We met Australian artist Lucy O’Doherty on her last evening in Paris. After winning the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship, Lucy has just spent her summer working and living from a small studio in the Cité Internationale des Arts, an artist residency along the Seine that feels like a United Nations for young artists. The building is impressive; a maze of over 300 studios allowing musicians, performers and artists from over 50 countries to develop their practice.
For Lucy, her work mostly revolves around the home; she paints places that are always empty and suburban, with a soft fuzziness that makes each work glow with a mysterious sadness. They may be sad but they are far from bleak, the 1950's colour schemes Lucy uses of seafoam green, flesh pink and butter are oddly cheery -reminiscent of the wacky homes of Peg Boggs and her neighbours in Edward Scissorhands.
We talked to Lucy about her paintings, where she finds inspiration, her personal style (she has great taste!) and the female artists she admires (get ready to right click and google).
Can you tell us a little about your background, where you studied and when you first started painting?
I studied at the National Art School in Sydney from 2009 to 2011. It’s an excellent institution set in the grounds of what used to be the old Darlinghurst Gaol. There’s something very special about the fact that the building was originally built for such a sad purpose and now it’s a place that creativity is nurtured. I painted since an early age because we had a lot of art supplies around the house when I was growing up.
Your father is also an artist (Australian artist Reg Mombassa), did he encourage you as a child?
If my dad noticed me pick up his pencils when I was little and do a drawing with them then the next day he’d come back from the art store with a sketchbook for me and a set of my own pencils to try out. He’s always been very generous and encouraging.
Your work fixates on suburban settings and homes of a certain era - what is your fascination with the domestic life and particularly the 1950s - 60s?
My interest in the 1950s/60s aesthetic began when I left art school and I started looking at old postcards and advertisements for houses, motels and pools from that time. I like the quality of the colours of hand tinted linen postcards and later photochrome from that era, they feel out of focus and dusty like chalk pastels (which I also like to use). I also find domestic advertisements during that period intriguing because there is an eerie tension in their perfection. The idealisation of the nuclear family and the perfect household where everyone has the same mass-produced items feels a little sinister. I like that contrast of attractive colour combinations with unsettling undertones.
Are your paintings real places and locations, or fiction?
Sometimes they’re real and sometimes they’re a few houses or landscapes blended together. I’ll look at references for architectural elements but then I like to paint the surrounding landscape either from memory or imagined with unrealistic lighting or shadows so the landscape feels alien.
There is a dream-like quality but also a domestic isolation to your paintings, can you describe what you see when creating them? Is this intentional?
The dreamlike quality is intentional and is a product of me wanting to interpret the world through a whimsical lens. The isolation hasn’t always been a conscious decision but I’ve become aware I’m drawn to that. I think I find it calming to paint unpopulated rooms or landscapes. It gives me room to breathe. I also like the mystery implied in a composition that seems recently abandoned by a human presence.
As we met, you where wrapping up your residency in Paris, after being awarded the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship, can you describe your time working and living in the school?
Working and living at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris was an ideal lifestyle for me. The building was filled with hundreds of studios with artists, musicians, writers, performers, historians from all around the world also doing residencies at the same time. You could walk through the halls and almost every night someone would be having an open studio, you could go in and look at their work or listen to their music. People would sit by the river at night and talk until the early hours and form unexpected projects with each other. It was a transient place, everyone had a limited time there and that made the connections you formed feel more precious. The combination of people when I was there will never exist again but I think there will always be a strong group of open and supportive people staying at the Cité des Arts.
What did you most love about living in Paris during this time?
I loved how Paris felt full of hidden or unexpected architectural spaces. I would walk to the supermarket a different way and end up in the middle of a hedge garden, or walk down a back alley and find a basketball court pushed up against a medieval wall or a hotel with a cannon ball lodged in it from the French Revolution. There was a constant feeling of discovery every time you ventured out.
Did you find new inspiration in such a different suburban environment to Australia?
When I was in the city centre of Paris I found more inspiration in certain interiors or atmospheres of sometimes feeling a little disorientated with time, like you could have been transported to a different era.
Your work’s colour palette is very pastel and nostalgic; are you attracted to colour in the same way with your wardrobe?
I am, my favourite clothes are pieces from the 60s or invoke that era. I often wear bright colours, dusty pastels and abstract prints.
Do you have a daily studio outfit?
I wear a pair of black tracksuit pants that are stiff with oil paint because I wipe my paintbrushes on them to clean them while painting and then usually an old white t-shirt.
How do you approach personal style?
During the day my approach is very relaxed because what I’m wearing will probably get paint on it. When I do go out I’ll enjoy getting to wear something a bit more exciting than my studio clothes. I love shorter dresses with long sleeves and high necks or a detail around the neck. I’m partial to delicate fabrics like lace, chiffon and silk and I also like velvet and brocade. I can be sentimental with clothes so I like to wear a few shirts that belonged to my parents in the 70s/80s.
What are some of your most beloved pieces in your wardrobe?
A black and white skeleton print shirt that my dad wore when he was young. A red chiffon dress from a flea market that’s in great condition because I’ll only wear it once a year or less. It has an attached chiffon scarf around the neck that hangs down its back. And a pair of socks my friend Anita hand stitched a shark design onto.
Which female artists to you most admire?
I admire my aunty Susan O’Doherty who makes paintings, collages and assemblages that deals with issues of domestic violence and gender identity in a way which is both beautiful and confronting. I love Juno Calypso’s work, she creates self-portraits through photography and film while dressed as a fictional character obsessed with the construct of femininity, set in retro interiors and love hotels with a bizarre sci-fi feel. I saw some of Loie Hollowell’s abstract paintings that reference the female body in the female surrealist exhibition ‘Dreamers Awake’ at White Cube Bermondsey and thought they were mesmerising. I’ve always been impressed by Australian artist Clarice Beckett’s ethereal portrayal of light and atmosphere. I just got the chance to see Toyin Ojih Odutola’s pastel, charcoal and pencil works at the Whitney Museum. I think the way she uses pastels and depicts skin and space is incredible.
What role do you feel does art play in society, and why is it so important to nurture?
I think art is important because you have to have an open mind to properly engage with it. It forces people to think and form their own opinion, or at least to wonder why something makes them feel a certain way or why someone chose to create a certain work and that process of questioning is essential to individual and societal growth.
What are you working on at the moment, and where can we next see your work?
While I’m still travelling as part of the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship I’m drawing in my sketchbook and gathering material that I can use for an exhibition at China Heights Gallery in Sydney after I get home. I’m excited to go through the drawings and material I’ve crammed into my suitcase when I get back and make larger paintings based on my studies and what will by then be memories that are starting to get a little foggy around the edges.