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Interview: Sheila Brown, Artist

This month, we feature paintings by Sheila Brown that accompany the issue. We sat down to talk with Sheila about her view of the world – which is a very fine view indeed. We hope you enjoy this interview as much as we did!

Gulls
Flash Frontier: Thank you for sharing your work with us this month, Sheila! Let’s begin with your current exhibit: 31 October – 3 November, Art at St Andrews, held at St Andrews College in Christchurch. Tell us about this exhibit, and which of your works are being featured?

Sheila Brown: Art at St Andrews will be held at St Andrews College, CHCH and happy to say that I have participated in this exhibition for many years. It is a great opportunity to give back to the community and in this case the Pipe Band, St Andrews College. Every two years the pipe band competes in the World Championships in Glasgow. All of the money raised goes directly to this exciting trip.

This year I will have three paintings in the Exhibition. All three are quite special in their own way. This show has many strong artists, each with their very own following of investors. The pieces that I did for the show are very dynamic and strong, which I feel they needed to be as to compete. ‘White Fronted Terns’ is a dynamic piece, shades of the Sea and Sky, cool in its temperament; ‘Gliding Heron’ is one of my largest pieces, completely different colour pallet, a much warmer pallet chosen to display the warmth of the wetlands; ‘Through The Birch Trees, Spoonbills’ is a very dramatic piece, completely different from anything that I have done in the past, The love affair with the birch trees began last year with a little miniature, soon to blossom to this much larger piece which it needed to carry the strength of the height of the birch trees. And the change of seasons allowed me to play with the colours that are not characteristic of my work but love to use. And the spoonbills are so majestic!

FF: You do a lot of work in conjunction with the community — can you tell us more about that?

SB: I really enjoy working with the community, mainly school-driven fundraisers. Raising two boys , being very much involved with their schooling, one soon realises that there is always a need for money to be raised and what better way to do so than with an Art Exhibition! It brings the community together and also brings the students and the artists together as most of the exhibitions have the children’s art on display as well. To be able to donate pieces for different charities is always something that I try and do throughout the year as well. Whether it is for mental health, schools, funds to repair buildings or even just maintenance on certain community buildings – it all helps and to be able to be part of that contribution gives me such pleasure and gratification.

Gliding Heron
FF: How did you start painting? Can you share a bit about your upbringing, your education, your move to New Zealand?

SB: I started painting as a very young girl – art was always a part of my life in some form or another. I grew up in the heart of Boston; my parents divorced when I was 10 years old but up until that point, nearly every weekend was spent in the mountains of New Hampshire. We would load up in my father’s Chevy, my sister (8 years older), Mum and Dad, travel nearly three hours to Snowville. My parents were friends with an elderly woman, widowed with no children, who lived there with an enormous farm house. We loved her dearly and she us. Bessie would greet us every Friday night upon our arrival, with tears, and say goodbye to us every Sunday afternoon, with tears. The love of nature grew from this time spent with Bessie and my family in this environment; it has shaped me into who I am today.

Our days were spent with identifying wild flowers, roaming the land, tracking the footprints of bears, picking fresh blueberries, making homemade butter and jams, lemonade on the porch and spotting the bird life! Hours and hours of drawing and painting filled the other hours. To say I adored this time would be an understatement. From my earliest memories – 3 years of age until I was 10 – every weekend was spent there. City life didn’t agree with me; I was more myself in the country. All of my creativity was nurtured there.

With the divorce of my parents, life changed and New Hampshire visits stopped. I still painted and drew but not as much – it was a difficult time. I had an art scholarship to a junior college in Boston once I graduated high school, but I never took that opportunity. We had yearly holidays to Nantucket and Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and I had a chance to work there that summer after graduation; Nantucket became my new New Hampshire, so to speak. The thought of leaving this island and all of its beauty was too much so I stayed there for 10 years, worked mainly as a Landscaper-Designer. In 1994, a romance blossomed and with that a chance to visit new Zealand . It was supposed to be just an adventure. Twenty-five years later, two sons and a career in art – it was definitely a life-changing decision!

While the boys were little, although I loved New Zealand, the homesickness was an ache that never went away. When the boys were at school I started my own landscape design business part-time; Rosa Rugosa was born. This not only gave me the ability to identify all of the native plants and trees, shrubs and flowers, but the bird life too. More so than the landscape, herbs and flowers, it was the bird life that awakened my heart. It was the bird life that lit the fire again to paint and draw! In 2006 I began to paint full-time and have never looked back. I have been so fortunate with a husband that supported my passion and believed in me more than I believed in myself.

Bold and Beautiful Tui
FF: Clearly, the natural environment is what engages you most. Can you talk about your relationship to the natural world — the colours, the movement, the energy that you capture in your work?

SB: I have always lived on the coast of Christchurch; the beach was across the road, separated by the dunes for the early years. So when I started painting again, the seagulls, terns, godwits, etc. were my subject matter and very much reminded me of my years spent on Nantucket. For my first show, given to me by the Little River Gallery in 2007, ‘Chasing the Gull’ featured seabirds as the subject matter – gulls, mainly. I shared this show with an amazing sculptor of New Zealand, Merv Sarson. The seagulls of my work generated such interest that I have yet to stop painting them! They always feature in my work, more times than not in full flight. At the time I was in love with the fable Jonanthan Livingston Seagull written by Richard Bach – a seagull trying to learn about life and flight, success and failure. I wanted to title all of my paintings ‘Jonathan Livingston’ but I titled only one, which sold overnight. I guess I was trying to find myself and resonated with the seagull of his story – and still do in many ways.

FF: Have you always been drawn to the coastline? What is it about that space between land and sea that inspires you so?

SB: I am most comfortable with the land that surrounds me: the estuary, the coast, beaches and bays. In 2014 we moved from the beach to the hills of Christchurch, Mt Pleasant. This move really connected me to the native birds, and all the wee backyard birds – and a new love affair began. From the bellbirds to the fantails, the wax eyes to the kingfishers. Not only did I have all the estuary and sea birds, I now had the native birds in my back yard, literally. So my subject matter shifted a bit from sea birds to native birds, especially the kingfisher. The population of kingfishers in Mt Pleasant is amazing! I have always been captured by their iridescent colours and their watchful eyes. On my morning walk sometimes I would count up to 40 kingfishers, always perched high above on a wire. The solitude of early morning walks would allow me to hear their call or cry. Spotting them became the norm. Feeling their eyes on me for most of my walk gave me a sense of comfort.

Although we don’t have tui around Christchurch, whenever we would travel, especially up north and down south, the tui and all his glory captured my heart as well. I am fascinated with their poies, those two little tufts of curled snow-white feathers. I know they are notoriously boisterous and aggressive, not too kind to other birds, especially during the flowering season, but I still love them, not only for their iridescent sheen and white throat tufts but for their tuneful notes. With some of my portraits of tuis, I try to capture their powerful flight on canvas, but also their sorrowful eyes.

FF: Can you discuss the medium you prefer — acrylic on canvas, mainly? And how the use of materials correlates to your interest in subject matter? How do content and form work together to arrive at the final results?

SB: I am a self-taught artist, finding my technique and style along the way. But finding my subject matter came very naturally to me. I realised early on that I needed to be connected to what I was painting, in an intimate way. That is why I always paint the eye quite early on in my painting – it then gives me a real connection to my subject matter.

I find that acrylics are best suited for my style of painting, which some would describe as a cross-over style: abstract and expressionism. I begin with the pallet knife to create the mood, laying down the foundation of my painting freely and spontaneously with patches of colour that have become very characteristic of my work. I then turn to the delicate bristles of the brush to tell the story, which requires a more disciplined and delicate approach to obtain the intimacy. I am able to achieve the shades and colours quite easily and dramatically, exaggerating certain aspects of the subject.

I try to express movement in most of my paintings, from the waves of the sea to the clouds in the sky to the wing movement across the canvas. I enjoy painting on canvas – something about that material and the pallet knife work really well for me. Things get a bit frantic in the early stages of my paintings. My family knows it is best to leave me alone in those hours! Acrylics dry so quickly that one needs to be quick with the pallet knife so the mood can be quite frantic and chaotic to say the least! I have a certain sense of surprise at the unexpected energy that evolves within me.

Hovering Summer Gulls
FF: You also create notebooks, canvas bags, etc. How did your interest in more practical items evolve?

SB: I have always had a love affair with paper, notebooks, diaries, cards, etc. In the early stages of my career this was a dream of mine – to have a line of stationary, greeting cards and limited-edition prints and diaries. So I started with the limited-edition prints, which were very popular and affordable for someone who may not be able to purchase a painting. The cards came soon after, and now I can say that I actually have a catalogue of my prints, cards and nature books, sold throughout New Zealand. This is an ongoing process, as I add to the catalogue every year with at least ten new images.

I started screen printing last year with the desire to create a canvas tote bag – inspired by my art and driven by the need to change our habits when it comes to how we shop and protect our planet. The ‘Tui Tote’ was born. I soon realised the amount of work that was needed by me to screen print all of my bags myself, and the process to source local, eco-friendly inks was very time consuming – I had to schedule in my painting! So the tea towels and tote bags will be revisited in 2020 with a new design.

FF: Tell us a bit about your work space — your studio, your view of the world, the ambience of your home/ studio (music you listen to while painting, or complete silence? birdsong out the window?)…

SB: My studio is in the bottom level of my home. Our house was formerly named the Tree House, and that it is: five levels of stairs, but one very much feels in the trees and in tune with the birds and the view. My work studio is very small and some people cannot believe how I can paint such large pieces within my space – but it works for me. I usually like to paint in silence in the morning, listening to the wind in the trees, hear the young bell bird try to find his voice… hear the flutter of the fantails, the fat busy bee that navigates his way through my house in search of a window to escape, the distinct call of the kingfisher, the cry of the gulls and the sound of the little black caps (white-fronted terns) as they fly past on their way to the sea. In the afternoon the radio usually comes on; listening to Edith Piaf is a favourite. I do get distracted working from home – one has to be very disciplined, and I have proved to myself that I am this way inclined. I tend to stop working around 3pm. I usually need to put the piece I have been working on away until the next day, when I can see it with fresh eyes.

FF: What is your favourite spot in your home city of Christchurch?

SB: If you asked me where home was before the earthquake in Christchurch in 2010 I would have said Boston, where Mom and Dad are, and my big Italian family of aunties, uncles and cousins. Once the earthquake happened, I wanted to abandon Christchurch, go back home – I was so afraid and unsettled. If it was not for a commission for an American couple that I just organised the afternoon before and received the deposit and then began working on the composition for three magnificent pieces that were being painted for their new home in California – well, I don’t even know If I would still be painting today. Everything after that day changed: I lost my innocence, with many others. Painting seemed so frivolous with everything that was happening here in Christchurch.

I remember receiving an email from the California clients, to ask how I was – their kindness I still think of – and urged me to please paint their pieces, how much joy it would bring them and their family, and how it would bring me strength to get through this difficult time. So I did, and with that I stayed in Christchurch, realised it was my home. I became a citizen and found this affection towards Christchurch that I never knew existed. That I still have today. To see our city being rebuilt, and to be part of it, has been amazing. So many wonderful places in the city now to enjoy and be part of.

FF: Where are you walking today? Can you tell us about what you see, hear, smell — and how it may influence the next paint stroke?

SB: The Dawn Chorus at my house is deafening. Most days I awake to the chorus at 5:30 am. To wake up with a song in your heart is quite special. I usually am out the door by 7 am for my morning walk up the hills, which allows me to see all sorts of birdlife but also the farm land at the top that is riddled with sheep. But at least two times a week I drive down the hill to the beach – Sumner Beach is a favourite place. The light is beautiful and spotting certain shells will create different colour pallets for that day’s work. The colour of the ocean and the sand each morning is always different and a never-ending supply of inspiration for me.

Thank you, Sheila!

You can find Sheila Brown and her work on her website, Facebook and Instagram.

Galleries

  • The Little River Gallery
  • The Magma Gallery
  • Art by the Sea Gallery.

Shows

  • Art at St Andrews Gala Evening 31 October – 3 November, held at St Andrews College CHCH
  • Open Studio Art Exhibition, Three Local Artists by the Sea, 68 Taylor’s Mistake Road, Scarborough Christchurch, featuring work by Sheila Brown, Jo Ogier and Jo Loughnan. Note from Sheila Brown: We will hold a private exhibition at Jo Ogier’s Studio in Scarborough, which she only opens once a year. This year we will hold the exhibition over two days: Saturday the 23rd November and Sunday the 24th November. This exhibition is close to my heart as not only do I get to share it with two of my very good friends , in a studio that has one of the best views in Christchurch, but we are independent from a gallery and have more freedom to arrange our works of art to tell our story in the best way possible.
  • The Summer Show at the Little River Gallery, Banks Peninsula, December 23rd until the end of January 2020 – a relaxed show/joint exhibition with some amazing artists and sculptors, cash and carry, a real feel of summer at this show!
Sheila Brown is an American artist who settled by the sea in Christchurch in 1994. She worked as a landscape designer for the last eighteen years – an experience that stimulates her artistic interests. She is mostly self-taught, usually painting oils and acrylics, though she enjoys watercolours and mixed media as well. She has always lived by the sea, with an intimate connection with nature. Her awards include the Opening Award Prize at City Gallery in the prestigious Invercargill Licensing Trust Award Exhibition in 2005 and first prize at the Otago Art Society, Dunedin, in the Gaye Rowcroft Awards exhibition in June 2009. Her work can be found in Denis Robinson’s book of NZ artists, New Zealand Gallery, published in 2010. You can view her paintings at www.sheilabrown.co.nz.

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