Sunday, January 16, 2011

Pascale Zufferey

It’s not easy to step out of the car at Nightcliff foreshore and turn your back on it. The tide is well on its way out, exposing the ancient sea beds to the clear blue sky. A gentle breeze encourages the coconut palms to wave to a distant storm as if to beckon it to set a cooling shower onto the baking sands. I’ve photographed this scene many times and it always presents a different set of hues and tones; a perfect place for an artist to live and work.

Which is the very reason I am here. Just for the record, I raise the Nikon for a couple of shots, as a salutation more than for artistic grounds and head for the sanctuary that is Pascale’s studio. As I look up, Pascale appears on the balcony and calls; a warning I think. I have the distinct feeling of looking down the bow of the Titanic as it blunders towards me with Kate Winslet (Pascale) facing into the icy wind. Any minute Leonardo de Caprio (aka Bruce, Pascale’s partner) will appear with a reassuring smile, just before they run me (the iceberg) down. I really must do something about this vivid imagination.

As I enter Pascale and Bruce’s home my eyes scan the premises for signs of artistic life. As usual, there is little evidence of such, bar one seemingly incomplete work resting on an easel adjacent to the window leading to the balcony. Pascale must have sensed my prying and questioning eyes.

‘I’m still working on that’ she states. She expresses her frustrations at not getting it ‘right’. This is promptly followed by a discourse in procrastination seemingly brought about by a recent trip to Italy and resulting in a creative urge flooded by too many good ideas.

‘I don’t really know where to start. And the colours are amazing. It’s hard to get it just right’. I question her on knowing when she knows its done. She skirts around an answer I one day hope to understand.

We move to the balcony and I prompt for some background material. I had always thought Pascale’s name would look good at the bottom of a masterpiece. It’s European origin may well fit with that. The urge to paint seemed to have appeared at an early age. Some refinement of her skills during school in the NT brought her to make the choice to become an art teacher. But as fate, and the NT Department of Education would have it, Pascale began a teaching career prematurely and in an area deemed more fitting by the administrators. Art teaching would need to go on the backburner for a while. After all, who can argue with fate or the beaurocrats?

But art has always been an important part of Pascale’s life and a translation of her dreams wasn’t going to restrict her. She has continued to hone her skills and express herself with a brush and canvas. In the typical manner of the suburban artist, Pascale directed me to ‘The Gallery’. On our way to what I expected would be a well lit expanse of white walls covered with illuminating images of a creative life, Pascale points out a few ‘tasters’. A portrait of a young indigenous child stares at me with disturbing intuitiveness. I hesitate and feel an urge to move to see if the stare follows me. I can look at those eyes and know this child. It is a very realistic portrait but built into it is another layer of intimacy that bares the hallmark of a strong relationship between the subject and the artist. This is something many artists strive for. Pascale has certainly achieved it here.

‘The rest are in here’ she calls, and I follow eagerly.

As usual, my hopes are dashed. There is no vast expanse of light and space to flaunt her work. Typically, labours of love and devotion are stacked against the wall, piled on desks and buried in cupboards. Her working studio is also typically the ‘spare room’ overlooking the car park of an adjacent block of flats. With the wonders of the Arafura Sea at her doorstep I wonder why she chooses to work under such conditions.

‘I do paint out there,’ she replies to my concerned inquiry. ‘I don’t paint on location though’ and I can understand why. ‘Getting it right’ under a tropical sun could prove to be an onerous task.

Pascale shuffles through her canvasses like a deck of cards and I catch a glimpse of portraits and landscapes that beckon more than a cursory glance. She has exhibited and commissioned works but her efforts have far outweighed her sales. This is not a critique of her work but an appraisal of her industry. There is enough work here to keep a gallery stocked for some time.

‘I do give a lot of my work away’, and I wonder what room would be left if she hadn’t.

Many of her portraits have a personal history attached. Bringing up her children in remote communities gives her a connection to the subjects that is reflected in her style and composition. Her emotional connection becomes the viewer’s link to another place through her paintings. It’s worth the time to stare.

There’s not a strong motivation to market her work but Pascale does see painting as an important part of who she is.

‘I get a bit prickly if I haven’t painted for a few days. It has a very calming effect on me’ she reflects. Bruce has moved into view and I note a look of discerning agreement on his face.

‘Bruce is incredibly supportive with what I do,’ she adds. Stroking Bruce’s ego is well placed and he accords a Cheshire grin. Us blokes need that from time to time.

‘I have my toys,’ Bruce declares while fondling what appears to be a depth finder from a boat. I have a feeling there is a good deal of sharing of time and space in this relationship.

Pascale, in spite of her lack of experience and nervousness in talking about herself and her art, has expressed quite clearly how her skills and talent as an artist are entwined in her life. She has articulated in a wordless way, a love of her children, Bruce, her community and the landscape in the same way she blends her art, actions and words; as if they were all part of the same. There is no separation of one from the other. The very fact that she presents her work in the same way she would show an album of family photo’s or talk of her experiences demonstrates the ‘wholeness’ of Pascale.

To some extent this is what I have been looking for, I think. My search hasn’t been about the art or the artist; its been about the people. The art is just one way people, like Pascale, express who they are. It’s the bonus people get when they have learnt the skills and find the next level that art can offer. In addition, its the bonus we as observers acquire when we view such work. Incorporated into the pigments and canvas is a life of experiences honed by feelings and thoughts. If we could all have the skills of expression Pascale has we would probably be better for it. But for the time being I can just bathe in the light of her work and hope that some of this talent will rub off.

Thanks Pascale

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A'Mhara Russell

It’s not every day I get the chance to eat art.

When I received the call from a friend to interview A’Mhara and taste her cupcakes, I was somewhat skeptical. After all, although my understanding of art and its genres is limited, few references indicated ‘cupcakes’ as a possible means of creative expression.

But who am I to say? After all, there is not rule that says you can’t eat your art. Why, there have been many times when I’ve had to eat my words, and I do use those verbal ingredients as a means of releasing my creative spirit from time to time. Apparently their bitterness isn’t always to everyone’s liking, as I have discovered.

So, I ignored the possible bias of my informative friend towards this seemingly loose connection between cooking and creativity and headed once more into the inner reaches of Darwin suburbia.

I have known A’Mhara for some time but only on a second level of acquaintance, sufficient for me to nod in passing but not one that would give me any essence of who she is. So I found myself approaching our time together with eagerness and anticipation. What struck me immediately upon our meeting was her strong presence and a command of the situation at hand. There was a directness about her manner and movement that put me immediately at ease. It is as though all has been taken care of and all I need do is to sit back and enjoy the ride. Combined with this was a voice and manner of conversation that did not falter. I was reminded of a news reader on SBS or a damn fine teacher bringing eager young minded to order. A well places smile sprung to life and I swear the room got a whole lot lighter.

And she began.

I watched and listened as the attentive child. A’Mhara seemed less conscious of her actions than I did. The kitchen is was organized, with everything within easy reach. She moved effortlessly between utensils hanging like tendrils from the ceiling to bowls and ingredients placed along the work bench. At the same time, AMhara provided me with a running commentary on the contents, actions and a bit of history thrown in. I couldn’t see her feet from where I was sitting but I imagined them dancing across the tiles as dexterously and efficiently as Ginger Rogers in the arms of Fred Astaire. She spoke of an interest in cooking that went back a long time. There was a strong suggestion of the influences of her mother, but in an energetic sense more than a creative one. Standing still isn’t an option in this household. Engagement is the lifestyle. Connection with the world is strongly inked with what one does and how much effort is put into it: a ‘Rest when you’re dead’ philosophy.

At twenty-something A’Mhara is well defined. She is in a career of choice working in a place of choice and doing what she chooses. It shows. She spoke as affectionately of her work as a librarian as she does of her passion for cooking. I wondered if there is a similarity, a transfer of skill set than links the two occupations. Is a recipe akin to a reference? Is baking synonymous to cataloguing books?

As the conversation continued I became aware of changes. The flurry of activity had waned momentarily and an irresistable odour eminated from the kitchen. I checked to see if I’m not salivating in any obvious way. After all, I didn’t want to seem too eager for this session to finish. One might think I only came here for the food. Before I could say ‘pass the plate,’ a tray of hot cupcakes appeared before me, perfectly rounded and browned; just as they would be in a Nigela Lawson cook book. For a moment I was taken back to the Saturday afternoons in the inner city suburbs when, as a young boy, I would be the first to feel the heat from a freshly baked cake as my mother drew it from the oven. Then juggle that first piece of steaming sponge on my tongue until it was cool enough to consume. So this is art, is it not? Emotions like this are not evoked by ordinary things. It requires a very special talent to get it right.

A’Mhara has been making cupcakes for a year or so in any serious nature. She expressed some surprise that others would value her skills and want to buy her art. Personally, I thought she underestimated her skills, but don’t most artists? Her web site was established during the year to get her message out there and even without the necessary olfactory stimulation, she has had a good response. Orders are coming in and her repertoire is expanding. She sees the future need to move from her mother’s kitchen but at the moment she is content to allow the magnitude of her industry to be guided by her current time and space.

The cupcakes had cooled sufficiently for the icing, a masterpiece in itself that was prepared beforehand, just as they do in the TV programs. This magic of marsh mellow and colour sat delicately on top and the object become a sculpture, only to be surpassed in beauty by the very next move.

‘Try one’ A’Mhara beckonned, as if I needed any prompting. As my teeth sunk into the freshness and my lips became covered with the sweetness I wondered how Rembrandt felt when someone took a bite out of ‘Nightwatch’. If A’Mhara had any attachment to her work she had better get over it real quick because I’m going in for a second dip.

‘Take one home for Christine’ she offered.

‘Sure, she’d love one’ I lied. This is one piece of art Christine will never lay her eyes on. ‘Only one?’ I thought. I wouldn’t like the rest to get stale. Still, I didn’t want to appear greedy and I could always buy some.

As I left A’Mhara to the remaining dozen, I reminded myself of my own prejudices and how they have changed. My narrow view of art with it’s traditional limitations is slowly being demolished. No longer is art perceived as an object produced by aging artisans in airy attics to be sold at high prices or grace the walls of our galleries. A’Mhara has pointed out quite clearly that art can be expressed in the most edible forms, prepared with precision for even the most ordinary sole like mine and express the artists feelings and passion about the seemingly mundane parts of every day life.

Thanks for that, A’Mhara.


A’Mhara managed to feed the soles of quite a few people at the Christmas Craft Extravaganza in December. There are about three hundred art lovers out there who couldn’t possibly look at a cupcake in the same old way again. Two gentlemen passed me on one occasion, artwork in mouth, drawing straws on who would return to A'Mhara's stall to make the first marriage proposal.