March 3 - 9, 2013: Issue 100
“It’s never too late to follow your dream. Take that leap of faith! Live your life’s purpose and become the person you were meant to be. Remember, a dream is just a dream until you take action.”
It came completely out of the blue, like a lightning bolt. One minute I was sitting there at work frantically trying to get something completed before rushing to collect my daughter, the next I was sitting, staring at the drab, grey office walls. It was my ritual for two years: racing to finish my work, cutting through peak hour traffic madness to pick up my 4-year-old before day care closed, cooking dinner, bath time, bed time, collapsing on the couch and doing it all over again the next day.
Looking around the tiny office I was in, boxed-in in a sterile environment, I felt suddenly claustrophobic. Knowing I had to make a move now. Now or never! Something shifted in me and instead of fighting or ignoring it, I moved with it. It was calling me. I walked outside and phoned my husband, telling him I can’t do this anymore, I have to create. Thankfully he agreed and said: “Then I guess you’ll have to leave.”
I immediately walked back into the office, resigned and never looked back!
At this time I was just the other side of 40 and hadn’t picked up a pencil for years. My Dad had just died unexpectedly in a car accident and the shock of his loss and realisation of our mortality jolted me. I started really living and resolved to find the long lost artist within. Off I went to the nearest art supplier and bought paper and pencils. It was time to face the fear of the blank white page. I made a mark and then another one. Slowly, carefully and patiently I rendered an old man’s face in pencil. (I thought it best to start on something simple). To my surprise I could still do it, after all this time. I could still draw. Ok, I was a bit rusty, but it was something to build on.
Gradually, it started to come back to me as I recalled how much I loved drawing faces. So I enrolled in Julian Ashton’s Life Drawing class. I’d never done anything like this before and discovered I loved it. I had found my bliss and quickly fell back into my creative zone. As with anyone else who follows their true purpose, life just seemed to align and flow.
I had never attempted a painting with oils before (apart from the paint-by-numbers Mum used to get me as a kid) and decided to attempt my first oil portrait of my daughter. The painting was titled ‘Good Morning Tiger’. I’d just finished when a couple of ladies knocked at the door on their religious rounds. One of the ladies looking at the oil-smeared paint brush in my hands asked, “Do you paint?” I replied I was trying to and turned the painting of my daughter around for them to view. One of the ladies gasped and suggested I enter it into the Shirley Hannan portrait awards. I asked her if she was serious and she said yes. She told me the entry deadline was in a week.
I’d never entered anything before so figured, what’s there to lose? A few days later I got a call to say I’d made the finals. You could have knocked me over with a feather. I was stunned. The whole family made the exciting trip to Bega for the exhibition of the finalists and there was my painting, larger than life, hanging alongside some of the very talented Australian artists I’d admired.
My confidence grew immensely and I studied ferociously about art, artists and techniques I liked. Obsessively, I practiced by day and read at night. I started taking on portrait commissions and was accepted into Portrait Artists Australia and eventually onto the committee. I was then accepted into more awards as a finalist. Every little step was new, fueled with passion and fear, but I kept pushing past the fear because of my passion for what I was doing.
New creative ideas were coming thick and fast for paintings and projects I wanted to bring to life. I also always wanted to write books. I had huge admiration for unsung heroes and extraordinary individuals who were trying to bring about positive change in the world and felt that we all needed to hear more of these people than ever before. The daily news was so depressing, negative, doom and gloom. Always focusing on violence, horror, sadness and criticism. I decided to combine my love for portraits with the celebration of real characters in our communities, telling their stories for others to gain inspiration. The end result was the Face of Extraordinary project.
For two years I went on an incredible journey meeting one amazing person after another. There were so many I wanted to include and each person made my life richer. I learned so much from them.
The wealth of experience I’ve gained over the last few years, creating the portraits, exhibiting, interviewing, writing stories, designing books, publishing and public speaking has enabled me to move into yet another new role: teaching portraiture. I discovered I love that too.
I’ve started working on a new project now which is probably even more soulful and at times gut-wrenching, so I’ll need all the creative energy I can muster to see this one through. Watch this space!
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in New Zealand and bought up on a dairy farm on the North Island near a small town called Matamata. It’s an area known for its farming, horse racing and lately for the filming of the Hobbit. Dad was a farmer and I was the eldest of three girls. I was daydreamy and creative, not at all cut out for hard-working farm life, although I dearly loved the vast open spaces, old barns, bush, creeks and critters. It was an explorers dream and you could let the imagination run wild.
We did calf club at school and had to rear and look after a calf or lamb for a season. Come show day my sister and I would get thrown into the calf tray on the back of the tractor and putter on into town with our calves. I was so excited when my calf won a ribbon one year and then horrified when she ate the ribbon on the journey home.
As kids we used to spend holidays at our grandparents farm. They lived in an old house right next to the Manawatu River. The cows used to cross the river to get to their paddock and one day a huge flash flood came roaring down the river and washed half of them away. It was crazy and wild in the middle of nowhere. The toilet was a long drop down a path some distance from the house. My dad’s brothers were hunters and my sister and I used to sleep underneath huge tusked boar and stag head trophies that decorated the walls and skins over the floors. I would gaze at them for hours and wonder about the life these beautiful creatures once had.
I loved my grandmother but she had a really tough life. I used to watch her pluck pheasants and skin rabbits. At dinner we’d have to spit the gun pellets out on the side of the plate and try not to break our teeth. We really got to experience the rawness and reality of life. I still have fond memories of haymaking time and swimming in streams and finding eels, driving tractors and riding motorbikes, growing our own vegies, climbing fruit trees and gorging ourselves on wild blackberries.
New Zealand is a huge part of who I am. I’m heading back there in April to help revamp a mural I painted 30 years ago (which amazingly is still there but in need of a serious facelift) at the front of Firth Primary School in my home town. They’re celebrating the school’s 50th anniversary this year with a reunion.
What is one seminal moment from your growing years you often recall?
When I was about 10 years old I had a brilliant male teacher who encouraged my talent for drawing, music and poetry. I really blossomed under his guidance. We all breathed a huge sigh of relief that year when he told my parents not to worry about things I struggled with and just focus on what I could do well. He was the most amazing teacher I ever had and I never had another like him. Many years later I tracked him down and thanked him for making such a positive difference in children’s lives, especially mine.
Years later I met an older woman who passed through my life very briefly. She said to me: “You are so selfish being gifted with all this talent and not sharing it with the rest of us”. It suddenly dawned on me it was easier to accept that artistic talent didn’t belong to me, it come from somewhere else. It was a responsibility to nurture this creative gift, help it flourish and get it out there just as other artists do with their writing, music, filmmaking etc. We’re just the messengers or conduits It’s funny how one little statement can alter your perspective on how you look at life.
When did you first notice you had a creative streak in you?
When I was younger I thought it was normal for everyone to be artistic. When I first started school I painted my fire engine green and had the ruler wrapped around my legs by the teacher for producing a green fire engine. I was mortified and hated school from that moment on. I wasn’t brought up in an artistic family so never knew any artists until later in life. I guess I probably noticed when I was about 10 years old. I was always drawing or singing and I loved to write poetry and songs. I guess I realized because my teacher told me I had talent and I decided I wanted to be a cartoonist and draw for Walt Disney. I told the boys next door I was going to be an artist and they told me artists were weird, kooky people, so I tried not to bring too much attention to my artistic side for fear of not fitting in. Now I embrace the crazy, weird kookyness in me!
What was your first creation?
I remember being 3 or 4 years old and drawing a frog that actually looked like a real frog. Mum kept asking me: “Did you really draw this?” I was pretty chuffed with it and put it in the bath with me but it went all soggy and fell to bits.
You have been very active in Pittwater Community Arts as well, pulling together and overseeing the great Pittwater ArtFest 2012: what was the attraction to this project in particular?
The year 2012 was a crazy year for me and I learned my limitations. It almost burnt me out. It’s not in my personality to take on a role of this kind as I’m fairly introverted and like flying solo. I was stepping well beyond my comfort zone and that just seemed to cross over into the Face of Extraordinary project.
I’d been working on and off on the project for a while, which I self-funded (the whole grant process didn’t seem to be written in artist language or not one I could interpret so I didn’t pursue outside funding). I also had a lot of other commitments and was trying to make ends meet financially and fund the project I believed in. I had just interviewed this wonderful lady, Meredith Rasdall, who had started Artfest and was passionate about helping creative youth. At the time they were looking for someone to oversee Artfest for 2012 and I also believed in giving creative kids an opportunity to shine knowing my own struggles in earlier years. So in my usual fashion, I put my hand up thinking how hard can one little art festival be? Now I’ve come out the other side all I can say is I’m extremely grateful to these three amazing women: Karen Hick, Michele Watts and Michelle Cruickshank, who volunteered and stood by me to see Artfest through. They were incredible and our Pittwater community is so lucky to have them. It’s really because of them that Artfest was such a success and I really got to experience firsthand working with volunteers and understanding how much harder they work, how giving and dedicated they truly are to our community. This gave me the fuel to fire the final writing phase of the Face of Extraordinary: Volunteers project.
Your main subject matter is Portraits; why do you prefer capturing the essence of people?
Faces fascinate me. Especially the character and soul behind a face. It is the character I like to try and interpret. If a face is well lived-in, it is more beautiful to me. There are billions of people all over the planet, all roughly the same size and shape, but each face is so different, carved and sculpted by culture and experience. I marvel at the way our faces form to look much like our geographical landscape. The first thing a newborn does is open its eyes and look into its mother’s face. I remember my daughter doing this. We communicate with our faces and hands. You can read a lot in a face and I enjoy the challenge of portraits. Every face tells a story.
Every artist and creator is different; if you could describe where or what that passion is in a few sentences; what would they be?
I guess my passion is fueled by people and our natural world around us. Not just any people but people who inspire me. I've learned to rely more on intuition and feeling to guide where my creation process goes. It's got to get you right in the pit of the stomach and overwhelm you with some kind of emotion, anger, sadness, elation, a gut feeling. I'm inspired by the underdog and people with vision, courage who overcome extreme challenges in life, who try to change the world, extraordinary thinkers and worldly wisdom. It's like scratching around in a flea market and coming up with a hidden gem. I have what I call my ‘hit list’ of people I’d love to paint. I would have loved to have painted Rosa Parks, the most extraordinary courageous African-American woman who started the freedom movement with one word 'NO'. Now thats extraordinary!
If you could be another creature for one day, furred, feathered or finned, what would you be and do?
I’d have to be the ‘fly on the wall’, everyone’s wanted to be one at some stage and imagine the stories you could tell!
What is your favourite place/s in Pittwater and why?
There’s no place like home. When you live in the Pittwater you've got a lot to be grateful for. When I wake in the morning I sit up and look straight out the window to tree ferns and bush, a beautiful waterfall that cascades from the Elanora cliffs into our backyard. If there’s been rain overnight the sun glistens across it and the lorikeets have fun taking their morning bath. It's just magic! I just have to breathe it all in and pinch myself that I'm actually living in a big city. Seriously, do we know how lucky we are to live here? We should have a gratitude day!
I also love to indulge my passion for a good cup of coffee, gorgeous vistas and a bit of daydream time. I love The Boathouse at Palm Beach and often take myself and my laptop up there early in the morning and enjoy a coffee gazing across the Pittwater or the Waterfront Store Cafe at Church Point. Then when I've got some paperwork (daydreaming) done I head back to the studio to start painting.
What is your 'motto for life' or a favourite phrase you try to live by?
Step outside your comfort zone, that’s where the magic happens!
FACE OF EXTRAORDINARY: VOLUNTEERS by Stephanie Brown is available at:
http://faceofextraordinary.com/ or http://www.stephaniebrown.com.au/faceofextraordinary/ available online at http://www.stephaniebrown.com.au/shop/ and at: The Art Shop Mona Vale Address: 12/20 Bungan Street, Mona Vale or Flamingos & Dingos Cafe Address: 5c/7 Robertson Road, Newport and Berkelouw's Books at Mona Vale.
The volunteers involved in this project include Angelika Treichler, Angela van Boxtel, Dave Thomas, Cathy Butler, Dr Howard Ralph, Lorrie Morgan, Jeff Ryan and many others. The causes represented by the volunteers in the exhibition include the Two Hands Project, Youth Off The Streets, Misfit Aid, Hornsby Homeless, The Tibetan Community, Taldumande Youth Services, Bear Cottage, Meals on Wheels, Southern Cross Wildlife Care, Surf Life Saving, Manly Environment Centre and others.
The project intends to celebrate the ordinary people in our community who make an extraordinary difference to the lives of others. It is also hoped it will generate awareness of the volunteer’s dedicated causes, inspiring others to become more active in their community or support one of these admirable volunteers. The volunteers are often quiet achievers that go about their day assisting others less fortunate or able; in distress; or requiring assistance and guidance to rebuild their lives.
Copyright Stephanie Brown, 2013. All Rights Reserved.