Michaela Swan

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Newcastle-based artist Michaela Swan grew up in Laurieton. Having family in the local area is a real incentive to come back home for regular visits, and Michaela was also fortunate enough to be an Artist in Residence at the Glasshouse last October. This residency inspired some new textile works – and also a unique collaboration with her father. You can see the results in Michaela’s exhibition, Whatever keeps you warm at night, at the Glasshouse.

Hi Michaela. You grew up in the Camden Haven, so your roots are in this area! Tell us a bit about what it was like growing up here … 

Hi Jo. That’s right; I lived in Laurieton for about 17 years. I was very lucky to grow up in this area, with the opportunity to follow any path I wanted. My mum taught me to sew when I was young, and I love that we were always making things together. Some may be surprised to learn I spent a lot of time at athletics carnivals and playing sport as a kid. In Year 12 I focused my attention on my HSC, and really focused on my passion for art and textiles.

You left to study a degree in Fine Arts in Newcastle – and I believe that is where you’re still based these days. How did your uni studies help you develop as an artist? 

I moved to Newcastle in 2012; it felt like the right place to explore my creativity. When I started uni, I was not really aware of the potential for artists. Uni helped me understand that no matter which direction you take in art, you really have to be proactive and work hard to make opportunities for yourself. I learnt the importance of exhibiting work in order to develop as an artist and to consistently re-evaluate and diversify my practice to move forward.

Uni also gave me the opportunity to develop ideas and gain valuable feedback/critique from peers and academics. Theory courses also really helped develop my artwork conceptually, as well as providing me with an understanding of museums and galleries, and how to install my work.

As part of your studies, you were afforded the opportunity to base yourself in Hong Kong for a semester. What did you take away from this experience?

Going to Hong Kong in 2013 actually heavily influenced a change in direction with my practice; it really confirmed for me that my strengths were related to fibres/textiles. I had the opportunity to study Wearable Art taught by Dr Tricia Flanagan, where I developed pattern making skills and learnt about wearable technology. While working with reference to the body, this is when I started to think about textiles and performance art.

I spent a lot of time in the studios and out exploring the city. This helped me understand the importance of culture and place/space in context to the work I was making.

You were the Artist in Residence at the Glasshouse in October last year. No doubt you’re a regular visit to our area still, as your family lives here – but what was it like reconnecting with Greater Port Macquarie on an artistic level? 

I try to visit regularly to see my parents and friends. It was quite interesting making work back in my hometown; I didn’t go into the experience with an exhibition in mind. I really wanted to try and engage with the residency experience, to see if something from the local environment would inspire me. But I guess, because I have so many memories from this area, my creative impression/inspiration is different.

My approach to artwork is ultimately site specific; the space and materials inspire me most. Although the printing process itself and my connection to the area played a big part in the development of the exhibition, I also visited the local op shops and recycling centres for inspiration.

Speaking of family – your father certainly had some input into the designs you’ll be presenting in your upcoming exhibition at the Glasshouse, Whatever keeps you warm at night. Please explain the rather unique way he was able to help you … 

During my residency I had the unique experience of working with my father, Bill, to create the large textile relief road roller prints. He was “the driving force”, as he owns several road rollers, so I prepared (inked) the textiles and paper for printing, and my dad completed the process by rolling over the works. It is really special and exciting to me to see these works resolved using this process.

What else can you tell us about the items you’ll be presenting in this exhibition? 

The exhibition is made up of five large relief prints of blankets and textile articles, some handmade and others mass produced. The exhibition also includes a large knitted textile installation suspended in the mezzanine space. This is an extension to a project I’ve been working with on large scale knitting. I always like to somehow include complimentary processes, and for this exhibition the prints and the textile installation have a strong link, both in concept and material.

Given you’ve now worked with textiles and fibres for some time, what are some of the interesting things you’ve learnt about the relationship people generally have with these materials? 

The main interest point I make with textiles is that everyone has a relationship with textiles at a basic level, because everyone wears clothes. Of course, this varies depending on culture, geography, religious background etc. because all of these things may change with tradition or trends. However, I think something that is clear for all is that cloth is a symbol of comfort in any form. The texture and feel of different fabrics, and sometimes even the smell or the wear of a piece of cloth can trigger a memory or a connection for people to the work.

Where can we see more examples of your work, or follow your artistic journey?

My website is the best place to check out some of my older work and keep updated with new work and exhibitions: www.michaela-swan.format.com

Thanks Michaela.

Interview by Jo Robinson.

See Whatever keeps you warm at night at the Glasshouse Regional Gallery from 24th March – 22nd April.

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