BAM visited Gatya Kelly in 2016 - just prior to her leaving for an artist residency at the prestigious Hill End, whose first wave of artists included Margaret Olley and Russell Drysdale. While her paintings may seem redolent of Old Master still lifes, she asserts the similarities are limited. The reality is far more delicious.
Interview by Alana Wilson
Alana. What draws you to your subject matter?
Gatya. In 2009 we went to Tuscany. We were there for winter, for five months. And I wanted to paint there. I didn’t normally paint very much when we were travelling, because we were in a van, and it wasn’t really conducive to working with oil paint. But there, we were staying in this one amazing house for five months, and so I set up a studio in the house. And I didn’t have a lot of equipment, or really anything there — I had a very, very basic set up. And I just thought, well, what can I do here that works, that relates to where I am, but practically is going to work for me? Most people in that situation will paint the landscape, because it’s truly phenomenal. But I’m not drawn to that. I’m not a landscape painter … I mean I love it, and I appreciate it, and I walk in it … but I’m not drawn to it as an artist. So I started to look around me … it was winter so there was a lot of dried up leaves and crunchy things, and these fruits like pomegranates and persimmons, walnuts and chestnuts … So it ended up being 14 paintings that I painted over that five-month period, in a particular still life style. A bit more contemporary looking than this series, actually — lighter backgrounds and so on. And so really it was not so much that I’d said that I wanted to do still life, it was because I was in this certain circumstance and that’s what I could paint in that situation. It was a wonderful old Tuscan farmhouse, so there were all sorts of vessels and things there, so that I was able to arrange all these compositions. I like the authenticity of working with things that are real and are actually in my environment. It’s not so much coming from my imagination, or derivative, but it really relates to my circumstances … I’m directly relating to these things right in front of me … It’s authentic to me. That matters a lot.
Alana. Do you find that you are drawn to details?
Gatya. I am. I enjoy figurative painting, because I guess I get a kick out of seeing something come to life on the canvas. I actually really get a kick out of that, personally.
Alana. And an object that you relate to …
Gatya. Yes. So I like to see that metamorphosis. Again, that’s a personal thing. People often refer to the detail … there’s careful painting, but it’s not meticulous in a hyperrealist sense. It’s actually quite rough. If you get close up … somebody used the word contemporary recently. It’s quite loose — even though the overall effect is of something that’s quite tightly controlled and designed. So that’s also something that I enjoy, to have a certain lack of tightness in a painting, while it has this three-dimensional, realistic quality.
Alana. What is it that you aim to portray in your paintings?
Gatya. What I aim to do with the paintings is to get a response from people. What I love is when somebody looks at a painting of mine and they go, wow … That exhibition was titled Luscious because it was all this luscious, yummy, succulent stuff, and people respond to it that way … there was one woman who was looking at the strawberries, and I felt like I was going to have to stop her from licking the painting. You know, when they’re engaging with it so much that they’re actually experiencing it as the real thing. A lot of people say, “I want to eat it, I want to smell it, I want to touch it” … I love that that’s the response to the work, that they’re seeing it beyond a painting, that it’s actually doing something … really connecting very deeply inside at that level where they’re just reaching out for it. That’s very pleasing to me.
Alana. The detail, depth and perspectives in your paintings are incredible. Do you incorporate photography as part of your process?
Gatya. I do. I use photography. I go to quite a lot of trouble at that stage. I guess because of my design background, I think of paintings as designed — they’re not spontaneous. They’re put together in a very deliberate way. So they’re designed, they’re composed, they’re constructed. And when I’m sure that I’m happy with what I have, then I start to paint it.
Alana. How do you arrive at your compositions?
Gatya. Often it’s what’s in season. These magnolias that I’m painting come from a tree at Brunswick Heads that I drive past when I go to the beach. So if I see that tree and think, I have to paint that, it’s almost like an obligation to paint it … and then it’s like, that means I’ve got to do it now, because it’s not going to be there in a week’s time. So it’s generally driven by the subject matter itself, in the case of these paintings. I’ll see a pomegranate somewhere, or somebody will lend me a beautiful bowl … that’s usually the initial inspiration. And from that I build what I feel goes with that first key element.
Alana. So it’s not about symbolism?
Gatya. It’s not, but this one — which is called Magnolia Vanitas … Vanitas paintings were something that were done, I think, in the 16th and 17th centuries … Flemish and Dutch master painters … the whole still life tradition is very interesting and meaningful — it’s not really about just painting what I’m doing, painting things in front of you. Originally it was very symbolic, and the Dutch had this Calvinist Christian thing going on, so they had a lot to say about money, and wealth. So paintings were allegorical — they meant something to the people who were viewing them then. They didn’t have photography, and so on. So they served that function, that they don’t today. So vanitas paintings were to do with the vanity of life, the inevitability of death, that vanity is futile, basically … So those paintings — you would have seen it — they often have a skull in them, or a flickering candle. There are certain elements that occur in these paintings, so there is something dead, something that represents knowledge or the arts, something that represents wealth … So, I put this painting together, and I’m painting it and thinking, somebody is going to ask me, what does this mean? And I thought, maybe I can concoct a story retrospectively, because actually I didn’t have one. And I was looking at it and I thought, it’s a vanitas painting! And I checked it out, and all the elements were there … I liked that about it, that it was an allegory for life and death. But generally they’re not. Generally, they’re just bowls of fruit.