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Artist Anna Leary
Wild Tomato Lifestyle Magazine
Cover story by Fiona Cole
"It's not easy for most people to talk about themselves, knowing that what they say is going to be made into a story. In this sense, Anna Leary is just like everybody else. For me it wasn't her status as a successful artist with dozens of gallery exhibitions and requests for commissioned pieces to her name; before this week I had never heard of her. I was a blank canvas, so to speak, awaiting the artist's brush strokes to add colour and form.
Aside from her down-to-earth everybody-elseness, there is something compelling about Anna Leary. Like her art, Anna is a work in mixed media; eclectic, yet balanced, simple and honest, but with depth. With her artwork there is an immediate sense of familiarity mixed in with the intangible.
One doesn't simply gaze upon it; there is a compulsion to interact with it. Much like the slow evolution of a new friendship, the closer you get, the more is revealed. If there is an intended message we need to search for in her art, then it is to enjoy the act of seeking it. The same can be said for Anna Leary the woman. As I leave, it is with the sense of having taken a journey of discovery, one that has given me a flash of gold and added a little more colour to my life too."
A Lighter Shade of Blue
It's not easy for most people to talk about themselves, knowing that what they say is going to be made into a story. In this sense, Anna Leary is just like everybody else. For me it wasn't her status as a successful artist with dozens of gallery exhibitions and requests for commissioned pieces to her name; before this week I had never heard of her. I was a blank canvas, so to speak, awaiting the artist's brush strokes to add colour and form.
Anna Leary works from her home studio in Nelson's Port Hills, with a 180 degree panorama of Tasman Bay laid out before her. We sit in her studio, where sunshine floods through the large windows and glass doors, bathing the walls in natural light, and a soft breeze offers a cool reprieve from the afternoon heat.
"I can't imagine not living by the sea now," she confesses. The ebb and flow of the tide has been a compelling force for many artists and writers. It is no surprise that Anna shares this affinity with the ocean. "I like the fact that things shift," Anna refers to nature the seasons, the light, even time, altering the landscape as we see it.
A row of pod-shaped forms are arranged on the wall in a series of four-petaled flowers, with each pod painted a different shade of smoky blue and bluey-green. Following my gaze, Anna explains the idea behind the piece, "I like the fact that things shift with the light," she says. The piece is a version of several timed works Anna composed using the pods, highlighting "the contrast between our constructed sense of time and the earth's natural rhythms."
Each prefabricated acrylic shape was painted according to the colour of the atmosphere over Tasman Bay, one a day for a lunar cycle. Another work in the series selects a colour every hour for 24 hours. There is an incredible array of different hues, each with its own character. For all these works, each pod is a single moment captured but its placement amongst so many others also shows the moment to be part of something fluid and evolving. Looking at the example before me, I notice that, although the pods are painted to represent a precise colour at a set time, as a finished piece it is still constantly changing throughout the day; it is "something that shifts with the light," as Anna intended. A cloud passes briefly over the sun and, as if to prove her point, I see the pods change again: instead of flowers emerging from their placement, I now see circles. Anna goes on to say how mankind has imposed its own construct of time, and that it is easy to forget that time also exists in nature. Anna has used the pod work to show a meeting of the two combining the man-made measure of an hour with nature's passage of time through the sun and the moon. Time according to man is linear, but for nature it is cyclic and rhythmic; ebb and flow, ebb and flow.
Anna's affinity with the natural world is partly attributed to her rural upbringing. Born in Central Otago, Anna started life on the family sheep and beef station in Lawrence. When she was four they moved to Tasman where her parents took on a hop farm out at Foxhill, south of Richmond on the edge of the Waimea Plains. She and her younger brother spent the better part of their childhoods experiencing the seasonal fluxes of a rural life. As well as being seasonal, farming also has a sense of natural progression, which Anna sees as a stark contrast to the imposed order of urban living.
Her work reflects her rural background, not with pastoral scenes of sheep being mustered or crops harvested at sunrise, but in sky and landforms and the little things in between.
Anna draws me over to a painting on the rear wall of her studio that shows a surreal seascape. There is a pod shape here too, looking like an island in the Marlborough Sounds made symmetrical by its own reflection in the water, but at the same time it could be a leaf floating or a penguin swimming. Below the painting is a workbench with an assortment of jars, painter's rags, used palettes and turpentine. At one end is a small collection of dried leaves and seed pods, all different shapes and sizes; beside this, some unpainted leftover moulded plastic pod shapes. To Anna, the seed pod is an important symbol, which has appeared in much of her work to date. "In its unwoken state it symbolises potential. How it grows as a work and in the eye of the viewer is its transition to realisation."
It took some time for Anna to realise her potential as an artist, but she believes her delay in choosing the artistic path has helped shape her work. "You can't make art in a vacuum," she points out. To Anna, time is the most valuable thing we have, and her experiences have not only shaped who she is, "they inspire my work, my art."
Before deciding to pursue art as her career, Anna took a series of different jobs and courses of study. "I did design work for an apparel company in Christchurch, then studied a management degree at Lincoln, which led to an account management role with Saatchi and Saatchi." Following Saatchi's, Anna ventured overseas and worked and travelled from a London base, broadening her experiences, but not following her heart. "Then one day I was offered a great job in London the kind that represented the holy grail of roles in the industry I was in, and I turned it down. I said 'no, I'm going to art school', and that was it."
That year, a degree programme in fine arts was being piloted at the NMIT in Nelson. "Coming back to where I belonged was more important than going to a prestigious school," Anna confesses. As one of the first batch through the bachelor programme, Anna feels very lucky. "We had an amazing group," she says, recounting a number of examples of when her fellow students have collaborated on exhibitions, and continued to build on the relationship forged during their time together at NMIT. She rifles through a folder and pulls out a gallery brochure. "This was at the Suter Gallery just recently." The show is 'Reasons for Being' organised by Nic Foster. Anna also exhibited at Catchment Gallery with Nic and another art school contemporary, Jane Blackmore. Among the works displayed by Anna was a piece called 'Tell the truth(s)', highlighting the many layers and perspectives there are to seemingly solid forms.
I asked Anna about her main influences, whether she drew upon the works of any particular artists of art styles. This perplexed her initially. "I guess I have a rather broad frame of reference," she ventures. "There is no real standout name or style I could say has a strong influence in my work."
She remembers someone viewing her work exclaiming; 'Oh, that's very Rosalie Gascoigne.' "I just wanted it to be 'very Anna Leary'. My grandmother always said; 'find your own voice, Anna', and that's what I've set out to achieve." In saying that, there are some contemporary artists that Anna is drawn to. She speaks highly of Squeak Carnwath, an American artist and Professor in Residence at Berkeley. Aspects of Squeak's art appeal to Anna, but more along the lines of the 'feeling' of the work rather than the style. "Squeak Carnwath said; 'art is not about facts, but about what it is the 'am-ness of things.' I refer to this statement quite often," says Anna.
We discuss some of the greats like the Dutch Impressionists and a few contemporary artists. Anna mentions Leonardo DaVinci's sketches. "Leonardo's drawings are beautifully rendered," says Anna. She also expresses an admiration for the drawings of Jim Dine; "I especially like his from a series called 'From the Glyptothek'." Anna is known for her sketches as well as her paintings, and is a quick drawer. She has produced 60 second pieces which show a surprising amount of detail for the time spent on them. During her studies, Anna found looking at pictures of great works of art in books uninspiring: "It's hard to really see what is so great about them. There's no power from a tiny image in a book," Anna confesses. However, she has been lucky enough to visit famous art museums in Europe and stand in front of iconic works. "You can feel the making of then in the work when you stand in front of them. I remember when I saw Monet's Waterlilies the sheer scale of them was what made it special to me." Anna also recalls visiting the Museo Picasso in Barcelona: "You wind your way through his life, viewing his works in chronological order. He started in portraits and ended in loose scrawly pen and ink. It's like an undoing."
European art has a long history, unlike New Zealand. "We're young and new and open," Anna affirms. "We don't have the weight of history that maybe artists in other 'older' parts of the world feel."
At high school, Anna's art teacher was Peter Belton. "His lessons sometimes were possibly beyond high school level." Anna remembers how his lessons challenged her.
Anna favours acrylic for her paintings because it is quick, good for layering and ideal for mixed media. She still enjoys life drawing, often showing sketches along with her paintings, and she likes to photograph things that pique her interest. Picking up a paintbrush and absently running her hand across the bristles as she talks, Anna confesses to using whichever brush she feels like rather than the one designed for the paint, and sometimes mixing oils with acrylic; "I choose the media for the project I'm not a purist." Anna is ambidextrous and likes to use both her left and right hands to paint 'for balance' "it aligns you somehow, using left and right."
Much of Anna Leary's work is horizontal, or a series of pieces arranged in a horizontal line. I suggested this was something to do with wide open spaces. Anna readily agreed: "Yes, New Zealand is very open and broad." After some thought she adds, "The way we look is horizontal our gaze is ongoing."
"Art is about seeing, not about talking," announces Anna, standing up and crossing the floor. She pulls a large reference book from the bookshelf in the corner, entitled Historic Charts and Maps of New Zealand by PB Maling, and opens it up to show me something to emphasise what she meant. I find myself looking at an old Maori chart, showing a distorted outline of the South Island. "The means of travel dictates the shape, see. Nelson to Buller has been drawn long because it is a long trip, whereas to cross the Canterbury Plains is short so it's drawn short." Anna has chosen this particular chart to use as a layer in something she is currently working on.
Art is both private and public. Like the creator of the chart, Anna's work is an expression of how she herself feels and responds to things. For Anna, it is about articulating ideas. "Art is very revealing." I agree with Anna that artists put themselves into their work; "It's impossible not to," she admits. "There's a lot of philosophy about the underlying message, but although there are layers of 'Anna' in my art, people will see different things."
I am led to another room in the house to look at an earlier work: "For me, this piece references Tasman Bay, but at a gallery viewing, I heard one person swear it was a bay elsewhere in the South Island, and another say that for him it was Kapiti."
I asked if, when she creates a work, she has a message in mind that she consciously wants to convey. For upcoming shows, Anna will sometimes display a collection of individual works, or she will prepare set pieces around a planned concept. For her most recent solo show 'Anna Leary at Woollaston Estates' she produced six pieces, from a 60 second painting, through to a 28 day work, each linked by the time factor.
Time, the commodity she deems most precious, is a recurring theme in Anna's work. The layering of printed material or sketched in faces coming through the painted background, are there, perhaps, to make us look twice to question what we see. For Anna, the important question is; are we losing touch with the natural rhythm and flow of things? This may be something that matters a lot to Anna, but there is a universal tone in her work, even though it's personal. The sense of losing touch with something or oneself is not unusual. How we express it or recognise it in what we see is individual. The viewer as well as the artist must search their own heart to find meaning in a piece. Anna is once more reminded of the words of her grandmother, who always encouraged an enquiring mind: "What's your reaction?"
"There is a search even in the act of creating a work," says Anna, who admits looking up the word 'work' in the dictionary to feel comfortable with using it for her art. She does so again and reads it out to me: Work /wurk/ n. & v. N. the application of mental or physical effort to a purpose; the use of energy. V. intr (often followed by at, on) do work; be engaged in bodily or mental activity
Work it colloq. Bring it about; achieve a desired result. Work of art a fine picture, poem or building etc
(Paraphrased from the concise Oxford English Dictionary).
Anna knows that working through things is part of the process of creating any artwork. I suggest it is cathartic, and we go back to the dictionary. After reading the exact meaning, she agrees. She talks of a trip with her brother to an old goldmining area on the West Coast, painting the scene for me effortlessly with her words I can see the water flowing over the stony river bed and hear the cchuff cchuffing of the pan as she describes the act of searching for a glint
of yellow amid the browns and greys. "We found some, too," she says. Anna could easily understand the onset of 'gold fever'. "Once I saw that first little bit, I wanted to find more,' she exclaims. It wasn't about the end result, however, as many others who have tried it will attest. "It was the searching itself that made the discovery meaningful." Anna relates the story to 'the search in the act of creating a work'. You are working through things as you go, often coming up with more questions than answers," she explains. I wonder out loud who is asking the questions. "I am." Anna replies.
There is a collection of photographs tacked to the wall by the steps leading up to the living area; pictures of family and friends, and the occasional building or seascape that warranted capturing on film. "That's me and my brother," Anna volunteers, pointing to one with her and a smiling young man leaning on a large piece of driftwood. They are wrapped up in polar-fleeces and windbreakers, a wild sea behind them. "That photo was taken near his place at Okarito, where I spend quite a bit of time. It's awesome there really rugged and right by the sea (of course)."
Anna and her brother are very close. "I'm 'best man' at his wedding this month," Anna tells me. She also has strong bonds with the rest of her family too, which Anna believes were forged at the time her parents split up. Anna was only seven and her brother only five. "A fire forges strong steel that's another of my grandmother's sayings." Anna expresses having a sense of 'between-ness' throughout her life. "My life has never really fitted into any sort of a box," she says, looking more pleased with the notion than sad. I sense some resistance to being categorised in any way. Anna's journey so far has not always been straight and true, but "things have a way of working out" Anna sees herself in a good place right now "In my 30's I've been more comfortable in my own skin" she says. It is something not all of us fully succeed at, but as Anna points out, fetching down a book of verse from another small shelf under a high window this time she draws from the words of Christopher Morley "There is only one success; to be able to spend your own life in your own way."
As for being a successful artist, Anna Leary has certainly achieved this. Her name is well-known not just in Nelson but other parts of New Zealand. Her works have been exhibited in galleries outside of Nelson, including Wellington and Napier, and she has just confirmed representation at Toi O Tahuna in Queenstown. She also receives regular requests for commissioned pieces, from which she chooses carefully ones she feels are right for her style. "Commissions allow me to create works for specific sites, which is really interesting," Anna says.
In her own words, Anna expresses a guarded satisfaction with where she is. "I have this wonderful place to work in, with Tasman Bay right there," we are out on the deck now and Anna is pointing out the boulder Bank and the Glen in the distance. "The sounds of the port down there keep me in touch with the busy-ness of the city."
Anna describes herself as being wealthy in the support and love from her family and friends. Her father is still farming and her mother living in town. She still sees her grandmother regularly; "She's 90 now!" It is her grandmother's support and encouragement that has been conducive to her free-spiritedness, and the self-belief to follow her dreams. "She phoned one day and asked me what I was doing. I told her I was making soup and she said; 'Get that wooden spoon out of your hand and get a paintbrush in it." Anna learned a lot from her grandmother, including how not to be
afraid of trying, and making the most of whatever talents you've got. "It's like Thomas Gray said in Eulogy in a Churchyard, about people dying with their music still in them I don't wish to be one of them."
The modern construct of time has been forgotten as we share a portion of our lives with each other, but the lowering sun cannot be denied its passage. . I have enjoyed wiling away the afternoon in Anna's company. Aside from her down-to-earth everybody-elseness, there is something compelling about Anna Leary. Like her art, Anna is a work in mixed media; eclectic, yet balanced, simple and honest, but with depth. With her artwork there is an immediate sense of familiarity mixed in with the intangible.
One doesn't simply gaze upon it; there is a compulsion to interact with it. Much like the slow evolution of a new friendship, the closer you get, the more is revealed. If there is an intended message we need to search for in her art, then it is to enjoy the act of seeking it. The same can be said for Anna Leary the woman. As I leave, it is with the sense of having taken a journey of discovery, one that has given me a flash of gold and added a little more colour to my life too.