Studio Visit

Sarah Kelk

Sarah Kelk‘s beautiful abstract paintings first caught our eye back in 2014, and we’ve been keenly watching her practice develop since then. Today we share an in depth interview with Sarah, who returned to painting in 2011 after time spent living abroad, running a business and having a family. We’re so glad she did!

We’re thrilled to be hosting ‘Floating Worlds‘, an exhibition of Sarah’s latest works alongside the work of fellow Melbourne artist Stephen Baker, at our little gallery in Collingwood next week – do join us next Saturday April 30th for the opening!


Lucy Feagins

Details from the studio of Sarah Kelk, featuring works from Sarah’s upcoming show with Stephen Baker ‘Floating Worlds’ at TDF Collect! Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

Sarah Kelk in her Carlton North home studio. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

Studio details. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

Painting by Sarah Kelk. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

Studio details. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

Sarah Kelk in her Carlton North studio. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

Studio details. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

Details from the studio of Sarah Kelk, featuring works from Sarah’s upcoming show with Stephen Baker ‘Floating Worlds’ at TDF Collect! Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

Lucy Feagins
22nd of April 2016

Sarah Kelk is one seriously busy local creative. She’s one half of homewares label and online store Hello Polly, which she runs with her sister Helen, she’s a super busy Mum to two young kids, and she’s a talented artist whose profile has been steadily on the rise for the past two years. Safe to say, she thrives on a hefty workload!

Sarah originally hails from New Zealand, and after completing studies in design and art history, spent time living and working in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she ran a successful gallery for seven years. Upon returning to Melbourne in 2011, Sarah launched her online business, and revived her painting practice.

I first discovered Sarah’s artwork back in 2014. We included a handful of her beautiful paintings at our Open House event that same year – which immediately sold out! Since then, we’ve watched Sarah’s painting career really take off – she’s gained a huge local following in such a short space of time, and held her hugely successful first solo exhibition in Melbourne last year.

With their distinctive muted palette and abstract, gestural forms, Sarah’s paintings invite varied interpretations. For her upcoming show with us, Sarah has joined forces with Stephen Baker to create a body of work inspired by botanical themes, and the interplay between the natural landscape and manmade world.

All works in Sarah and Stephen’s upcoming exhibition are pictured on the TDF Collect website (please email  for all enquiries). All are welcome to join us and meet Sarah and Stephen at the exhibition opening next Saturday April 30th – i.e. one week away, not tomorrow!

Floating Worlds by Stephen Baker & Sarah Kelk
30th April to 6th May 2016
TDF Collect
14 Little Oxford St
Collingwood, VIC

Opening Saturday 30th April, 10.00am – 5.00pm, with drinks from 2.00pm onwards.

This exhibition is generously sponsored by DuluxCervezas AlhambraCapi, and The Drinks List!

Tell us a little bit about your background – where did you grow up and what did you study?

I grew up in a small town in the South Island of New Zealand. While we lived in town, we would spend a lot of time at my grandparents’ farm a short drive away. Along with our cousins, we would spend hours working on the farm, collecting things, building forts and generally being free to roam. As kids, we were often out exploring, fishing, swimming or skiing – we spent a lot of time in nature. I still feel very connected to New Zealand, particularly the landscape, even though I haven’t lived there for well over a decade.

I’ve always loved painting and have painted since I was young. I knew I wanted to study and work in a creative field, and after school, at the ripe old age of 17, I moved away from home to study both design and art history at university.

After studying, I was lucky enough to get work in various gallery and design spaces, as well as some time spent working as an interior designer. Then, in 2002 I decided to travel the world, After two years, I ran out of money in Edinburgh, which was, in hindsight, a great place to run out of money in! We ended up living there for the next 7 years, and have such fond memories of our time there.

What path led you to what you are doing today?

While we were living in Edinburgh, I was fortunate enough to take up the role of running a gallery space, dealing with talented artists and designers. It solidified the fact that I really wanted to work alongside creative people, and it also made me realise that I enjoyed working for myself.

When we decided to move to Melbourne in early 2011 I started the online store Hello Polly. Running an online business made things a lot easier with a young family, and after 7 years running a physical space (in Edinburgh) it was a nice change. Not long after we started, my sister Helen joined the team, and we often talked about creating our own homewares brand within Hello Polly. It wasn’t until I began painting again, and Helen dived further into the textile industry that our initial Hello Polly Home collection starting coming together. Since then they have worked together on every element along the way.

As far as the painting side goes, I started selling paintings while I was studying at university, although once I started travelling, running a business and having a family, painting naturally took a bit of a back seat. I was itching to spend more time with a brush in hand, and used painting as a starting point for our Hello Polly Home range. I love painting again, and with some amazing support from Melbourne’s creative community, I haven’t stopped since.

How would you describe your work?

Energised blocks of colour and delicate abstractions are central to my work. I also often reference decorative arts, patterns, architecture and nature within my work. I get so distracted by colour, its balance and its relationship within a painting that this is often where my design process begins and ends.

Can you give us a little insight into your creative process? Do you work on multiple works at once, and do you have a rigid plan while painting or a more intuitive approach? 

Most of my work is pretty intuitive. I have a rough plan, but start with a really rough few expressive under coats. These I do really quickly, which also gives me a feel about which direction the rest of the painting will head in. I then add colour blocks on top and simply build on it from there, leaving bits that I like and working over others.

Even if I have a firm plan of what a piece will look like before I begin, it often goes out the window once I start painting. I really enjoy getting in the zone with how a piece is developing and more often than not, pieces don’t usually come together as a whole until right at the end. I often find that some of my first layers I like so much, that I can’t bring myself to paint over them. The small windows of my first layers in a painting often become my favourite parts.

I used to paint in oils, but have been loving the speed and freedom that acrylics have given me over the last few years. I work predominantly on stretched canvas and linen, and my preferred paint is actually house paint, although I use a whole range of paint products.

Tell us a little bit about your upcoming exhibition Floating Worlds with Stephen Baker for TDF Collect. What inspired this body of work, and how long has it been in the works for?

It’s been really nice working alongside Stephen. The starting point for us both was a ‘botanical’ theme, and the interplay between the natural and manmade.

For me, I drew inspiration from nature’s raw immediacy. Most of us crave brief escapes within nature, whether it be a quick lunch break in your local park, a week in a cabin in the woods, or simply buying yourself a bunch of flowers on the way home. I really tried to encapsulate the feeling I get from being in nature. For me, this quote from the American nature essayist John Burroughs sums it up –

‘I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order’ – John Burroughs

For this show, I really wanted to push myself to use a few colour additions that were new to my palette. I’m always really drawn to pinks, peaches, mints and deep blues, but really enjoyed adding some deep mossy greens, bright cobalt blue and reds to the palette for this latest body of work.

Besides maintaining your art practice, you run your homewares label and online store Hello Polly with your sister Helen. What do you have in the pipeline for Hello Polly in 2016?

Helen and I are busy working on new additions to our range of homewares, with some great prints, throws and cushions about to be released. We are constantly adding products to our collection, rather than releasing complete new ranges every few months, as we strongly believe in creating long lasting designs, rather than focusing on mini trends.

We are really proud to manufacture all our products right here in Melbourne. Working with local suppliers means we can work in small runs, minimise wastage and keep things simple.

What does a typical day at work involve for you?

No two days are the same, which helps keeps things fresh for me. I usually get up and head for an early run or gym about 6am. I know this sounds crazy, but it really helps clears my head for the day, and with two young kids, it allows me to feel like I’ve had a secret hour to myself. At about 7:30am, I head back home for the crazy hour that is getting the household fed, dressed and ready for the day. We are super lucky that the kids school and kinder are all within a block of our house, so our commute is pretty painless (although someone usually has a piece of toast in hand as they walk down the street). After the school/kinder run, If I’m lucky, there is time for a quick coffee stop around the corner at Small Victories, before heading to the studio for the day.

I’m really lucky to have my studio above our garage, just a hop, skip and jump across the yard from our house. I love working here, as it has loads of natural light and even though it’s so close to our house, the space feels completely separate.

I try to spend the morning getting on top of those necessary things; emails, meetings, admin, packing orders, running samples etc. It’s one big mix of running the Hello Polly shop as well as dealing with wholesale orders, sampling, designing and then of course, making time for painting. I always make a point of taking some time out to cook a big healthy lunch, as I find it really useful to take a bit of a step back before I head into the afternoon.

In the afternoon I’m usually itching to paint, so I try and grab a few hours in front of a canvas. I try to fit in two or three days a week where I solely focus on painting. Sometimes, these days fly by, and others just feel really ‘difficult’. I really enjoy how every day is different.

The 3:30 school bell always comes around so quickly, and I then switch off from work and really try to focus on the kids for a few hours. At the moment, I’ve been trying to be more present and focused with tasks as I’m working on them. I find it really easy to get distracted, so forcing myself to finish what I’m working on before moving on to the next thing really helps. It doesn’t always work, but it has definitely helped me feel a bit more on top of each individual task. It also means that when I am with hanging out with my kids, I’m not constantly juggling the work tasks that I didn’t get done.

I’m also a firm believer of the ‘do it now’ policy, I use it everyday and thank my sister Helen for sharing this great bit of wisdom with me.

After school, you can often find us out on a bike ride, running round our local park, or hanging out with friends. We try and do a family dinner all together half of the week, the other half, my husband and I cook dinner together once the kids head to bed (which I also really enjoy as it doesn’t feel as rushed).

After food, a wine, and a chat with my partner, I’ll often try and get in a few hours more work before I head off to bed. I can get really pulled into working on paintings at this time of night, and get my second wind about 10pm. If I’m still working then, I may as well carry on painting until 1 or 2am. It just means I have to drag myself out of bed the next day!

Which other Australian designers, artists or creative people are you loving at the moment?

1. My friend Emily Boyle is a wonderfully talented printmaker. She documents ordinary suburban architecture, but in the most beautifully moody way. We have one of her large prints in our house, and I am constantly in awe of her work.

2. I loved the length Gabriella Hirst went to to create ‘Force Majeure’ for ACCAs latest NEW16 show.

3. Amy Lee Worthy, seriously, this lady’s ceramics are what dreams are made of!

4. Redfox & Wilcox. I’ve know Nicola, one half of local furniture makers, Redfox and Wilcox since I was about 8 years old, and alongside Tara, this duo are running an all female furniture studio! Inspiring, YES!

Can you list for us your top resources across any media that you turn to when you’re in a need of creative inspiration?

1. I have this little woven suitcase that’s full of postcards, pieces of paper, objects, and various things I’ve collected since I was in high school. It’s surprising how a postcard collected from an exhibition ten years ago can help spark a bit of extra inspiration just when you need it!

2. Online: I check into my daily regulars, The Design Files (of course!), Sight Unseen, Nowness and various news sites to be kept up to date.

3. Books: I love books of all sorts, and find them an endless source of inspiration. If all else fails, I’ll make a cup of tea, and get stuck into one of my many art books. I make a habit of visiting Readings in Carlton once a week, and always come out feeling inspired!

4. Social media. Instagram and Pinterest are a great resource to not only connect with others, but also provide some great colour inspiration!

5. Stepping out of the studio, and spending the day on my own, preferably visiting a few galleries along the way.

What has been your proudest career achievement to date?

Working on my first solo show last year was incredibly rewarding. I’m really proud of the fact that I managed to pull together 22 pieces, while running Hello Polly and making time for my family. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone, but with that, came a huge sense of achievement.

What would be your dream creative project?

I’d love to undertake a residency, allowing me to focus solely on my painting.
Plus, I’d also love to paint the outside of a small minimalist house in the middle of nowhere. So if you know of one, let me know!

What are you looking forward to?

To be honest, I’m really enjoying right now! I find it very easy to get caught up in thinking about what’s next all the time. Other than that, I have a few really fun, collaborations in the pipeline!


Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?

Carlton North. In my five years living in Melbourne, I’ve always lived in this quiet little pocket. It has a great community vibe, is full of great cafes, great parks and is super close to Fitzroy, Collingwood, Brunswick and the CBD.

What and where was the best meal you recently had in Melbourne?

We recently ended a long bike ride with an amazing picnic with family and friends at the Heide Museum of Modern Art! I love a good picnic. That, and a dinner at Supernormal, it was so good!

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

Saturday mornings are pretty crazy in our house. I’m up early with the kids, and at the moment, the mornings are a blur of trying to fit in a morning run, taking the kids to footy and then fitting in a trip to the Queen Vic Markets for our weekly shop. We always make sure there’s a coffee and pastry stop in there somewhere too!

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

Does Melbourne have any secrets left? Since I didn’t grow up in Melbourne, I’m still busy exploring everything this city has to offer. There really is no shortage of great things to do! Close to home, on a hot day, you can’t beat a dip in the Carlton Pool followed by a glass of rose at Gerald’s Bar!

Sarah’s home studio. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

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