Just before the whole world went into lockdown last year, artist Louise Tate squeezed in a residency in New York. It was universes away from her upbringing as a ‘little flower child with messy hair and grubby hands’ in the Northern Rivers region of NSW, but the iconic painters of the last two centuries had a commanding hold over her own creativity. While living in Paris years before, she visited the Musée d’Orsay at least once a week, where the blurry Impressionist canvases washed over her in waves of awe.
Now returned to Australia, Louise has set up shop at a warehouse studio in Collingwood, where she paints under the enduring influences of these artistic legacies. Amongst the hustle and bustle of inner city Melbourne, she crafts her gentle, sunny, worlds from a place of calm. From this space, she can imagine utopias powered by kindness and love.
Could you briefly outline your artistic background, and how this brought you to painting – what has been your creative journey so far?
I grew up in Mullumbimby in the Northern Rivers area of NSW, on a big beautiful property full of trees and banana palms and birds and insects. My grandmother was an artist, my aunt is an artist, my Mum was an architect, and my Dad spent some time as a potter – so I grew up with a strong connection to art and design. I often felt quite shy as a child, so drawing was a refuge, and a way to dream away the seemingly endless hours of childhood.
Once I finished high school, I spent a year travelling through Europe and lived in Paris for several months. The museums, rich with artistic and cultural history, felt stupendous to a small-town girl. When winter hit and the money ran out, I moved to Melbourne to pursue a degree in Fine Art, which I completed in 2016 at RMIT University. I’ve been exhibiting since then and am lucky to have had the opportunity to show with some great galleries and participated in some amazing residencies.
When we spoke to you earlier in the year for our annual emerging-artists-to-watch story, you described your style as ‘dreamy and imaginative’ but also ‘self-referential’ and ‘utopian’. Where did this world come from?
As an only child growing up on a rural property, I spent a lot of time daydreaming and creating magical lands with my pencil and paper. I think that the work I make now is really an extension of that. I use my art practice as a form of escapism from a world that can often feel confronting and confusing.
The imagined spaces within my work are my idea of mini utopias, full of thriving flora and bodies that happily co-exist. They are worlds where climate change is no longer a threat, where skin colour doesn’t divide us, and where softness and slowness are valued. These painted lands nourish me when I can’t leave the house during lockdown, providing a refuge of light and colour and warmth.
Are there particular themes, places or characters that you revisit?
The threads of nature, bodies, climate change, and acts of care are always running through my work. The scenery of my childhood home in the Northern Rivers repeatedly appears in paintings of lush greenery; what was once farmland out there is now bushy and dense, reclaiming once-clear land. My body appears in a lot of the work, framing the view that the viewer looks out at.
From start to finish, what is the process of actually creating one of your paintings?
Every work begins with a photograph or a montage of photographs I’ve taken, which I’ll digitally collage together to form an image that I’ve been holding in my mind for some time. Once the image has percolated, I’ll stretch up a canvas with glue-sized or oil-primed linen, or I’ll get the trusty team at Melbourne Artists’ Supplies to stretch some up for me if they’re really big.
I layer the linen surface with soft washes of colour, building up a certain ‘tone’ for the work. Once that’s dry, I’ll sketch the image I’m working with onto the canvas with very thin oil paint. That dries for a day or two and I rotate onto the next canvas while I wait, repeating the process. There’s normally 4-5 paintings on the go at any one time. I begin building some sections within the work with washes of colour; I like to fragment the whole image and work piece-by-piece like a puzzle. The next part is the fun bit – playing with mark-making and colour combinations in an intuitive and responsive way. Often I’ll have to do a few layers to figure out the right colour combo. Then the finer detail gets laid on top – strands of hair, shards of sunlight, etc.
And voilà – hopefully it all comes together and can be left to dry to be varnished later on. Sometimes paintings don’t work and they will sit in my studio brooding until I unleash my fury on them. This either ends in something magical or something horrendous.
What does art-making mean to you, and what do you hope to communicate?
Art-making is a form of escapism for me. I so often feel powerless to make meaningful change in the world, and so I retreat to the studio to process this feeling. In creating these hopeful, sun-drenched worlds, I’m imagining the kind of place I want to live in. I also think there’s great value in using our eyes to really see something. A lot of my work portrays people looking at things. This slow looking helps to train our eyes to see the finer details of a tree, or a bird, or the way the sun coats a valley like honey.
And if we can learn to really value what we’re looking at, we’re less likely to want to destroy it.
Louise Tate will have an online solo exhibition at Sophie Gannon Gallery in March 2022.