The observer

No flower is safe from the watchful eye of Melbourne-dwelling Kiwi Sam Michelle, and lately the same can be said for landscapes.

New Zealand-born artist Sam Michelle lives an hour outside of Melbourne with her husband Darren, their two children and a dog. She works full-time from home, painting lush still lifes, typically with a floral element. After a recent solo inspiration trip to Christchurch, she’s been painting landscapes too.

So, Sam, how did you come to your art practice? Both sides of my family are arty, so creativity was always encouraged. I fell in love with oil painting in high school and it quickly became quite precious to me, but after school I made the decision to keep it as a hobby and an outlet rather than study it.
In 2001, Darren and I moved to Melbourne where I joined a local art class, and my practice kept growing. In 2014, I took a career break from a 13-year stint in banking and finance, and five years later, I’m still a full-time artist. I couldn’t imagine — and would dread — anything else. Leaving the comfort of a fortnightly pay cheque was such a risk, and I knew it wouldn’t be easy and that I’d need to be brave, keep learning and always have goals, but I’m so thankful I did it.

SHADES OF HOME The works pictured in this story are part of Sam’s The Long White Cloud collection, which will be released through an online exhibition by her Melbourne gallery Gallerysmith on July 30.

Tell us about your recent segue into landscapes. Although still life will always be my passion, I’ve been keenly practising landscapes and interpreting the way I see them onto canvas. I wanted to spend some time in New Zealand because I know how special and diverse our landscape is, and picked Christchurch because I wanted to help celebrate and share the positives of this beautiful city.
I did a few days of en plein air [outdoor] painting, then spent the rest of the time absorbing as much as I could. After five days on my own, totally immersed, I came home and printed out all my photos and used them along with sketches to plan each painting. There will be 20 artworks in this series, which is titled The Long White Cloud, and the entire collection will have been three months in the making.

ALL IN THE DETAIL Before Sam left for New Zealand, she purchased new greens to branch out from her usual trusted selection with and worked on studies of landscapes near her home in Melbourne, so she could focus on composition and content when she arrived.

How did you translate your inspiration into artwork? During my travels around Christchurch, Akaroa and beyond, I started seeing the sculptural personality of the hills and trees, so I brought that into the work. For example, I transferred a beautiful hill I saw with a mohawk of trees running down the middle into a little sculpture within a still life, and used patchwork paddocks on vases. Within the vessels, textiles and flora, I have a nod to all things New Zealand, such as mānuka honey, the All Blacks, the stars on our flag, the beautiful trees in the Christchurch Botanic Garden, olives branches to represent our peaceful nation, and the flowers that always remind me of my motherland, hydrangeas.

What’s your process and what medium do you like to work in? I work wet on wet, so I need to work on one painting at a time. Oil paint is my favourite. I love its versatility, the ability it gives me to thin out my dark colours and thicken up my lighter ones, and that I’m able to speed up the drying time or keep it slow. 

Where do you work? In the past I’ve worked on the kitchen bench, in a lounge room studio and in a shared studio with other artists, but now I have a beautiful home studio that ticks all the boxes. It’s just off our kitchen and has a lovely undercover deck that links it to the house, so I feel very connected to home life. It also has a fabulous sliding door that opens an entire wall to let in great light, and wooden shelves to house everything I’ve collected to inspire me: ceramics, vases, textiles and books.

What does an average day in the studio look like for you? I walk into my studio with my coffee at about 8.30am, slide open the big roller wall, turn on my music and get cracking, painting until four or five o’clock when Darren brings the boys home. When I’m nearing the end of my collection preparations, I head back into the studio after dinner. I love the freedom of being able to change my routine — irregular makes it more interesting for me. 

Are there any everyday rituals you enjoy to get you in the mood? I find I’m always in the zone for creating — I could paint all day, all night, every day. I tend to need more rituals to force myself not to head into the studio! Having kids and housework definitely helps.

What tools would you not be without? Instagram for inspiration and connection, Spotify for podcasts and motivating music, and Darren, who’s a constant reminder to have fun and not sweat the small stuff.;

Interview Alice Lines
Photography Caitlin Mills

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