Claudia Kogachi Built A Fantastical World. Now She’s Expanding It.

By Ginny Fisher
Artist Claudia Kogachi in her studio in Epsom. Photo / Babiche Martens

The artist takes viewers on a fantastical visual journey with her bold, hand-tufted rugs, while her stylised paintings reveal autobiographical glimpses of her domestic life.

Dolphins frolicking, beluga whales leaping, horses gallivanting under a smiling sun, while werewolves dance a beastly jig. Enter the fantastical artistic world of Claudia Kogachi,

We meet at a suitably fairytale-like villa in Epsom, complete with a turret, where the artist has a studio spread out across three rooms on the top floor.

With its peeling wallpaper and dusty rooms, the empty historic home is waiting patiently for a restoration, allowing Claudia to occupy the entire dwelling for her art-making.

A set of creaky stairs lead up to her light-filled carpet-making room; in the doorway a cardboard box is spilling over with yarn, and inside the floor is littered with fluff — the bi-product of her rug-making endeavours.

Claudia has eight new hand-tufted rugs in her collection, which will be on display at Aotearoa Art Fair. Photo / Babiche Martens
Claudia has eight new hand-tufted rugs in her collection, which will be on display at Aotearoa Art Fair. Photo / Babiche Martens

The 27-year-old Japanese-born artist was raised in New Zealand and studied at Elam School of Arts in Auckland, and has, up until now, mainly focused on painting. However, when lockdown struck in 2020, Claudia was unable to visit her studio or access her paints, which led her to investigate alternative mediums online.

Rug-making seemed an interesting segue for the artist, who says its graphic quality is in tune with her stylised paintings. She ordered a tufting gun online, a 2kg metal device that shoots the yarn into cloth, and found reels of yarn on the internet too. Claudia was surprised to find it was mostly New Zealand wool; she explains there are no longer mills here, so ironically, the raw product goes offshore to be milled and dyed.

Tha artist admits tufting a rug is quite laborious, quite apart from the sheer weight of the gun, it’s time-consuming shooting row upon row of yarn into the cloth to create the desired image. Each large-scale work — these new works are roughly 1.6 by 1.7m — take up to three weeks to complete, some even more depending on the detail.

But the results are spectacular — think New-Age tapestry on acid. These whopping works beg to be noticed and touched.

“They’re borderline 3D. I love the fact people want to touch them — that engagement is really exciting for me.”

The rug-making process begins with stretching cotton monk cloth tight as a drum across a wooden frame — all of which are made by Claudia’s partner, Josephine, who also crafts the sleek walnut hand-scalloped frames that surround the finished work.

"I love the fact people want to touch them — that engagement is really exciting for me," says Claudia. Photo / Babiche Martens
"I love the fact people want to touch them — that engagement is really exciting for me," says Claudia. Photo / Babiche Martens

Once the cloth is taut, the artist sketches the composition on the surface and then begins the process of shooting the yarn into the back of the cloth. Her colour palette is limited to the hues she has found online, so she simply works with what she has and makes creative colour decisions along the way.

There’s an element of trial and error to the process.

“Sometimes it’s ugly, sometimes nice. I think colour creates mood, this time it’s happy. My last show at Melanie Roger Gallery was last winter, and I feel like the mood was a bit spookier.”

Claudia has found that once the wool is tufted and trimmed, the hues appear a tone slightly darker than they appear on the spool; and how she chooses to finish the rug also has implications for the final tone and texture.

Once the work is complete, Claudia makes the aesthetic decision whether to shave the front surface of the work with electric rug clippers to create a smoother texture, or to leave areas more shaggy and textured; it all depends on the look she is after.

The theme for her Aotearoa Art Fair show is humorously gleaned from the lyrics of Mariah Carey’s song Fantasy.

Sweet, Sweet Fantasy Baby ties in both the mythical side of the rugs and the fantasy side of paintings. There’s also an element of memory and dream. My girlfriend’s mother had this dream about a headless rider wading through a lilypond and I thought that would make a fantastic image,” she says, pointing to the work on the floor which has a Gauguin-esque feel.

There are eight rugs in the new collection, all of which feature joyful scenes, even the more sinister-looking works of wolves and bats and spooky castles have a light, storybook feel. Some feature sea life — subject matter often appearing in the sea-loving artist’s work (she’s a keen surfer and watersports fan); horses are another repeating theme.

“Most of us were horse lovers at some point,” she says, pointing to a carpet of a happy herd of horses huddled under a smiling sun.

As for the whimsical works featuring castles, owls, bats and werewolves, they were inspired by storybooks, images from television and memories from the past.

She describes the new paintings — rendered in matte house paint — as “sexy, silly”.

An untitled rug artwork. Photo / Babiche Martens
An untitled rug artwork. Photo / Babiche Martens

Two works are in progress in another room. They feature Claudia and her partner Josephine washing a pink car in crop tops, a satirical scene in a Palm Springs-style setting — think pink skies and aqua tones, reminiscent of a scene from The Simpsons or South Park.

These paintings have an unfortunate real-life inspiration.

“I had my car stolen in July last year so I’ve been fantasising about driving a car for a while now. I’ve always wanted a pink car. And Josephine has a dream of owning her own motorbike, so that’s what inspired the paintings — owning our dream vehicles, driving each other around in them, washing them down, and having fun on the road. In the past, I’ve also been inspired by movies like Fast and Furious and Transformers to include motor vehicles in my paintings.”

Stylistically, Claudia describes her paintings as naive.

“My method of painting has always been the same, I can’t paint technically or realistically and I’m unapologetic about my work. There’s no huge meaning . . . I want people to appreciate the image for what it is. I work in the moment; I guess the paintings are snippets of what’s going on in my world.

“At one point I was interested in horses, then I went through a phase when I was arguing with Mum, so I painted that, and now I’m enjoying painting my girlfriend and I. There’s definitely a sense of escapism too. I love the act of painting, the way I can blend colours. I find it very relaxing compared to rug-making, which is way more physical.”

On the floor is a painting depicting Claudia and her girlfriend. Photo / Babiche Martens
On the floor is a painting depicting Claudia and her girlfriend. Photo / Babiche Martens

Claudia’s artistic career has been on an upward trajectory since graduating from Elam School of Fine Arts in 2018; in 2019 she won the NZ Painting and Printmaking Award, in 2022 was awarded a residency at Karekare House, and in November last year she was awarded the Debra Porch Award and took up a residency at Artisan Gallery in Bowen Hills in Brisbane.

She says being an artist, like any job, has its ups and downs.

“Up until now I’ve always had part-time jobs, nannying and hospo, this is the first time I get to practise art full-time, and I feel a lot of gratitude. But that also means you’re in charge of pushing yourself.”

Working full-time as an artist can also be lonely, she says, but being an only child has prepared her well for solitude.

Claudia stays connected with the art world by visiting artist-run spaces, many of which her friends are involved with.

“I think artist-run spaces are the place to look right now for emerging artists. There’s some excellent work on display, it’s also a great way to catch up with my friends and learn from other artists.”

As for what’s next on the artist’s horizon, she’s keen to keep exploring new mediums.

“I’d like to carve with wood and branch out into sculpture, or paint on a rug, perhaps? I think my style is always evolving and that’s what makes each new show exciting.”

And surely, just as fantastical.

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