Interview by Madeleine Dore
Photography by Bri Hammond
We are greeted by a world of colour with each blink and flicker of an eye, yet often we become blind to its impact. No one quite has the same way of seeing like abstract artist Melinda Harper, who transforms familiar configurations into captivating, emotional works.
For over three decades, Harper has been influenced by her own experience of looking and engaging with the world around her, creating vivid geometric works that act as a visual response to the lived experience.
‘Abstract paintings are direct observations of life,’ Harper once described. ‘The act of looking, the obvious, the precise and the precious.’
Picking up visual clues from her almost daily walks, jotting down observations of colour combinations and movement in her notebook, and even finding inspiration in the written word, colour and form are the driving force in her work.
Harper first became interested in abstract painting as a 16-year-old after viewing Hans Hofmann’s Pre-dawn (1960). She later moved to Melbourne in 1983 to study painting at Victoria College where abstract artists Robert Jacks, Lesley Dumbrell and John Nixon were among her teachers. Her early artistic development was in part shaped by her involvement with gallery Studio 5, where Harper first showed her striped paintings in 1991.
Best known for her striking oil paints – which take her several months to complete as she lets each dry stripe by stripe – her practice spans drawings, screenprints, collage, printed textiles, hand-stitched embroideries and sculptural assemblage.
Today, Harper’s unwavering commitment to colour and abstraction has propelled her to the position of one of the leading artists of her generation. The artist’s first major museum exhibition, Colour Sensation: The Works of Melinda Harper at Heide Museum takes place thirty-years after her graduation from art school and presents a kaleidoscopic feast for the eyes.
Yet despite such an impressive body of work chronicled and collected by Australia’s major state and private galleries, the allure of the art world is not a distraction for the artist who favours simplicity.
So much so that the single-mother of two made the snap decision eighteen-months ago to move away from the chaos of city life in Melbourne to Castlemaine in regional Victoria.
‘I had never been there – I just Googled it, saw it wasn’t far from Melbourne and that there were plenty of primary schools.’
Opting for a slower lifestyle also fits in with the slowness of her artistic practice, with Harper working on several paintings at once, making decisions as slowly as the paint dries.
There’s something unplanned yet balanced in Harper’s work, which is also reflected in her daily life. From the early morning rush to drop the kids to school, to balancing a part-time day job with time in her backyard shed-turned-studio, Harper is a reminder that we can be both vivid and quiet, busy yet patient.
Like her lessons on kindness, patience and slowing down, her life demonstrates it’s the conscious decisions we make that ultimately colour our days.
PART I: DAILY ROUTINE
I wake up around seven and it is all about getting the children awake, getting lunch ready and getting to school. They are generally pretty calm and relaxed and don’t want to go so I have to push them a bit to get there.
After I do the drop off I often have a coffee at Run Rabbit Run before coming home and going for a walk around the creek. Generally I’m just thinking about the day ahead but I find it quite meditative, just me and the creek.
We had a bit of a competition thing going with the three of us where we would calculate how much exercise we did each week and that was really good because you realise how little exercise you do!
The days can vary depending on whether I have work. I cook at the school canteen for a social enterprise called Growing Abundance about once a week just to make money, but I have also visited the orchids to help with the harvest.
I am also doing cooking classes with a group of local Aboriginal women at the Castlemaine Community Centre, which has a variety of projects and I support them in that.
I’ve had lots of day jobs – when I was living in Melbourne I worked for 12-years in mental health.
If I’m not working I’ll come home and probably do the dishes or maybe some other housework and a bit of a tidy up before I go into the studio.
I’ll be in the studio for around two hours. There can be a bit of procrastination when I approach my work, or sometimes it is hard to begin and I might beat myself up a bit, but generally I know what I am doing so I usually just get to it straight away.
Because I work with oil paint, it takes quite a long time to dry so I will be working on three to five paintings simultaneously and they will take quite a few months to finish.
Colour is central so I might keep a record of the colours I’m interested in or currently using because they can often run out or stop making them. I can also just forget so I write things down in a notebook of what I want to keep.
I will often bring my paintings inside the house to have a look and sometimes if I am stuck I will keep them in overnight so I can pass it by multiple times and see what might be wrong.
For lunch I will usually make a sandwich or some soup and have a cup of tea.
I’ll also check my emails. Recently with the exhibition at Heide I've been getting more so there can be some time spent on that. Really, the last eighteen months have just been about Heide, organising work and visiting Melbourne.
I’ll usually head back to the studio for another hour or so.
I will go and get my children and life becomes hectic with running them around to ceramics class, football or dance – they do a lot so dropping off and picking up becomes my day.
They have grown up with art and I think it is good for them to find something of their own and to have a pastime. But video games is the biggest battle, it can be all-consuming so it’s good for them to have other interests.
Because their father is Aboriginal we will go to an Indigenous learning centre once a week. It’s a community thing so other parents are there and I will go to work with someone else’s children and practice reading and so on.
For dinner we usually have lentils, pasta, a number of different things – we tend not to eat a lot of meat.
We don’t really eat around the table – being a single parent it can be really hard to have those routines, for me anyway.
I try and clean up as much as I can and then we will watch something together on TV like Merlin and just have some general conversation time.
I am aim to get my youngest into bed by 8pm and we read for about half an hour. Then I will come out to my son and get him ready for bed. I am encouraging him to read on his own so I set him up in his bed around 8.30pm to read while I clean up or do what I have to do before turning his light off at around 9.15pm.
Usually I do my embroideries at night. Sometimes I can't do them, but if I am I will about spend two hours on them while watching telly. There is a lot of crap on though and not much that I would watch consistently anymore.
I will read for about an hour, sometimes two because I find it really difficult to get to sleep. I usually read biographies or memoir. I might check social media but I find it a bit boring – I wouldn't check it ten times a day or anything.
I might do a mindfulness body scan if I’m having trouble sleeping. If I'm asleep by one in the morning, that's really good for me.
PART II: WEEKEND ROUTINE
Weekends are really the kids time – getting up and driving all over the county to get to football.
There’s no studio time but we might go to a market or an art event like the artists walk we went on a few weeks ago.
We often do some exploring or visit the hot springs, or go to a movie in Bendigo or just have some down time.
Sometimes we might go out for dinner if a friend is staying, but that wouldn’t be a regular thing. When it is warmer we might go for a walk.
We do spend time a lot of time at home – we are all sort of homebodies.
PART III: BEHIND THE SCENES
On the decision to move to regional Victoria…
It’s a lot easier living in the country as a single parent. Because you are doing everything, I found there was just less time in the city. I was spending so much time stuck in the car in traffic and working so much just for the money.
You end up not having enough time to even read a book and I felt it was becoming a ridiculous way to live.
Also the kids have to be in after care all the time because you are working and you know how much they hate after care, so if they ask for something you feel guilty so you buy it, and you end up spending so much and giving them a false sense of money.
I decided I needed a real shift and here the landscape is so great, you are so close to so many places and there is always something on.
Things become a treat here – a bit like how it was when I growing up.
On the decision to be an artist…
If I wasn’t an artist I really don’t know what I would be doing. I decided to be an artist when I was thirteen or fourteen, and I feel really lucky about that in a way.
I have friends who haven’t known what they want to do and that journey can be really difficult. They have swapped and changed and felt like they haven’t found their thing.
You are very lucky in this world if you know what you want to do and you can do it.
On the focus of colour in her works…
Artist Stanley Whitney once described the content of his paintings as purely the colour and I feel the same.
You are taught that form is the content, but colour is definitely the primary content of my work.
My colour palette is influenced by my visual world and often by the landscape and colour combinations I see on my morning walk. Recently I’ve been really inspired by J.M.W Turner and really inspecting his work. At the moment my work has a lot of green and blue – I will pair a very particular green seen in the landscape with a very bright green that is really quite intense.
On the lessons on time and patience in art…
To be an artist you have to have a rigorous studio practice and you need to work really hard – when I was starting out I would spend ten to twelve hours each day painting and that’s what you needed to do to refine your skill.
Painting takes time and unfortunately we don’t live in a world that is about that anymore – when you can download something in seconds, why paint something for months?
But I think all sorts of art practices are about slowness. The embroideries take immense amount of time but there is something kind of special about that – there is a whole thinking process that takes you somewhere that requires an enormous amount of patience I think.
On the fascination of people...
I am continuously fascinated by people’s differences. Also why people might uproot their lives and move and make that leap.
I meet a lot of people here in Castlemaine who might be from say the Northern Territory and I think, how did you get here? What made you decide to shift? I’m really interested in people’s choices and listening to people.
I value that – people’s stories. I’ve met some really interesting people up here who have made big decisions seemingly quite easily. It’s interesting.
People may have faced major challenges and can remain kind – I think that is extraordinary.
On wishing for more time…
Even though I am in Castlemaine and things have slowed down, I do sometimes feel I am rushing the kids.
A few months ago we had a great time at WOMADelaide, we took three weeks and went for a road trip. I’d love to do that with them multiple times a year, but then you get a letter from the school reminding you they have to learn their timestables.
I think if I could change anything, it would be to be able to just enjoy moments and not let moments go.
Just taking those moments and setting everything else aside. It’s the same with being in the landscape and not rushing through it, instead taking your time to go through places.
We have to learn to abandon our thoughts of how something should be and just experience it for what it is. But it can be quite difficult to let everything go.
On the difficulties of being a young artist today…
I also think it is very different being young now. When I was a young artist it was very feasible financially – you could work three nights a week washing dishes to cover your rent and food and then have time for art school and making.
None of us came from affluent families but we had time to be active and make lots of work – we were out there living the life that we wanted to.
But I think that is quite different now. Sometimes people have to go back and do another degree and if they want to have an exhibition they have to pay $2,000 a week whereas it used to be $50 a week.
On keeping a notebook…
I keep a notebook to remember. I adore the author Donna Tartt and that’s something she does – she might have written something in a notebook ten years ago and it can spark an idea for an entire novel. I really love that process and feel I’m like that too.
"What people do with their time is what is most important. That doesn't have to be producing something or making something, it can be as simple as being kind." – Melinda Harper