For this exercise the course requires a visit to an artist’s studio, looking for two things – information about the technical means of professional practice, and a sense of the artist’s source of inspiration. I visited Peter Griffen and Denise Lithgow in their shared studio / home space. Denise and Peter were very generous with their time and it was very interesting as we sat together to hear them talk about each other’s work as well as their own and to see how they each learn from, support and challenge the other.
I’ve visited and written about their space in the past when I did a weekend workshop with Peter (see 2-March-2012). From my post then:
It’s an amazing, exciting, inspiring, overwhelming place. Formerly a factory, Peter and Denise gutted the building and it’s basically one huge room with a mezzanine and some closed areas at each end (bathrooms, storage, their bedroom). This photo was taken from the back mezzanine. The kitchen area is down to the right, left you can just see a corner of the lounge area, but not the dining table which is closer on the left. Middle right is a display area for Denise’s work and the front mezzanine is her studio – but the main space is Peter’s studio and workshop area.
Peter’s studio is large and airy and well lit with a series of sky lights supplemented by banks of florescent lights. The large open space and long high walls allow him to keep many works on view at one time and he is constantly moving things around as work progresses. There is also plenty of space for multiple tables for workshop students.
Peter has traveled extensively in Australia and he sketches and paints en plein air. This work is one of a series from a 2013 trip to the Flinders Ranges in South Australia (more of the series can be seen on his facebook page Peter Griffen Art – click here). He also takes reference photographs which he may or may not refer to as a source for particular details or ideas, but isn’t interested in working directly from a photo. In fact he likes to continue working on the paintings away from the source, back at his studio. There he can only look at the painting, concentrating on making it better – as a painting, not a copy of something seen.
The combination of studio and home supports Peter’s working methods. Works may begin on a location with the source before him or in the studio in a chaos of poured, painted and scrapped paint. Many then undergo a long period of development including extensive editing and blocking out as areas of interest are identified, and the application of multiple layers of glaze. In this example the work was at one stage red and busy, then blocked out to reveal a classic Australian narrative of the bushranger. The many glazes have created a luminous, rather eerie, pearlescent surface.
This process of editing, discovery, analysis, development and transformation can take years in some cases. Living constantly surrounded by his work Peter is able to consider the possibilities, to make a change or apply a glaze, then work on other paintings while he ponders his next move. He may find a mark or a rhythm which he hangs on to, develops, which drives the whole composition. However he is also willing to let it go if it becomes a negative, limiting his freedom.
Probably the majority of Peter’s work is in acrylic paint on canvas or paper, but he also uses oils, charcoal, gouache… He may collage paper previously painted or incorporate found objects – paintbrushes, chop sticks, gourds, whatever meets his current purpose.
Most often Peter uses a brush with his canvas on the floor or an easel, but he’s always open to other opportunities. An episode of Landline shows Peter pouring paint, dragging it across the canvas with a board, using a palette knife or his hands, even stamping a canvas into a sand dune near Birdsville.
Much of Peter’s inspiration comes from the Australian landscape and it can be an underlying source in abstract works. The Australian sun – light and heat – pulses from some paintings, the strong colours vibrating. These aren’t the literal colours of the Australian landscape, but an emotional reaction to it. They are theatrical, exaggerating the truth, but being based in truth are accepted by the viewer as “right”. Peter sometimes works from memory and emotion rather than a specific landscape. When travelling overseas it can take a few days of frustration before Peter gets the colour “right”. Similarly studio work needs to be completed soon after his return, before re-acclimation.
Peter’s is an intuitive approach, where a shape can be a cliff or sounds or a bird, or just a shape. I’ve focused on the landscape and abstract in Peter’s work, but his oeuvre includes figure and still life works.
Peter’s knowledge of art history allows him to reference many other artists in his paintings or in his thinking and writing about his work. Links can be made to Australian artists including Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Guy Warren and Rosalie Gascoigne as well as artists from elsewhere such as Jean Dubuffet, Anselm Kiefer, Paul Klee and Henri Matisse.
Denise has a dedicated studio in the front mezzanine area of the building. It includes a very large work table, dedicated space for the sewing machine, shelves and plastic storage tubs full of fibres and fabrics, a couch, mannequin form, areas to hang works in progress, and hanging on a wall are textile pieces created by family members. Denise uses the main floor area when working on large felt pieces. Also downstairs is her rocket steamer, critical equipment for her silk painting.
The combination of home and studio allows Denise to maximise her creative time while continuing to work four days a week in a busy busy and demanding role in a hospital. She will often come home from the day job and work until the early hours of the morning in her studio.
Denise uses a variety of textile techniques in her work. The work shown to the right is from her painting gallery, a collage incorporating fabrics, threads and free machine embroidery. To my eyes the colours and shapes clearly reference Australian landscape and flora, but I am less sure of the title “Distant Hills” given on her website.
The second photograph shows a vessel created in felt. Denise is currently working on a series of large vessels to be included in her upcoming solo exhibition at the Muswellbrook Regional Arts Centre. For any reader coming from an art history rather than a textile background I should explain that to create these vessels Denise uses drifts of wool fibres (and possibly other inclusions), laid out in careful order and then manipulated by hand using soap and water to create a thick felted mat shaped in the desired form. Shrinkage during this process can be extreme, hence the need for additional studio space.
A wide range of materials can be found in Denise’s work. The dress on the right includes recycled tyvek packaging taken from surgical equipment. The main technique used here is knitting, which has been combined with other processes to achieve the desired result.
Denise is inspired by the Australian landscape, most evidently in her paintings. She uses a travel sketchbook to capture colours as much as sketches. Denise showed me a commissioned wall piece in its final stages – based on the view towards the sea from the client’s home, but not trying to be a literal representation. It is an emotional response to the inspiration – “how could I translate that…?” She generally works quickly and intensely, with a clear image in her mind of the outcome, always pushing herself further.
When describing her work Denise avoids the well-worn art / craft debate. She wants to be part of the general scene, not in any way limited. For her textiles are part of art mainstream. She creates paintings and vessels. She enters the same shows and prizes as Peter, and is enjoying growing success.
While each artist maintains a healthy, active, independent artistic practice, as a team they become truly formidable. The combination of a shared studio and home allows them to support, encourage and critique each other.
They bounce off each other, sharing ideas and techniques but each in a way that suits their individual work. For example both take photographs of work in progress as well as when completed. Denise may use progress photos in an article, while Peter may want to re-install a shape previously blocked out, adding to the layers and embedded richness. In our conversation Denise grabbed that idea to explain her layering of stitch. She has learnt from Peter to keep going, to work through challenges and get a result.
In such an open, shared space it is also important that each respects when the other needs space and quiet to work in their own way. For example Denise becomes absorbed when laying out fibre for felt. She needs to be at peace and can’t talk.
Both artists are committed to creating opportunities for themselves and each other. Peter has written and published a book on his work. They open their studio / home to visitors – there’s an open day coming up on 8th/9th March (see http://www.leichhardt.nsw.gov.au/Community/Arts-and-Culture/Current-Arts-and-Culture-Projects/LOST for details). They go to opening nights both to see and to network. It’s easy to get so focused on practice that one forgets the need to market and sell to maintain that practice. Working together Denise and Peter multiply the impact of their efforts. I really appreciate the time and support they have given me for this exercise.
All photographs (other than my snaps of the artists and the lower studio) are copyright of the artists and used with their kind permission.
ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) (2009) “Desert Dauber” On Landline [online] Available from http://www.abc.net.au/landline/content/2008/s2670983.htm (Accessed 21-Feb-2014)
Denise’s website: www.deniselithgow.com/
Griffen, P. (2011) in and out of abstraction Sydney: la Fabrique.
Peter’s website: www.petergriffen.com/
Peter on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/griffenart
UA1-WA:P3-p4-Exercise: Visit an artist’s studio
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project four: Still life after 1900
Exercise: Visit an artist’s studio