I first met Sydney painter Leah Fraser way back in 2013, just weeks before her very first solo exhibition. She was newly represented, and somewhat wide-eyed about her emerging practice, but it was clear this young artist was heading for big things.
We’ve followed Leah’s career keenly over the past four years, and it’s been so wonderful watching her practice develop. There’s an unwavering consistency to her aesthetic – she’s always been very inspired by ancient mythology, religious and cultural motifs, and natural flora and fauna. Her most recent works, though, are more complex than ever – mythical gods and goddesses gaze stoically out at the viewer, among intense layers of foliage and a buzzing menagerie of colourful birds and animals – messengers from a spiritual world. These paintings conjure up a sort of magic realism; though populated with familiar species, Leah’s imagined scenes are unquestionably otherworldly.
Leah’s latest exhibition, entitled ‘Within You Without You’ opens next month at Arthouse Gallery in Sydney. Leah began working on the pieces for this show when she was pregnant last year, and found herself contemplating themes of new life, death and transformation.
Since the arrival of her sweet daughter Odette, Leah is more inspired than ever. ‘Every life experience becomes part of the emotional landscape of an artist, and having a child has really been one of the most profoundly transformative and beautiful experiences of my life’ she says.
Leah’s exhibition, ‘Within You Without You’ is on at Arthouse Gallery, Rushcutter’s Bay, Sydney from March 2 to 18.
Tell us a little about your background; what path led you to what you are doing today?
I studied at COFA (now UNSW Art & Design), but I think becoming an ‘artist’ was such a gradual process. I never knew if it was something that I could or even wanted to be – I felt that being in a regular art-making practice could sometimes be a little lonely.
But I always loved to create, and I showed in artist-run spaces while I travelled and worked in a million other jobs. In the end it became obvious that it was something that I couldn’t not do, regardless of the outcome, because making is vital to who I am.
How would you describe your art, and what influences your style?
My style is naive, decorative and maybe a little surrealist. It is mainly portraits or scenes of imaginary characters. I have always been obsessed with faces; I love people watching. I think I am greatly inspired by the human condition, by our questing and questioning in life, and maybe that’s why I sort of always end up in spiritual themes, but really it’s a sort of anthropological study.
I actually am a bit of a skeptic myself in a lot of ways, but I’m deeply interested in the reasons why we tell ourselves stories (be they religious or otherwise), because I believe in the unconscious and the powerful ways in which it drives our conscious lives.
Tell us a little bit about your creative process…
I actually do a lot of research and writing as I am conceiving things. I sort of see something in my minds eye and write it down like a dream, but when I move to make it, the idea changes and transforms, sometimes dramatically.
I work across a range of media: acrylics on canvas, watercolour on paper, and I also work with ceramics and sculpture. Each medium gives me a different sensation and requires a different way of interacting with the idea. The paintings are so much more involved; I sort of feel like I am pulling away layers until I can find the character and the story. Whereas working in watercolour or clay is so much more immediate.
With all my work, I am very hands on; the physical act of making is really fundamental to my reasons for creating work. I get very much engaged in a dance with each piece!
You’ve recently had your first baby, how has this impacted upon your art practice?
Time is more scarce, and therefore it must be used more wisely, so this definitely changes my process somewhat. My time in the studio is much more dynamic.
As for the impact visually, we shall have to wait and see – every life experience becomes part of the emotional landscape of an artist, and having a child has really been one of the most profoundly transformative and beautiful experiences of my entire life.
Can you tell us about what has inspired your latest body of work?
I began working on the pieces for this show when I was pregnant, and thinking about new life made me also think about how birth and death are irrevocably linked. It also made me think about transformation- because birth and death are transformations of a kind.
This collection of work is largely inspired by stories of the gods and goddesses that are associated with creation and destruction. The works explore reincarnation, the birth of the universe, travel to the underworld, anthropomorphism, and metamorphosis.
Which other Australian designers, artists or creative people are you loving at the moment?
Laura Jones, artist – we used to share a studio together and I just love seeing her beautiful work evolve and grow!
William Robinson, artist – I always come back to his work, again and again! I just feel that he is so spiritual and masterful. He is a huge inspiration to me.
Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, artist – I just saw her new show, which is now on at Roslyn Oxley Gallery, and it is phenomenal!
What are your top resources that you turn to when you’re in a need of creative inspiration?
Music – finding the right soundtrack to the day is very important to me and sometimes nothing gets done until that’s right; it’s almost always about making a really good vibe and having a little rain dance!
Smells – I generally have to seduce myself into my work in very sensory ways – that sounds really weird, but the right perfume, incense or candle (at the moment I obsessed with Maison Balzac la rose) can actually tweak something very deep inside me.
Visuals – artbooks, fashion magazines, Instagram, postcards, and scraps from the newspaper are collected like I’m a bowerbird! I also do a lot of Internet research and print things out.
Stories – podcasts, film, novels, and poetry are consumed rapidly; one will open the door to another, and lead down research rabbit holes that make me have an idea.
Rituals – I am of the Nick Cave School of ‘go to your office each day and work’. Some days you turn up and it’s hard, some days it flows, but I think that the ritual of my day creates a flow of energy and inspiration. I work from home but I literally get up, get ready and leave the house at like 6:30am, have a walk, maybe a swim, coffee, and get back to start work at 8:00am.
What’s next for Leah Fraser?
I’ve gotten really into watercolours again recently, and I am excited to get started on some larger-scale pieces for a group show that’s coming up.
I have a fantasy about writing and illustrating a children’s book… and I’d love to work on fabrics for textiles of some sort one day.
It makes me so happy that there are people out there that connect with my work enough for me to keep going, and keep making the work. Each piece is an achievement. Each show!
What’s your favourite Sydney neighbourhood?
I love Surry Hills. I lived there for a long time and I always go back for the monthly flea markets, and the restaurants.
Where was the best meal you recently?
Nomad – their burrata (Italian cheese) is like diving into a cloud!
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
Usually, at the moment I get to have a little sleep in Saturday mornings, and my boyfriend takes the little one up to our local café Eugenes and brings me back my favourites – chai tea, green smoothie, and a spelt berry scone – which I consume in bed! But sometimes we get up really early and all go for a swim.
Sydney’s best kept secret?
Sydney is full of beautiful nature and there are amazing tiny beaches all around the harbour which are so lovely to explore, especially if you ever have the opportunity to do so by boat.
Within You Without You by Leah Fraser
March 2 to 18.
See more of Leah Fraser’s work here.