Well known first for her print making, a key focus of Wendy Stokes’ art practice since the late 1990s has been her stunning and distinctive paintings…
What originally brought you to Port Macquarie?
I am a return resident. My partner and I decided on settling in Port Macquarie in the late ‘80s. My parents had retired to Port Macquarie from a rural property in Central Western NSW in the late ‘60s, and my main school years were spent in Port Macquarie. After my postgraduate studies I had spent several years in Sydney and with a network of exhibition contacts in place, it no longer seemed essential for me to remain in the city. Port Macquarie was small enough then to have appeal, close enough to Sydney to maintain my practice, and the return enabled me to spend time with my family.
What influenced you to develop an interest in art?
There wasn’t really a time when I decided that I would go and pick it off a shelf labelled a career or hobby. It is a part of me from as far back as I can remember and fortunately due to the freedom of my upbringing, I had many hours outside on the farm, in the garden or roaming my front yard, our coastline. Much of this time was immersed in my own imagination: collecting, drawing, making things, just being in an outdoor environment.
Sometimes I have considered if it, ‘art’, was something separate like a backpack that you could remove, life would be easier and far less complicated. It is my way of seeing the world, thinking about it and finding a place within it.
How has your talent steered your artistic career?
To be blatantly honest, talent doesn’t necessarily steer an art career! Any serious artist I know, or even the famous ones embedded in the archives of history, would agree that that is left to trends and opportunity!
After completing the HSC, I went onto 4 years of formal art studies in Newcastle, took the ritual art pilgrimage to the UK and Europe on graduation and followed that several years later with postgraduate study at Sydney College of the Arts.
From the beginning, I had strong support from my parents; Jim Matsinos, my art teacher at school; Dorothy Hope, the founder of Thrumster Village; and the printmaker, Joan Smith. I mention them because in the 1970s, artists in regional areas, particularly Port Macquarie, were very isolated, and these people understood my language and aspirations.
At art school I ended up majoring in Printmaking and Drawing and managed to develop a strong profile as a printmaker very early in my art practice, exhibiting and awarded prizes on a national and international level. It was through my printmaking that I received the residence opportunity in New York.
Which medium/media do you like to work with now, and what is it about them that attract you?
Painting has become a key focus of my practice since the late 1990s. The reason for the shift was as much about creative development – expecting more from a medium – as it was about eliminating the exposure where possible to solvents and oil based products. I was looking for more freedom in scale and as I was already using the printmaking medium as a painter would paint, the progression was natural.
I adopted water based choices for all my processes, both paint and print. Apart from the ease of cleanup, many artists will identify that we still need to function to some degree in the real world. Time to work often becomes fragmented, so the speed of drying time became a crucial element for my work. Using water based processes also aligned with my aesthetic towards the landscape … the connections between water and atmosphere, staining, soaking, sliding, immersion and the porosity of the canvas, the porosity of the sand and earth …
I’ve read passages about your work, which describes it as ‘abstract impressionism’. Would you say this is a fair description – and if not, why?
I am often wary of categorisation when it comes to describing art. Art in contemporary terms crosses many boundaries between mediums as well as professional disciplines. These days, we do not need to go far to see the hybrid practice between artist and engineer or scientist. Coming to the ‘abstract impressionism’: both are words which come with a huge amount of misinterpreted and popularised baggage.
While it may be beneficial to have an understanding of when or why particular styles developed historically, we all need to be aware that much history, particularly involving women artists, marginalised cultures and geographically isolated artists, has yet to be written or rewritten into history.
Abstract is a term with many meanings and tends to be seen as a removal from a concrete source, and Impressionism is unfortunately tied to the popular historical style of the Impressionists, which are still firmly set in observational ground. This can be misleading.
Viewers are likely to feel compelled to try and locate references in my paintings to give themselves clues to determine the meaning, rather than allow the viewing experience to be a mutual engagement between the painting and them. My paintings are not about squinting your eyes to try and make out an impression of a thing. Hopefully they are about synthesis and experience.
Energy. It is connected to experience and immersion in place, but not from the visited experience, where you are a tourist or explorer travelling to a place, picking a view and packaging it.
Memories obviously play a role for everybody, not only artists, because we all bring to any experience our previous experiences. What truly moves me to create are the lives of others, sacrifice, commitment, that drive of the artist to leave a mark, an image that has the capacity to move or resonate within the viewer. If even a momentary thing, it has the capacity to be an experience shared.
Much of your work is done on a large scale. What’s the largest piece you’ve completed to date?
The scale thing is relative. For a domestic setting it could be considered large, but they can be quite dwarfed in museum settings. The largest work is still in progress, but will end up being around 7 metres. The scale is part of the concept of immersion which informs my work; not only is it quite a performative act making the work, but I aim for the viewer to be able to be drawn into the works with little peripheral distraction. Not all my work is large scale.
What are some of the challenges (if any) for you as an artist completing large works … and how long does it typically take for you to finish a piece?
The physical expenditure is in assembling and stretching the canvases, moving them around in and out of the studio. I accommodate the size by making the works in sections, and that way they can fit through my studio door and down the stairs. The length of time is probably irrelevant, because when does a painting really begin?
There is gestation time, the development of thought, followed by experience and action time, then reflection, ending in satisfaction or frustration. This can be measured in weeks or months and has little bearing on the success of the work.
One of the other challenges is that you know already before you even start a painting that they have a limited market, so you are not market driven but instead by your own creative journey and conceptual investigation. People in buying any large work need to have the courage and conviction for that work to become the experience in the hanging location, and these days the super size TV with the constant shifts in images and entertainment supersedes the wall once reserved for that large painting. Paintings can demand from you as a viewer, but they can provide a pause … a place for renewal.
A few years ago, a buyer of my work sent me a text message to say they had spent the week without the television and instead spent the time immersed in my paintings, which is a validation that painting can have purpose.
What are a few of the exhibitions you’ve been involved with over the years?
I have been exhibiting professionally at a strong level for thirty years, but I would like to highlight that exhibitions serve different functions. It is not always market driven. Solo exhibitions, in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and major regional gallery shows as in Tamworth and Coffs Harbour have been essential venues to enable me to create work and measure it as bodies of work, rather than isolated works hanging on the wall. It enables the work to function within your thematic development and is crucial for your own progression.
Curated shows are interesting, as you have the opportunity to have your work interpreted in the context of others’ work and concepts, so you are able to better position where your own practice is heading. National competitive shows, such as the Dobell Drawing Prize, the JADA, The Glover Landscape Prize and The Fremantle Print Prize are reinforcement of the validity of your own work and its contribution to particular mediums or genres within Australian art practice. International shows in which I have participated, and especially Printmaking shows, have been about cultural exchange.
Where is the best place for people to view your work?
I am represented through Catherine Asquith Gallery, Melbourne and BMG art in Adelaide. I will be showing again with Catherine in Melbourne in September and at Danks Street Galleries, Sydney, in August. Walcha Gallery of Art has an ongoing selection of work, and I will be having a major show with them in May.
On a more local note, The Regional Gallery at the Glasshouse is currently hosting an exhibition organised by Port Macquarie High School, showcasing previous students from the school who have chosen art as their career path, celebrating 50 years of the high school. As a previous student, I am participating in this exhibition.
On a local level, I have seen my role not so much as an artist, but an advocate for emerging artists in the visual arts through TAFE. In the past 12 years I have taught at Kempsey Campus, participating in the delivery of the Diploma in Fine Art programmes and other fine art courses.
As a teaching body of committed professional arts practitioners, we have been instrumental in opening up the value of art making for many individuals in a meaningful way within the region. It is rewarding to help people find their own creative voice and move way beyond their own expectations.
Interview by Jo Atkins.
This story was published in issue 77 of Port Macquarie Focus