Melanie McCollin-Walker

Treading Lightly

An interview with artist, Melanie McCollin-Walker by Jennine Primmer


Hobart city centre. Morning-tea time and I’m with Southern Wild Co’s Creative Director, Tania Robinson, weaving through the ‘foothills’ of inner city office blocks in search of artist Melanie McCollin-Walker. Up a stairwell to a fairly standard looking office floor, corporate city workers, fluro lighting, and we find Melanie’s studio; a whole half floor on the sky side, large and bright – a New York style space, with wide windows, gorgeous light and McCollin-Walker’s distinctive landscapes at various stages of illumination. Melanie jumps in behind us with the milk she’s dashed out to grab for our tea. She’s just like her studio. Positively light-filled.

JP: Can we start with how you came to be in Hobart? Barbados is obviously a long way from here?

MM: Pretty long story but I met a boy from Tassie at a cricket match in London many years ago. We lived in London for a long time then moved to Melbourne for many years and then we lived in Singapore for 10 years. When my eldest graduated and started university we decided to move back to Australia. I’ve always been inspired by the Tasmanian landscape from the very first time I saw it, and I knew it was a place that I wanted to live eventually. I wanted to be surrounded by this beautiful landscape on a daily basis.

JP: What is it about the Tassie landscape that captures you and do you think, with your fresh eyes, having not grown up in Australia, you see something we don’t quite see?

MM: Yes, I think so. The first thing that struck me when I came here was the freshness of the air and I know every one says that but you know we were living in London at the time and we got off that 24 hour flight and were like “wow the air is so pure!” And the light is spectacular. The scenery is raw and rugged, but there is an immediacy to it because the light is so pure and captivating. It’s almost like you get transported and I love that and it’s a feeling I try to replicate in my work, a feeling of being whisked off from reality. Tassie has that feeling. It’s beautiful and awe inspiring. As a landscape painter, it was definitely the place I wanted to be.

JP: I think that too about the air, especially coming from London to Australia. You notice the sky is bigger, don’t you?

MM: Oh completely! Absolutely. I had that feeling in California too. It’s a similar kind of big sky.

There is almost like a little bit of extra space and I think the knock-on impact is you feel smaller as a human being in these big sky places and so there is a humility to being surrounded by so much natural beauty. You get a sense of what your place is in all of this. It grounds me and I think (that sense of place) gives my work a respectful and hopefully honest viewpoint.

There is almost like a little bit of extra space and I think the knock-on impact is you feel smaller as a human being in these big sky places and so there is a humility to being surrounded by so much natural beauty.

JP: I wanted to ask you about your audience and the psychology behind your work. You said your work reflects your own subconscious but also a desire to challenge the viewer into exploring their own unconscious. When I look at your work, I become immersed in the calming layers but I also feel a little bit lonely as well, and I imagine people see and feel other emotions too. What sorts of things do people say about your work and how do your landscapes make them feel?

MM: I do my best to tell half the story as the artist in the hope that the viewer will fill in the rest. I feel like we are all linked as humans and we all feel similar things so if I can put some of my own psychology into the work, but leave a front and back door open on either side for the viewer, then they can have their own experience within the work.

JP: Yes, yes there is a real narrative there that takes you along for a ride.

MM: I like to think so. Is the storm coming or going? Are the shadows welcoming or frightening … where does the story begin and where does it end?

JP: Yes, and I notice you always have that pathway in your landscapes, to help us through. I think of the journeyman from Siddhartha and Jacobs Ladder....those concepts of self discovery?

MM: Yes, exactly. The works are about the concept of life as a journey even though that’s a little clichéd. I’m nomadic in my soul, a bit of a free spirit. Even when I was growing up in Barbados, my mind always wandered/wondered, a day dreamer and a wanderer. This connects me to myself. It’s the same with the concept of taking the viewer somewhere. I loved Star Trek when I was younger with the ‘beam me up’ idea; press the button and get whisked off! (laughs)

JP: There’s a little bit of a negative connotation around the idea of daydreaming though in our society, isn’t there?

MM: Yes! But I like to wear it as a proud badge.

JP: Yes, daydreaming makes you smarter.

MM: Yes, because sometimes you see the world in different ways when you daydream. You step away and can come back with something alternative to add. My artwork represents a waking dream state, allowing the viewer to be transported – a mysterious window or door waiting to transport you.

JP: I like that. Speaking of dreamlike states, do you have any particular influences? Turner comes to mind, and the Pre-Raphealite landscapes...

MM: I don’t have any direct influences. I try to be as honest as I can be, I step up and don’t know what I’m going to be doing. I ask the blank canvas to be kind to me (laughs). I used to try to force the canvas to my will; force things – but now I’m a bit more humble and I ask it, “you tell me”, so it’s more of a symbiotic, relaxed relationship now, allowing the images come to light in my mind. I love Turner’s work. The first time I saw it was during a major travelling exhibition at the De Young Museum in San Francisco and more recently his full body of work at the Tate. What I learnt was, 1) I’d been doing it wrong this whole time (laughs), and 2), he was a painter but more importantly a crafter of light. He used light to inform how the water and landscape would behave. His landscapes gave me goose bumps. They glow from the inside out. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to achieve anything close to that but I’m giving it a go (laughs).

JP: But also for me, the emotionality of your work is what makes it special, and that’s the main thing I’m moved by.

MM: Yes, I think so. At the end of the day, landscapes exist around us but my job is to make them speak in a different way; to make people connect with them in a new way. I’ve had people tell me that a particular painting reminds them of their childhood home in Spain, or they can see the cliffs of Dover. Again, I’m going back to the theme of coming home and there are a lot of emotions there. I like to speak to people through my painting in an emotive way. For example, this painting (points), I’ve exhibited before because I really thought it was finished, but now I think I can make it speak more, like the story is still evolving – I’m not done with it yet. I’m still working on the ‘it’s got to make you feel something’ part.

JP: Well I think that’s what sets you apart from other landscape painters.

MM: Thank you, I’m not directly trying to emulate what I see, I’m trying to recreate what I feel.

The feeling is in my mind and in my heart and sometimes I have to hold onto that for months to keep the painting honest. I have to keep reconnecting to that original feeling. Sometimes I blink and I lose an entire feeling and I’m like, where did it go? (laughs). And then I have to work my way back to that.

JP: What about the history of Tasmania? Is your work more about you personally, or is there some of that mythscape and layering of place?

MM: Tassie is definitely working its way into my work, so even when I lived in Singapore, I would come here. I have been coming for maybe 20 years. I was just obsessed with everything I saw here. I loved this place, then when my career started taking off (can I say that? It seems a bit egotistical (laughs)…

JP: (Laughs) Yes, you can! You are not emerging, you are mid career.

MM: Well, then when I started building an audience, I started focusing more on the Tasmanian landscape and my key at that time was to be able to introduce a new audience to Tassie.

I was coming here and then going back to Singapore at that time. It was like a diluted thing. I was holding an image in my memory so I always wanted to come back here, to have a studio so that I could refine my practice and really give it a go. Really see what I could do in this place that had captured me. If I could observe the light here every day; how it changes, the way it shifts… this is like a long-term artist’s residency for me.

JP: Do you think you will ever get sick of it?

MM: No. When I first started it was really instinctive and I wasn’t sure where things were coming from and I was just like – ta da! (laughs). This is what I did. But now if you ask me, I can understand where it is coming from. I understand the psychology behind the work.

JP: That was my next question. To me, it’s the emotions you are trying to express that makes the work strong but how much of that is about you? Or is it more of a shared experience?

MM: My painting diary is personal. Very personal. I think every work represents a different side of me. Like my personal inner storm, my personal journey etc. Moving to Australia has been very good but the truth is, it has also been quite isolating. There’s a loneliness to my life here that I didn’t have before. You know –  trying to make new friends, working alone. I’m on my own little journey of solitude and the work is a way to express that and keep me sane.

JP: The work is not sad though.

MM: No, I’m not sad. It’s funny, it’s like I’m at peace with myself. I think I’m starting to learn who I am and I’m okay on my own, enjoying my little journey of discovery and looking for the light. I’m always searching for the light...

Living in Barbados – the landscape there, the colours – are the kind your brain understands. But coming here to Australia, there are like 20,000 types of greens. There are cool greens and warm ones within the same scape. If I told you what it takes to make one green, it’s like 20 colours in one mix and once you’ve made that colour, its really hard to replicate. It makes me admire the Heidelberg School of artists even more. Creating Australian landscapes is extremely difficult – the delicacy and beauty of the natural pallet here is hard to replicate.

Creating Australian landscapes is extremely difficult – the delicacy and beauty of the natural pallet here is hard to replicate.

JP: And there’s a feeling of secrecy isn’t there? I know whenever I go into the Australian bush, I always feel like I shouldn’t really be there. I always ask if it’s okay for me to be here?

MM: Yes! Me too! So true. I think ‘thank you for letting me be here, I’m going to tread lightly, I promise’.

JP: And I get that sense from your paintings too, that you are treading lightly and being respectful.

MM: Always!

See more of Melanie McCollin-Walker’s work @melaniemccollinwalker

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