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On ‘Becoming a clown’

Rowdy giving a high five

Becoming a full time, self-employed artist, is similar to becoming a clown: you have to learn the basics of juggling. It’s at the core of everything. Juggling time management, budgets, goals, personal health and wellbeing, family time and reinforcing core values… and on it goes!

This isn’t the beginning of a rant; I just thought it was a pretty funny analogy. Most of the time, I can’t believe that I get to do what I’m doing. Even deadlines aren’t scary, because I love the chance to make myself create. I have learned that if I’m not ‘feeling the magic’, or a certain amount of ‘challenge’, my time is wasted because the painting turns out badly. Instead, I constantly focus on inspiration — which, fortunately for me, has only ever expanded rather than contracted over the years. Spending all day, everyday, in the studio is also just a simple pleasure: I just love the space (when it’s tidy). I’m fortunate, in that I get to spend a large quantity of time in the studio, and although my output makes it look as if I paint quickly, I challenge anyone to continuously paint for 10 hours a day, 5 days a week, and see how much you produce. I don’t paint quickly; I just spend long hours doing it!

This whole year has been dominated by my exhibition ‘Country of Brawn and Beauty’ in Surat (Queensland), which ran in conjunction with the Cobb and Co Festival. I spent a whole week planning and packing my little red retro caravan and the ‘hulk’ ute; kissed my family good bye and very cautiously drove the 1310km, enjoying a couple of audio books and seeing our outback along the way. Unfortunately, the countryside was dominated by the driest views I’ve experienced in all the 20+ years I’ve been travelling through NSW and Queensland. This experience only adds to the passion that I infuse in each of my paintings. I don’t think viewers should have to read 1000 words to understand the meaning of joy and strength I wish to share with people: You either see it and get it, or move on.

Kathy Ellem artist caravan
About to set off for Surat, QLD, and leave cold North East Victoria behind.

Getting close to Surat, I was fortunate enough to catchup with a friend in the middle of nowhere. She was waiting on the side of the road to pick up her daughter from the school bus. It was 50km out of town. We hadn’t seen each other for years, but it felt like yesterday. It was a great omen for what was to come.

Many people thought that perhaps there was the element of ‘crazy’ in me doing not one, but two, five day workshops for the first time, on top of holding an exhibition and attending the Cobb and Co Festival. In truth, I did get tired, but I also had the opportunity not only to teach the people attending the workshops, but also to connect with them and create friendships; as well as watch them making friends among themselves. The workshop participants offered me so much support in terms of helping with the exhibition and its opening; and also in terms of helping each other in their learning adventure. Personally, I always preferred to attend extended workshops, as I was sure that I learned more. Now, from a teaching point of view, using a longer five day format, I got to experience a more relaxed approach in which I had the opportunity to repeat the key points over and over. The longer time-format was incredible: after the second day, everyone was simply overwhelmed — which is usually where I leave people at the end of my two day workshops. But with the extended five day format, ‘day three’ became a day of revision, as were the following days. And this is when I saw so many participants have ‘ah-ha’ moments as they really started to understand exactly what I was talking about. This was really rewarding.

The Cobb and Co Festival was exceptional and amazing. I can’t express how impressed I was with the small communities who got together, mostly as volunteers, and steered this massive event. The Festival had something for everyone. I was also profoundly touched by the professionals who provided the entertainment. The Cobb and Co coach team worked like a well-oiled machine; I split my sides laughing at the Crack Up Sisters; and I hung out with Phillip with his bullocks and Kate with her Clydesdales. The underlying feeling I got from the whole experience was that these people love and are driven by what they do so much, that they have just found a way to make it a part of their everyday lives. For instance, there are so few active bullock teams in Australia that it would be very easy to just let it slide into the past. But Phil loves it, and his team, so much, he has built his business around it. I think this is what the most passionate people do — and they make it look easy, because hard work is fun when you love what you’re doing.

The Crack Up Sisters, with their element of split personalities, also showed an intense passion for sharing Aussie fair dinkum humor and traditional whip-cracking and acrobatics, and keeping this alive in the outback. They also had a profound impact on me, which has inspired thoughts of me branching-out into portraiture: I’m not interested in painting people sitting quietly, I want to catch them doing their thing, and seeing if I can express some element of what is behind their drive to succeed.

I also had the opportunity to catch up with so many of the locals and share stories from our family’s time in Surat; and I was very pleased to spend the day at the local school teaching art, but equally, a little disturbed at seeing kids three years older than when I’d seen them last! (Some had been only toddlers, and now suddenly, they were cute little preppies.)

I came home exhausted but feeling renewed. It was heart-warming to know that time and distance can separate people, but where the friendship was true, none of that mattered. It has taken me two weeks since coming home to process and absorb the whole experience. The trip has also inspired a series of landscapes in green, which as many of you will know, is not my favourite colour — but after seeing so much country in drought, I came to appreciate the abundance we have here in north east Victoria at the moment, which I think people will feel when they see the work.

So where to from here? I could easily slip into mechanically producing work simply because I need more to fill wall-space in the gallery, but I needed to remind myself that I need more than that. When I create, I want the challenge, the next ‘impossible thing’: This might be taking on the ‘Everest’ of all painting — portraiture — which I have admired from afar for so long but had firmly placed in the ‘too hard basket’ because people insist that you have to paint from life. Or it might be setting other goals — ridiculous things that can’t possibly happen right now, but which, if I put them ‘out there,’ I might just draw towards me: Goals like owning a fully restored vintage car/ute to go with my caravan; or travelling around the world documenting and painting other cultures that are using animals in their everyday lives, for example to Sumi reindeer people, or the shrimp fishers who use draught horses in Belgium. (There are so many rare breeds of farm/draught animals that are on the edge of extinction, and I’d like to capture them before they all disappear.)

What’s your next impossible dream? I dare you to write it down and review it in 5 years. I reflect that teaching and exhibiting across Australia was on my ‘impossible list’ from the very first workshop I attended with Bill Sass, many years ago now.

Thank you for staying with me to the end of this blog post: I truly see collectors, students and those who just love art, as a part of my creative family, so thank-you for sharing my art with me, and I look forward to seeing you at Kathy Ellem Fine Art gallery, to see my 'latest and greatest' in the flesh.

PS: If you’re interested in seeing a few more of the images from my exhibition at Surat, check out my Instagram: kathyellem or facebook: Kathy Ellem Artist and scroll back to early September.

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