As one of only five artists internationally to be accepted for a summer residency at the exclusive Baer Art Center in Iceland, Australian artist Mahala Magins is currently exploring her craft under the midnight sun of the Arctic Circle. The fjords of Iceland might seem a world away from the tropical lush and beaches of Northern NSW where she lives and works, but for Magins the residency offers a chance to immerse herself in producing and creating her art within an equally evocative landscape.
It is also a step onto the international stage after making a name for herself in Australia, where she has exhibited nationally, and won numerous awards, including being chosen as one of four artists from Southern Cross University for The National Tertiary Art Prize, hosted by The University Of Tasmania.
Working with oil paint, primarily on stretched canvas or linen, Magins creates landscapes and portraits that are by her own admission, often entwined. The landscape and community she grew up in clearly informs her work, and when her art is described as both raw and whimsical, one cannot help but see the connection to this country of ours, a land both abundant and withholding at the same time.
On the eve of her travels to Iceland, Mahala spoke with Jacqueline Bublitz as she prepared for both her residency at the top of the world, and a new solo show in Melbourne.
Light from the Bay Window, Oil on Linen, 122cm x 153cm
JB: As a writer I often start with a single sentence and a piece is created around those few words that just won’t leave me alone. What is your process for creating a new work?
MM: It often begins with a single visual. This visual can be in my head, like a memory of travel, or as a clipping of colour, or an outline of a garden. The everyday inspires new works for me.
I then think of a size that is well suited to the visual. Size for me is important because the first layer of the painting is in my head. Most times I will have the finished work in my head before I have even put the brush to the canvas. I very rarely draw or sketch out a work I am about to produce. I also like to make firm choices about my colour palette and will only choose 3 colours, and then black and or white.
I always think of my process as being spontaneous because I am not physically drawing out the visual from my head. But now that I’m talking about it I see how I do make firm, conscious decisions in my process and making, and that doesn’t seem spontaneous at all. Even the spontaneity of a brush stroke is stopped when I say that brush stroke is to be firm not loose.
JB: How do tend to view your art once it is completed? What is your relationship to a piece of work after you put it out into the world?
MM: Once a single work is completed I take it out of the studio and hang it in another room, and just hang out with it as if it was a cat wanting to be fed. Sometimes I will sit and watch it for hours and be like, “Yes that’s good work”, and other times it will be on the wall for minutes and I will put it away and not want to look at it at all for days. It’s like I treat the painting as if it’s in trouble or I’m pissed off with it. A week has been the longest I have ever not looked at a work; then I will bring it out again for another look like its ready to redeem itself.
I don’t feel more or less emotion or ownership to a piece when it has left the studio, and I look forward to my works having other relationships after I have painted them.
How does the landscape and environment you grew up in influence your work?
I grew up in the bush lands of The Gibraltar Range in Northern New South Wales, on a multiple occupancy more known as an M.O. or a Commune. It was 100 acres and totally self-contained, with fruit trees, veggie patches, a green house; everything was self-sufficient. The landscape I grew up in does resonate in the development of my painted landscapes, although often my landscapes are are also influenced by travels, in particular European landscapes.
JB: When did your art move beyond a ‘hobby’, and how has your approach to making art changed when it became both a career and a creative outlet?
MM: I have never wanted my art practice to be a hobby; I made that decision before I had been accepted to art school. I always knew I wanted art to be my career.
After university I took a job as a Visual Merchandiser, which I thought it would be a creative outlet that paid decent money, and I could paint on my days off. While it was creative and did pay well, I was traveling seven days a week up and down the coast of Queensland and Northern New South Wales, which didn’t leave much time for painting. I realised i couldn’t hold on to this job if I wanted to pursue art full time, so I quit, and that next week moved into a new studio. I became extremely driven, and that drive hasn’t changed. If anything it has become stronger, which boosts my creativity and the want to produce and create.
JB: In your experience, does art need to have a purpose? Do you consider your art to have a theme or predominant message?
MM: Everyone views art, whether it an installation, sculpture or a painting, in a different manner or emotion. A viewer may not have any connection to the art world and that’s what interests me the most about art; what the viewer’s emotional connection is when they view an artwork.
In the making of my works the theme I am most interested in is the emotion or emotive process a viewer feels when looking at my paintings. Is it happiness, vulnerability, sadness? I have had viewer’s express that my figurative works are both raw and whimsical at the same time. Having my viewers voice an emotion from looking art my paintings is what I strive to produce in every artwork I paint.
Fragments in Foreground, Oil on Linen, 122cm x 153cm
JB: Do you think gender plays a part in your art, or art in general?
MM: Most of my greatest influences in the art world are female artists whose paintings, installations and practices reflect a young viewpoint of pop culture, and who are interested in female psychology and identity. I find this extremely interesting, though gender itself does not play a huge part in my art practice, if at all. I think more about age (youth/death), muscles and limbs when painting figurative elements rather than female or masculine identity.
JB: How do you stay motivated when you cannot necessarily dedicate fully to your art?
MM: I stay motivated by being immersed in my studio. A studio is very private and sometimes very insular space; for me those four walls are where I feel at home; when I am in my studio it’s when I’m the most motivated.
For sure travel and the city is inspiring, and it’s important for growth as an artist, though for me; to be inspired doesn’t necessarily mean it makes me motivated. Having something to work towards keeps me driven and motivated one hundred percent of the time. Did that just sound like a slogan for a creepy affirmation company or what? But hey it works for me!
JB: Tell me about the upcoming residency in Iceland – how did this come about and what opportunities does a residency like this afford an artist?
MM: I have had the opportunity to be involved with artist’s residencies interstate and the knowledge and growth I have experienced from such residencies was incredible; naturally I thought the next step would be to start to apply for artist’s residencies abroad.
Scene from region around Baer Arts Centre, Iceland
When I came across the application for the artists residency in Iceland held at the Baer Arts Center in Skagafjordur, I was firstly blown away by its natural settings; the landscape resonated with me and the total abstraction that it was in Iceland excited me, so I applied for Baer last year and was contacted in March of this year saying I had been one five international artists chosen. I see one opportunity can lead to another, it’s ever expanding, and you’re ever learning. For me to be placed with four other international artists is a blessing in itself – to have the ability to share ideas, thoughts and concepts in such an abstract environment can ultimately lead to great work being produced. An artist residency is about for that for me, producing work that depicts your current surroundings.
JB: Is there an ultimate for you as an artist?
MM: In a perfect world I would like to be able to attain numerous artist residencies, interstate or abroad. Germany one year, France the next and so on. It would be like living different lives each year – a different surrounding, climate, studio and people. I think that would be an ultimate for my art practice and me.
Mahala Magins, Recent Paintings
August 1 – 17, 2013
Gilligan Grant Gallery
2 Minona Street, Hawthorn, VIC.
Baer Arts Centre
By Jacqueline Bublitz