Words: Kim Newth
Images: Kim Newth & Supplied
Bold shapes and radiant colours evoked by land, water and nature flow with practised ease from the brushes of North Canterbury artist Clare Wilcox.
GROWING UP ON A Southland farm, Clare Wilcox learned a reverence and a respect for nature that has been given expression through her life as an artist.
Clare often looks to the environment for inspiration. The changing rural landscape is a compelling subject for her. In her studio, pivot irrigators that “crawl like caterpillars” around once angular paddocks are transmuted into geometries of vibrant patchwork circles and rectangles. Sinuous waves of colour and textured dots symbolise waterways, flowing in an altered world. Canterbury’s earthquakes too are echoed in her Movement in Our Land series, in which there is an optimistic sense of forward movement in the face of unstoppable upheaval.
A kind of surreal bird’s-eye perspective permeates much of Clare’s work. Her husband, Jules Forde, is a pilot and she has often flown with him over Central Otago, Southland and Canterbury, savouring the shapes, textures and colours below for later reinvention. Her paintings are not traditional-style landscapes attempting a kind of photographic realism. These are reinterpretations of the land, coloured and organised in new ways. Colour goes beyond merely pretty in Clare’s series, such as Conversation with the Land or Flowing Water. “Colour evokes emotion and memory … Using the yin and yang of complementary colours, I can create an energy and conflict in the painting, making the experience more interesting and exciting.”
In 2009, she travelled to India and Vanuatu for six months with Jules and their two daughters, (Nohah and Sidney, then aged 13 and 8 years). Clare says the experience had a profound effect on her art, in terms of giving her the courage to use more colour and texture. It also culminated in a series of paintings entitled Wheels of Motion in Colour.
Butterflies and dragonflies have captured her imagination too, their forms appearing bright and dream-like in the series Fly With Me.
Acrylic paints are favoured because they enable her to work quickly. “If it’s not right, I can paint over it and start again – it’s a very forgiving medium to use.” For some of her softer work, she also washes out the paint to create effects similar to watercolour. Clare’s paintings have a glaze-like finish, created using a resin. It adds both depth and intensity to the finished art, as well as protecting the paint itself. (As Clare says though, care must be taken not to let dust or bugs settle on the resin as it is setting!)
A rural childhood laid the groundwork for Clare’s future career. She and three sisters shared a natural curiosity and creativity that stemmed from the farming lifestyle. They all sewed and made their own clothes and often helped out around the farm. “We were always making things,” recalls Clare. Later, her art teacher at Southland Girls’ High School encouraged her to consider a career in art and design.
Rather than going to art school though, Clare initially worked as a design room apprentice for Invercargill firm Knight Tailors and then moved to a design position in Christchurch. She specialised in hand-stitched wedding gowns and bridesmaids’ dresses for a time and still enjoys handcrafting outfits for herself and her circle of friends and family. Hobbies include cross stich and quilting which she continues to dabble in from time to time.
After travelling overseas, Clare returned to New Zealand in the late 1980s and this was when she returned to her first love of painting. She started life drawing classes in Queenstown, setting herself the ambitious goal of completing a nude for each of her family members. “It enabled me to push out of my comfort zone and build my confidence.”
Clare, who now lives with her family in Rangiora, has established strong associations with local art galleries over the years including Majuba Gallery (Hanmer Springs) and Bryce Gallery (Riccarton, Christchurch). As well, she often receives private commissions and enjoys getting to know people who have sought out her work. Some have kept in touch over the years. One couple from Norway who commissioned a painting from her five years ago, for example, send regular emails and recently asked her to do a piece as a wedding gift for a family member.
Some clients want to know the stories behind the paintings; others are happy to make their own interpretations of what they see.
Preparing for exhibitions also keeps her busy. Last year she spent five months completing some 20 paintings for an exhibition called Spring Equinox at Waipara Springs Winery & Café, (24 September to 26 October 2014). “I had a good international response from that – I’ve had emails from Italy and France from people who saw it. That was lovely. It was great to have such a broad range of people there.” Later this year she is looking forward to being part of an exhibition at Bryce Gallery.
This year’s number one goal is to have her work accepted into an established North Island gallery.
Clare generally spends a day a week at galleries or meeting clients, with three days or nights devoted to painting in her home studio. “Starting with a blank canvas I dive in with texture, working on a tactile surface. When this is ready for colour, I use brushes, cloth, rags and fingers. I rub paint off leaving echoes and stains of colour; then I apply more, layering the paint and textural elements. I’m looking for energy that the painting gives me – it has to ‘sing’ to me.”
Painting is juggled around family responsibilities and part-time work as a receptionist at Rangiora law firm Williams McKenzie. “When I’ve got inspiration I’d work all night if I could, but with family there are other demands; I have to be quite disciplined.”
At the time of this interview, Clare had three different paintings on the go, all different size canvases and varying subjects. Textures are moulded onto the canvas using various concoctions she has evolved over time. There is an aboriginal influence in the dots and textural forms used for symbolising water and river beds. Photos and notes taken at various times help to support the creative process. Often it will be a memory or a particular colour that sparks an idea. Clare lets her feelings and her sense of composition guide her as each piece develops. Big canvases are her passion but she also works on smaller-scale pieces that fit more easily into modern homes and offices. “I still get a buzz when I sell a piece as it means I can keep painting my next one!” Of course, she doesn’t want to be defined by how many paintings she sells; she hopes to continue to paint what she wants to – it has to come from the heart.
Her work continues to evolve. Ideas will sometimes germinate over many months before eventually finding their way out. Sometimes they turn out quite differently to what Clare had originally visualised.
“Whatever I do, it has to include texture and colour. Sometimes I find it hard to find the right words. I let colour be my voice.”