Well known first for her print making, a key focus of Wendy Stokes’ art practice since the late 1990s has been her stunning and distinctive paintings…
What originally brought you to Port Macquarie?
I am a return resident. My partner and I decided on settling in Port Macquarie in the late ‘80s. My parents had retired to Port Macquarie from a rural property in Central Western NSW in the late ‘60s, and my main school years were spent in Port Macquarie. After my postgraduate studies I had spent several years in Sydney and with a network of exhibition contacts in place, it no longer seemed essential for me to remain in the city. Port Macquarie was small enough then to have appeal, close enough to Sydney to maintain my practice, and the return enabled me to spend time with my family.
What influenced you to develop an interest in art?
There wasn’t really a time when I decided that I would go and pick it off a shelf labelled a career or hobby. It is a part of me from as far back as I can remember and fortunately due to the freedom of my upbringing, I had many hours outside on the farm, in the garden or roaming my front yard, our coastline. Much of this time was immersed in my own imagination: collecting, drawing, making things, just being in an outdoor environment.
Sometimes I have considered if it, ‘art’, was something separate like a backpack that you could remove, life would be easier and far less complicated. It is my way of seeing the world, thinking about it and finding a place within it.
How has your talent steered your artistic career?
To be blatantly honest, talent doesn’t necessarily steer an art career! Any serious artist I know, or even the famous ones embedded in the archives of history, would agree that that is left to trends and opportunity!
After completing the HSC, I went onto 4 years of formal art studies in Newcastle, took the ritual art pilgrimage to the UK and Europe on graduation and followed that several years later with postgraduate study at Sydney College of the Arts.
From the beginning, I had strong support from my parents; Jim Matsinos, my art teacher at school; Dorothy Hope, the founder of Thrumster Village; and the printmaker, Joan Smith. I mention them because in the 1970s, artists in regional areas, particularly Port Macquarie, were very isolated, and these people understood my language and aspirations.
At art school I ended up majoring in Printmaking and Drawing and managed to develop a strong profile as a printmaker very early in my art practice, exhibiting and awarded prizes on a national and international level. It was through my printmaking that I received the residence opportunity in New York.
Which medium/media do you like to work with now, and what is it about them that attract you?
Painting has become a key focus of my practice since the late 1990s. The reason for the shift was as much about creative development – expecting more from a medium – as it was about eliminating the exposure where possible to solvents and oil based products. I was looking for more freedom in scale and as I was already using the printmaking medium as a painter would paint, the progression was natural.
I adopted water based choices for all my processes, both paint and print. Apart from the ease of cleanup, many artists will identify that we still need to function to some degree in the real world. Time to work often becomes fragmented, so the speed of drying time became a crucial element for my work. Using water based processes also aligned with my aesthetic towards the landscape … the connections between water and atmosphere, staining, soaking, sliding, immersion and the porosity of the canvas, the porosity of the sand and earth …
I’ve read passages about your work, which describes it as ‘abstract impressionism’. Would you say this is a fair description – and if not, why?
I am often wary of categorisation when it comes to describing art. Art in contemporary terms crosses many boundaries between mediums as well as professional disciplines. These days, we do not need to go far to see the hybrid practice between artist and engineer or scientist. Coming to the ‘abstract impressionism’: both are words which come with a huge amount of misinterpreted and popularised baggage.
While it may be beneficial to have an understanding of when or why particular styles developed historically, we all need to be aware that much history, particularly involving women artists, marginalised cultures and geographically isolated artists, has yet to be written or rewritten into history.
Abstract is a term with many meanings and tends to be seen as a removal from a concrete source, and Impressionism is unfortunately tied to the popular historical style of the Impressionists, which are still firmly set in observational ground. This can be misleading.
Viewers are likely to feel compelled to try and locate references in my paintings to give themselves clues to determine the meaning, rather than allow the viewing experience to be a mutual engagement between the painting and them. My paintings are not about squinting your eyes to try and make out an impression of a thing. Hopefully they are about synthesis and experience.
As an artist, what inspires you to create?
Energy. It is connected to experience and immersion in place, but not from the visited experience, where you are a tourist or explorer travelling to a place, picking a view and packaging it.
Memories obviously play a role for everybody, not only artists, because we all bring to any experience our previous experiences. What truly moves me to create are the lives of others, sacrifice, commitment, that drive of the artist to leave a mark, an image that has the capacity to move or resonate within the viewer. If even a momentary thing, it has the capacity to be an experience shared.
Much of your work is done on a large scale. What’s the largest piece you’ve completed to date?
The scale thing is relative. For a domestic setting it could be considered large, but they can be quite dwarfed in museum settings. The largest work is still in progress, but will end up being around 7 metres. The scale is part of the concept of immersion which informs my work; not only is it quite a performative act making the work, but I aim for the viewer to be able to be drawn into the works with little peripheral distraction. Not all my work is large scale.
What are some of the challenges (if any) for you as an artist completing large works … and how long does it typically take for you to finish a piece?
The physical expenditure is in assembling and stretching the canvases, moving them around in and out of the studio. I accommodate the size by making the works in sections, and that way they can fit through my studio door and down the stairs. The length of time is probably irrelevant, because when does a painting really begin?
There is gestation time, the development of thought, followed by experience and action time, then reflection, ending in satisfaction or frustration. This can be measured in weeks or months and has little bearing on the success of the work.
One of the other challenges is that you know already before you even start a painting that they have a limited market, so you are not market driven but instead by your own creative journey and conceptual investigation. People in buying any large work need to have the courage and conviction for that work to become the experience in the hanging location, and these days the super size TV with the constant shifts in images and entertainment supersedes the wall once reserved for that large painting. Paintings can demand from you as a viewer, but they can provide a pause … a place for renewal.
A few years ago, a buyer of my work sent me a text message to say they had spent the week without the television and instead spent the time immersed in my paintings, which is a validation that painting can have purpose.
What are a few of the exhibitions you’ve been involved with over the years?
I have been exhibiting professionally at a strong level for thirty years, but I would like to highlight that exhibitions serve different functions. It is not always market driven. Solo exhibitions, in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and major regional gallery shows as in Tamworth and Coffs Harbour have been essential venues to enable me to create work and measure it as bodies of work, rather than isolated works hanging on the wall. It enables the work to function within your thematic development and is crucial for your own progression.
Curated shows are interesting, as you have the opportunity to have your work interpreted in the context of others’ work and concepts, so you are able to better position where your own practice is heading. National competitive shows, such as the Dobell Drawing Prize, the JADA, The Glover Landscape Prize and The Fremantle Print Prize are reinforcement of the validity of your own work and its contribution to particular mediums or genres within Australian art practice. International shows in which I have participated, and especially Printmaking shows, have been about cultural exchange.
Where is the best place for people to view your work?
I am represented through Catherine Asquith Gallery, Melbourne and BMG art in Adelaide. I will be showing again with Catherine in Melbourne in September and at Danks Street Galleries, Sydney, in August. Walcha Gallery of Art has an ongoing selection of work, and I will be having a major show with them in May.
On a more local note, The Regional Gallery at the Glasshouse is currently hosting an exhibition organised by Port Macquarie High School, showcasing previous students from the school who have chosen art as their career path, celebrating 50 years of the high school. As a previous student, I am participating in this exhibition.
On a local level, I have seen my role not so much as an artist, but an advocate for emerging artists in the visual arts through TAFE. In the past 12 years I have taught at Kempsey Campus, participating in the delivery of the Diploma in Fine Art programmes and other fine art courses.
As a teaching body of committed professional arts practitioners, we have been instrumental in opening up the value of art making for many individuals in a meaningful way within the region. It is rewarding to help people find their own creative voice and move way beyond their own expectations.
Interview by Jo Atkins.
This story was published in issue 77 of Port Macquarie Focus
Believe it or not, art is an asset. And like any asset, such as your car, your home, or your stamp collection, you insure it. Interestingly as soon as one acquires one of these items, one automatically seeks the advice of an advisor or broker to ascertain adequate insurance and annual premiums ensure thereafter. Yet, the same cannot be said for art.
Speaking with my insurance broker on a somewhat frequent basis, I am always surprised to hear how infrequent his clients seek the advice of a professional when estimating the value of their art collection; the consequences of not having an up to date valuation, and therefore a current value, can mean the difference between being reimbursed for loss or damage appropriate to its market value or incurring a loss on that initial investment.
Obtaining a professional appraisal of your artwork operates in much the same way as seeking a value for other assets. Credentials should be assessed; market sector and specialty experience should be examined together with the level of tertiary qualifications and membership with an industry association, such as the Art Consulting Association of Australia (ACAA).
Most importantly, seeking the services of an independent, objective and impartial professional will result in a more accurate valuation, and without the potential bias of an invested interest in the artwork and therefore its value.
There are a number of attributes which an experienced appraiser will utilise in order to determine the value of your artwork:
Additionally, depending upon the nature of the valuation, i.e. the artwork is being considered for a charitable contribution or gift, or the artwork is part of the asset pool in a Family Law property dispute, the valuation may also include consideration of future capital gains tax issues.
Valuing your art necessitates the same respect as valuing your other lifetime assets. Regular, up to date valuations of your artworks are an important adjunct to the ongoing maintenance and accurate documentation of your collection.
Seeking the advice and services of an experienced and knowledgeable professional is a critical step in the provision of an accurate art valuation. Catherine Asquith Art’s valuation services offer new and established collectors a comprehensive appreciation of their collection, its current parameters and indeed, future directions.
Catherine Asquith has been working within the Australian art market, and more recently, the Asian art market, across both the primary and secondary sectors for the past twenty years and is a member of the Art Consulting Association of Australia (ACAA).
According to a study of 2015, undertaken by the Australia Council “Australians value the arts”. More particularly “[A] growing number of Australians believe that the arts make for a richer and more meaningful life; they influence how we express ourselves, our creative thinking and new ideas.”
The salient points highlighted in this report indicate that the arts, which are deeply embedded in the cultural sector, make a substantial contribution to the Australian economy. “Cultural activity” defined in this report as the visual, performing, literary and musical arts, contributes “$50 billion to Australia’s GDP, which is comparable to the GDP share in the United States”, of which $4.2 billion is derivative of the arts. Expenditure on culture by Australian governments was $7 billion in 2013 with a reported $1.3 billion having been expended on the arts. The report also notes, that the main source of income to the arts is consumer spending.
The latter is what I would like to explore today; how, we as individuals ‘support;’ in all its guises, the arts. And we actually do this in a very tangible manner. But before I do this some notes on money and the arts -
To an extent the arts has had an uneasy relationship with commerce, or more specifically, money!
A lot of commentary on the art market describes art in commercial terms: “investment of passion”, “wall power” and “branding”. And with these descriptives our appreciation of an artwork can sometimes be hindered.
By the same token we actually have to acknowledge that this commercialism, is of paramount importance to the livelihood of so many members of this arena; people such as the artists, the material suppliers, the galleries, the curators, the framers, the conservators, and ultimately, our public collections.
I can remember during one of my post-grad tutorials at Melbourne Uni, my fellow students becoming horrified when I disclosed that I worked at a gallery and what I did was sell art. Murmurings of ‘capitalism’ lingered in the air as I made a quiet but obvious retreat from the discussion and indeed, from the course itself soon afterwards.
I simply didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. 20 years later I sort of do. We don’t really like to besmirch the integrity of the arts (well certainly not the purists amongst us) with commercialism; we would rather remain discreet about it and therefore employ a secret code or language, and we utilise less obvious terms such as “acquisition”, “placement” and “de-accession” in lieu of buy and sell.
But here’s the rub - buying or acquiring art is an action by an individual which in truth, has a much more altruistic element, which we are mostly unaware of, and dare I say, holds a more formidable long term benefit, to a wider group. That group is our society. That infrastructure is our culture; our history.
So what I would like to do is to follow a trajectory of sorts from the artist’s studio, to the commercial gallery exhibition, to the curated regional gallery show, to the collection of a state-owned institution. And to hopefully demonstrate how an individual decision can have so much bearing on the ‘wealth;’ of our nation.
Working in the arts I think we sometimes take for granted that the public at large understand how the machinations of the art market operates; I don’t want to dumb this down, and I certainly don’t want to suggest it’s this simple either; there are a multitude of personalities, prejudices, politics and let’s face it, people, who complicate the process. But…in its simplest form:
In order for an artist to produce an artwork, he or she has bought materials for its production, from an arts supplier, a small business. The artist may also have had some of the work framed, another small business. A photographer has been called upon to ‘document’ the series, that photographer is another small business. A specialist arts carrier has been booked to collect and deliver this new body of work to the gallery. Before an artwork is installed at the artist’s representative gallery for exhibition purposes, several invoices have been generated by small businesses.
The gallery’s primary task is to represent artists on a long term basis, providing guidance and career management to their artists. The gallery incurs on-going costs in its support and promotion of represented artists: aside from the usual utilities and services including rental on space, a gallery may well have promoted the exhibition via print media, in the form of glossy art journal advertisements, in addition to perhaps production of a catalogue. On-line media may also have been utilised. An arts writer may also have been commissioned to produce a catalogue essay. The ‘in-tray’ is piling up.
The exhibition is one of the key promotional events for both the artist and the gallery. In preparation both the artist and the gallery have (hopefully!) worked in tandem in terms of promoting the forthcoming exhibition; the gallery will have alerted its client base which will invariably include individuals, institutions, public museums and galleries, as well as regional galleries, and much dialogue will have ensued with curators. Artists will more than likely have gone crazy on various social media platforms!! And told their fellow artists and possibly some of their former tutors and lecturers.
So after a glass of wine and an extremely entertaining conversation with the artist, you decide to buy a work. Let’s call this artist, Frank. The exhibition is availed some terrific press coverage over the remaining few weeks, in addition to an excellent review by a well-known critic. Several more works have sold now, and one work is on reserve for a public institution, the latter having been prompted by the gallery’s initiative in making contact as a result of the exhibition sales rate. (This is a hard-working gallery!). In the meantime you have told some of your friends, and in fact one of them is the wife of a senior managing partner at a law firm. His interest is piqued and he ventures one lunchtime into the gallery. He’s looking for a new piece to add to the firm’s collection. But his attention is diverted by something peeking out from the stockroom; a much larger and indeed, much more expensive work. With the approval of the law firm’s selection committee, the work is acquired. The gallery now has a new client.
Invoices are attended to forthwith; and most pleasing, with the addition of the law firm’s acquisition, some funds have been freed up for the gallery to now consider further promotional activities; perhaps an international art fair.
The arts writer, who also happens to operate as a freelance curator, having been given the opportunity to produce a catalogue essay for this artist, suggests to one of her colleagues a collaboration and one in which Frank’s work would be included; her colleague is employed by an interstate regional gallery. After much discussion and considerable paperwork, a survey show examining contemporary abstract painting has moved beyond its embryonic stage, and is now scheduled for 18 months hence. The gallery is advised of this forthcoming exhibition, and excitedly relays this news to her artist, Frank.
With this new development, the gallerist personally appraises the owners of Frank’s work, in addition to including this development in the gallery’s monthly newsletter. Happily this newsletter elicits some interest in Frank’s work, and a gallery client, who had been overseas at an art fair during Frank’s exhibition, requests some more information. There are only 2 works left in the gallery’s stockroom, but the gallerist assures the client that Frank is working on new work. (Frank was able to settle his invoices after the exhibition, and has some credit with his materials supplier.)
Meanwhile, the managing partner of the law firm continues to patronise the gallery, and brings a colleague one day, who happens to be on the Board of a Foundation, of which the latter has the primary mandate of collecting art by ‘living artists’. He’s rather taken with Frank’s work, noting also the artist’s developing CV (and in particular the collections in which his work is held), and has asked to be notified when new works arrive.
There is now a small groundswell of interest surrounding Frank’s work; indeed, the gallery has been contacted by one of the art magazines (as a result of the editor becoming aware of the commissioned essay for Frank’s exhibition), and is now seeking to commission a feature article in line with the forthcoming group survey exhibition. Potential opportunities in terms of further promotion, and therefore beneficial outcomes for the gallery and its artists are now able to be more realistically considered over the forthcoming 12 to 18 months.
Does Frank’s work end up in the NGV collection? Possibly. Does the Foundation acquire one of his works? Maybe. And does the gallery go on to participate in an international art fair? Hopefully. Did your enthusiasm for Frank’s art contribute to this? Absolutely!
We should get excited about our art acquisitions. We as a society should not be ‘shy’ about ‘investing’ in art. We can and we do contribute to the sustainability and development of our cultural infrastructure. Every so often, we simply need to remind ourselves what art does:
It starts a conversation; opens a dialogue. At its most fundamental, art expresses an idea, an observation, and/or an emotion. It enlivens our consciousness, and sometimes changes our experiences of an event or exhibition. It stimulates, nourishes and feeds our senses. It contributes to the ‘wealth’ of our culture. And it reflects our society, by way of visually documenting our history, a history which is important to our future.
*This speech was given at FUSE, Flinders Lane Gallery, during Melbourne Art Week.
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