October 2024

Brave Art

Words: Melissa Loughnan Images: Amber Wallis

Amber Wallis’ loose and abstracted imagery is inspired by the landscape, relationships, experiences and emotions. Her strong lines and bold use of colour often incorporate references to the landscape and the figure. Her work has inspired numerous fellow artists in Melbourne through its rawness and ability to convey often very powerful messages. Her work can be seen shortly as part of the upcoming Shilo Project at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne, and she has solo exhibitions lined up for Sydney and Melbourne in 2010. Amber is currently living in Paris as the winner of the tenth Brett Whiteley Travelling art scholarship, awarded by the Art Gallery of NSW.

Amber’s drawings have been featured in publications in Australia, Canada and the USA. She held her first solo exhibition at Utopian Slumps in 2009 and has participated in a number of group exhibitions in such galleries as Monster Children, TCB Art Inc, Utopian Slumps and Someday. She is a graduate of the Victorian Collage of Arts, Canberra School of Art and The Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, Canada, and was a finalist in the Robert Jacks Drawing Prize in 2008. Melissa Loughnan caught up with Amber Wallis during the last stages of her scholarship…

Melissa Loughnan: You’re currently in Paris in the final weeks of your Brett Whiteley Travelling Scholarship. Could you describe the time that you have spent overseas this year as part of the scholarship, and where you’ve been basing your practice?

Amber Wallis: My time overseas has been amazing. I flew into Vancouver, caught up with friends, did a road trip to California which was spectacular, then based myself in Montreal subletting my friend Hadji’s room while working out of Redbird studios. I spent some time in New York and Sweden and am now in the Paris studio. After Paris I will return to New York where I will be based in Brooklyn for a few months living and continuing to make art, which I’m excited about.

ML: You were born in New Zealand and spent much of your youth in Australia. Can you explain the significance of North America to you, how it inspires your practice, why you try to return there when you can, and why you chose to base the majority of your scholarship there?

AW: They are tricky questions, things I really don’t understand myself and things I find difficult to put into words. North America has some kind of magic to it I think. It pulls me back all the time and I think of it a lot. I would like to spend more of my life there. The landscape is so incredibly majestic, varied and really so huge and vast. The arts and music scene are so alive and this is important to me. To be able to be in New York or Montreal and see five incredible bands in a week, these bands would never make it to Australia because it’s so unfeasible for them. I also feel privileged to know some incredible people in the music and art world who are knee deep in those scenes so it becomes easy for me to access and have an amazing time. So it’s little things like that which draw me back.

I also chose to base a lot of my scholarship there because for me my friendships and relationships with people are paramount. I felt I needed to spend more time with my friends there because they were friendships I didn’t want to see vanish into the difficulties of living so far away and I had always wanted to live in Montreal for a while. My work is absolutely based on my life and the people and places that are important to me. So essentially I just followed my gut and headed back to a place I love.

I really love Australia and it will always be a home for me but I heard Peter Carey talking about how he is able to write about Australia more easily now that he lives in New York, I understand that objectivity and subjectivity you can find while being away from your home.

ML: Are you able to tell me who those people in the music and art world are who have been so inspirational to your work?

AW: I don’t know about being really inspirational to my work, but inspirational because they are renowned, work hard at their craft, live a creative life and are absolutely dedicated and committed to their art. I find that really inspiring. On this trip I have been lucky enough to hang out with friends who play in bands like The Pink Mountaintops, Wolf Parade and God Speed You Black Emperor. I have also met people like Jim White, Will Oldham, Emmett Kelly, Eric White, DZine, Kaws, Jose Parla and Dave Eggers. I came pretty close to meeting Ed Ruscha, he was staying in the hotel room next to me. I am sure hardly any of them remember me but it is inspiring to be around people who are living their dream and it makes me want to raise my own bar, work harder and live a more creative life. Seeing the Kandinsky show and Kirsten Baker at the Pompidou has been an artistic highlight for me.

ML: Your work is often inspired by the landscape and your physical environment. Leading on from this notion of depicting Australia more easily when abroad, are you finding that the iconography in your current work largely references the Australian landscape, or is it more of a hybrid landscape coming out?

AW: Umm both things really. Initially while I was in Montreal I was working on a lot of drawings based on hanging out with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and band in Montreal and New York. I had a really amazing time with them so it just kind of found its way into the art. I did all these drawings and portraits of the American landscape, tepees and sex – nothing of Australia was in those.

Then when I got to Paris I found that the soft muted colours of Paris and New York worked their way into my palette as soon as I started painting. The colours inspired a painting about Dash Snow dying, which I found really devastating. But the art has a way of feeding itself so within that painting were colours which reminded me of eucalypt markings. So the mix of the archetypal outlaw dying and eucalypts prompted other paintings. One of a bushranger dying and another of Norman Lindsay’s place.

The next few paintings became about Paris specifically, the arched treed avenues and walking along the river at night jumping over rats with my friend Rick McCrank. So sometimes they are place, story, person specific and sometimes they are many things. I always think of them as stories made up of many parts.

ML: As you’ve mentioned, your paintings don’t just reference the landscape, but also your experiences, relationships and emotional circumstances. I’d like to chat a bit more about this. Do you think that the solidified friendships and new stories that you have experienced in the last few months will resound in your works to come?

AW: Yeah I am sure they will, they already are. I think my next show will predominately be about these stories and they will be labelled more specifically so the works will be a bit more insightful and accessible to the viewer.

ML: Has there been one experience that has been most influential?

AW: Ha! Yes there has but I don’t know if I can be completely honest about that! There was a week in both New York and Paris which changed things for me in many ways. Moments of connection and then the consequent separation I always find are good fodder for the canvas. Even if it’s just as a rush of emotion to get you started, the painting then has a life of its own.

ML: OK, last question, I want to know where you’re headed next. Are you planning to return to Australia and stay there for a while, or are you already seeking out new adventures for 2010?

AW: I will be in Brooklyn for the next few months, living and doing some painting. Then back to Australia over the summer. I have no plans after that. I have some shows lined up so I will need to be working and I hope I get to do some more traveling and have some more lovely surprises and adventures in 2010, that would be amazing!

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