Reminiscing

The Meadows © Samantha Groenestyn

Right this minute, a bunch of custom notecards are making their way to my dear friend Elizabeth in Scotland! Liz and I used to live together in Edinburgh, and these cards bring back happy memories for me as I hope they will for her.

Edinburgh Castle © Samantha Groenestyn

Skye sheep © Samantha Groenestyn

Rolling hills © Samantha Groenestyn

Yep, I’m available for commissions. Just send me a friendly note!

 

 

Standard

Taste, beauty and Australia

Westminster © Samantha Groenestyn

I have been heartily enjoying an Australian literary classic penned in 1960: Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness*. Though I have no architectural ambitions, buildings hold some lingering fascination for me, and Boyd’s speculations on and criticisms of Australian architecture half a century ago are razor-sharp when applied to the Australian aesthetic (or lack thereof) in whichever field it raises its beastly head. Our ‘youth’ as a nation is not responsible for our dire aesthetic sensibilities—rather, we have willfully cultivated a population proud of its poor taste, and seized on this revulsion to beauty as a defining national characteristic. Boyd calls it, rather cleverly, Featurism.

Featurism, according to Boyd, is a sort of decorative approach to design, and in turn a sort of enshrining approach to decoration. It is about appearances rather than function or utility, and as such it allows no room for subtlety, or the beauty to be found in elegant simplicity. It is one hundred percent veneer: false surfaces applied to questionable (and most likely poorly imitated) structures. The Australian rarely designs, argues Boyd. He defines design as fundamentally a problem-solving exercise involving ‘find[ing] order in a confusion of functional requirements and conflicting economic demands,’ requiring the designer ‘to blend separate parts into a whole, single, unified concept’ (p. 22). The Featurist fails to step up to such a challenge: ‘The Featurist, on the contrary, deliberately and proudly destroys any unified entity which comes into his hands by isolating parts, breaking up simple planes, interrupting straight lines, and applying gratuitous extra items wherever he fears the eye may be tempted to rest’ (p. 23). The architect, artist or designer faces an uphill battle trying to get through to a public that can only appreciate the surface. Glazed eyes slide over the visual landscape until they lock momentarily onto a flashy surface trick, and this is the extent of the audience’s engagement.

Featurism is exactly what it sounds like: One builds a house that stands out on one’s street, with a nice peaked gable with little wooden scrolls on it, and a lattice gate with a bell next to it. The veranda is covered in all manner of wind chimes, exotic plants and antique chairs. The living room has a feature wall, perhaps plum purple, painted in the granulated paint that must be swished on in multiple directions so that its rough surface picks up the light in different ways, mimicking some ancient Italian stucco. The feature wall has an antique telephone table in front of it, accompanied by a statue and a large, colourful painting in a flashy gilt frame. Fake flowers (these are Boyd’s pet hate) are a downright necessity. The car is of American make, but painted in suitably Australian primary colours, with leather seats, or sheepskin seat covers, with a smaller wooden steering wheel, billiard ball gear stick knob, checkerplate floor mats, custom pedals, neon-lit dash, chrome trimmings and stickers of your family on the rear window.

‘This is the nature of the prosperity,’ argues Boyd. ‘There is no attraction to the idea of upsetting the comfortable status quo by fundamental re-thinking on appearances, while loose coins in every pocket jingle eagerly to be spent on novel, exciting surface effects’ (p. 116). Australia has reached a level of prosperity on par with Scandinavia—our standard of living is incredibly high, we work hard, we’re well-educated. None of this is enough. The respect that Sweden or Denmark affords its creatives is entrenched in a culture that values design as ingenious solutions. Australia offers its creatives no such respect; Autralians only want to be wowed. ‘In this busy age ordinary taste has become so dulled and calloused that anything which can startle a response on jaded retinas is deemed successful: it draws attention to the fact that paint has been used and progress is afoot’ (p. 109).

As an artist, then, I face a choice. Australia may be receptive to my art, but at what cost? If perhaps the most shallow of my paintings are the most appealing to people, will I give up on trying to give meaning to my work? If producing decorative pieces is enough, I won’t be able to explore and grow as an artist. If my intellect is removed from my work, forcefully or out of sheer apathy, my growth as a human being is stunted. This is no way to live one’s life when the world is rich with experiences and knowledge and ideas to work through. Such a choice has dogged Australians with a spark of life in them for generations: ‘Most Australians … do not wish to be reminded of the facts that their country is still known abroad as an artistic and intellectual desert, and that they themselves would never be taken seriously without their denying to some extent their Australian upbringing and background, and that highly talented Australians in any of the non-useful fields of art or science have to face a dramatic decision early in their careers. They can stay here in easy-going comfort with their talent and their frustrations both working at half-pressure, or they may wrench themselves from their own country in order to develop themselves’ (p. 76).

I, of course, am a true blue Featurist. Raised on a gluttonous diet of ornament, colour and pattern, my house is a veritable goldmine of Persian rugs, tapestry-upholstered couches, tacky French prints, Dutch crockery, fake flowers, moustache cushions and ugly lamps. (Boyd considers lamps to have always ‘brought out the worst in designers’ (p. 117) ). ‘Voluntarily or involuntarily,’ he laments, ‘Featurism dogs Australia even when she sets out with good intentions of avoiding it’ (p. 22). My lavish poor taste infects everything I touch, because I can’t communicate through subtlety, and my eyes delight in being assaulted. I’m determined to grow out of this and to learn to appreciate quality beneath the surface. As for my country—our lack of respect for beauty and real engagement with design is most likely far too entrenched.

 

* Boyd, Robin. 2010 [1960]. The Australian Ugliness. Text: Melbourne.

Standard

Action and preparation

Princess © Samantha Groenestyn

How does one go about pursuing a career in art? My educational background puts me at something of a disadvantage in terms of knowing anything at all really about the accepted career progression of professional artists, and this has forced me to be somewhat resourceful and unorthodox in my approach. I dream up things, try them, and see if they work. My rather brash method is to act—quickly—and then to stop and evaluate the response to my efforts before taking another brazen step. I’m learning by doing—arranging shows, talking to strangers, and most of all, sharing. I can’t afford to keep anything under wraps; I have to be open about my work, have it ready to show anyone who is interested, and ready to react to their response. I’m learning on the job: learning both how to establish myself as an illustrator and how to go about my craft. I’m trying to grow both at once.

Sketches from the Prado exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery

I’ve been fortunate enough to learn more about the big, bad art world through my artist friends, big-deal gallery openings and talking to the types of people who buy (or don’t buy, as the case may be) art. I’m discovering that one might approach a career in art in a deliberate and measured way. One might take a lengthy period of time to think and to ready oneself, to prepare. Being sure of your work and intentions can enable you to present something solid when the time is right.

I’ve always been in a hurry to do all the things I want to do, and far more inclined to dive right in without adequate forethought, be it moving to Edinburgh to study having done zero research on Edinburgh, or buying lovely musical instruments on a whim, or signing up for a graphic design course three days before the beginning of term. I think of it as engineering luck by pushing myself into situations that might become opportunities. I suppose it’s a bit like playing those old computer games, like Street Fighter, and just pushing that one button really fast so you get the most kicks in and you more or less have to win because something has to connect. But now that I think about it, look at all the energy I have to expend in so many directions! What if I had the focus to work at the one thing I knew mattered to me most of all?

But while I may be over-stimulated, I certainly don’t have a limited attention span. I work most satisfyingly when I work intently on one thing for hours at a time. I like not having to rush; I like labouring over my task and doing it well. Perhaps I’ve reached a point where I’ve tried enough things and need to consider which things are really worth my attention.

Coffee date with Bammes

In fact, I am culling a few things from my hectic schedule just now and am quietly thrilled to be adjusting to probably the best phase of my life so far. As of this coming week, I will no longer be working part time at a café to pay my bills, and I will no longer be spending several evenings a week wrestling with Photoshop and InDesign. It’s hopes and dreams from here on in, baby, and I won’t be pouring away a minute of my time on anything that isn’t art. I’m starting with a three-month intensive at the atelier, peppered with a week at Julian Ashton’s in Sydney, and making a lot of hot dates with Bammes.

Wish me luck!

If you make it down to Vulture Street, West End in Brisbane, you can see some more of my paintings in The Happy Cabin and SOL Breads, as well as some brand new works and my blog banner at The Box.

Standard

Auction

Just quietly, Venezia has gone up for auction on the Illustrators Australia website. All the 9 x 5 paintings will be auctioned on the opening night, this coming Friday, but you can get in early if you so desire (or if you can’t make it to Melbourne) and make a bid.

Some of the other submissions are looking pretty swish, why don’t you go and take a look?

Details:
Space 39,
39 Little Collins St,
Melbourne

Friday 9th November, 6pm.

Quality time with Bammes over coffee.

Standard

The creek

Nest © Samantha Groenestyn

I was fortunate enough to attend an artist floor talk in Noosa the other week, given by one David Paulson at his retrospective exhibition. The guys at the atelier spoke of him—their former teacher—with starry eyes, and I had to tag along to see their idol in the flesh. His fleshy self is every bit as sparkling, witty and intimidating as his self-portrait, and the man had a lot of irreverent and insightful things to say.

David talked about hiring a model every day for an hour. Thirty dollars a day, five days a week, amounts to a significant sum for a financially precarious artist, but David filled sketchbook after sketchbook this way, refining his understanding of the human form. ‘Some people put a deposit on a house,’ he explained, ‘I invested in my skill.’

Now, I have no grand aspirations to own any sort of property or dwelling, and not only because my financial situation is also on the precarious end of the continuum, but mostly because such things don’t interest me. You are going to work all of your life, and you are possibly going to achieve something. I’ve known people who have proudly announced to me that since the age of twenty-six they’ve been locked into a thirty-year mortgage which they, a sole parent, must spend the majority of their part-time income on, but that it’s the best thing ever and in their fifties they’re finally going to own their somewhat average house in some backwater of Australia. While that’s no mean feat, it’s not exactly a very clever sacrifice in my estimation. No, what I’m interested in is my own skills and abilities, and working at them to achieve the most productive life possible. I’ll always find somewhere to live, and while I cherish the idea of ‘home,’ I won’t make it the driving motivation of my life.

David’s work over his lifetime is varied, but always strong and bold. His angrier stuff from his youth is confronting and bitter, and his student work—realistic portraits and such—is tight and confident. David took awkward questions from the floor and responded with an intensity and honesty that was as unsettling as much of his work. This is a man who says it like it is, and doesn’t accept people applying concepts like ‘metaphysical’ to his painting method. ‘I like the creek, so I paint the creek. There’s so much to discover in the creek. I wish I’d found the creek when I was thirty.’

Said creek is at the back of David’s property in Maleny (it’s also reassuring to know that one can preference skills over house deposits and still wind up with property, creek and all), and his explorations of it are crisp, brash and full of depth. Light shimmers knowledgeably over rocks, sticks and leaves, but those debris hold their own. These are no impressionist paintings playing with ethereal light: these paintings drag you to the bottom of the creek with their heaviness. And you want to be there: this creek is a veritable Barrier Reef of thoroughly delightful underwater plumage.

David spoke of limiting his palette in more recent times to eight colours. Each painting draws on this palette in different ratios: while the creek bed paintings burst with vivid reds, yellows and blues, saving the darks for striking tonal effects, a series of smaller paintings of girls on the creek bank are predominantly dark, saving tiny flecks of pure colour for eerie glances of light off skin and water. J has often spoken of style being a matter of limiting yourself in a particular way—of making a choice about what to leave out—and in David’s case, his palette has forced him to explore other things about the works, though I suspect it has also given him a virtuoso grasp on the limits that his colours can be pushed to.

We spent some time admiring David’s life drawings, and he took great delight in telling us that a drawing must capture the person. Being correct and accurate is not the same as understanding a person through their physical presence and describing that in lines on paper. I’m reminded of Bammes* (p. 10), who says of this ‘sensitivity’ toward the model: ‘we are building up the body’s physiognomy—expressing character through a physical description.’

Meeting David Paulson was a real honour, and hearing his straight-up thoughts on art and life has given me plenty of hope for the unconventional career that is being an artist.

* Bammes, Gottfried. 2010. Complete guide to life drawing [Menschen zeichnen Grundlagen zum Aktzeichnen]. Trans. Cicero Translations. Search: Kent.
Nest is a picture of my house, nestled in her leafy jungle of a garden. It’s pretty much the best house ever. We’ve made it a cosy little haven, productive workspace, and buzzing party hive. We call her The Duchess because she’s so regally dilapidated with her sprawling verandas and high ornate ceilings, and this blog is named after her, a tribute to the importance of place in my life.

Standard

Of past selves

Breakfast, Edinburgh © Samantha Groenestyn

Until this week, I had the idea that I make two types of art: small and quite stylised illustrations in gouache on paper, and large and quite realistic paintings on canvas. In fact, my large paintings have been neglected this year, unsurprisingly, since I have been fairly prolific in my illustrative output. I pulled out an old unfinished one on the weekend, one that would have been part of a series of pre-illustration pieces depicting breakfasting friends in Europe. I’d started it in acrylics, since I’d never learned to use oils until starting at the atelier, so I dusted off my old acrylic paints and set up on the veranda and worked solidly on the rather sizeable piece—about a metre by a metre and a half.

The trouble, of course, was that this painting existed in some distant, dark-aged past, and while my untrained self had managed to reproduce things like shadows and planes in a near-enough sort of fashion without having any real knowledge about such things, trying to go back to this old painting was just maddening. My past self certainly wasn’t kind to my later selves: my drawing was hasty and inaccurate, the perspective dire and my brushwork (most likely due to the quality of my brushes) abysmal. I tried to repaint sections, neatening up the lines and coverage, paying more attention to planes. When it came to painting an entirely untouched section, I realised what a liability the cheap acrylic paint was, and the (probably cheap) surface: the paint would not stick, it went on patchy and rough. I wrestled with it for two solid hours, and then I stepped back and surveyed my efforts. I felt suddenly at ease: this painting is not to be—not this way, not now. Because I don’t paint this way anymore. Breakfast, Copenhagen might resurface as an oil painting or as a gouache painting: either way, it will rely on sturdy draughtsmanship, careful brushwork, informed anatomy. But this painting can’t be salvaged, and I’m going to feel very relieved to remove the canvas from the frame and dispose of it accordingly.

The most significant thing I’ve had to admit to myself is that illustration has become my main art form. I didn’t feel I thought of it that seriously, despite having thrown myself into it so vigorously, and I felt I always had my other kind of painting, but this isn’t the case. Perhaps I ought to think more deeply about what kind of painting I most want to do, and most want to be recognised for. I enjoy illustration, and love that it can be in people’s lives and is in many ways less intimidating than art gallery art. Perhaps best of all, it has forced me to explore subject matter I wouldn’t have approached otherwise, and to explore qualities not associated with realism: distorted textures, imposed patterns, amplified colours and simplification of forms. Illustration may have just saved me from a creative rut. It brought my imagination to art, something I was always afraid of in my aspirations to be a human photocopier.

I certainly won’t be abandoning illustration anytime soon; I’m throwing myself into it harder than ever. I’m thoroughly enjoying this part of my artistic career. But I’ll be making sure to make time for the type of art that is really what I’m about.

And so: to celebrate art of bygone eras, I’m pleased to share that I’m displaying my Breakfast series for the entire month of November at SOL Breads in West End, Brisbane.

Breakfast, Paris © Samantha Groenestyn

Breakfast, Paris is of two Australian girls, Melinda and Sarah, whom I met in Paris and even spent some time in London with. We shared many a croissant in the sunny window of our Montmartre hostel.

Breakfast, Edinburgh (above) is a portrait of my free-spirited Scottish friend Judy, a wee sprite of a girl. We worked together at a bar, and spent some time in bars in Italy. Her approach to life is so chilled, but so adventurous.

Breakfast, Berlin © Samantha Groenestyn

Breakfast, Berlin is a painting of my favourite friend, quantum physicist Nathan, playing guitar at ‘the guitar café’ in Prenzlauerberg after 2 crepes. I love that his future self seems to be sitting behind him. Closed time-like curves, anyone?

Standard