photo Source: Kym Frame

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