Kate Breakey is a whirlwind of energy as she paces around the Etherton Gallery. She lifts one of her large framed art pieces off a wall and begins prying at the back to free the picture so she can replace it.
"Have a look around," she says in her Australian accent. She's dressed casually, in jeans tucked into brown leather boots and a gray shirt with a scarf. Her messy blond hair hangs around her shoulders.
It is a few days before last month's opening of her midcareer retrospective at the gallery that showcases a new collection called "Slow Light," in addition to her older works.
While she fusses with the works, she admits she isn't completely comfortable - she says she hates being surrounded by her artwork. It makes her notice the flaws.
Terry Etherton, the gallery's owner, doesn't notice the flaws. He has given his entire gallery space to one artist only once before. He discovered Breakey about 15 years ago through another artist and immediately took a liking to her outgoing personality and painted photography.
"We're in awe of her here," he says.
Etherton describes her as prolific and professional. "Show her something once, and she'll be able to do it better than you can," he says.
Her works are marked by powerful landscapes and eloquent still lifes. They speak of the world around her.
"Wherever I go I get interested in native plants and animals," Breakey says as she takes a break from putting the final touches on her just-hung show to sit down and talk.
"Most of us disregard the natural world. We're a very self-important part of something much bigger."
Breakey works from studio space at her Tucson-area home sitting on four acres. She shoots film, processes it herself in the kitchen sink, and develops it in her darkroom with a floor-standing enlarger.
"The darkroom holds a whole other level of anticipation and satisfaction," she says in "Painted Light," a 2010 book about her work (University of Texas Press).
"As humans, I think we like to wait and wonder. Digital photography can't satisfy that need for me."
She brings the finished photographs to her studio space and begins layering color on them in the form of oil paint and colored pencil (all of her photographs have some medium added to them). She works alone and listens to classical music, mostly cello pieces because she is currently learning how to play the instrument.
Breakey is well known for her "Small Deaths" collection, a series which features such subjects as dead birds, insects, rodents and flowers. It began in 1995 when she found a dying sparrow and wanted to make a memorial to it.
"It had its own story, a life history that I would never know, but I could make this portrait as a memorial to that life," she says in "Painted Light."
Shock isn't her intention. A lot of people don't even realize the creatures are dead, she says.
"I fall in love with the little birds, but they're transient," she says. "There are always new ones coming along."
Breakey grew up in a small coastal town in Australia, surrounded by nature. She got her first taste of "small death" when she watched with a "voyeuristic horror" as her father slaughtered chickens. Her aunt and uncle planted the seed for her love of art, introducing her to art documentaries and photography books.
With encouragement from her high school art teacher, Breakey got two degrees - one in graphic design and another in fine art, from the South Australian School of Art in Adelaide. When her husband got a job offer in Austin, Texas, in 1988, the couple moved to the U.S. and she went for a master's of fine art at the University of Texas. She taught in the university's art and photography departments and still has work on display in Texas.
Breakey doesn't get bored, and doesn't get blocked. She keeps a notebook loaded with ideas and says there isn't enough time to do everything she wants to do. She frequently adds more pieces to older collections, and she pursues other types of art, like ceramics. Her new "Slow Light" collection is actually not so new. The desert landscape photographs have been taken over the past 30 years and are just being shown now.
Etherton has a catalog for this major show, and Breakey has had three books of her works published.
She says there's a possibility of another book within the next few years, and she's working on a new project with a "spy cam" set up in her backyard.
"It's a motion-sensor camera that you can put out in the desert at night, and it takes pictures with infrared of all the animals that come by," she says. "I'd like to do a whole room of life-size coyotes."
If you go
Kate Breakey: Slow Light
• What: A retrospective of works by Kate Breakey
• When: Through Jan. 21.
• Where: Etherton Gallery, 135 S. Sixth Ave.
• Information: 624-7370.
Alexandra Newman is a University of Arizona student who is apprenticing at the Star. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4128.