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Interview · Carmel Seymour

Creative People

10th May, 2013
Lucy Feagins
Friday 10th May 2013

Group Hug by Carmel Seymour, 2012, watercolour and pencil on paper, 72cm x 52cm.

A Walk with a Park by Carmel Seymour, 2013, graphite on paper, 72cm x 52cm

Works on paper by Carmel Seymour.  Photo - Eve Wilson.

Carmel Seymour at work in Melbourne. Photo - Eve Wilson.

Carmel Seymour at Helen Gory Galerie.  Photo - Eve Wilson.

I'd love to make the claim that artist Carmel Seymour is Melbourne based, but in fact, although she grew up here, at the moment Carmel calls Iceland home.  After travelling to Iceland in 2011 to undertake an artists residency, she's spent the past three years living and working in Reykjavik - though, impressively, she's also managed to maintain a regular exhibition calendar in Melbourne, where she is represented by Helen Gory Galerie.

After spending her early twenties working in fashion as a patternmaker and designer, Carmel realised that the highly competitive ready-to-wear industry just wasn't her world.  She felt an urge to return to painting and drawing - something she had loved as a child, but had set aside in favour of more 'sensible' career pursuits!  In 2006, she took a leap of faith, leaving her job to study fine art at the VCA.

Carmel's works on paper elegantly combine highly detailed pencil sketches with painterly fields of vivid watercolour.  Her work is inspired by storytelling, natural flora and fauna, mysticism, psychology and science.  She's particularly skilled at rendering intricate textures, which is perhaps most obvious when looking at her graphite sketches - every strand of hair seems to jump off the page!  So beautiful.

Carmel is in Melbourne this month, preparing for her solo show at Helen Gory Galerie which opens next week.  Entitled Romance Hero, the exhibition is inspired by a residency Carmel undertook in Berlin last November,  and centres around the idea of 'trust games' -  the comfort of being part of a group, and the power of group consciousness.

We're so glad to have caught Carmel before she heads back to Reykjavik in a few weeks time!

Romance Hero by Carmel Seymour
15th May to 8th June
Helen Gory Galerie 
25 St Edmonds Road
Prahran, VIC 

Tell us a little about your background – what path led you to becoming a fine artist, and to creating the style of work you are currently making?

I always spent a lot of time drawing as a child, but when I got to high school I decided I should instead follow a more income friendly career path. So up until my mid twenties I was working in the fashion industry, as a patternmaker and designer, but it left me feeling cold. I actually used to have dreams about going to art school before I considered it as a legitimate possibility. My unconscious state asleep was way ahead of me!

Once I started studying again I was amazed at how supportive and nurturing my teachers and fellow students were, it was a real contrast to the competitive nature of the fashion world. I have never looked back.

My fashion background has left me with a love of pattern and texture. I often include detailed textiles and decorative elements within my work. I love finding these patterns in the natural world as well, such as the swirls of colour in agate or the lichen formations on rocks.

A residency program in the Icelandic countryside a few years ago really opened up an appreciation for flora of all types - I love botanical illustration. I guess I try to emulate that level of detail in some of my own paintings.

Trust Games 2 by Carmel Seymour, 2013, watercolour and pencil on paper.
How would you describe your work?

Someone once told me my work was like a storybook for adults, I quite like that.  My work is heavily driven by narrative. I use a fairly realistic style to get these stories across.

I am interested in the unknown, I spent a long time researching the occult and different forms of mysticism, but now I seem to find the same sense of wonder and mystery in the natural world with psychology and science, and particularly early scientific thought. I emulate these quests for magic and wonder on a domestic scale, with depictions of ritualistic play within and around the home.

What can we expect to see in your new exhibition ‘Romance Hero’ at Helen Gory Galerie in Melbourne? What has inspired this body of work?

I spent a month doing a residency in Berlin last November. I went there with a really clear idea of what I wanted to make, but after a week all that turned on its head. I was really fascinated with the east/west split. I met someone whose parents had had a lot of trouble adjusting to unified Germany after living within the rigid structures of communism. At the same time I found a number of wartime photos of gymnastic displays in Iceland.

All of this lead me to think about group activities and trust games, the comfort of being part of a group and the power of the group mind. It made me think of a particularly strange experience I had at a corporate training day many years ago!

The works in the show are all a play on these trust games, and the equipment around them. I had a lot of fun actually recreating some of these games with friends to generate the images for the show.

Can you give us a little insight into your process? What materials do you use? Is each work pre-planned or created very intuitively? Do you work on multiple works at one time? And how long does each work take to complete?

I generally use watercolour and graphite on paper. I love working on paper, sometimes its fragility can drive me a little crazy though.

I sketch a lot. I usually plan an image fairly carefully in my sketchbook before I draw it up. Then I try and find a friend or I photograph myself in a range of variations of the poses I need. I use these photos and a range of other imagery to collage an image together. I start with a light sketch and then I let the painting evolve organically on the paper. I often incorporate large spills of colour into the paintings and these can dictate the direction the work goes in.

I try to have more than one work going at once, but with the watercolours there is no going backwards, so often its better to stay in the mindset of that current piece. The painting can take anywhere from a week to six weeks, partly because of the amount of detail, but also because some are harder to resolve than others.

Carmel Seymour's works and sketchbooks.  Photo - Eve Wilson.
What does a typical day at work involve for you in Iceland?

I try to get up early, but in Icelandic winter when it’s dark it is a real battle! I like to ride my bike from home to my studio, and on not so windy days I can ride right along the ocean all the way there, it's so pretty but quite a torturous ride if the wind is up. I try to spend the first half of the day doing admin things like writing applications or proposals or researching ideas for new work.

Then it's usually a coffee, my studio space is right next to downtown so it is quite easy to get distracted by antiques, book stores or op shops, but at least I can still call this 'research', I think. Then I will try to paint or draw till the evening, my eyes tend to pack it in after about five hours on the detailed works.

Carmel Seymour at work in Melbourne. Photo - Eve Wilson.
Can you list for us 5 resources across any media that you turn to regularly for creative inspiration? – I have to listen to audiobooks when I paint. I find they glue me to the chair more than anything else. A really great story will filter into the work as well. I am currently listening to Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver.

Cabinet Magazine – This is the most amazing resource. Each issue has a range of articles covering all sorts of things, such as comparative literature, history, art and science. They have a great website as well with back issues of all there articles.

Secondhand bookstores – I love treasure hunting. The books that fall into your path in these kind of places often set a new body of work in motion.

Antiques markets and junk shops – I also find old photographs and objects tend to create new ideas for the position of figures or the creation of narratives.

Podcasts – This American Life and Radiolab are probably my favourites, but I need to take a break from them every now and again, the presenters sometimes get to me!

Which other local artists, designers or creative people are you most inspired by at the moment?

I can’t stop looking at my wedding band made my Krista McCrae. It’s so beautiful. We did a swap of some artwork for the ring so it is extra special.

I haven’t seen that many shows while I have been back in Australia this time but I did just go to Mona for the first time a few weeks ago and that blew my mind, what a theme park. Converse to that, I saw a nice show at TCB yesterday with Christo Crocker and Noriko Nakamura among others that was quiet, intricate and lovely.

And I have to mention my brother Kieren Seymour. He is an artist as well and he works with so much energy and has such a unique voice and sense of humour in his work. He is always inspiring me to try new things.

What is your proudest career achievement to date?

Probably my time at the various residencies I have taken part in. There is always a great moment in a beautiful landscape or new city when I realise this is my job and how lucky I am.

It is always lovely when my work sells or better still when a show sells out! It is lovely to speak to someone who really engages with the work as well, I love hearing alternate interpretations of the imagery.

What would be your dream project?

I spend so much time making my work alone in my studio; I would love to be involved with more collaborative projects, maybe on a larger scale. I had a ball working with Lucy James at the Copyshop project at C3 last year.

What are you looking forward to?

I head back to Reykjavik in a few weeks, and I am dying to get back into my beautiful studio. I bought a new set of oil paints recently and I want to take them for a spin. I also hope to do a short ceramics course this year. So I guess, lots of new materials and lots of mess.

Feels Lichen Home by Carmel Seymour, watercolour and pencil on paper.


Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?

I loved living in Brunswick when I lived in Melbourne. There is so much great food there, but now I appreciate so many parts of Melbourne after being away living in such a small city. I really enjoy wandering through the city and around Fitzroy, and I have had some really nice family catch-ups along the beach in St.Kilda this year during the heat wave.

Where do you shop in Melbourne for the tools of your trade?

Definitely Melbourne Artists Supplies, they stock everything!

Studio details.  Photo - Eve Wilson.
Where / what was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?

Oh that’s easy. I had two in one day recently. My husband and I were treated to two special meals in one day as wedding presents from some very lovely friends. Golden Fields for lunch and Machi for dinner. Both in St. Kilda, both amazing. There was great Sake at Machi as well. It was a very decadent day!  The food in Reykjavik is not that diverse, so most food in Melbourne is a treat after being there for a while.

Your favourite thing to do when you’re back in Melbourne?

Eat! Eat good gluten free bread from Black Ruby’s or Gluten Free for You (you can’t get it in Reykjavik). Catch up with well-missed friends, in t-shirt weather… at night time! I also get an enormous craving for the Botanical gardens when I am away, that is usually one of my first stops when I get back.

When you’re back in Melbourne where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

Well honestly probably playing with my cats at my parents’ house. Then going for coffee with friends.

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

The op shops on Centre Road in Bentleigh where I picked up two pairs of mint condition sneakers yesterday for $18. Also, I don’t know how much of a secret it is but the mineral collection at the Melbourne Museum is pretty spectacular as well.

Blanksblom by Carmel Seymour, watercolour and pencil on paper.

The Design Files acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

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