Gabby Malpas’ gentle and detailed watercolours of flowers, birds and insects are instantly recognisable. Despite their joyfulness, her works contain some powerfully critical messages. Art Pharmacy recently visited Gabby’s studio and talked to her about her watercolour process, her advice for new artists, and how her experience of culture and race shines through in her art.
Apart from being an artist, what is your professional background?
I finished art school and went to the UK thinking I was going to be a famous artist. I started at the bottom as a filing clerk and worked my way up. I fell into publishing and from there fell into digital project management. I understood that it was a potential income stream, and that one day I’d be able to work part-time and earn enough so that I could paint. Now I’m there, 25 years later. I teach people who are just starting out as artists that the first thing you need to do is to get your financial ducks in a row. In September last year I made the switch in my head to go, “You’re not a project manager. You’re an artist.” That was enormous.
What is your typical process when creating a piece?
For small pieces I draw straight on the paper or canvas, using a reference. For show work I like to first have an idea and then draw a rough sketch in my notebook. I call my process with watercolour ‘colouring in’. I work very quickly, and I like it to be very liquid, which is unpredictable. So you can’t be worried about where the lines stop. Everything is drawn out in detail. When it’s finished, I rub out the pencil lines so it looks extremely clean.
Your watercolours are very delicate and detailed. What is the importance of painting in this manner to you and how do you achieve this effect?
My paintings have become even more detailed in the past five years. I really know my subject. I know the shape of the stem and I know where the leaf hits the stem. I also draw from life. I have a big library of images, but I try and get the plant in front of me. That’s why I have all of these pots – as my husband says, I have pots of slime everywhere.
Although you grew up in New Zealand, your background is Chinese. You’ve said that you’ve explored this background artistically. Could you elaborate a bit on that?
The turning point for me was in 2004 when I met my birth mother. I didn’t know until then that I was a hundred percent Chinese. That was incredible in that I started to embrace my Chinese heritage. It sounds ridiculous but I didn’t understand that I wasn’t white until I hit my late twenties. There’s all of this white privilege and denial of race going on, and in the 1960s if you were adopted into a white family you didn’t talk about race. In hindsight, that’s very damaging. Now, because I found out about my heritage, I do massively optimistic work. Even though there are some fairly terse messages in it, the work itself is very positive and joyful.
What sort of messages are in your work?
Commentary on what I experienced growing up in 1970s New Zealand. There was definitely racism and I grew up in a predominantly white area. I’ve called a whole series of works: ‘Ching Chong’ - it’s funny, but it’s also shit, because I spent years getting chased by people yelling “chingchong, chingchong”. It also took me years to understand that I’ve had a different life experience than my white family. There’s a title in my current show about colourblindness. I still hear people saying that they don’t see colour when talking about race. I appreciate the sentiment but it’s actually really damaging because you’re not acknowledging difference and dismissing my life experience as a coloured person. When I found my mother, it changed me from being extremely angry to thinking, how can I help? I feel that a lot of transracial adoptees of my age are so traumatised that they will not talk about it, so I think it’s really important that there’s someone who will.
You have a “Chinoiserie collection”, with works like ‘Kumquats’, ‘Moth Orchids’ and ‘Camelies, Fantail and Butterflies’. What exactly is Chinoiserie?
Chinoiserie came about in the 1600s and 1700s in Europe, when they first started trading with China. Things came out of China – porcelain, embroidered silk, paper – which were of course completely outside of anyone’s experience, but they were beautiful. The Chinese started making products to European tastes, and then Europeans started to knock off Chinese designs. You wouldn’t even know which was which unless you knew what you were looking at. I’m ‘Chinoiserie’ because I identify with white culture, but my artwork is extremely Chinese in appearance: it’s very flat, I’m starting to work in the long elongated format, and I have a chop – the Chinese stamp. In the ‘Chinoiserie’ series I put my very distinctly Oriental images on old European documents from the 1700s and 1800s that I’ve gotten from Ebay.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve finished a number of licensing deals, and I’m waiting for those products to come out. I’m also working on my November show. I would describe my current style as ‘Chinoiserie on steroids’ – I’m starting to push the envelope a bit. There’s some stuff going on that you don’t expect and there’s more of a story.
You can see all of Gabby's works for sale here.
Words by Ellen Oredsson