Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Interview..

Leith O’Malley: Visual Artist:

Interview by Audrey Novak.

Could you tell me something about your art?

I'll try…

It seems to be evolving although I'm sometimes not sure where it is all leading at times.

I like to move between various mediums but have a real fondness for painting in oil. I also like to express parts of my own personality or interests within my paintings.

I’m leaning towards a figurative expression of some kind in my recent work and have a sort of 'to thine own self be true' approach to what I do and paint.

I’m always filling up little art notebooks with ideas for drawings or paintings. The inspiration behind a lot of my work comes from wanting to express something within myself and usually associated with the things I love (or dislike) about life or have experienced. Some are metaphor, others more obvious.

Where are you based right now? Does your current environment impact on your work?

I’m based in a regional part of South Australia that is a little isolated from metropolitan art circles but I kind of like that… being isolated I mean.. no distractions.. no influences. Just following my own road, my own sense of place so to speak.

Finding my own voice and keeping the work as original as possible has been very important to me. What I do miss about living in the city (Adelaide) is not being able to access a larger variety of art supplies and visiting galleries. So sure, I am fairly isolated from metropolitan art circles but by the same token am not influenced by perceived city art trends. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no point being ignorant, I’m very in tune to what is happening in art in Australia and overseas through art magazines and the internet.

I’m also lucky that I have met several likeminded, gifted artists in regional areas who are just as passionate about what they do.

I wouldn’t say the environment informs the current work I’m doing.. at least I don’t think so, but certainly with the previous Red Dust Girl paintings I was trying to express or maybe celebrate that isolation.. at least in a subliminal way through the girl in red.

Do you have a time of day that you feel most creative? Or do you have to set aside time for art?

I can’t really switch off. I tend to think about art and ideas for paintings or drawings throughout the day no matter what I am doing. I’ll jot things down or do a thumbnail drawing or two in my sketch book but I do much of my painting at night. I have quite a well lit comfortable studio building and most of what I do is for exhibition so the result is pretty close to how they will look under normal gallery lighting. There’s also something about painting at night.. a certain ambiance. You can have some of the most wonderful insightful moments painting, and having music which inspires for company is an important part of my palette.

When starting a new work, how do you decide what medium you’re going to work in?

Certain subjects or the content of a picture might determine what medium I use but often it’s just an intuitive thing. I usually start out with a charcoal drawing and depending how that goes, decide on whether to add colour (paint) or not. I’m working mainly on charcoal drawings lately along with large paintings in oil.. they are the mediums I tend to favour. Canvas is very tactile and immediate, and painting in oil offers me the most power or impact for the type of work I am doing.

I read somewhere that you like to blur boundaries.. what did you mean by that?

I was talking about the argument between art and illustration, what actually constitutes art these days and how that gap between traditional or natural media and digital is closing. I used to get so hung up on technique and method.

One day I just realised art is anything you want it to be, threw the rule book in my head out and started working backwards towards a more intuitive style of painting.

I love the brush but occasionally like to use a wacom digital tablet to create art or at least an initial concept.

Some people have a problem with using digital means to create art.. I don’t.

For me illustration, art, design and life are pretty much interwoven. If I’m not thinking about creativity I’m doing something with a pencil, pen or brush. I remember thinking how strange this ability to draw was when I was about eleven and continue to be surprised by how far it has taken me.

These days I create artwork using traditional methods, but am fluent with digital mediums, using computer programs like PhotoShop and Painter to create digital art or edit my originals even further with the digital drawing tablet.

You have called creating art a “frustrating and exhilarating journey”. When are you most frustrated and when are you most exhilarated by the creative process?

In the case of a painting, the exhilaration for me is after I have drawn my image onto canvas.. just before I’m ready to start painting. I always wish I could capture the look and immediacy of that charcoal outline or drawing in paint, but a lot of the time it is lost in the application of paint. I guess that is why I love do a lot of charcoal drawings!

You seem to enjoy working in different mediums using such things as oils, pastels and as you mentioned digital mediums. Do you just like variety or are there other reasons for the changes in medium?

I generally get a little stagnant or bored with my own work if I stay in the same place (medium) too long, so I like to keep moving. Also, some of my ideas simply call for a particular medium or practice. My love of illustration and graphic art often draw me back to the line orientated mediums such as charcoal, pastel or the computer, but I do like to experiment with collage and paint glazes which is another reason I love oil on canvas.

The trick is being able to retain your own style throughout the medium changes and knowing the limitations. Like music, I have a broad appreciation of many different forms of art and thankfully don't have that blinkered approach where everything needs to be categorised, or you must stick to what you do best. I just let art lead me in all sorts of interesting directions and get just as much enjoyment out of looking at unknown illustrators or artists stuff as I do Goya or Rembrandt.

I’ve noticed a circus motive is a recurring theme in your old paintings and drawings.. those floating tents, melancholy clowns and your use of strong colour and stripes? Can you talk about that?

It’s just something that resonates with me. A strange attraction I suppose.

My Dad was a traveling musician in the circus and although I was too young to know, I traveled to every state in Australia with Mum, Dad and my brothers and sister. So maybe it’s a subliminal thing.

To this day I love being around any visiting circus.. that carnival spirit.. it really fascinates me, and naturally comes back to town in my work from time to time.

So you have a musical upbringing, does music inspire you?

Oh yes, for sure. Its one of many things that informs my work.

That’s an obvious thing to say I know, but it's true. How can you not be inspired by music? Laura Veirs put it “love of colour, sound and verse, is it a blessing.. or a curse”. I love that line and it’s true.. a double edged sword.

I grew up listening to so much music, a real education really. Everyone in my family played instruments and sang, and I’m seldom far from it these days particularly in my studio. It can be so emotive and part of the arsenal when painting.

Yeah, music in all it’s forms is big influence and of course emotion plays it's part.

What about your latest success.. that New York festival.. what’s that about?

Oh yes, of course…I was recently commissioned by New York’s Festival Productions Inc to produce the promotional artwork for the 30th Anniversary Saratoga Jazz Festival being held in Saratoga Springs, New York.

For that I basically reworked and combined two of my paintings of jazz musicians. The design featured heavily in the concert promotions including brochures and the very collectable thirtieth anniversary concert t-shirts! I’m quietly jumping up and down over that one mainly because it is a major US jazz festival with a line-up including George Benson, India Arie, David Sanborn, Al Green, John Scofield, Roy Hargrove, Ravi Coltrane, Troy Haynes, Jean-Luc Ponty to name a few…

Is there a deep subtext to your paintings – and, because all interpretation of art is ultimately subjective, are you ever fearful of being misinterpreted?

The larger paintings I do are quite labored and can take months to complete. There is a lot that can happen in that time and much experience, thought and emotion can be exercised in each solitary session of painting. I like to think that it’s what binds the paint and hopefully the painting itself. There is metaphor in some cases which may or may not be understood or recognised by the viewer. Not all my work, but some.

I don’t have a problem with misinterpretation, just as long as the painting holds your attention. I mean, I look at some pictures now by artists that I have a completely different interpretation of or feeling for than I did several years ago.

Your painting “Talking to the Muses about Art” is another interesting piece and quite contemporary with a lot of text in the background.. are they your words?

Yes. The text in the background of the Muses painting is a sort of tone poem in my own words. It is reproduced in full on my website and talks about the struggle to paint and the obsession with wanting to keep painting (“paint on through”) no matter what.

Although it sounds a little strange, sometimes I feel like the painting is telling me what it wants rather than the other way around. There is definitely a sort of love/hate relationship with some of my work and I often feel empty after a painting is completed.

I scraped the text into the paint with my fingers, stick and a brush handle. They represent my thoughts and an imagined conversation with Bret Whiteley, Basquiat and Van Gogh.. who happen to be the figures in the picture.

How long do you work on a piece for before you decide that it’s ‘finished’?

It’s never really finished for me. I still see some of my older work and think to myself maybe I should have done this or that. It’s an intuitive thing I guess. I tend to have an auto pilot (note: not a muse who flies planes) that lets me know when it’s time to sign the painting as complete.. thankfully in time before I over work it. What did Da Vinci say? Art is never finished, only abandoned.

What are you working on now?

I’m sort of in between stuff at the moment, digesting a lot of what I have done and enjoying the space between exhibiting where I can think stuff through and start afresh. Having said that, I’ve just finished a seven foot long charcoal diptych and have a couple of other large paintings I am working on for a group show in Sydney… plus works for an Adelaide group show.. so yeah, busy.. busy.. but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

What is your strength as an artist? And what is your weakness?

That would be getting free red wine on opening night and probably getting free red wine on opening night.

No seriously, that’s a good question. I would say that my diligence in continuing to chip away and work on my own style, making my own marks and keeping the work honest and meaningful.. at least to me.

I think that recognising the difference between being inspired by someone elses work as opposed to being influenced by it is very important and understanding this early on has put me in good stead. I also feel that my insistence to continue to blur the line between art and illustration has helped my work remain fresh and accessible.