An exhibition Out of Winter by artist Karen Annett-Thomas on display at Bendigo Art Gallery in Victoria, showcases exquisitely beautiful artworks that create powerful connections with place and time past, present and future.
Karen Annett-Thomas is the second artist chosen to participate in the gallery’s Going Solo initiative, a unique opportunity for a locally based artist to work closely with gallery curators to produce a new body of work to be presented in a solo exhibition.
Viewing this exhibition was the highlight of my recent holiday in Bendigo, a very modern heritage city in country Victoria where the Bendigo Art Gallery’s national and international exhibitions have become renowned.
Karen Annett-Thomas offered a visual feast that draws the viewer back for repeated observations. The intensely poetic artworks are rich in imagery, beauty and textural nuances.
She lives in Bendigo with her husband and four small boys.
Interviewing this remarkable woman for me was a real joy.
Can you remember a defining moment that drew you to the world of creativity?
I can’t remember a time when drawing wasn’t important to me. My sisters and I were always passing the time making pictures. So there wasn’t really a moment where I thought here’s something that I want to pursue – it’s more that I can’t imagine not doing it. Painting and drawing are very normal to me – and necessary to my being.
Do you have a creative family background?
Growing up, we were always encouraged to be creative. Mum and Dad insist that they do not have a creative bone in their bodies – however as an adult I now see that we had an especially creative upbringing. Always making and collecting things, spending a lot of time drawing and painting and inspired by Mum and Dad’s particularly creative approach to gardening and making things around the home. I was also very competitive with my older siblings who all have their creative outlets, be it drawing, sewing, baking or building things.
What artists that have influenced your practice?
There are so many! Susan Rothenberg and Hughie O’Donghue for their wonderful treatment of positive/negative space and their abstraction of the form; I Love Herbert Brandl’s bravery and the way he freely oscillates between figuration and abstraction; Euan Macleod’s treatment of the figure/form in landscape and the in distinction between the two. Aida Tomescu for her luminous and textural paintwork and Ben Quilty’s ability to confidently capture a gesture with a single daub of paint.
What stimulates motivates and inspires your art practice?
Painting is a way of understanding the world around me. Through materials and process I find meaning. I am motivated by my materials and through them I explore real world experiences, thoughts and anxieties.
What is your underlying philosophical approach to your work?
The works in this exhibition are an extension of my ongoing interest in time and memory, and the way we make sense of this through material objects. The paintings draw on the experience of walking through the bush with my young boys.
They represent both the physical landscape and also a more internal landscape that holds feelings of nostalgia for the past, the desire to be ‘present’ and an anxiousness for our climate in the future.
What personal qualities underpin your practice?
I try and approach all of my work in an instinctive, expressive way. I try not to overthink and let the paintings emerge organically.
Have you established a work routine for your artistic practice?
Before I became a mother, painting was a 9-5 practice for me. I no longer have that luxury, and instead work whenever I am able (nights, kid’s nap-times and in long concentrated bursts whenever possible).
This means there is no regularity to my work routine – yet I would say that my time in the studio is certainly more productive than it was before children.
There is a clear rhythm to my practice though – I start by making observational drawings and taking photographs, then moving into exploration and experimentation with materials, and then instinctively making paintings, layer upon layer until they reveal themselves as finished. I seem to move from figuration to abstraction and back again.
How do the materials you use inform your artworks?
Materials are often collected from the landscapes/places that the paintings and drawings respond to. For example, I might use charcoal from the trees/bushland that I am drawing or collect pigment from a site that I am painting.
I make my own painting mediums and experiment with different combinations of beeswax, oils, varnishes and natural pigments – sometimes it is the qualities of these mediums which inform the way in which the paintings are put together and the textures that are achieved.
Have there been any major points in your artistic life that have changed your practice?
The death of a close friend led me to become interested in commemoration, memory, loss and forgetting. My PhD research focused on these themes and was a time when I was able to fully immerse myself in my practice.
In my current work, I continue to question the way in which we attempt to contain and preserve our memories in material objects.
How does Bendigo and its surrounding landscape impact on your artwork?
When I first moved to Bendigo from the much greener, lush South West of Victoria, I couldn’t see the beauty of the Box- Iron Bark forests; they were too foreign to me. However now, after 15 years, they are familiar and their unique beauty finds its way into my practice.
The paintings in Out of Winter, at Bendigo Art Gallery, draw heavily on the local landscape – particularly the gnarly black trunks of the ironbarks set against the white winter skies.
In 2012 my exhibition ‘Holes in the Earth’ looked toward the disruption of the earth (the mines and mullock heaps of the goldfields) as metaphors for grief and absence following the loss of a child.
How do you balance your family and professional roles?
All artists have to make compromises to support their practice – paid work takes me out of the studio, but I am lucky to work in a university/gallery environment that stimulates my creativity.
As for the juggling of family and art – it’s a matter of making every moment count. There is no sitting around waiting to feel ‘inspired’; it’s a matter of taking every available opportunity and working hard.
What was your reaction when you were selected as part of the gallery’s ongoing Going Solo series?
I was ecstatic to be selected for Going Solo. Bendigo Art Gallery has such a strong reputation, spectacular exhibiting spaces and is supported by an enthusiastic and experienced team.
The opportunity to work alongside curator Clare Needham in the development of the show has been an extremely valuable and rewarding experience.
How did you go about preparing for the exhibition?
Preparations for Out of Winter started in late 2014. I put together a loose proposal that was then developed with the guidance of curator Clare Needham over a period of 12 months.
I made a lot of drawings and studies before starting work on a number of canvases. I work on several paintings at once, building them up layer by layer over many months.
What are your other passions and interests away from art?
My family is my passion – four little boys keep us very busy. We enjoy being outdoors and exploring our environment together. I also love books and find that my reading finds its way into my practice also.
Karen Annett-Thomas’s honest, thoughtful and enlightening responses to my questions prompted a great respect for the way she balances the roles of mother and artist.
Rose Niland, Special Features, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016
November 28, 2015 – February 21, 2016
A full colour exhibition catalogue is available to purchase at Bendigo Art Gallery Shop