The Newcastle Art Gallery Youth Advisory Group acknowledges the Awabakal and Worimi people as the traditional custodians of the land on which we work and live, and pay our deepest respects to Elders past, present and future. The Youth Advisory Group is dedicated to honouring the culture and traditions of our local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities through the visual arts.
Benji: Why, when, and where did painting start for you?
Gillian: So I did a lot of drawing and a lot of, mainly drawing and sketching. I think I used to do, and I always liked drawing from when I was really young and I think painting was the thing that I was really worried about doing, like, I was anxious to do it.
I always wanted to do it because it's so like, I'm, I'm drawn to painting kind of like what you were saying before, where I'm just like really drawn to painting, but it felt so intimidating to do. Like I had no materials. I didn't know whether to start with like acrylic or oil and all those things, but I think I started painting when I started doing- I went back to uni and I did a master's of education and I think it was just this, like, you know, I'm just going to paint. Doesn't matter. I'm just going to get into it and see what happens.
I'd never really spent that much time painting before my last semester of university. I was also a drawer and I was always intimidated by painting as well because it seems like such... I'd say there's something — that I don't know. It has like an aura too, I'm like, oh, I don't know if I could do that exactly.
Like, it's kind of like drawing, but it's just like those, these, I know there's that fear of starting something new and not being very good at it too.
So I had so many shit paintings, like so many shit paintings. I still do.
Do you experiment with any other mediums or is it just exclusively painting for you?
No, I liked doing — so I did performance art.
I did a whole program with Lottie Consalvo through Tantrum, which is like a theatre-type group. It was an eight-month performance workshop with Lottie. It was a group of us, I think there were like five or six of us that did it.
So I've done a few performance pieces, I've done a few installations, and a few woven pieces as well.
I read an article about you from the Newcastle Herald. You talked a bit about your work and touched on your grandparents' Catholicism, but I wanted to ask you directly what inspires your work.
It started with the spaces of other people. I'm so nosy — you know when you go for a walk at night and people's houses all lit up and it's just this like trying not to look — but I love looking, yes. I can't help it. I just love other people's spaces, but the main sort of spaces that I was drawn to were the ones that were around that sort of era of my grandparents, it's almost like the identical setup in so many houses. Like it's the same type of furniture. It's the same carpet, it's the same colour scheme. I thought that'd been really interesting because so many people are drawn to these spaces that I'm painting.
People tell me 'oh my God you've pretty much painted my grandma's house'. I'm like, yeah, it's pretty much my grandma's house too. Like I kinda like having that connection. But I think it's also this kind of exploration of it's essentially like where I've come from, it's just trying to find some sort of meaning I guess.
It's been such a huge part of my life. And so I, I didn't stop painting that sort of stuff until after my grandpa died, basically. Yeah.
The other thing is that to find the spaces I changed them, I put things in there, like symbols and Catholic imagery. And often, sometimes I put people in there as well. Usually, I don't put people in because they just- I don't feel like they need it, but I do find a lot of those places- like I literally go on real estate.com and I go back as far as I can. I go through Mayfield, Georgetown, Waratah, all the places that have that working-class Catholic vibe, which is where my grandparents had grown up too.
I'd like to know a bit about your experience within Newcastle's art community because it's something very new to me. I'd be really interested to get your perspective on what it's like being in that community of artists.
Yeah, it's funny.
I was thinking about this question. And it's like, I always felt like I was on the periphery a little bit and I guess I am in it more, but it's big and small at the same time. Like I know who a lot of people are, but I don't get to talk to them very often. But I think the best thing for me was I won the scholarship for the Creator Incubator, last year? This year? This year. I don't know what year it is. And that's been huge, that is in itself, just this community. There's so many like amazing people that are in there, like Braddon Snape- incredible. And Michelle Gearin, and all these other amazing people.
I suppose the main thing that I've found with a lot of those artists who are quite established in Newcastle is how giving they are of their time, especially Lottie and being a part of that mentorship. I still talk to her now and I'll email her or I'll call her up and say like, "Hey, can you just look at this thing that I'm doing?" And she gives so much time, like, so much of her knowledge and, and like giving me, like, she gave me a whole thing of charcoal and like a couple of paint brushes. I've found that it's really, really good.
I am a little bit curious about how you structure your work because I've talked to a few artists and some of them have very regimented schedules. They're like I work from this time in the evening to this time in the evening and then a few who were just like, I just paint whenever it happens. What you do?
Somewhere in between, I used to be like, yeah, just whenever I feel like it I'll just paint, but now I'm so busy. I'm a primary school teacher. Super busy all the time. Basically every day in the school holidays I'm just painting. I had the past week where I was like trying to get through a couple of commissions. It just feels like a struggle when I'm exhausted. And I just really wanted to just like, not do anything, but I've got to kind of keep pushing through it.
I guess it's quite structured now because I'm four days a week. That was part of me taking on a class. I need to be able to paint between, so Wednesdays and sometimes on the weekends and school holidays are my painting times.
What is the next big step for you in your work?
This is a good timing because I have a solo exhibition in February and then I've got another solo exhibition in March!
Booked and Busy!
One is in February with AK Bellenger, which is up in Inverell. It's a whole gallery up there. Alison who runs that gallery is just phenomenal and so supportive. Then the other one is the end of the Creator Incubator scholarships. So that'll be in March, I think. I can't remember the dates, but I've got the dates somewhere. That's another thing that I'm too scared to look at, like aaahhh.
What piece are you most proud of? Tough question.
That is a really tough question. Actually, it would have to be the one that I had in the Kilgour. I think I'm most proud of it.
'Jesus in the wilderness'. And it's tiny. It's super small. Just that it made it to that level and to see it in the art gallery was really kind of amazing.
It's this crossover of the suburban working-class kind of landscape that I was going for. I love really mediocre backyards and things. So it's this crossover of that and the influence of Catholicism. It's looking at what is the appropriate metaphor for the modern-day wilderness. Looking at how people like the current premier who is super Catholic but can somehow marry these really awful nearly right-wing views with religion.
Could you name a few artists that you're inspired by? Any local artists?
So many. So I think I look at big-name artists like Mark Rothko, who is probably my favourite artist. His work borders on this like installation painting kind of thing for me, because it's so. Like it just draws you in entirely. There is this whole physical reaction that I have to those paintings that I just love. Helen Frankenthaler would be my other favourite.
Local artists... I just love Lottie. Like I'm just obsessed with her. She's amazing. Michelle Gearin — she's pretty phenomenal. And, Ahn Wells. I love her approach to her painting. Really beautiful. There are so, so many, that I could name.
What would you consider the hardest part of your job as a maker and artist?
I think finding time at the moment, it's really hard. I'm actually finding that a bit of a struggle, and I find it hard to say no to things sometimes. Like I keep getting asked to do commissions. I'm like yeah, sure!
I'll just do it. And I don't actually have the time to do it. And so I'm just thinking, making that stress — I'm just making it so much harder for myself. I think I've been really, really fortunate. I've just landed in a really great position where I'm surrounded by so many supportive people and being in the studio is amazing.
I think if you had asked me like two years ago, I probably would've had a totally different answer. I think it'd be like space. Space was such an issue for me because I was just painting on my kitchen table.
We've touched on this a little bit, but do you ever have down days or days where you feel much less inspired than usual? Days where it takes a lot more work than it normally would?
Absolutely. Yeah. And it's always in the back of my mind, like, because I want to keep pushing it and see like how far you can take it.
But then I also find that it's hard to like, cause I don't want to be a one-trick pony as well. I don't want to just keep painting the same thing and be known as the person that just paints that. So I think I find it kind of, I find it really tricky. Um, Thinking of where to go next. And sometimes I get stuck in this, like, oh, what's the point?
I'll wonder, why am I even doing this? And that's hard, but luckily I think I'm just naturally like, it doesn't matter, just get on with it. Just keep painting kind of person. So those thoughts don't usually stick around for that long.
This one is a bit tricky. Sum up your motto for making in just a few words.
Um, yeah, that is really tricky. I remember when I did that program with Lottie we had to make up a mantra. I remember that. I remember it so clearly because I think it was when I first started painting as well.
And I think, I'm pretty sure I wrote mine down, I think the title was like 'don't be afraid to make something shit'. And that's kind of what I go for.
Like, pushing, doesn't matter, like nothing is precious. Just like keep moving. Yeah.
What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?
Yeah. It's really- I've been given so much advice, actually, the most recent piece of advice that I've been given was in the studio.
I was painting and Brad walked past. Braddon Snape will pass the studio as he always does. He kind of just appears as he's like doing things and he just said, what are you doing? And I was like, I'm doing this, and he's like, oh, you should enter it into the Kilgour.
I was like, um, no, why would I enter that into the Kilgour and he's like, yeah, you should see what happens. Like you should just do it. And I was like, oh, okay, I'll do it. Cause Brad had said to do it and then it got in. So if I won, I was supposed to give him like a little bit of a commission. I think haha.
That was pretty good advice. Now I'm sort of looking at, yeah, I think I just never thought that it was that standard before. And I kind of need that little bit of reassurance sometimes. Yeah. Yeah. It was really great timing.