Welcome to a new series of conversations with artists whose work captures our imaginations and hearts. Here is our first – Vanessa Stockard.
Vanessa Stockard is an Australian contemporary artist. Her painting has shown across Australia and the world. She takes the every day, gives it a whimsical makeover and ties it up with a quizzical bow.
She flirts with the ephemeral – layer cakes and vases of impossibly beautiful flowers. Her series Enchanted embraced the line between a dream world and an edgy reality. Nowadays you’ll usually find Kevin the Kitten there too. He’s the dark smudge with eyes and an Elizabethan collar.
Vanessa is known to take an iconic work and give it the Vanessa Stockard treatment – always with Kevin looking on.
Early life and environment
My grandmother was an amateur painter who always had something on the easel. She was a big part of my life (she lived to 100), and we used to craft and paint together. She was a big motivator. My extremely talented mother studied at Julian Ashton and the National Art School. Our household was interested in classical music, textiles and painting – it was part of our life.
I grew up next to a remnant rainforest with all sorts of animals and moths as big as your hand. That environment was a significant influence.
Studying science at uni, I knew I wanted to be a composer. At boarding school, you had to do your homework, or you got into trouble. I couldn’t study without that rigid structure. My boyfriend, at the time, said: “why don’t you go to COFA?”
Was there an ‘AHA’ moment – when you realised you could support yourself as a professional artist?
About eight years ago, I was having a difficult time emotionally and actually became agoraphobic. During my therapy, my husband suggested I take six months or two years off to paint. I focused my skills, and within six months, I was making money. Filling in my tax return that year realised I had made as much as the dole!
Can you describe your style?
Pop Surreal Impressionism. A mash-up. I touch on Impressionism in how I approach my subjects with a touch of surrealism. The technique also plays a part.
You want to be yourself and nothing is original. Things are gleaned from everywhere. If you just keep going you will find your voice eventually.
For a while, I thought I might have pigeon-holed myself with Kevin. I thought no-one would think of me as a serious artist… but, then everyone wants Kevin. I feel differently now as his role has changed. I can use him now more as a signature.
It still allows me to do whatever I like. It is always a Vanessa Stockard painting because it’s got these tiny eyes in a corner somewhere, but it allows me to do whatever the hell I like…Now when I’m doing someone’s portrait they ask me to put him in there…He’s less than 2% of the painting, and often people’s signatures are bigger than that, but it allows me to go absolutely anywhere. It’s taken some time for me to get my head around it.
Where did Kevin the kitten come from?
I’ve been working with cats for some time – Satan was my first cat that became popular. It must have been 2018 when I saw one of my husband’s socks in the studio – I thought that looks like a kitten. But it’s not a kitten. Perhaps I was sleep deprived with a little kid. Absolute nonsense.
Is Kevin an expression of joy?
He is often in ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ situations. He doesn’t come from sadness or loneliness. My (Vanessa Stockard) Instagram followers get upset because I keep putting him in these situations. But I don’t think things should be too sweet. He’s on the edge.
Why the random Elizabethan collar?
I think I had watched Elizabeth that week on Netflix and I think I was putting Elizabethan collars on everything. He’s quirky and not as cerebral as Derek.
Another character – Derek Milkwood
When I was in Uni, I lived in a granny flat near the Gully in Glebe. People told me not to go there – “There’s a rapist” but it was a shortcut to Maccas, and I didn’t know how to feed myself. I thought it’s ok – it’s the middle of the day, and I can run. And I noticed this guy standing in the tall reeds and he was naked, and he used to wave, and I waved back. We never said hi or anything, but I think he just didn’t like to wear clothes. Maybe it was the safest place not to wear clothes. So I started thinking, what would it like to be an outsider? Someone who doesn’t know it’s illegal not to wear clothes.
I’m intrigued by people who are drifters and outsiders. What do they think and what happened to them? Why made them different?
There is a big part of my personality in Derek. There’s a lot of protection there, and I’m interested in people I don’t know. I wanted to be a writer once, and I’d sit in cafes and look at people and give them names and think what do they do, what was the secret bad thing they’ve done. I’ve had a wild imagination. Derek is a kind of a witness.
I have tried almost everything – I’ve painted on glass, canvas, wood panel and I really love painting on aluminium panel now. I find it hard to go back to painting on anything else, even wood panel. The way you can get the paint to move on that shiny surface. Even wood sucks up paint, but with an aluminium panel, it isn’t going anywhere. To get a beautiful curve on canvas, you have to build up the paint. But with aluminium, you can do it in one sitting.
I’ve used acrylic, house paint and when I was pregnant and bedridden for seven months, I painted with acrylics in bed. But when she was about 2 1/2, I went back to oils. Straight oil now.
How has motherhood changed your painting?
So many people told me once you have a child, you will never paint again. That idea really upset me. Why? Sure it’s hard. As it happens, I’ve never painted more in my life. I’ve realised how important it is. For me being a mother is boring. It’s tedious. It’s tiring. I needed to maximise my time when she was napping. And they nap a lot. I learned how to become quicker. A lot quicker. No ‘what am I going to paint?’ Too bad. Just get in there and paint. Now I’m learning to slow down, which I’m finding hard. You form your own little traps, and you need to know how to get out of them.
Can you keep up with the volume of commissions and work for exhibitions?
Just. I want to slow things down a bit. Sometimes I get slammed with work. So next year it has to change as it’s made me miserable at times. People know I’m productive and they say ‘how about a new show?’ and I say a group show and they say no a solo Vanessa Stockard show. So I have to make 30 more paintings in a month, and that’s not fun.
And with Covid, suppliers and framing has been difficult to get people to do the job. I’ve had a few hoops to jump through. Next year, fewer commissions and fewer shows.
You’re a three-time Archibald finalist. What does it mean?
It means a lot.
You can be a train driver and not know anything else about art, but you know about the Archibald. I get into a cab. What do you do? I’m a painter. Oh, you paint houses. No, I paint pictures. Oh – have you been in the Archibald and I get to say yes. Always the end of the conversation.
It’s great because you look at a lot of the other painters who are your heroes and now you’re there too. You get hung in the Art Gallery of NSW and its fun. It’s random – they call it the Chook Raffle. The judging of it and everyone has an opinion. Love the controversy, and it’s bitchy – very bitchy.
Living in Bowral
Not being in the city – the isolation helps me focus. But I get so focused I should get out more. I definitely live in my own little world. Going to Sydney is a lot to absorb and is a bit stressful. Here my neighbours are cows.
How has Instagram changed things for you?
It has been a massive change. It’s like opening a part of your studio or opening a part of your brain and offering it to the world.
Does Instagram invite plagiarism?
I don’t really care about plagiarism. I plagiarise other people by Kevin bombing them.
How has Instagram changed your relationships with galleries?
It took so long for any gallery to take me in – it’s so hard to get your foot in the door. It took so long to be represented that I started to not care about exclusivity. I’m now very upfront with any gallery I work with and definitely will not show anywhere else in that state while that exhibition is on. But, galleries aren’t anything without artists. Without artists, they don’t have anything. So artists do have power. It’s now changing because of Instagram.
Instagram is hard work. I have slowly started to put my phone down and not respond to all the engagement/requests. It is amazing people find me on there, and I can direct them to my gallery or places to purchase work. I don’t really want to deal with people to make sales. I don’t have time to handle the shipping, the money transfers so I have other people to handle that. It’s important to have time to paint.
Who represents you in Australia?
I’m represented in Australia by AK Bellinger in Inverell and Scott Livesey Galleries in Melbourne. I’m invited to show in international galleries, and the audience is wider, and I love not being known.
Collaborations in 2021?
Another collaboration with Paul & Joe. This year was so difficult, but Kevin got to walk the runway at Paris Fashion Week just as they went into the second lockdown. So I hope with a vaccine, things will be much easier next year.
I’m also working with a composer Austin Lawrence who has scored 70 films and worked with Disney. He’s scoring some of the animations I’m doing. Micaela Blank is the animator.
I’m offering it free on Instagram and that sort of thing. I’m hoping someone will pick it up and make an animated series of Kevin. I’d like to head in that direction one day. I’d like to broaden. I love animation.
Please tell me about the Torch Project
I heard about this program in Victoria, focusing on arts and culture. It’s for Indigenous people in and out of custody to help them from reoffending. Teaching people to explore identity and culture and making paintings and selling them. Giving them an income and importantly making them proud and giving them a sense of self.
The Torch Project is such a positive venture that’s going from strength to strength. Last year they had 250 painters. 100% of sales go to the artist. I like positive news. I’ve donated and given them a bit of shout out.
We need to start looking at being a little bit happy.
Thanks to Vanessa for her generosity of spirit and the time she took out of her busy schedule to speak with me.