paintings, places, process

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How to exorcise your lockdown demons: draw screaming women

Screaming women populate my notebooks.

Vampire Scream, 2020, watercolour on paper

Sometimes, during Sydney lockdown 2020, it helped to look in the mirror, silently scream, and draw.

Even before lockdown, however, the monstrous female head was a perennial favourite of mine; a symbol of female rage that draws from a rich wellspring of folklore, art history and pop culture. Furies, harpies, Medusa, Carrie, The Woman in Black, a panoply of vengeful long-haired Japanese spirits…

Here are three that have lodged themselves in my mind:

Caravaggio’s Medusa, a perfect encapsulation of rage and pain
Lucy Westenra, from the Charles Keeping-illustrated edition of Dracula

And Lorna Raver as Mrs Ganush, the wronged witch who exacts revenge from beyond the grave upon the young loan officer (Alison Lohman) who evicted her, in Sam Raimi’s 2009 horror movie, Drag Me to Hell. As an interesting aside, Mrs Ganush recalls the Greek Erinnyes or Furies, who reside in the Underworld and whose task, according to Robert Graves’ Greek Myths, is “to hear complaints brought by mortals against the insolence of the young to the aged, of children to parents, of hosts to guests, and of householders or city councils to suppliants – and to punish such crimes by hounding the culprits relentlessly, without rest or pause, from city to city and from country to country.” I’m sure ruthless loan agents would get a look-in as well…

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Three small paintings and the stories behind them

In Sydney’s pandemic lockdown of 2020, I craved colour. Unable to go to my studio, where I’d been working on ambitious black and white figure-in-urban-landscape paintings, I retreated to my bedroom with a pad of A5 watercolour paper and a modest (but vibrant) set of Koh-I-Noor artists’ watercolours. Here are three of the paintings that resulted, and a little about what inspired them:

“This time, it had a face”, 2020, unframed watercolour painting on white, acid-free paper

A few years ago, on a trip to Adelaide, South Australia, I recognised a tree that was familiar to me from previous visits to the Botanical Gardens. This time, though, it had a face, reminding me of a sinister book cover from my childhood that depicted a young girl in a park at dusk, cowering from a malevolent shrub.

“Tree House”, 2020, unframed watercolour painting on white, acid-free paper

A feature of my suburb: extremely varied architecture and landscaping – from streets of grand Victorian houses with manicured gardens to pockets that make you feel you’re climbing through an inner-city gully. Surrounded by eucalypts, this Modernist apartment building captured my imagination on daily walks during lockdown.

“Arachne”, 2020, unframed watercolour painting on white, acid-free paper

A tiny flower spider, spotted on red carpet at my parents’ house a couple of Sydney summers ago. Probably a Northern Flower Spider according to my entomologist aunt, who looked it up on Spidentify. Christmassy enough to form my greeting card design for Xmas 2020.

These three paintings can be found in my Etsy shop, 3AMDemons: to visit, click here.

Dispatches from the bedroom studio: 2020 in review

Since I wasn’t the most prolific blogger last year, I thought it might be worth summarising what my creative practice looked like over the course of the pandemic, especially since for most of this time I was away from my studio.

  1. NOTEBOOKS AND JOURNALS
Completed notebooks, 2020. Artwork on covers by Deborah Kelly (small nude figure), me (woman in forest) and Louise Hearman (white cat)

If nothing else, 2020 was a tremendous year for filling in notebooks, both new and of the half-finished variety many of us have languishing on our shelves. While I’ve always been a demon for stationery, journals and notebooks became THE focal point of my creative expression – not to mention a way of getting through the day – during the difficult initial months of the pandemic in Australia (as I wrote in my one post from that period, Disaster Journals). Escape hatch, place to generate ideas, virtual studio, companion, somewhere to let off steam, medium for recording a historic crisis…

2. BEDROOM CULTURE

It sounds like bedroom culture. It sounds like something a girl made in her bedroom.

Kathleen Hanna talking about the Julie Ruin album in Sini Anderson’s 2013 documentary, The Punk Singer

Making art during lockdown did feel a bit punk (or possibly Fluxus!) in that you had to do what you could with the materials and facilities you happened to have under these discombobulating circumstances.

Unable to travel to my studio, I had to shift gears away from more ambitious and conceptual figure-in-landscape paintings to a series of creepily decorative little paintings on paper, with my bedroom an improvised workspace.

3. COMICS

Making Comics by Scott McCloud, plus my graphic novel notebook (yes – another one!)

My graphic novel ‘dream’ is constantly sidelined by painting (yes, excuses, excuses…) so I decided to seize the opportunity when unable to travel to the studio to really do some homework on this challenging form C/O the incredible Scott McCloud. As public health conditions in Australia started to ease, the project was once again put on the back burner – but this certainly wasn’t time wasted.

4. BACK TO THE STUDIO (after 9 long months)!

…and picking up where I left off on Cocoon, the latest in a series of choreographed self-portraits set around Sydney. Indescribably good to be back.

Cocoon, acrylic on linen (work in progress)

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Disaster Journals

Journals can make a crisis seem containable. When finished, they can also serve as potent reminders of that particular crisis.

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Pictured are my own disaster journals from the past seven or so months, encompassing Australia’s horrific, suffocating bushfire summer followed shortly after by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In between, there was also some flooding!  [For the stationery buffs: we have two Paperblanks notebooks up the top, three Rhodia webnotebooks with covers painted by me, composition notebook decorated with viperfish pic, and an A5 Kunst & Papier sketchbook.]

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Yellow cityscape in the upper right corner reflects the weird hue Sydney took on during the bushfire crisis when the smoke was at its heaviest over the city

When lockdown regulations were introduced in Australia on 23 March 2020, with the accompanying sudden adjustments that had to be made – not least the sobering probability of not seeing parents or friends for months – I found myself gravitating towards an unpretentious, unfinished Composition Notebook, containing notes for one of my many abortive graphic novels, as well as the minutes of some work meetings.

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Illustration by Charles Keeping on the left; doodled stress-head by me on the right

In here, I tried to organise each day of my increasingly amorphous life, while also jotting down various updates on the pandemic. Then, I started compulsively to stick in various bits and pieces of ephemera that I had around the flat – calendar landscapes, film flyers, postcards, homewares brochures etc etc. In jarring juxtaposition, and in a telling demonstration of my state of mind, the scarier the news became, the prettier and more decorative the pages. Never have I been more aware of a notebook’s singular facility for offering a means of mental escape when there is no possibility of physical escape.

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Compbook page in progress, with mundane tasks nudging up against the febrile atmosphere on social media at the time

Here in Australia, I think I can cautiously say that, in contrast with the handling of the bushfires, the measures taken by our state and federal governments, in combination with Australia’s relative isolation, have helped us avert the devastating toll of death and infection seen in other wealthy countries. Due to personal circumstances, I’m still limited to my home suburb (which means no travel to my painting studio), but I’m lucky to have frequent (virtual) contact with family; I’ve managed to fashion some kind of studio routine out of my bedroom with the limited supplies to hand; and leaving the house is no longer terrifying! I continue to keep very scrapbooky journals, but now it’s more for fun than therapy.

PS I can’t write about journals and composition notebooks without mentioning the great Lynda Barry, comics artist and reigning Queen of the Compbook, whose manual Syllabus is a must-read for anyone interested in journal-keeping, writing, drawing, comics and generally being creatively alive to the world.

Getting Out

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Interaction between interior and exterior at Remnim Alexander Tayco’s open studio

Rather to my shame, I haven’t been getting out to see much visual art this year at all. So it was great to be pulled from my complacency recently by two friends’ pop-up exhibitions, and to be reminded how rewarding and – especially as a fellow painter – galvanising it is to actually go and look at art in the flesh. As a bonus, it can also lead you into new streets and places.

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Weighed down by blossoms in Ashfield

On Saturday 9 November, I caught a train to Ashfield in Sydney’s inner west and walked from the small business district around the station to Remnim Alexander Tayco‘s open studio on a quiet residential street. This weekend exhibition was part of the Inner West Studio Trail initiative.

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Alex (Remnim) has converted an old garage into a light-filled space with an A-frame roof that resembles a small temple – all the more so when hung with his numinous, jewel-like paintings.

After hanging out with other guests in the backyard, there was just enough time to jump back on the train, disembark at Central Station and walk a couple of blocks past the sprawling News Corp offices to swank Michael Reid Gallery, where my friend Melanie Waugh was part of a weekend-long group show curated by Amber Creswell Bell.

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In a room of assured contemporary Modernist work, Mel’s lush Northern New South Wales landscapes had a lovely robust, painterly spontaneity.

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I think my distaste for aspects of the Sydney ‘art market’ had stopped me realising what a fun adventure it can be to go and look at an exhibition. Here’s to more gallery visits in future!

 

Urban Forest

 

In this city, only about 20 minutes’ drive from downtown, you can walk along a bush track and feel thousands of miles away from the crush of central Sydney.

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Turn a corner, though, and you’ll find yourself facing a familiar line of skyscrapers across the harbour.

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I recently came across the term “urban forest”, used to describe all the trees in a city, with no distinction between bushland, street trees or those on private property.

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It’s a prompt for me to think of the bush not as something separate from the built environment, but as a network extending through it, as vital as any human-made infrastructure.

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Images: self-portrait and landscape drawings from art journal, c. 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

This City I’m In

After dance classes I would walk back through the city keeping an eye out for reflective surfaces in which I could record myself as part of the urban environment.Mirror_selfie_Wynyard

In the absence of a mirror, an ordinary selfie would do.Sakkas_MartinPlaceSP_2

This small performative exercise developed into more involved photo sessions in chosen locations, which in turn became material for sketches and paintings.Sakkas_NthSyd

It’s an ongoing (maybe life-long!) project, partly inspired by the whole-body self-portraits of US painter Joan Semmel, where the focus begins to shift away from the face to the expression of the body in response to place.Walkway_sketch_Sakkas

Images, top to bottom: Mirror Selfie, Wynyard (acrylic on watercolour paper); Martin Place (acrylic on watercolour paper); back arch with cranes, North Sydney (pen drawing in sketchbook); pen and watercolour sketch in art journal

Feathers, comics and cat polaroids: a personal history of Daler Rowney process journals

Simple and sturdy with their canvas-textured hard covers and heavy-weight, off-white paper, Daler Rowney’s Ebony journals have served me faithfully for 20 years, as a place to document the process of art-making; to research, experiment and workshop ideas.IMG_3133

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Sometimes messy, sometimes elaborate, they hold an eclectic mixture of different media and textures, combining practice drawings and paintings, image designs, reference pics and (more recently) mock-ups of comics.IMG_3153IMG_3157IMG_3154

My early journals (below) bring me back to the excitement of art school days when I was just beginning to grasp what painting methods and subjects interested me, and so much of this knowledge was new.

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Evidence that my youth wasn’t entirely wasted…

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Feathers found at Taronga Zoo

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I was a huge Lucian Freud fan

Note: I’ve used all sizes of the Ebony journal, but for process diaries, I keep returning to the A5. Only four journals are photographed here; I’ve used a fair few more, and in terms of my entire journal, notebook and sketchbook collection, well, this is but the tip of the iceberg…

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Four art process journals (wooden horse carved for me by my father when I was a child)

The Lady and the Unicorn

Pocket notebook drawings from the rare display of this marvellous and mysterious medieval (c. 1500) suite of tapestries at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, on loan from the Museé de Cluny. I have never encountered such a soulful unicorn!

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Glass wall reflection, Art Gallery of New South Wales

The Beaten Track

TheBeatenTrack_detailThe Beaten Track, 2018, oil on linen, 56.5 x 46.5 cm (detail). An icebreaker to get back into oil painting after a very long period working in acrylics. It was also nice to return to the uncanny bushland of my subconscious.