Wonderful Women Series: Simone Johnston

I know a number of very special, creative women and I want to share them with the world. These are the women who inspire me; they are driven by passion (and compassion!), and they have found ways to live authentically and thrive as artists. I should define my terms, because I intend to interview some wonderful ‘non-artist’ women too. Some of them are simply making the world a better place, because they have a vision and they have the courage to go forth and create; these are people who make beautiful things happen.

I’m starting my series with Perth visual artist, Simone Johnston.

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It’s autumn in Fremantle; the quality of light particular to this season in this part of the world has transformed the streets and parks. The distinctive WA sunlight renders everything crisp and defined, but a cool breeze tells me that I’m by the sea. The earth is no longer summer-parched and the lovely buildings stand in high relief against vivid greens and blues. Walking hand in hand with my four year old son, I feel light. Someone has bleached and pressure-hosed the quintessential Freo limestone and it is a clean shade, no longer greyed by time, revitalised.

 

This is not the Fremantle of my childhood memories and it’s not just the autumn light and the building restorations; the ambience that existed 20 years ago, has given way to something new, something soft and subtle that I cannot define. The space has changed over time and it has nothing to do with the corporeal world; I’m engaging with the space differently, memories and sensory input intermingled. My physical environment is a construct, informed by my unique experiences and semantic codes.

Perth visual artist, Simone Johnston, explores these complexities in her latest body of work, It feels like we’ve always been here. She is interested in the distinction between space and place. Simone has made a slight departure from her earlier work that explored the politics of space in the public, urban environment; her new pieces examinethe manner in which we engage with the domestic environment, how we ‘imprint’ upon the spaces we inhabit. This is how her work reads to me, anyway.

We arrive at The Old Customs House, home of Artsource studios, where Simone holds a five year tenure. She’s recently returned from a residency in Sydney and when she arrives to collect us, I immediately sense her renewed artistic vigour. She’s excited, she’s buzzing with that special kind of energy that happens when the creative process is moving along like a song; fluid, shifting and circling in a gentle eddy towards fruition.

We arrive in Simone’s studio and I’m struck by the beauty of the space and the natural light. I’m immediately taken by her drawings: a deflating hot air balloon, and exquisite line drawings of an amorphous arrangement of elastic. My little fellow, Lewis, is interested too, and I can understand his compulsion to reach out and trace the shapes with his fingertips. I remind him that a visit to the Cicerellos aquarium is dependent on good behaviour; we DO NOT touch Simone’s art.

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I plug the four year old into his iPad and Simone and I settle down to chat on the paint splattered floorboards…

K: I love these studios.

S: I feel really lucky to actually have this space- it’s a good, decent size and I like lots of natural light.

K: Tell me about Sydney.

S: What I loved about the Sydney studio was that we all worked with the door open and I just fell in love with the other artists; they were amazing, they were exactly what I needed. I got so much out of it and I was so inspired by them. We all felt the same way.

K: That dialogue with other creative people really feeds you…

S: And it makes the process less daunting because you’re constantly talking about your work in an informal way. You realise the people you look up to are just normal people; they all have the same worries and concerns that you have. The other resident artists and I are all at different stages of our careers but I was by far the least experienced and the youngest. Some of the other artists have work collected all around Australia in big National Gallery collections and library collections and they still have the same doubts about their work. And the nice thing is that they accepted me as a peer.

K: Around a year ago, you and I had a conversation about the beginnings of your ideas for this work- home and your recollections of home. What has your process been like since then?

S: In the past, a lot of my work has been focused on private and public space and to be honest, when I went away for the residency I was planning to further explore that; the proposal I submitted was focussed on urban space and navigating through it and being immersed in it and seeing what would come out of that. Then, I had a conversation with a friend who was moving house and that was probably the main trigger. It was a really intimate experience: packing up a friend’s house, having him tell me stories and experiences about the actual physical space. It was a sad sense of loss, as we were taking things down and packing them away. The spaces were becoming empty again and it was revealing walls that he’d never seen empty since the very first day he moved in and it was really interesting. So that got me thinking about domestic space and then I started collecting house plans from other people.

It was an experience with my Nan and Pop that became the second real trigger; they suggested they could draw the floor plan of their old house because they never had an original. That experience, of all us trying to draw this space that we had experienced so intimately, was interesting; it highlighted how differently the three of us remembered it. I was a small child when I was last there and I thought I remembered it very vividly but I only really remembered three of the rooms and they seemed massive. Even Nan and Pop who had lived there for the same amount of time as adults had very different memories of it; putting walls and doors in different places and such. So I was thinking about the distortions of collective memory.

I didn’t plan to do much with that in Sydney, but when I was shown around the building and stepped into the apartment that would be my living space and studio, I shut the door for the first time with nothing but my suitcase and instantly, I had that connection, feeling like I instantly knew the space. I remembered the conversation I’d had with my friend when he had moved into his new house and he said he thought he’d have a longing for the other space but that because of his familiar possessions, it felt like he had ‘always been there’.

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K: When did you know that this was what you wanted to do with your life?

S: I’ve always loved making stuff… I don’t really know…it was probably in high school when I fell in love with it.

K: What sort of formal training as an artist have you done? Do you think the training has influenced your practice?

S: I did my Bachelor of Arts at Curtin University, followed by Honours. I loved it – it was a great experience. Some people went to uni and already knew what they were doing, but for me, the transition from high school to uni was huge. When I got to uni I was blown away by the things we would look at and study. It wasn’t until my third year that I knew what I wanted to do. Up until that point I was just experimenting with materials.

K: Can you envisage the finished product before you begin?

S: Not really. Sometimes I do but they don’t always work- you can have this really solid idea about what the work is going to look like, and what materials you’ll use and then something doesn’t work or you don’t get the quality you’re after, so you have to change it. A lot of my work, particularly a lot of what I did in Sydney was quite experimental. I mean, I haven’t drawn for years, I haven’t really done plaster work or video work, so I think for me, that three months of really ‘playing’ was amazing. When I made the elastic structure, I initially thought that would be a main component of the work but it’s now become slightly redundant. It’s filtered through into video and drawing so the actual structure isn’t as important-

K: -Which in a sense is like the domestic building- the physical structure isn’t as important as the memory or ‘imprint’ of it-

S: And I think also, the way I work is just interdisciplinary- I don’t consider myself an artist who draws or a painter or sculptor. It depends on the idea at the time, and the best way to represent it.

K: Do you intellectualise work before or after the act of making it?

A lot of my work starts with documentation. I started collecting people’s house plans before I even knew if I’d use them for anything and I’ve had photographs for months because it’s part of my process- when  I see something interesting, I’ll go and document it then sometimes it becomes work, sometimes it doesn’t. So, I think it’s not until you have something concrete that it all starts falling into place.  I don’t want to over-conceptualise it- I don’t want to over-analyse before I’ve even made anything.

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K: What do you do when you feel discouraged?

S: I was feeling discouraged for a long time. There was a time when I wasn’t really making a lot of work. I think it’s trying to enjoy the making and if I’m not, I stop for a while and do something else. It’s about finding a good balance of stuff, so you’re not getting too absorbed in something that isn’t working and you can move to something else. I think you can’t force it- if it’s not working, there’s usually a reason. When I was away, I did more yoga and that sort of thing. Just speaking with other artists helps too- knowing that other people have the same insecurities as you. Since I’ve come back from Sydney, I’ve made more of an effort to go to other people’s studios. Sometimes having a discussion about something that’s not working helps you figure out what the problem is.

K: Who inspires you creatively?

S:  I love Rachel Whiteread’s work. And Anish Kapoor. Someone who has really helped me in the last few months is Richard Lewer; he taught me about the importance of showing your work to other artists and opening a dialogue. The other artists at the residency inspired me-seeing how dedicated they were to their work and watching everything from the creating to the admin to the applications- it was great to see how they fit their work into their lives.

K: How are you finding the Perth art scene after your stint in Sydney?

S: I think it’s a really interesting time to be in Perth. There’s lots of stuff going on. There’s a fair bit of funding for artists which is great if you can get it. We’ve got some fantastic artist run spaces popping up around the place and some really dedicated artists basically working for free so that they and their peers have spaces to show their work. They do a great job and they’re really professional. A lot of our commercial galleries have recently closed down so I guess it’s not really a buyers market in WA- apart from other artists there aren’t really many people who are buying and collecting here. But I think it’s a good time to be in WA. One of the good things about the art community in Perth is that it’s quite close. It’s quite a supportive environment.

K: What is your favourite work (of your own)?

S:All of the work I’m doing at the moment is too new, too raw, to decide. I was quite happy with the prints I did a little while ago, the ones in the Together Alone exhibition. It’s a hard question.

K: I loved that work. Especially this one:

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K: I don’t think you consciously choose to make your work beautiful, but it is- I find your images beautiful.

S: It’s interesting you say that, because a lot of my work comes from a mundane place, a lot of the images are plain, sometimes boring, suburbia. Like this strange elastic sculpture- some people have said to me that it reminds them of a strange, awkward garment.

K: I suppose I perceive a lot of beauty in the mundane. The minimalism combined with attention to small details really appeal to my personal aesthetic. There’s a simplicity and elegance in your work that affects me deeply. Thanks so much for having us here in your studio, Simone.

Simone’s exhibition, It feels as though we’ve always been here, opens at 6pm Thursday, 8th of May at Paper Mountain Gallery, 267 William St Northbridge and runs until 25th May.

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2 thoughts on “Wonderful Women Series: Simone Johnston

  1. It’s so inspiring to read about the journey of an artist, any artist, and in any art form. Fabulous art! Fabulous interview! Fabulous friend! Great post, Kristen, and I’m glad you’re writing again. x

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