Interview With Shellie Cleaver

Shellie Cleaver paints intimate still life portraits, echoing ideas from Giorgio Morandi with the delicate simplicity of the unremarkable still life objects she chooses to feature. Her humble design aesthetic speaks of quiet contemplations and perceptions. The depths of Shellie’s works are unavoidably attractive; her dark palette lending the viewer through an ethereal conduit towards a viscerally divergent domestic space. Shellie’s depiction of a plethora of jars and assortments deserve to return to their environment; sitting comfortably above the stove or catching the reflection of the sun bouncing through the window above the sink. Shellie’s paintings are irrevocably unconstrained to a certain stasis – her elusive works able to adapt to any space whether domestic or other.

Can you remember the first artwork you ever created?
I can remember making things as a child, like an umbrella made out of sticks and newspaper, I also liked to make shoes out of newspaper.  I can’t remember the first artwork I made, but I do remember the first artworks I made that were ambitious, with the intention of becoming an artist.  They were my HSC artworks, two paintings; one portrait of my sister and one of my grandmother.

Is being an artist your full time job?
Being an artist is not my full time job, however, I am lucky to have recently found a career that I love.  I am working in a library and am studying to become a librarian. I fit art making in around my work commitments, however I always remember how amazing it when I studied at the National Art School in Sydney and was able to work full time on art. That is the dream, for all artists I imagine.

Do you think your everyday profession, as a librarian, influence your artworks?
I think working in a library relates to artworks I used to make where text and printed pages featured.  I have always loved books and text and think I will make artworks in the future that relate to my work in the library.  As an artist, I haven’t been able to resist collecting the old borrowing cards and date due slips found in books. For me the date stamps are so interesting as markers of time, and I think they are beautiful objects also.

What attracts you to the form of still life?
For me, still life is a framework within which visual elements can be explored.  It’s not about pretty pictures of flowers and bottles; the objects are visual entities that I can use to explore visual relationships. Arranging objects into a still life composition is an interesting process; the relationships and tensions between the objects is the focus. The visual weight of their size, colour, shape and texture become important factors, and the aim is to find an arrangement of objects that is interesting, slightly challenging and uncomfortable, yet pleasing, beautiful and resolved. Arranging still life compositions is a form of visual mathematics; it has to achieve a sense of resolution and balance, yet there must also be a point of tension. Ultimately I am working toward pushing the boundaries of what a composition can handle, how much tension can it handle whilst being resolved. 

Still life also offers the opportunity to explore the overlooked, the domestic and the unseen.  I like the fact that still life can draw people’s attention to the beauty of something ordinary, something they never would have considered to be beautiful if an artwork had not drawn their attention to it.

How do you choose what to feature in your still life? 
I have a collection of objects for still life and I am always on the look out for objects that offer a slightly different shape, weight and colour.  I am quite attached to the objects, they feel like old friends, each entirely individual and irreplaceable.  When starting a new work, I start by pulling out various objects and placing them together.  Sometimes I have an idea in mind that centres on the features of one particular object, so in that case, I build the composition around that object and idea.

Have you been influenced by other infamous still life painters? If so, who is your utmost favourite?
Naturally, Morandi’s composition’s, colour palette and the way he painted influence me.  I adore Whistler’s paintings; the portrait of his mother has such beautiful colour, tone and composition.  Rembrandt and Bonnard’s painterliness have long appealed to me, although that influence is not obvious in my recent work.  Jude Rae is an Australian contemporary still life painter whose work is astounding, I love her colour palette, composition, technique and the sense of materiality and weight imbued in the objects.

Walk me through your standard art making process.
I usually begin a new artwork with either a particular object in mind, or a sense of the type of composition I want to make.  I then have my collection of objects beside me and I begin trialling different objects in the composition.  This process of placing objects, removing objects, moving objects closer and further apart, can take quite some time.  When I feel I may be reaching the final composition, I will sketch the composition on a small piece of paper – in a very loose way to see how the composition translates into a two dimensional form. This may result in objects being changed or moved and then the composition is sketched again, and the process repeats until I have found a composition I believe is interesting, dynamic and visually balanced. Considering the light and how the shadows fall is important, the shadows an object casts is as significant in the painting as the object itself.

When I begin painting, I knock the white canvas back immediately with a thin umber or ochre.  I then loosely sketch in the composition with raw umber.  The painting then builds from there, refining the placement and shapes of the objects, developing the background and the objects themselves.  I usually find the art making process to be an uncomfortable battle between the canvas and me.  Starting paintings is always uplifting and exciting but that soon fades as every painting then moves into the ‘ugly stage’ where if you can push through that, I have found that nearly every painting can reach a point of resolution.

Do you have any upcoming exhibitions?
I do have an exhibition coming up at ARO gallery in Darlinghurst, Sydney.  They have kindly included me in a group exhibition called STILL, opening on 30 November 2016, 6 to 8 pm, closing 18 December 2016, here is the link:

Do you have an Instagram or social media account we can follow you up on?
I do have a Facebook page: and my newly created Instagram account: @shelliecleaver

You can check out Shellie Cleaver’s lovely and intimate still life here.