“Painting,” says Arwen Flowers, “is for me about capturing the transient moment between states, the border between one moment and the next, one place and another.”
The intense examination of life and the environment draws Flowers to respond to edges, in-between places, and to changes in state, both evanescent and physical. Until recently she explored these concepts using colour, and texture represented by layers of torn canvas, each individually painted and then reassembled so the flat, pristine original was reconstituted in a new form.
She says, “Layering torn canvas evoked a sense of weathering, of degradation, but also a falling away, and thereby, eventual transformation. ”
More recent landscapes are painted onto the canvas rather than made from it, so the juxtaposition of a small sky reflected large in water, the margins between tide and sand, rock and running river, provide the mystical line between one thing and another.
Inspired by realism and the details therein, Flowers’ stylistic approach is both flexible and ‘painterly’.
“I see metaphors in both urban and rural landscapes,” she says. “The movement from one location to another site, or one feeling morphing into a new one, the transition through that magical point of change – it’s a difficult thing to capture.”
Auckland’s magnificent West Coast beaches and the Waitakere Ranges where she grew up mark her work with strong visual influences. Artistically, she thrilled to Tony Fomison’s use of light and dark, to McCahon’s abstraction, Robert Ellis’ complex aerial urbanscapes, and Don Peebles canvas constructions.
Encouraged at high school by her teachers for the most part, when it came to the establishment, Flowers found it difficult to get through.
“In the university environment I’d expected to be taught as I had been at high school. I lacked self-esteem and confidence, and didn’t know what I hoped to achieve, so did badly, and wanted to leave. I completed the degree though, which ultimately taught me perseverance.”
Graduating in 1995 from University of Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts with a BFA, her studies included an initial two years of photography under John Turner and Megan Jenkinson, followed by arts tutoring under Don Binney, Robert Ellis, Dick Frizzell and Philippa Blair.
Photography provides the time to work with an image before committing to paint. “I use the camera to capture the way I see light and motion, but I enjoy handling physical materials. The final image is personal, something imbued with who I am, so I rarely stick with the images I capture. I want to rework them in some way.”
Flower’s father was a Post Office telephone technician when she was born in Auckland in 1973. Her mother stayed at home, working part-time while her children were at primary school, and then trained as a teacher.
“In the bottom of our hallway cupboard Mum kept a huge box full of little wooden print blocks, brushes, paints, inks, mediums, pencils and pastels. To me it was a fragrant magic treasure.
“Mum was a painter and very creative. She knitted dolls which she sold, did macramé, went on to do printmaking, took poster-art classes, and worked as a photo-colourist for well-known photographer, Christopher Bede. She was always painting, predominantly landscapes in oils. She hadn’t been encouraged to view art as a career choice, and because she understood how important it was, she was supportive of my art education and practice.”
Critical encouragement came from Flowers’ father who persuaded her to step back and observe perspective. “Dad showed me that things had balance and structure. He taught me to question life, and not to accept everything at face value. Music was part of our conversations too, and has long featured in my creative process.”
Often naming works after lyrics or songs, Flowers once completed a painting to a single repeatedly played song to embed the mood and lyrics in the work. Painting work is often broken up by spells at the piano, or on bass guitar, or listening to music. A snapshot of her constantly evolving CD stack includes Otis Redding, Eddie Boyd, Over the Rhine, Eb and Sparrow, and Jo Hamilton, along with a French Film festival compilation. Recent releases of mainstream favourites such as David Gray, Lana Del Ray, Coldplay, plus a back-catalogue of old jazz, blues and folk artists share the stack. “Music impacts my mood and helps me focus.”
By the time Flowers was almost through art school, she realised that talent was useless unless art-making was continual, and that over time if she kept at it, she’d be successful.
Up until 2014 she worked exclusively with acrylics but now includes oils. That led to a progression in her work. Initially used to combat the flatness and quick-drying problems of acrylics, they also provided a solution to issues of torn canvas textures becoming dominant, and allowed more time to move paint around.
Art is a safeguard, and a bolt-hole for Flowers who is a mother of three, Griffin (14), Sara (7), and William (6). She works full-time as a graphic designer which keeps her artistic vision flexed.
“I don’t need the muse to work at art, so I don’t wait for inspiration to strike. I structure my art hours, whether it’s photography, collecting materials, planning a painting, or actually painting.”
Because she only has weekends in which to forge ahead with art she is obliged to work within the time available (usually 2-6 hours). Never short of ideas or knowing where she wants to go next, she says, “It’s about when I can get the time to express.”
In 2011 in Helensville, northwest of Auckland, Flowers opened a collaborative art gallery. The idea came out of the enjoyment of having the space to display her work during an earlier exhibition.
“It’s desirable for artists to find good exhibition spaces at low cost. I wanted to be able to keep my work up on the walls and realised that if I collaborated with other artists, we could manage it. It certainly wasn’t a money-making exercise. After 18 months of rosters, organising people, marketing, and manning the gallery in weekends, it was time to step back and use the energy to paint at home again. It had been an extroverted thing to do, an outward focused exercise, and I needed to return to my own private space, but I loved meeting other artists, and the public – it nurtured me in many ways.”
Artistic challenge is connected with the notion of success and she admits she’s still trying to work out what that means to her. She paints for herself as a palpable need. “If I’m not able to paint for a while, I can get pretty crabby. From the perspective of the work, the challenge is always in conveying that thing, the eye-gripping wow-factor.”
Flowers has accepted an Individual Creative Residency in March 2016 granted by Muriwai Earthskin, a charitable trust whose mission is environmental stewardship to foster and inspire the creative arts.
The Muriwai Earthskin month-long residency will provide the dedicated space to utilise her graphic design and artistic skills to create artwork, and also posters for print and social media using photography, collected images, mobile apps, graphics, and art mediums. In exploring ideas around collecting and cataloguing as a way of promoting species preservation, she intends to highlight the value of those practices in supporting a biodiverse, sustainable future.
“While keeping New Zealand native life in the foreground, I’m really taking on the role of an explorer,” she says. “I’m excited to see how the final pieces come together because they will be a result of multiple processes and combining media I’ve not used before. I will have the luxury of being able to draw from all creative parts of myself for a focused period of time.”
Arwen Flowers lives and paints in Helensville, in northwestern Auckland, New Zealand.
Source: Theresa Sjoquist interview with Arwen Flowers in September 2014 – updated January 2016.