Robyn Sweaney’s home is filled with other people’s houses. Since 2003 she has been painting the commonplace post-war, pre-fab, weatherboard and brick homes of the Byron Bay region. Many of the houses have since been torn down for new development, or they have been remodelled beyond recognition. The houses aren’t especially beautiful, nor are they architecturally significant, yet Robyn’s paintings capture a character — a depth — that is belied by the seemingly simplistic, mundane aspect of their presence.
Interview by Alana Wilson
Alana. What was your initial inspiration for painting the houses?
Robyn. I had an epiphany one day that the landscape here was changing. It’s always going to change, but it just suddenly seemed to be at a moment when a lot of the houses that I’d been looking at were getting sold, and the older people, that generation, were moving on. I wanted to capture something… but not because I felt like it doesn’t need to change.
Alana. How is Looking Sideways, Heading West a shift from your previous works?
Robyn. Every year, usually around Autumn, a girlfriend and I head west- we go out to Moree, and out to Texas in Queensland, or to Lightning Ridge, and Broken Hill. This series is about creating a narrative of that journey. I’m still fascinated by people’s houses, but this is a bit different than the local content.
Alana. How do occupants react to your attention to their homes?
Robyn. There are some moments when I’m out west and it becomes a little like Wake in Fright, so sometimes I’m not as comfortable in front of people’s houses. And I also often don’t want to know who lives in the houses, because that would change my perception and the narrative. It’s urban landscapes, so usually the spaces that I like to paint are ones that are not totally wild, there’s always some human element in there — there’s planted trees, or there’s some symmetry or balance. And I think that people create their little area, or their front garden, for people to see.Alana. Magpies or cockatoos appear in many of your paintings. Is there symbolism there?
Robyn. I often put birds in a painting, almost to kind of humanise it, which sounds funny. They’re always around in Mullumbimby and everywhere you go there’s birds. Well we’re lucky enough to have them anyway. So they kind of add something to the narrative, or they can be about composition. I play with composition.
Alana. People must be interested in the nostalgia factor in your work.
Robyn. When I first started the houses in Mullumbimby, it was very much the humble, simple home that had stayed the same for 50 years. But even though a lot of the houses are post-war era houses, I’m not painting them from photographs from that time — I’m painting them now. So people ask me about the nostalgia and being sentimental, but it’s not that … For example, The milk bar is a symbol of my youth because they used to be on every corner. You know, on your way to school you walked past the milk bar. Yet there was also just something very graphic about that whole red/blue, there were certain patterns in there that I really liked, and the simplicity of it. And in Moree, a lot of the shops and buildings are all closed with security screens. So the outside of these buildings can be quite simple and stark.
Alana. Do you find similar themes among the homes?
Robyn. People are living in these houses, that are quite humble, for many years —yet there is a certain element of design in what they do, which is one of the things that I’m looking at. For example, the one emu statue that balances with a single window — there are certain patterns. There may be a white house with a red strip of roof, and why does somebody do that?
Alana. It’s interesting to hear what kind of details you find significant…
Robyn. Well, it’s also about how the light hits buildings, and how that affects the mood of the place. A moment of light, it’s so fleeting … and five minutes later it’s gone.
Robyn Sweaney is represented by Anthea Polson Art on the Gold Coast and Arthouse Gallery, Darlinghurst