When Katka Adams and her mother arrived in Australia as refugees they didn’t speak a word of English. It was 1969 and Katka was seven years old. Escaping the political repression of communism in Prague, Katka and her mother moved through several migrant hostels, including Bonegilla near Albury-Wodonga, before settling in Melbourne.
“They just stuck me in a class of regular kids. I had to relearn my whole way of writing, and I didn’t understand what the words meant”, says Katka, in her now strong, easy Australian accent. The language barrier meant Katka spent a lot of time alone drawing, even as a young child, and developed a fondness for art that never wavered.
Finishing high school in Sydney, Katka had her heart set on going to art school.
“The career adviser said, ‘You’ve really got to look at your other options’, and I said, ‘what other options, there are no other options!’”
It is now 20 years since Katka and her husband, Russell, bought their small settler’s cottage on the eastern edge of Clunes. From her home studio, Katka looks out across their 11 acres of established fruit trees and rainforest, across the valley to the hills that hide the coast from view. Working on only one piece at a time, and having to complete it before beginning the next is a way of ensuring her drawings get finished at all. The anticipation of seeing what will emerge on the blank page motivates Katka.
“It’s like a reward”, she says. “It’s not really about the finished product, it’s more about the process”.
Katka gushes with enthusiasm for the craft of drawing, and of self-expression. For aspiring artists, and especially young people, she says the key is simply to just keep drawing. “Don’t have some kind of expectation”, she warns. “Don’t think, oh, it won’t be good enough, or I’ll never be that good, but it’s not about that.”
Even surgeons, Katka tells me, have been told that practicing drawing will improve their surgery. Amazingly, a study published in January in the journal NeuroImage actually observed this phenomenon, where subjects taking a drawing or painting course showed an increase in creative thinking skills and altered brain structure after three months compared with those not taking art.
Russell, a doctor, draws beautifully, says Katka. And their three children are quite creative, too. Having started their education at Clunes Primary School, they are each now carving out their own niche in the world. Millie, 30, studied costume design at NIDA and has worked with Bangarra Dance Theatre. She now lives in Brisbane and has a 4-month-old daughter, Olive.
At 27, their son, Tom, has recently finished a Photovoltaic Engineering degree but has just taken up knitting. Katka darts off to procure a large, knitted Humpty Dumpty stuffed toy that he’s made for Olive. As a knitter, I can tell it’s flawless, and I can’t stop smiling at it. Sophie, Katka’s youngest, has inherited her parents’ gift for gardening, and is propagating succulents all over the verandah, trays of cuttings laid out in varying stages of rebirth.
Katka’s still-life drawings are often light, delicately rendered images of every day items. An exquisite scone laden with jam and cream, a gold-rimmed teacup, a pair of slippers beneath a perfectly made bed. Animals also feature prominently in several of her collections, where hens, lambs, birds and dogs appear in imaginative and surreal domestic scenes. But sometimes the pictures end up surprisingly sombre, and their meanings only become clear long after completion.
“Some of the drawings have a little bit of darkness to them, but that’s what there is in life, you know. There’s a little bit of dark and a little bit of light.”