Q & A with Louise Tate

Boom's Gallery Manager Dylan recently interviewed current exhibiting Artist Louise Tate. Read on for some insight into her practice.

DF: I am interested to hear about your upbringing, have you always been creative? Did you want to be an artist when you ‘grew up’?

LT: I grew up in the hills of a small town called Mullumbimby in the Byron Shire, and as an only child I kept myself busy by drawing, reading, climbing trees and patting guinea pigs. I went to a local Steiner School called Shearwater and it was a place that really allowed my creative spirit to blossom. I found it to be a really supportive and nurturing environment to learn in and I loved every minute of it. I grew up oscillating between dream careers as an artist, actor, primary school teacher or dog breeder. My acting career peaked when I played the dog Toto in the Wizard of Oz, so that one’s done and dusted. And teaching now fills me with a sense of pure dread. So far being an artist is the one that seems to have stuck, although I still find the idea of being surrounded by puppies absolutely wonderful.

DF: You have a very supportive partner who seems very encouraging of your artistic journey and pursuits. (This is refreshing!) Is he an artist too?

LT: He gets asked this all the time! I think it might be his long hair that gives him arty vibes, but he’s actually a transport planner/professional bicycle lover. In art school I always thought I could only date an artist, but thankfully there’s one person who is practical and stable in our relationship! He’s a super supportive dreamboat and I’m very lucky to have someone who is grounded, as I can be quite volatile and dreamy.

DF: Most artists I know have a side gig in order to fund their practice, can you talk about balancing art, life and paying the bills?

LT: It can be a bit of a grind, I’m not going to lie! And I believe it’s really important for artists to talk about this. I think perhaps we try to hide the difficulties of being a creative person in a capitalist world because it can feel like a privilege to even be an artist. But I want to live in a world where I can do what I love and also make a liveable wage out of it. For instance, I am not at the point where I can financially support myself through my work yet. In fact this year may be the first year that I will even be making a (very small) profit! If so (fingers crossed) I’m going to put 20% of my artist income towards buying work from other artists who I want to see continuing to create. Government support for artists is few and far-between and also highly competitive, so creatives have to support one another. To balance this somewhat precarious financial position I have another job at a lovely family-run art shop called Melbourne Artists’ Supplies, and this is what really pays my bills. I work in the shop three days a week, spend three or four days in the studio and take Sundays off. This has been my work/life ratio for the past few years but during this coronacrisis I’ve been rethinking how I can make more space for friends & family, joy and the simple pleasures in my life. My priorities have really shifted over the last few months—as have most people’s— and it’s made me realise that I want to feel less like a cog in an ever-grinding career machine and to have more time to enjoy life!

DF: Many artists find it difficult to write about their artwork, whereas you describe yourself as an artist and writer. Does writing come naturally or have you had to really work on this?

LT: I definitely don’t find it easy to write about my work! It will always be difficult to transform visual thinking into linguistic thinking, because they’re very different forms of thought. But I do love writing and its infinite capacity for storytelling, just as I love how paintings can tell stories. Not much of my writing has made its way out into the world, although over the last couple of years I’ve been trying to incorporate pieces of text into my painting practice. I showed a work in ‘the churchie’ National Emerging Art Prize at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane last year called Garden of no time that incorporated text. This work imagined a story of a woman in a strange and shifting landscape in which the patriarchy was dissolving the bodily rights of women as steadily as weather patterns continued to degrade. I painted this while on a residency in New York, and this was a time where there was a strong debate about abortion rights in the US. I felt that the image had this really beautiful ethereal quality to it, but that it didn’t quite convey the brutality of what surrounded it, which is why I included some words to anchor the image. I hand painted a segment of text in watercolour over which the painting was hung. There was a really lovely interplay between word and image and I’m keen to keep exploring this in future work.

DF: How did studying painting at RMIT impact your arts practice?

LT: Well when I was at RMIT my studio area was called “Expanded Studio Practice” which was a somewhat strange blend of painting, drawing and video art. I’m not sure if it’s changed since, but the focus was more on generating a studio practice and thinking conceptually rather than learning specifically about material and techniques. There were a couple of technical workshops here and there but I regret not having had more instruction how to make a painting. And I do feel like it lacked a lot of important guidance on how to actually be a professional artist in the real world. Sure I’m now fluent in International Art English, but a bit more practical career advice wouldn’t have gone astray! In saying that I did actually learn a lot in those four years, especially how to maintain a rigorous studio routine. I’m really grateful for that discipline, because without it I’m not sure I’d have persisted through the tough post-university years when no one has a clue who you are and it often feels that you are painting for an audience of one. RMIT was a mostly great experience for a naïve country girl who knew nothing about contemporary art.

DF: It’s been a year since you were undertaking a residency in New York, can you talk about that experience and the flow on from that looking back?

LT: It was one of the greatest experiences of my life! I really reached a turning point in my work as I was exposed to so much incredible figurative painting. Melbourne to me really feels as though its got a certain painting style, and that it’s still maybe just a little uncool to make figurative work. But New York is BURSTING with beautiful figurative paintings full of feeling and thoughtfulness and power. I felt like I had found my place, although I think one of the great things about the New York art scene is that there is a place for everybody because there is just so much happening. There was a strong community in the NARS residency program amongst the resident artists and I made some lovely friendships. And there was a seemingly never-ending schedule of visiting curators, gallerists, artists and art writers who came for one-on-one sessions, some of which were challenging but ultimately always beneficial. It really helped build up my confidence and I don’t think I’d have put myself out there for the many of the opportunities I’ve had this year without that go-get-it attitude I picked up in New York.

DF: I have seen a wonderful evolution of your work over time. I think you float beautifully between representation and abstraction; can you talk about how ideas for paintings are formed and how these are then executed?

LT: I do love that sweet spot between figuration and abstraction! One of my favourite literary genres is magic realism, which is a curious blend of the real world with the fantastical that often leaves you wondering what’s real and what’s make-believe. I like to see my work sitting in that in-between space, and I often leave areas of paintings as sketchy and washy spaces that sit just outside of representation. My paintings usually start on the computer, where I’ll collage photographs of figures or pieces of clothing with landscape imagery that I’ve taken during my Australian travels. Each show will have a different concept, and I play around with images that reflect whatever idea I’m working through. So once I’ve figured out the images I want to paint, I’ll occasionally do a quick little watercolour sketch in my journal. But I usually jump straight into the painting because I’m impatient and I never seem have enough time in the studio! I love working on unstretched linen and then stretching it onto stretcher bars myself once it’s complete, because if I muck up a work I can just roll it up and deal with it later (the joys of thin layers of oil paint means it dries quickly)! I’ll always start with a thin coloured wash as the base layer, and once that’s dry I’ll mark out a sketchy outline of the image in a slightly darkly colour. Each painting has a different base colour, which gives them all a unique hue. I’m obsessed with colour and most of it is completely made up and intuitive – this is my favourite part of painting. Because I do lots of thin layers, I usually work on two-four paintings at once, and rotate between them as they dry.

DF: Your current exhibition at Boom processes your thoughts, feelings and experience of the terrible bushfires that took place in Australia earlier this year – and more broadly, climate change as the planet is quite literally Getting warmer. Do you feel a social responsibility as an artist to address issues such as these or is it just something you need to do on a personal level?

LT: I think it’s absolutely both! All good artists tap into something of the world in their work, be it social, political, environmental or personal. And in art history, for example, what makes each Modernist art movement so interesting is that it reflects the socio-political state of the world at that time. While I was painting Getting warmer we were in the throes of the bushfire crisis, and it’s inevitable that the images I was making reflected this luminous and eerie new world we were living in. It’s been a very unstable and uncertain year so far, and I can’t stop thinking about the fragility of our existence on this planet. The bushfire and coronavirus crises have really showed us how quickly the systems we live within can so easily collapse. For me, painting is both an escape from and a way to respond to the world around me. Painting is therapy really. And looking at art can be therapy too.

DF: Lastly, what other things influence, inspire and activate your creativity?

LT: Rain on the roof, looking at trees, a good chat, a really good audiobook, and a never-ending cup of coffee. And just keeping on painting even when it feels like you’re wrestling a slippery rhinoceros in the dark! Things have a habit of working themselves out, even seemingly hopeless paintings.

Louise's solo exhibition Getting warmer runs until July 12.

To see a listing click here, or visit the Gallery - open 7 days a week.