Interview With Gabrielle Jones

Gabrielle Jones has an indefatigable passion for her practice. It has seen her travel the globe to undertake artist in residencies, push the boundaries of material practice, be selected for exhibition in a range of esteemed prizes and share her talents with others as a tutor and creative director (just to name a few of her accomplishments!) Her abstract landscapes create “another world” – adopting elements of spontaneity as they radiate the colour and vibrancy of the natural environment.

Gabrielle, could you tell us a little about yourself? How did you first come to make visual art?
I have always been a “maker” – knitting, sewing, card houses, you name it! I have always loved drawing and painting: they were a part of my life as natural as playing games with my siblings. I recently met up with a primary school friend – she wasn’t at all surprised I became an artist. She remembered me drawing in every book I had at school, and being jealous I could draw a pretty girl Ice- skating. Funny! However, I didn’t know any artists and I don’t think my parents had one original artwork in their house, nor stepped into an art gallery unless it was listed on a travel tour somewhere (which they also rarely did), so I didn’t think it was a possible career. I studied other things at University, but as soon as I finished, I began a TAFE course four nights a week! I went for two years, but that commitment was a bit much to keep up, so then I attended classes wherever I could and wherever they were good – from community colleges to a short stint at Julian Ashton etc. After many years, I realised I was bored in every job except when I painted. I’d always thought I would take up art as soon as life allowed, but there’s never a “right” time. So I applied for National Art School, did the entrance skills test and was accepted-then did a lot of soul-searching to decide if I could put my family through it. I went anyway, and the family survived!

Do you paint plein air or in the studio?
I am really a studio painter, but I also draw a lot outdoors and occasionally paint. I need the plein air drawing & painting to fuel the visual understanding of landscape, light and structures, which comes out when I paint (my eye is trained by the drawing, and so picks up “unnatural relationships” in my subsequent studio painting, even when they are abstract).

What kind of environment is conducive to productivity/inspiration for you?
Lots of music and privacy, preferably in a big, light studio, but one that I am comfortable and settled in – it takes about 6 months to settle into a new studio, I’ve found. My studio at the moment is a bit crowded, and I’m clumsy when painting so I’m always knocking over things. But it’s working out well and I am settled into it. I need to not pay attention to the stuff around me - to go into a dream state to paint well. The music is the first thing I put on – it says “studio time” and then I can relax. The door needs to be closed, so people know not to enter unless it’s an emergency. I’m planning a rather large studio in my backyard where I live, as I write!

You seem to really embrace experimentation; particularly in your approach to technique and style, including mixing oil and acrylic paint. Could you expand on your material practice?
I love, love, love playing with new materials! It seems to take my work to the next level whenever I spend time with materials and no expectations about what they should do. This experimentation means I can make the paint be what I want to depict, rather than try to depict it with brushstrokes (“watery” rather than painting water, if you get what I mean). It also leads to more abstraction, and seems to allow a better conduit from my thoughts to my hand, because I’m not trying too much. Stuff happens and I allow it (I also try to notice the process, so its possible to repeat it, if I want to). It’s great for re-energising my practice and enthusiasm.

What inspired you to take a non-traditional approach?
I don’t think I needed inspiration – I am curious by nature, and willing to take a risk (aren’t all good artists?) I just discovered that breaking the rules – “acrylic and oil don’t mix” some really interesting patterns happened, that couldn’t be replicated by brush (and it scientifically made sense – water repels oil). I found that if you actually lay the paints down at about the same time, magic happens. If you lay acrylic over oil, you’ll have peeling problems. Of course, oil over acrylic is fine, but no magic. So far, and it’s been about 4 years, the paintings are stable and I don’t see why this wouldn’t continue since, because at any particular point on the surface of the painting, only one type of paint exits (it just makes random patterns when repelling). I also think I am a closet chemist.

How has your work developed over time?
I think the first Gallery that picked me up after Art school influenced what I painted – abstract landscapes, because that’s the work of mine they preferred (I graduated, unusually, with both a figurative and an abstract body of work). I’ve had some really deep soul searching, trying to find what’s authentic for me, since then, and have finally decided to own that I am an abstract painter at heart, though I love to test my skills and play in a unique way with subject matter from time to time (hence the animals, people and landscapes). The subject matter doesn’t seem too important to me, just the way paint behaves and what you can evoke in or communicate to the viewer. I’d like to create another world that feels and reads to the viewer as authentic as the one we move in, but which is not depicting this world. I am also very responsive to my environment, so that creeps in whether I want it to, or not (hence the Garden series).

How do you challenge yourself?
I regularly change the scale of my paintings, buy myself expensive big brushes, take trips to the hardware for utensils etc. Then I make myself use them, in play at first. After that, it sort of organically creeps into my work when painting something, because I’ve learnt how to use the toys. I also regularly take in exhibitions and I’m an avid Art Book Buyer. I have whittled down the images in my studio now, to those that have spoken to me for a decade or so, but great artists are also constantly challenging me. I can only try!

You have been appointed to several (highly prestigious!) artist in residence positions both at home and abroad. How were these experiences – are there any that had a lasting resonance for you? What did you gain either personally or professionally?
Artist in residencies are fabulous for carving out time to just try something new, be open to change and stimulation in a new environment, or for research purposes. The best socially, was the one in Spain – I am still in touch with the other 7 artists from as far away as Iceland, France, Bulgaria, Portugal and New York. The Spanish residency lead me into a side alley in terms of my work, or so I thought (interiors instead of landscapes), until I realised that in both cases, it was the surface patterns that was attractive to me, which has allowed me to realise the abstract painter I am. The best residency for my work was the one in Toronto – a great space within the complex in which I lived, and lots of time to work. I also discovered the equivalent of the Canadian Impressionists (the Group of 7) and their mode of painting and more European subject matter (Canadian landscapes as opposed to ours) resonated with my new home in the Blue Mountains, and has influenced this newer direction in my work. These residencies also allow an artist to see, first hand and a little more leisurely than as a tourist, all the great paintings we Australians only see in books, and to see what the gallery scene is in the country. From that I realised that the Australian art world is both a very small pea in the world (and so, not to be taken too seriously) but also that we can hold our heads up high in terms of quality.

What’s the biggest hurdle you’ve faced (as an artist), and your proudest achievement?
I think  the hurdles for artists are always interior – what you expect of yourself; comparing yourself to others; the rejections from Art Prizes; juggling the work and studio time with earning, social life etc; the attention –or lack of- from galleries and the buying public. It’s a bit cyclical – you have a dream run, and then: Nothing!!. In the end, you have to realise why you paint – and that it’s not an easy road for anybody, even the apparent “overnight successes”. It becomes an obsession – the more you paint, the more you physically NEED to paint – at least in my case. I am very cranky without regular studio time. There is some luck involved in any career, timing and the right networks help, and there is still, in my view, some sexism involved in both in the appreciation of the art (if a man paints it, it automatically gets bonus points) and in the prices paid –men have the final decision at higher prices, and either go for the already established names, or just respond aesthetically to male art. It can take over your life and perception of yourself, if you let it, but its really only part of a bigger, healthier, more “actualised” life. In the end, you can only control what YOU do. I realised I wanted to paint till the day I die, regardless of attention received or not, but that I didn’t want to ignore the other important things in life, like the people you love. So I do what I do and put it out there when and where I can, and try not to get involved in any of the games, both internal and external. My proudest achievement is that I’m still at it, and seem to be gaining more recognition, after a few tough years (thanks to the GFC).

Could you share a little with us about the teaching that you do?
I am currently the Director and tutor at Art Class Sydney – private painting classes in Sydney’s Balmain, and Bali Art Retreats (we’ve got one coming up in July). I love teaching and I have the BEST students – keen, talented and willing to try anything (and I throw them a lot of stuff to try!). We cover all the painting basics from tone, composition, to finding subject matter, but my specialty is breaking down ways to mix colour accurately, and, of course, abstraction and creativity. I have some loyal students who have been coming for about 4-5 years. And a lot of new students to start the year – in fact, all the classes are about full.

What is one thing with us that most people wouldn’t know about you?
I am the fifth child of seven children –art was a way for my poor mum to keep at least one kid quiet and out of her hair! We’re a very close (and opinionated) family.

And what is something that people are surprised to discover about your art?
People always tell me that my artworks look better in the flesh. I guess it’s the texture or realising the scale, but I paint in oils and in many layers, so perhaps the camera doesn’t capture that well. That, and the variety of subject matter I have tackled.

If you were to collaborate with other artists on an artwork, what would your dream project be?
Well, is Ai Wei Wei available? I’d love to explore installation and sculpture more. Every time I am on a residency, sculpture seems to be a way of me responding to the new environment. I enjoy Ai Wei Wei’s intellect and conceptual approach, but I really respond to the way he uses found objects and interferes with them, structurally, in a minimal way (eg Bicycles placed in piles, chairs balanced against each other, hanging from a ceiling etc). That’s also the way I like to “sculpt” – using balance and the objects’ placement to make something new and interesting. You reckon you could arrange it?)

What’s next on the cards for you?
I have two shows coming up this year and a residency in Tweed Regional Gallery in January 2016, where I will have access to the Margaret Olley Art Centre (where they have reinstalled the contents of her Paddington Studio/Home at the time of her death). I intend to respond to Margaret Olley’s work in a contemporary, abstract way – can’t wait. Art Class Sydney is also involved in LOST (Leichhardt Open Studio Trail) and I’ll be conducting an Abstraction and Creativity masterclass on conjunction with SMH Spectrum Now’s “Surprise” event, both in March and teaching school terms on Thursdays and Fridays. I think I’ll be a bit busy this year!

You can see more of Gabrielle's work on her profile page here.

Words: Lauren Castino