By Celeste Hawkins
Just as Claire Bridge can articulate her thoughts visually through her painting style, she is equally able to unravel her emotions through the written word. Offering a deep and at times, poetic reflection on her processes, we gain an insight into how we, as viewers might read her work. We are also invited to understand how Claire senses her surrounds and tracks the changes that have taken place in her practice over the years. Her forthcoming show, “Future Memory” at Flinders Lane Gallery is a series based on her magical time exploring the desert heartland of Lake Mungo, the lakes of Eastern Victoria and the billabongs and wetlands of Hattah.
You are well recognized for your delicate and realistic forms. Can you please talk about the process of your journey in Master style painting?
I have always delighted in detail. Fascinated with bringing something to life, wishing for it to breathe on canvas. Perhaps it has been a desire to get closer to something through seeing it more intensely through acute observation. To paint with heightened realism brings a delight in the magic of creating a “real” illusion. To create a convincing illusion there is a fair amount of pre-imagining, pre-planning, there is a confidence lent to the act in having an exactness form to observe, a process of replication for the most part, close to what a photo captures, but enhancing this through bringing forward knowledge from years of study, working from the life model, study of anatomy and constant referral to the subject. It can be a meditative experience. There’s a surety of step in following the clearly laid out map of what is in front of your eyes, be that from life or from a photo. It removes much of the anxiety of choice and the myriad of decisions that arise as when leaning more into the ephemeral shifting landscape of imagination and memory.
The majority of my skills are self taught, mostly from seeing works in European and USA museums, a very brief time spent at a classical atelier in San Francisco and a couple of master classes with other artists. I’m always open to learning. I probably learnt most during the time I spent with a painting’s conservator, handling and “making invisible” the missing or damaged sections, the cracks or other issues in paintings ranging from 12C Russian icons to McCubbin, Carrick Fox, Violet Teague, Gould or Jeffrey Smart, Emily Kame Kngwarrey and contemporary painters.
Closely observing how the layers of paint are constructed by each individual artist in order to replicate the effect, was like being apprenticed (to the spirits) of these masters. Sometimes even feeling the presence of their hand moving mine or sitting beside me as I work. It’s a privilege to work with another artist’s work, listening to their whispering through the paint.
One of the things about developing your ability and skills to see and to communicate, these, as you say, “master” skills of drawing, of rendering delicate and realistic forms, then as an artist you have choice, born of the freedom of ability. You have a greater capacity to respond as you wish. Without those skills, you simply do not have the range of options available. Traditional skills have the advantage of developing with subtly the nuances of eye, vision, memory, a conscious control of hand and brush, years of practice and the patience, commitment and discipline that comes with that, which can develop a facility and capacity to work with harmony and balance the elements in order to create a painting that carries itself and communicates.
Your portraits and figurative works contain strong ideas around emotions. Do your subjects mostly emerge from your own experience or from those around you?
My work is centered and developed around themes that inspire me in ways that challenge me to grow and stir my heart and soul. These ideas speak to the core of who we are. I am exploring ways of being, how we are as humans and how we evolve our consciousness. How we relate to our world, including the environment and climate change. Our relationship with our Earth has always been a consistent presence throughout my work. The figure has always been a metaphor, as we are too, of our true nature.
The emotional quality is an important component. In these works that have their foundation in memory and imagination, emotion is even more essential. The quality of feeling that I remember, of that place and time, that moment or combination of moments, I bring this to the work as I paint. I consciously harness that emotion, feel it with intensity, detail and savour its richness and subtleties, the nuances of feeling, the sensuous aliveness, the energy or what I would call the resonance of that moment and infuse the painting with it. Embedded in each brushstroke, each painting becomes a magical object, a time machine that can transport.
A moment such as being in the boat out on the lake in the coolness of predawn, floating, with mists rising off the waters and just as the sun glances over the mountains, the glisten of golden light on the waters, the feeling of excitement, combined with the peace of stillness, the unavoidable sense of promise and possibilities of the day about to burst, the intensifying of colour as it shifts in that moment from soft haze to burning bright hues. Those are the kinds of feelings I remember.
In your latest works for “Future Memory”, it seems you have loosened up your painting style, was that a conscious decision?
I am really enjoying the new work! Some of my earlier works, such as the Doug Moran piece in 2008/9 “If looks could kill” and a body of work from my exhibition “Transit lounge” are very textural and loose.
There is an aspect that many a realist painter becomes aware of in how the audience can respond, “Oh wow … how do you do that? It’s just like a photograph!” that while an intended compliment, can sometimes be a potential obstacle that hinders people from really seeing the work. It can be too easy to see the skill, be amazed at the “life-likeness” and stop there and not go beyond that to see what the work could reveal.
Beyond the replication and duplication of reality there is something more to be touched, felt, experienced and expressed. I wanted to convey something of what’s beyond the veil of reality, the ephemeral, the presence of a moment, the unique signature of a place, in its colour, mood, palette, in the gesture and vigour of marks.
As an artist friend said to me, when they look at these works they experience:
“Joy. Freedom. Spontaneity. Presence.”
Or in the words of another friend, “I feel like I want to disappear into the landscape… They seem to mesmerise and captivate like a spell.”
For me it feels like home.
Do you think the way you paint (loosening or tightening) reflects your mood or current state?
I make pretty conscious choices about how I paint and especially the emotional state or mood I want to bring to my work.
I find that the spontaneity of a looser way of painting is more immediate and responsive to the present moment. This is very exciting. It is closer to the single stroke and single brush mark of the calligrapher or sword master, where the single movement is of the essence. Oneness of body, mind and spirit. In a looser way of painting, with less focus on the logic of constructing a convincing realistic illusion of form, there is a capacity to be “in the moment” and in the now. Less doing. More being.
How did the recent residency in Mildura influence your style and current body of work? What experiences did you have that informed your painting practice?
When you face a defining moment, such as a moment of life and death, everything can change in an instant.
I could very easily not be here today.
I was at the Hattah-Kulkyne National Park, down by a lake. The wetlands and lakes had been flooded, as they do seasonally, to rejuvenate the lands in the area. It was a day of bleaching hot sun. I was standing close to water’s edge, fascinated by a stand of river red gums, soaking up a big drink, sketching and photographing their sensuous forms, the light on the water, sultry greens and olives mingled with bright sky blue reflections and dappled shadows.
I heard a rustling movement in the grass. And then again. I was entranced by what was before me. The sound came again. It sounded heavier, larger than a lizard. Without moving my body, I turned my head to see a dark brown snake uncoiling in the long grasses just arm’s length away. I was fascinated. I felt no fear (I should have perhaps?) and it continued to unravel its sleek muscular length and slithered away. Yes away, stretching out its full two meters length…. a dark brown/black neck and head and rich brown body…
It took a moment before it sunk in. “Brown snake!” A deadly, brown snake. Action… yes I better move away from here.
It wasn’t until I got back to the Art Vault later that evening and Googled snakes that looked like the snake I had seen that I realised it was most likely the deadliest snake on the planet-the inland Taipan. If that magnificent creature had chosen to strike (and I was well within its range) I would not have survived simply because of the paralysis that sets in so quickly and any help just out of range.
It’s a memorable moment, for its grace and elegance, for the wonder and majesty in its mesmerising presence, for the sense of respect and peace that I felt and absolute lack of fear. You never know really how you will be when facing death, (in this case symbolically) until it happens. Walking away I felt gratitude, I must admit a thrill at being alive and the continued desire to explore and create, with my vision now on high alert and senses sharp and heightened!
It is a wonderful metaphor for the next stage of my work. My recent shows Alchemy, Air Born and Dark Matter… all relate to our consciousness within and beyond the body, our capacity to transform. Without physically transitioning, facing death symbolically and metaphysically, seems a graceful way to open up to what is beyond the veil in this next stage of my work.
It’s opened me up so much more to being in the moment.
I was invited by the Art Vault to undertake a residency there last October. It was perfect timing for me. I had just had all my works sell out at the Melbourne Art Fair after a very intensive period of work and exhibitions. I felt a need to open up new possibilities in my creative practice. You need to go beyond the familiar and beyond the well trodden path, to stir up creativity in ways that may not otherwise be possible. I loved the work I have been doing and could certainly continue on that path.
The wonderful thing about a residency is the immersion. Uninterrupted by the day to day of regular life or surroundings, I adjust to all the newness, outside of the comfort zone. In Mildura the skies are big and expansive. All I wanted was to soak up the landscape fall into the embrace of the earth and land dip straight into the sensuous presence of the Murray River.
Standing on the dunes of Lake Mungo, shifting sands moving gently underfoot in the scorching hot midday sun, bleached white against an azure sky I felt all time at once. The sand itself told the story, for only a year ago where I was standing was the bottom of a desert lake, and not the peak of a dune where I now stood looking back at the swerve and curve of an ever shifting landscape. The sands were moving through the air as I watched, lifted by a hot breeze. Nothing was permanent, everything moving and dissolving. This place, was once tropical rainforest, lush and filled with giant mammals, wombats the size of elephants, the lake had been full and wet.
Now it was dry. Drier than bones. And the bones told their stories too, appearing and disappearing. The oldest modern humans found in Australia, the earliest remains of our first people are found here, Mungo woman and Mungo man to remind us the Aboriginal people have been here for 60,000 years. You feel the Ancients there. The Barkindji have been continuous custodians of this land. I was extremely fortunate to connect with Graham Clarke, a Barkindji man and my guide, who enriched and deepened the connection with his generous sharing of the stories and Dreaming of his people and country, taking me under his wing to share with me his country.
Do you think your travel and time spent in Europe has given you the edge and influence required to master your skill?
Not at all. Mastery is a work in progress. I think my time in Europe opened up my ways of seeing, and a sense valuing of art and creativity that is just part of the air and dust in Europe – part of everyday life, part of everyone’s identity and tradition in Europe. That is a significant springboard for someone from Australia, a society where art and creativity is often sidelined and certainly not held in the high esteem that it is in Europe. It is a positive foundation for an artist’s identity to feel valued and significant. Walking the very pavements where the masters walked certainly inspired me, imagining I was breathing the same air and touching the same soil as Da Vinci, Gentileschi or Michelangelo. I would have loved to have had the benefits of years of training in an atelier. My learning however has been for the most part trial and error. It is painting itself which teaches me about painting.
Tell me about your role as American Australian Visual Art ambassador. How did this role come about?
I was invited to assist the American Australian Association in identifying and securing an Australian artist based in New York- to take on a position as Visual Arts advisor.
It was a completely new role, necessary because of the significant amount of applications received for the Dame Joan Sutherland Fund across the arts and an advisor was required to assist the Cultural Committee with evaluating Visual Arts applications. I put forward a number of artists who would have each been excellent selections for the role, and great ambassadors. I had not a thought of doing the role, especially as I am based in Melbourne.
However, the Committee decided of all the candidates, that they would offer me the role. I was completely surprised! It is a voluntary role. I have been dedicating my time and experience pro bono to the AAA for the past 4-5 years in order to assist and support more artists, especially Australian artists, to further their careers and practice with funding that can support them being able to take up or create new opportunities in the USA or Australia. I am proud to say we have been able to support some wonderful Australian artists.
I believe that artists deserve to have the opportunity to develop, explore their work and expand their careers. In an ideal world, these essential roles of administering grants and funding to artists, whose work may never see the light of day without funding support and where peer review is a powerful ally for artists, these would be paid roles.
My concern is that if we don’t first step up to establish these positions then artists won’t get the opportunities they deserve. Someone has to step up. With funding being ripped out of the arts sector by current government in Australia, it is even more important that philanthropic organisations and individuals ensure that our wealth of creativity, our artists, are protected, nurtured, developed, supported, valued and showcased. Australian artists hold the heart and soul of our culture.
From the Artist Statement for Future Memory:
All memory is imagination.
Memory is a portal through time and space. Memory is a fluid, sensuous time machine. We pull memories out of orbit, like asteroids or planets circling our every moment and return them re-freshed, re-membered, infused with re-imagining. Memory is a vessel holding our moments of past, present and future. We slip in and out of memory, through a gap in the present.
Imagination and memory are twins.
In ‘Future Memory’ I seek to bring forward a sense of memory and imagination, a sensuous awareness, going beyond replication or duplication of the literal. I explore the sense of how it is to be in that memory, to bring the essence distilled of a moment or of many moments, enlivened by imagination in the remembering.
Inspired by my time in the heartland desert of Lake Mungo, billabongs and wetlands of Hattah, to the lakes in eastern Victoria, these new works immersed, surrendered and dissolving into landscape, express a communion with our natural world akin to being in love. The focus shifts, to a feeling of being, a rising hope, the promise of dawn, the hush and radiance of a misty morning, an overflowing immersion, a blurring of edges and dissolving into all that is, the mysterious wonder, a feeling of belonging, coming home. Going beyond the veils of separateness and what is remembered of us. This is where the future spills.
Tuesday 4 – Saturday 22 August 2015
The exhibition is now online. Please make an appointment to arrange a preview in the gallery prior to the official beginning of the exhibition on the 4th August. Works are now available for purchase.
You are also invited to attend an artist talk and presentation with Claire Bridge on Saturday 8th August at 1.30pm. The artist talk will be Auslan/English interpreted. Please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org by August 4th. Refreshments provided.
Read the other article on Claire here: