Monica Rohan is one of those intuitive creative folk who knew from a young age that she wanted to be an artist. Having grown up on a picturesque dairy farm in Queensland’s Kerry Valley, just shy of the NSW border, Monica experienced an idyllic rural childhood where her imagination roamed free. At the age of 17, armed with a hefty dose of youthful enthusiasm, she left the farm and relocated to Brisbane to dedicate herself to developing her art practice. Initially terrified and lonely, Monica attended art school and soon found her feet (while losing the rest of herself to unruly plant life and nana blankets, as some of her paintings would suggest!). She worked hard and graduated with honours in 2011, and has been building momentum as a professional artist ever since.
In 2013 Monica gained representation with the highly regarded Jan Murphy Gallery in Brisbane, alongside a stable of established contemporary artists. Then, in 2014 she joined the esteemed line-up in Melbourne’s Sophie Gannon Gallery. This year has seen Monica feature in the high profile exhibition GOMA Q: Contemporary Queensland Art with 29 other leading Queensland Visual Artists.
Still just 24, Monica humbly admits to being thoroughly shocked, though deeply relieved, when she learned that both her 2014 and 2015 Jan Murphy shows sold out pre-exhibition. Clearly, art lovers are connecting with Monica’s gently provocative compositions, which reference the fragility of human emotion, often depicting subjects floating or falling amongst layers of vivid pattern or dense foliage. Monica’s exhibition successes have recently allowed her to leave her ‘day’ job to focus on her art. She now spends most of her time wielding paintbrushes in her cosy Clayfield apartment on Brisbane’s north side.
Monica Rohan’s current solo exhibition In the Detail is showing until 4 October at the Tweed Regional Gallery. Her work is also featured in GOMA Q: Contemporary Queensland Art until 11 October. Monica also has a limited edition print available through Contemporary Editions.
Tell us a little about your background – what did you study and what path led you to what you’re doing now?
I grew up on a dairy farm in Kerry Valley, part of Queensland’s Scenic Rim. I spent a lot of time riding horses with my big brothers, trying to win the trust of the chooks, playing with the dogs, swimming in the river or waiting patiently by its bank in the late afternoon hoping to spot a platypus. Endless summer holidays were spent reading and drawing because the boys would always have control of the television, and I think cricket is boring!
I’m the youngest by six years so I was often left to my own devices, which usually meant roaming around the hills and gullies. I loved being surrounded by mountains and animals and mum’s wild garden. Really, I couldn’t imagine a better childhood, but by my mid-teens I was ready to get out. At that age it felt like the only available culture in the entire township was Network Video.
So I moved to Brisbane, where I studied Fine Art with honours at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University from 2008-2011, straight out of high school. The work I’m making now is really a progression of what I started painting toward the end of university. I was attracted to figurative painting, and it was convenient at the time to work from photos of myself and what was around.
How would you describe your work?
I am a figurative painter but a lot of my work includes abstract patterns that are drawn from dresses, hedges, couches, overgrown back yards, unruly hydrangeas, hand-me-down clothes, nana blankets, handmade quilts, trees, mountains, pleats and polka-dots that look like galaxies. I like any kind of pattern that can be expanded just beyond the reach of reality. I’ve been particularly influenced by Edouard Vuillard and his depiction of pattern.
Can you give us a little insight into your creative process?
I use oil paints on board with Art Spectrum odourless lean medium, which is the thinnest medium I’ve found. It makes the consistency as close to
watercolours as possible, but retains the vibrancy of oils. Each painting takes around two weeks to finish, so I like to start with a plan. Sometimes I’ll start with a few rough sketches of figures, sometimes I’ll start with photos. Most initial ideas go through several dramatic changes before I begin to seriously paint. And I tend to stick to one painting at a time. I need to discipline myself in this way otherwise I’d have half-finished paintings everywhere.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
Usually I’ll get up and tidy the kitchen from the night before, have a cup of tea and some toast and get stuck into painting for a while, then make a coffee and check emails around 10. I tend to work fairly consistently until 5pm, with little Instagram and snack breaks dotted throughout. Also tending to plants is a really satisfying way to ‘productively’ procrastinate. I’ll either go for a run in the afternoon or chill out on the deck with my boyfriend and a cup of tea. Often I’ll go back to painting for a couple of hours after dinner.
In 2014 you completed a month-long residency in the Nancy Fairfax Artist in Residence Studio at the Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Centre. Can you shed some light on how that came about, what the experience was like, and the works that resulted?
Susi Muddiman, Director of Tweed Regional Gallery, saw my first solo show
at Jan Murphy Gallery and suggested that I apply for their funded residency program. I hadn’t been there before, but I’d heard it was a major regional gallery in a beautiful area so I jumped at the chance. The gallery is situated in countryside very similar to where I grew up, and I think having that connection made the transition from my home in Brisbane to Murwillumbah easier to get my head around.
Going into the residency I honestly thought I’d be making an entire show
based on responses to the landscape. I’d not anticipated the amount of access I’d be allowed to the Margaret Olley art centre. This changed my plans entirely for the better. The Gallery let me set up in the store room to paint from Olley’s possessions and they even let me walk through the display and choose a few items to paint from, a privilege not granted to many. It was a huge task to select just a few.
My residency experience culminated with my current exhibition In the Detail. I think altogether the finished works balance elements of the surrounding landscape, grassy slopes and giant hoop-pines, with the varied and intricate patterns from Olley’s home.
Your recent works seem to consistently explore certain themes and ideas, such as how it feels to be emotionally overwhelmed. Can you explain some of the ideas explored in your recent works?
I’m interested in isolating specific elements of the landscape or patterned textiles, and making them swell and surge against the figure. The painting process oscillates between meditative and frustrating, which I think translates into the finished work.
I think of the figure as being the part that allows access for the viewer to feel some kind of emotional reaction, to imagine themselves in the same kind of position, hiding in a hedge or drowning in a floordrobe or sinking into a rug.
Which other Australian designers, artists or creative people are you loving at the moment?
I’m always excited by Dord Burrough’s work. I recently saw a fantastic exhibition by young Brisbane artist Anja Swan at local art space, The Hold. She doesn’t seem to have a website but The Hold have an online catalogue of the exhibition, which I think nearly sold out.
Can you list for us your top resources across any media that you turn to
when you’re in a need of creative inspiration?
My top resources include Jennifer Higgie’s Instagram account, I love this particular Tumblr account that posts lots of good art, and it was something of a revelation when a friend told me all you need is a library membership to download audiobooks for free.
I generally follow artists and galleries from all over on Instagram, although sometimes this can be more of a distraction than a help. But by far the best thing to do for creative inspiration is to get out of the studio and go to as many exhibitions as possible and have a supportive network of artists around you.
What is your proudest career achievement to date?
Being included in Goma Q: Contemporary Queensland Art, closely followed by being selected for the Tweed Gallery residency. Also leaving my café job last year was a pretty momentous occasion!
What would be your dream creative project?
I would really, really, really like to do an overseas residency.
What are you looking forward to?
Having my first solo show in Melbourne next year at Sophie Gannon Gallery.
Your favourite Brisbane neighbourhood and why?
I loved living in my last big share house in Milton. It felt close to everything: the City, Paddington, Rosalie, West End, and also the bike path along the river.
What and where was the best meal you recently had in Brisbane?
I’ve never had a bad meal at Scout on Petrie Terrace, and I go there a lot. It’s hands down the best café in Brisbane.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
At my desk in my studio with a cup of fresh coffee and a piece of toast with music playing in the background.
Brisbane’s best kept secret?
I’m not sure how secret it is but Archives Fine Books on Charlotte Street in the city is a gem. It’s floor to ceiling second hand books and has squeaky floorboards and handwritten labels.