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Leah Fraser makes myths come alive
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Leah Fraser makes myths come alive
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Leah Fraser makes myths come alive
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"I think there’s something really beautiful about creating something and letting it go. There’s a lot of poetry in that."
27 June 2017

Leah Fraser makes myths come alive

Interview by Amandine Thomas

Amandine Thomas on Leah Fraser...

I stumbled upon Leah Fraser’s work on Instagram (like many other good things), and was immediately intrigued. An eclectic mix of studio shots, archival imagery and adorable baby pictures had me scrolling deeper and deeper into her feed, where the mythical meets the everyday in a lovely, earnest way.

It was easy for me to identify with Leah—as a young woman, an artist, a lover and teller of stories—and easy for our conversation to cross seamlessly from her art practice into her life and back to her work.

Looking at Leah’s amazing artwork is like being ensnared by the stoic gaze of her characters as they quietly invite us to jump in and follow them from piece to piece, across cultures, mythologies and ancient stories of humanity.

Every glance reveals more details—the fluttering wings of a butterfly, the half-closed eyes of a leopard, the shiny coils of a snake—each imbued with an intricate symbolism Leah has slowly built around her work. She finds her inspiration in the pages of mythological or religious texts, transforming the characters into her very own pantheon.

In her latest show, Within You Without You at Arthouse, Leah reached deeply into the experience of becoming a mother, starting to paint while pregnant and finishing the last pieces while her daughter, Odette, was nine months old.

As we catch up on Skype, her in sunny Sydney and me in cloudy Melbourne, she reflects on how she wove together life, death and transformation, touching on some of humanity’s greatest challenges along the way: how we must constantly reinvent ourselves as we move through life, and how we ultimately come from, belong to and return to nature.

This story originally ran in issue #51 of Dumbo Feather

I wanted to start by talking about your work. It has kind of a mythical flavour to it. It’s like your characters are going through a spiritual journey. So I was wondering, did you have a spiritual upbringing?

Look, I was actually brought up as completely atheist, no faith or religion whatsoever. My Mum is Irish, lapsed Catholic (laughs). And we never had anything forced upon us. But I think that actually gave me a lot of room to explore. I remember my Mum always got us to read a lot of books. And that was huge for me I think, more than anything else. We’d go to a bookstore and I’d get books about philosophy, as a 12-year-old child!


You know! I remember actually reading the Bible once—well not obviously all of it—but starting to read it. And reading about Buddhism and all these different things. And I don’t really know what I am, but I’m super interested in all of it, and what it’s all about.

This story originally ran in issue #51 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #51 of Dumbo Feather

I find it really fascinating. Like, why do we need these stories to tell us about ourselves and about the world?

What were some of your key inspirations in terms of the myths and the folklore you looked into for your exhibition?

A lot of different things. I looked at Greek mythology, with Ovid and the metamorphosis, and also Celtic and South American mythologies. And I tried to pull the threads together really. Pulling out ideas about death—and people who represent death—and what are their symbols and why? And then kind of merging them together.

It’s really interesting, ’cause since you had nothing pushed on you, you were like a blank page. But then you came up with your own mythology, with all these deities, shamans, totems—and it seems to really fit together throughout your work. Is there a common thread when you work with these characters? Or is each painting the beginning of a new story?

I think what I have been finding as I research my work is that there are many common threads throughout all of humanity, and throughout all these stories and all these religions. There are so many similarities. And for my latest show—Within You Without You at Arthouse—I did try and pull some of the threads together and say, “Okay, let’s look at transformation, metamorphosis and where does that come from? And how do different people talk about those ideas?”

I wanted to ask you about recurring symbolism actually, because there are also a lot of natural references in your work, like snakes and skulls and bones and stars and butterflies. What do they represent to you?

That’s interesting. I think they become like my own symbols. And I guess I imbue things with my own meaning. I do like to run with particular symbols, like the panther or the leopard, which came up a lot in this show! (laughs). That was originally based on the South American story of a god who transforms himself. It just started with that, but then I used that symbol again and again.

And butterflies are, I feel, the messengers of the gods. Birds as well. Because anything that flies in so many cultures is close to God, or close to the other world. I love that movement, and I love the kind of energy that it creates as well—it’s air and it’s movement and…I guess they become my own symbols! I take them and turn them into something else.

Yeah! You probably know the work of Joshua Yeldham.

Yeah! Yeah!

We had an interview with him in Dumbo Feather, and he was talking about how he created his own meaning and mythology around owls, with his work on fertility, and I feel like there is something similar in your work.

Oh yeah he has an incredible mythology in his work! And I think

I like for people to look at my work and think of their own interpretations of it. I’m open to that and I like that.

I like them to meet my characters and make up their own story.

Another influence on this show was a lot of Indian mythologies, which are so rich. Characters pop up in other stories, like you see Hanuman in one story, and he’s back again in this other story—it’s almost like superheroes. (laughs)

Yeah! And you know, something about your characters that really pulled me into your work is their faces. They always have this really serene expression, even if their body language is active, or if they’re interacting with each other. They seem to know something that we don’t, it’s very mysterious and intriguing. Is that a conscious choice? What does that mean?

Yeah, I think it is. They could be doing something, but they’re looking at you, and you’ve kind of caught this moment, and it’s almost like time travel. By looking at them in the eye, you’re looking down the vortex of another space and time. (laughs)

Yeah it really feels that way when I look at your work! (laughs)

We’re all frozen in this moment. There might be action, but the characters are still frozen and they’re staring right at you, and they’re deeply involved with you, as much as you are with them.

Beautiful. Another thing is that they always seem to exist in a symbiotic relationship with nature. It’s almost as if there is no border between the characters and nature, the lush surrounding and the water. Do you paint what you wish could exist between humans and their environment?

Yeah absolutely. Really all the things that I look to for inspiration are quite symbolic in their nature. And you know, in old time we didn’t understand why lightning happened. So we’d project ourselves onto it and we’d make explanations for it and humanise it, anthropomorphise natural things. Like, “Don’t go near a river because you might drown.” But we wouldn’t tell it in that way. We would say, “You might get stolen by a water nymph,” you know. And

I love that personification of nature because I think that it actually engenders respect.

It’s like the Japanese kami, they personify natural things. And they make you interact with them as if they are a being. Why would you hurt a tree if there’s a person inside it?


You know! So on that level I think we’ve lost our ability to interact with nature in that way. We see it as something that’s useful for us, or an impediment to our objectives. So we whine about it.

We’ll move that river, wipe out that forest, we need it for wood. It’s all just based on what we need and not what nature needs.

We’re not living in any kind of balance with nature anymore. So yeah, I think it is a wishful projection! (laughs).

It’s what we should be thinking about.

What do you do in your own life to achieve that connection, in a world that can be removed from nature?

I try and get out in nature as much as possible, just having day-to-day interactions. We take trips out, to see the beautiful things out there and be a part of it. Like going into the ocean, it’s such an incredible joy and privilege. We live in such a beautiful country, it really blows me away.

My partner is an arborist and what’s really beautiful about that is that anywhere we walk he’s looking at the trees and telling me about what they are, and he’s like, “Smell this,” and it smells like licorice! (laughs) Or some kind of beautiful lemon. So we just try to understand nature, even in our suburban day-to-day lives, and we try to have some kind of conversation with it at that level. It’s all around us.

I think what you’re talking about with your partner is bringing awareness to our sense of smell, touch and then seeing…

And knowing what it is, and what it can give you, as a tree for example. It’s more than just, like, it’s shade (laughs).

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah (laughs). It’s interesting that you talk about the privilege to live in Australia ’cause I was going to bring it up. You know, compared to other first world countries, Australia has a really deep connection to its land – obviously through the Aboriginal people. But also through the amount of wilderness on the continent and how easy it is to access it. I’m originally from France and we can’t even see the Milky Way there because of the light pollution. I had never seen it until I moved here. And I how being Australian and living in Sydney influences your work…

Yeah, we’re so lucky. There are so many spaces in the world now which are human. But Australia—and Sydney as a city—it’s very clean, it’s so clean! We haven’t destroyed everything just yet! (laughs) I feel very lucky to live here, and I do think it feeds me. I think I would struggle in a more urban environment. Because nature is something that I do need to go to, and feel and touch every day. And Sydney is pretty green.

Yeah! All the water. The beach, the coast. It’s amazing. Have you always lived in Sydney? Where did you grow up?

So I grew up in the northern beaches. It’s really beautiful there. I grew up in Bilgola, which is just so green and leafy and gorgeous. It has a harbour and there’s the ocean… It’s really special, really lovely. So I got to have that kind of idyllic childhood with our house backed onto a reserve, and we kind of just collected tadpoles and climbed trees. (laughs) That’s such a cool thing for little kids to grow up that way.

Were you already painting, or being artistic in any way?

Look I think just in the way that kids usually are. (laughs) I don’t think my parents pushed any kind of agenda in that way. And that gave me a lot of freedom to just be what I wanted. And this is what I wanted to pursue.

I wanted to ask you about your relationship with Del Kathryn Barton, whom we also profiled in Dumbo Feather. How did working with her help you develop as an artist?

Well I was already sort of doing my own thing and showing my own work. But I think working for her gave me a really good work ethic, and it showed me what I could do. Because she is a very inspirational woman. She’s a mother, she’s an artist, and I think it’s really great being around people who can show you this can be done.

Like, I’m a woman, I can be a great artist, have kids, have a family, do all that stuff.

And I think that’s really important, because it’s hard. It’s a tough path to choose in a lot of ways. So I think that was the most important thing that I got from it.

So talking about being a woman, having a family, being a mother et cetera, what challenges do you come across when you paint, especially now that you’re a mum?

(laughs) I’m very lucky ’cause I have my Mum. She is really awesome! And she helps me a lot. And my baby is so chilled out! (laughs)

I think you have to accept that you’re never going to be able to work as long hours as you used to. Which is kind of good. It gave me a lot more time to think and write things down and to mull over ideas. And, you know, I never actually really stopped. I was doing my watercolours while I was breastfeeding. (laughs) I got quite excited about making work because it was almost like I wasn’t allowed to or something! (laughs) It was like I had to take a bit of time off from being a mum, and I was like “Ooh this is quite naughty!” (laughs) If anything it made me more excited about what I was doing. And more pumped to do more.

But as I said, I’m very lucky with my situation. You do have to read the child. But I think she’s just such a little dreamboat. We’re very lucky.

I was just thinking about birth, and what you were saying earlier about transformation in relation to mythologies around the world. There is a really strong symbolism attached to new life. How did your daughter’s arrival in your life influence your work?

Well I think it really influenced this show. ’Cause I was doing it all simultaneously. I was pregnant with her when I started working on it, and I worked out it was finished when she was around nine months old. So the show spans the full cycle of going through that experience. And actually in a weird way, the ideas of birth and new life made me think a lot about death and about passing, and what happens then. And how birth is a transformation and death is a transformation and all these different threads. And that’s sort of what I look at in this show.

Going forward, I’m not sure what’s going to happen (laughs). I’m excited to see! It’s so cool watching a child be in the world. They give you so much, and they demand so much. I think the interaction opens up all of these new pathways in my mind! (laughs) So who knows what’s going to happen! (laughs)

I think there’s something really beautiful about creating something and letting it go. There’s a lot of poetry in that.
Leah Fraser

Yeah, I don’t have kids yet but I can only imagine. (laughs)

You hear people talk about the experience.—I heard people talk about it before I had kids and I was like “Yeah, yeah, okay, like, whatever”—but you don’t understand until it happens. And it is such a big change, such a beautiful, engaging, all encompassing kind of interaction that you’re having. And it’s all day every day! (laughs) So even when they’re asleep, they’re still there. You’re still thinking about them. I almost feel her on me, like she’s still part of me. You can’t understand how much they are literally a part of you

Can you talk me through a day in your life, in a non-Instagram-y way? ’Cause often now it’s like “oh ah! I wake up and have a latte! And then I do yoga!” I’m sure there is some of that too, but I’m more interested in that new day-to-day life. And all the mess! (laughs)

All the mess! (laughs) Well I get up really early. I mean I’m now in downtime, which is when you kind of come off the end of the show! “Oh I don’t know what to do with myself!” I have all this time on my hands.

But when I’m working, I really like routine. Because I think I’m so kind of airy-fairy, I need a bit of structure. (laughs) I need something to ground me and solidify me. And I do try and create that. So I give myself a routine, and within that there’s fluctuation. But I mean after having a child, there is no free time really! (laughs) I feel like that’s what’s quite interesting. Your free time is with them, and finding the time to just be alone is really interesting. I guess I’m alone when I’m working, but it’s such a different headspace.

It is interesting. For anyone who is creative, the power of solitude is really important. ’Cause that’s when you have space to develop your ideas. So how do you create that space for yourself?

It is about having that support network. Like my Mum who is just a superstar. (laughs) She comes over at like, seven. We go get a coffee together and then we come home and hang out with Odette a little bit, and then I get to work at about eight and work ‘til about three. So it’s a much shorter day than I was ever used to do, and it gets broken up quite a lot. I’m still breastfeeding every couple of hours. So it’s a very different way of working. I’m enjoying it actually.

Do you have rituals? Because I feel like a lot of your work speaks to that, like collecting sea shells and gems and shaping small totems that wouldn’t be out of place on a shrine. It speaks to this ritualised way of living.

I’m too all over the place to actually stick to things. I guess I do have my rituals but it’s not I light a candle every single day at a certain time. It fluctuates and it’s fluid. But sometimes I’m like “Okay what do I need to get in the zone?” I need to straighten everything out and put everything away and make the space really nice”. And yeah, light a candle, put the right music on, do a bit of a dance! (laughs)

(laughs) We do that too at Dumbo Feather. Going back to your work now, you have the paintings and then you have sculptures, like the totems I just mentioned. I was wondering, which one came first?

I think actually one has always fed the other. I mean I love making pictures, but I also feel like the act of making something physically with your hands is so different, and it feeds such a different part of my brain. But both are very much tied for me and they always have been. In every show I’ve ever done, maybe bar one or two, I’ve always had an element of sculpture and I think it really is about the physicality of the object and its presence. Often it is something that has walked out of a painting or something that walks back in.

It’s quite an unconscious process. It’s about allowing things to just flow and see what kind of connections come naturally and organically. As much as I try and plan, it always turns out completely differently. (laughs) And I like that. It sort of surprises me. It’s like “Oh! This is what’s happening! Sure! Let’s go in this direction!”

It’s a conversation I’m having with the artwork. With the clay or with paint or with fabric or whatever it is that I’m using. And it starts like “Oh I’d love to do a thing that’s like a little figure and I want it to be like a doll.” And then it goes off in a crazy different direction.

And then once you’ve created all of this and the show is on, is it hard to part with all the stories and characters you’ve created? And go, “It’s done now, you have to let it go, it’s for other people to enjoy?”

I think I’m really at peace with that process now. I mean there’s always one or two things that touch a little heartstring! But I think there’s something really beautiful about creating something and letting it go. There’s a lot of poetry in that.

It’s kind of a metaphor for raising kids as well right?

Absolutely! (laughs) Absolutely! Oh my God totally it is. You really have to be at peace with that. Give them your best, give it your best and then let it out into the world.

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.

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