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Featured artist: Cressida Campbell
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Featured artist: Cressida Campbell
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I'm reading
Featured artist: Cressida Campbell
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You never really know how life can affect your work. It happens in a strange kind of way that isn’t conscious.
Conversations
10 February 2016

Featured artist: Cressida Campbell

Interview by Amandine Thomas
Image courtesy of Philip Bacon Galleries.

Meeting Cressida...

I meet Cressida Campbell on one of those hot Australian summer afternoons while visiting Sydney with my dad. That morning, he and I climbed the Harbour Bridge pylon lookout, took photos in front of the Opera House and got sunburnt on the ferry to Manly: the ultimate Sydney tourist experience. Needless to say, by the time I left him eating ice cream at Martin Place and jumped on the train to Bronte, where Cressida lives, I was hot, tired and eager to escape the busy city streets, at least for a while.

Cressida’s house provided the perfect refuge: a green, cool haven, tucked above the sea shore, where I was welcomed with a glass of sparkling water and fresh lime. As we sat in the leafy backyard, all I could hear were birds chirping and the trickling of a water fountain.

Cressida is one of Australia’s most successful artists. She lives and works up here, surrounded by the plants and flowers she paints so exquisitely. Still lifes and portraits hang on the walls, capturing oh-so-perfectly the essence of the Australian domestic life that has always been a big part of her work. “I have always been really lucky that I find practically everything interesting to look at,” she tells me. From the kitchen bench to the abandoned dinner table after a meal, Cressida turns the most ordinary scenes into extraordinarily detailed art pieces.

We sit in her studio, hidden up a flight of stairs at the back of the garden, to chat. While Cressida works on one of her latest pieces, I take the space in: the small radio, the splashes of paint on the table and the floor, and the soft light pouring through the windows. It reminds me of my mum’s studio. Like Cressida’s husband, Peter, my mum passed away a few years ago. For both of us, loss has left a profound impact, yet to be fully defined. But Cressida doesn’t look for definite answers. “You never really know how life can affect your work,” she says. So instead of analysing and over-thinking—like I often do—she humbly observes, just like she would the subject of a new painting, the ripple effect that grief created in her life. And I find myself at peace, for a moment, sitting amongst half-finished paintings depicting wide-open skies.

This story originally ran in issue #46 of Dumbo Feather

AMANDINE THOMAS: So you’ve lived in Sydney all your life. Have you done much travelling?

CRESSIDA CAMPBELL: Well, my husband and I travelled to Malaysia, Burma, Thailand. We weren’t intrepid travellers, we just loved seeing all the wonderful wild sights. We spent quite a long time in Penang, George Town. We stayed at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel, which was built by the Sarkies Brothers in the 1800s. They were the Armenian brothers who built the Raffles hotel in Singapore. When we first went there in 1985, George Town was run down but it has since been done up. I don’t know if you know, but George Town has become a world heritage town. It’s got all this fantastic Chinese, colonial Portuguese and Moorish architecture. We started collecting Chinese ceramics there, and we’ve always been interested in that.

And then obviously Europe is wonderful, I love it. Recently I took one of my sisters to Germany. I never wanted to go there because of all the horror stories of the war, but I looked at a catalogue from a show in London called Rooms With a View and loved a lot of the pictures from places like Germany and Denmark, so we went, and visited the galleries in Munich as well as Hamburg, Berlin and Vienna. It was absolutely amazing.

Have your travels influenced your work?

Yes, I think so. When I was 11 we lived in London for six months. My father was working there as a writer, so we went to lots of museums like the Tate. I loved it. And we came back to Australia via Cairo, so I went to the Cairo museum as well, which was amazing.

So Peter and I have been to various places over the years. I mean, I am not at all a knowledgeable traveller, I think I am just really drawn to museums. I have always loved seeing great pictures, looking at other people’s work, analysing the different colour combinations. Europe and Asia have been very inspiring for me. In 1985 I studied woodblock printing in Japan.

Is that what’s inspired your own practice—with the woodblocks, the engraving, the colouring in?

Well, I have always loved Ukiyoe woodblock prints. The older they are, the earlier they go back, the better. I’ve loved that from a relatively young age. But when I went to art school in Sydney I did painting. And at that time, they always wanted us to paint like Cezanne. It was fashionable!

Oh! [Laughs].

[Laughs] and not everyone has Cezanne’s extraordinary abilities! Also I’d always naturally used a fine brush, so it was completely…

It just wouldn’t suit you!

No! Exactly! So after the first year I specialised in printmaking, ‘cause they didn’t tell you how you should draw or paint, they just showed you the technique. My teacher thought that I should continue painting as well, and suggested that I draw directly onto a piece of plywood and then paint it with watercolours and do a print of it. That’s how I started. Initially, I used to roll it through a press. But I now do it by hand, because you get much more control. I was about 17.

Wow! So you kept experimenting from then?

Well, I left art school and started painting straight onto canvas. But I don’t know quite why, I felt like I was getting stuck. I wanted to stylise more. So I went back to woodblocks, and I just loved it. I never stopped. As I said, I went to study Japanese woodblock printing in Tokyo, which was fascinating. But my work is done using one block only and is painted with a fine brush, where the Japanese use a different block for each colour and the ink is scrubbed on with a sort of small scrubbing brush. Although I really liked learning that, it wasn’t for me. My technique is more a combination of painting and printing. I am not so interested in doing lots of prints.

You paint lots of Australian plants and domestic Australian scenes, so I feel like there is a deep connection with Australia in your work. Was that always there for you, or is that something that’s developed?

Well I have always loved plants. But I’ve also just loved drawing and painting pretty much whatever was around me [laughs].

I can feel it in your studio here, it makes sense! [Laughs].

Yeah! I used to live in Palm Beach and Avalon, and there I was painting more bush. I used to go out in with my mother, who is 93 in January, and I would paint and draw, and she’d sit in the background, and be my guard dog! [Laughs].

So when you paint, do you have any quirky rituals? What is your process?

Well, first of all, I listen to the radio a lot. [Turns the radio on]. I listen to classical music or local radio. I also talk on the phone to the outside world as I often go for days with out seeing anybody.

My mum was a painter and that’s exactly what she used to do in her studio.

Oh, really?

Yeah, have the radio on, listening to the French culture program.

Is she alive?

No, she passed away a couple of years ago.

Oh, I am so sorry, Amandine.

Well, it was a shock. It was a car accident, which was pretty difficult. But you would know, you’ve been through something similar.

I know, it’s one of those things where there is nothing we can say about it really. You just have to deal with it. My husband had cancer before I met him, when he was 21. And then he had cancer again, before I met him also. It was Hodgkin’s Disease.

That would have been quite a journey.

When I met him I actually knew already, because one of my sisters had told me about him. So the reality of it was always there, you know, whether cancer would come back or not. We had 29 years without it. But then it came back again. And although I was always aware that he could die, when that actually happened it was still a huge shock. Which surprised me, really.

Did it have an impact on your work? I know that when my mum passed away, I had this urge to create—my background is in illustration. But for about a year, I couldn’t actually do anything. It took me that long to process and go back into a normal practice.

Yeah. I had an exhibition scheduled about 18 months after he died, but I had to put it aside for a year. It was incredibly hard to get it done. I had to do a lot of work in six months. I was working very hard, but, understandably, I was distracted.

After that, I created boxed cards of my work. Peter always wanted to do it, ever since we published a book of my work: The Woodblock Painting of Cressida Campbell, in 2008. He was very clever at publishing. He published three other books.

All art books?

Two of them were, and one of them was about the Australian film industry. One was about an artist that is quite well-known, William Yang. It was a book of his work, called Sydney Diary. It’s quite famous now.

But anyway, I had to postpone my show this year, because although I am feeling like I am getting back into it now, I do think that it’s taken me a long time to recover. I am going too slow, I am very distracted. And it’s interesting because, funnily enough, he had a fantastic eye, so I would show him my work and stuff.

So has it been hard losing his eye?

It has! But my mother has a wonderful eye. I always show her. Ultimately, luckily enough, I can trust my own eye [laughs].

But still, it’s been a huge thing. Because he worked at home—he was a film critic—he was running our lives, in his own practical way. And I am not practical, I don’t know how to do that. He was very clever as well, and we had all those interesting discussions. So it’s been a strange thing getting used to not having him here.

For some reason I have done a lot of paintings lately with skies in them, which I never did in the past. Like in “Flannel Flowers,” the last painting I did before he died. So you never really know how life can affect your work. It happens in a strange kind of way that isn’t conscious.

So you have noticed some changes in your practice?

It’s not so much in the practice, it’s more in the result, or in the choice of subjects. The picture of the “Flannel Flowers,” for example, is quite large, and it’s got a sort of heavenly feel about it. I wanted it to feel like heaven, I wanted that kind of meditative, peaceful feel for it.

It is quite symbolic, in a way.

It is a bit. But I didn’t consciously think of it like that. And funnily enough, I am doing a few pictures of hallways at the moment, which are also symbolic, I guess. I don’t know what you could read into that [laughs]. Looking down passages!

Hallways are definitely a passing kind of space.

Yeah, interesting you say that because I really feel like I am just coming through, feeling better. You know grief can have an enormous effect. You would have to be pretty insensitive if you didn’t have a reaction to it. How old was your mama when she died?

Fifty-four. I was 24.

Oh, shit. I’m 55. And I was 51 when Peter died. He was 61. And when my father died he was 72 and I was 22. How is your father?

He is not a very expressive person, so it’s difficult to say. I think he has his moments. He’s bounced back pretty well though, because he has a very solid social circle, and he comes every year to see me, and I go visit him in France every year. But, yeah, he and my brother are not big talkers, so it’s hard to say. I think everyone reacts in their own ways.

Well the cliche about men is that they are more insular, in that way. And usually, I suppose, clichés are clichés because they have a bit of truth in them.

Did you find it easy expressing your grief around losing Peter?

It has been hard, but not so much in that way. Funnily enough, it’s been harder socially. I mean, my work, painting, it has always been a fallback for me. But getting used to being a single person has been hard—I like spending time on my own, that’s not a problem, but it’s more how other people treat you. They don’t mean to, but I do think people, especially when in a couple, treat single people differently. And I probably did the same without realising it. Also, there is that reaction that people have when someone dies, they don’t know want to say, they don’t even want to talk about it. I mean, if I was to mention Peter, even to very close friends, I can tell it makes them nervous. I think it’s because people don’t want you to be upset. Because they love you, and they are good friends, and they don’t want to make it awkward for themselves. So they don’t want to bring it up at all. Have you experienced that?

Definitely. I think it’s a bit scary for people, because it confronts them to something they don’t really want to think about.

That’s right, it’s almost as if they will catch the disease or something.

Yeah! Which makes it difficult sometimes to get over grieving, because it can be quite lonely.

Yeah, that’s true. It is exactly that.

So tell me what nourishes you outside of painting?

I love movies, I haven’t been to the movies much lately but I do love watching old movies, classics and stuff. And I also love gardening, swimming, going to galleries a lot. And I love cats, I love cats!

Me too!

They’re wonderful. So I’m inspired by many things. Visually I have always been really lucky that I find practically everything interesting to look at. And also I love listening to music. In the last 10 years or so I have particularly loved listening to classical, but I also like Leonard Cohen, or jazz. Nature is also inspiring, beautiful. I love looking at trees. And also I am really close to my family.

Do they live in Sydney?

Yeah. I’ve got two sisters and a brother. One of my sisters is a textile designer called Sally Campbell Textile. All beautiful and handmade. She goes to the desert in India about three times a year! She is very creative. And my other sister, she was in the original Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Wow!

Yeah! She is incredible, a very talented actress. She also ran a night club called Nell’s in New York for years! And now she is back here with her 17-year-old daughter, who is also very creative, actually. She is a fantastic illustrator, very funny, like a cartoonist. She is amazing. And I’ve got a really critical eye, so I won’t say they are amazing if they are not! [Laughs].

And my father was a wonderful writer, a funny writer. And mum, she went to art school, and then became a reporter, did journalism, but she really wanted to have children.

What a family! Did you ever struggle to find your place as an artist in such an amazingly creative family?

Not really, no. Because first of all, by the time I was 11, they had all moved out of home. And luckily, both my father and my mother never pushed in any direction other than where we naturally wanted to go. We are all so different, even though we have similar values and we work in creative areas, there was never competition. We were all doing different things. I think I have been lucky that people responded to my style, because it’s slightly outside of what a lot of people do.

Outside of trends?

Exactly. Which I guess is both good and bad.

I think it’s good! Trends can trap you sometimes.

Yeah, in a way it’s true. But having said that, a lot of wonderful artists were part of great movements. So there are no rules, really. I like to remind myself of that.

You can find Cressida’s work at cressidacampbell.com

This story originally ran in issue #46 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #46 of Dumbo Feather

Amandine Thomas

Amandine is a French illustrator and graphic designer, and the former art director of Dumbo Feather. Her latest children’s book, in French, is Océans.

Image courtesy of Philip Bacon Galleries.

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