Clare James: Patchwork studios and snails
From her homemade studio, Clare James quietly follows her unique artistic vision. The renowned mixed media artist invited Fibre Arts Take Two into her studio to learn more.
Clare’s Friday Feature Artist Interview can be found at the bottom of this page.
Clare James is one of those artists who touches you on every level because she creates from the heart. A self-trained artist, Clare struggles to feel like she fits into the art world despite her success and immense talent. Clare works out of her homemade studio in the Yarra Valley where she is surrounded by miscellanea and a small menagerie. Clare was kind enough to invite Fibre Arts Take-Two into her studio to discuss her take on art.
Art in the bush
Art appears to run in the blood of the James family, “My sister and I are both artists,” says Clare, “We’re the only two children in our family so we only have each other as siblings. And we grew up in the bush in Monbulk (Victoria), and Kate and I were forever digging in the clay and making things. When Mum and Dad separated and we were at mum’s house for most of the time and dad’s house on the weekend, we would spend all weekend making things. Both of us were just drawing and making and creating and exploring the bush all the time. And mum was very crafty and had nature tables and collected things. We grew up in two households that were very curious about the world.”
Both the sisters went on to successfully complete degrees in fine arts, but it took a little longer for Clare to find her feet as an artist, “I finished my degree and I worked in a few plant nurseries for a while,” says Clare, “Then I became a high school teacher. And I taught, I taught art, and some ceramics and some textiles and things for a few years. And then I had babies when I was 27. I didn’t really start being an artist in a studio every day until both of my kids were at school full-time.”
When Clare needed a place to create, she knew it had to be something special, “There was a little shed already here,” she says of her little studio, “and we built this exactly where the shed was. It was falling down and was all rat eaten and gross so we collected lots of hard rubbish and things from the tip shop and old windows from people and my friend Dan put it all together for me. My brief to him was I wanted a little patchwork building. I wanted it to feel handmade. So we made a patchwork building.”
Walking into Clare’s studio is like a glimpse into her soul, “My studio is quite a reflection of who I am,” she says, “I wear my heart on my sleeve in the world, and you get who I am by being in here. I’m a little bit of a bowerbird.”
Clare finds the art world a little overwhelming at times, “It can be a big slog,” she says, “For some people, it’s easy for them to go and promote themselves or turn up to big exhibition openings and schmooze with people. Maybe because we live an hour and a bit out of Melbourne, I just don’t go to openings very much. Or maybe because I was raising our kids. I just didn’t go so I’m totally not in the art scene. And I don’t know if I even want to be because it intimidates me and I feel awkward! There’s something called imposter syndrome, I don’t know how to fit into that world that seems so cool and wordy, and everyone seems to be able to talk the talk.”
Despite her erroneous imposter syndrome, Clare has found her niche, “I’ve just got a lovely little world I’ve made myself in this little studio,” she says, “Where I just make things that I am curious about and the things that fill me up. And people receive that very well and support me.”
Clare says she has read advice that you shouldn’t spread yourself too thin as an artist but this advice though does not work for her, “I don’t know how I could just commit to one medium and just stick with that,” says Clare, “Often in my studio I’ll have a painting going and then I’ll start a sculpture here. And then I’ll be sitting on the floor wrapping something really frantically in string and trying something. And then I’ll have to make another terrarium to see what happens. And I’ve got my microscope up here, I’ll have to, I’ll have to look at something I found like a wing on the ground and then I might need to draw it.
The way that I think or work is not a linear process at all. But then I’m also able to get right into a painting or a sculpture or a theme and almost become obsessive about it, it’s all I will do until I stop doing it.”
One of the more interesting mediums that Clare has worked with is snails, “I don’t know if you’ve ever had snails get into your letterbox and eat some of the paper,” Clare says, “They eat it in layers that it can almost become a bit like lacework. I was playing around with giving watercolour paintings to a tank of snails that I had in my studio, and they would eat parts out of it. It was this collaboration where I wasn’t sure what they were going to do, but I wanted to see what would happen to my paintings and then I made lampshades actually out of a whole lot that was partially eaten. The light came in beautiful ways.”
Working with snails though, had its challenges, “I had a concept of having something very beautiful, like a coral reef, start to get destroyed in front of your eyes,” says Clare, “I tried all sorts of ways to keep the snails on the painting because when the sun came up, they wanted to be hidden so they kept crawling away from it. I made a copper fence out of copper pipe and corners because everyone said that snails won’t go over copper. And they just did. I made a salt brine fence and that was awful because some of them touched it and they started frothing so I rinsed them off quickly, because I think it would have killed them. And in the end, the only thing I could think of to keep the snails on the painting for as long as I needed them to do that was to make an island that was exactly the size of the painting. It had a moat around it so in my little studio here, I cleared stuff out on the floor, I set up timber just on the floor in a big rectangle, then I laid it on a pond liner, and then I filled that with water. I made an island out of bricks exactly the size of the painting, set that on there and then blocked out all the windows with blackout. “
Clare created a unique piece of art in collaboration with her snails and photographer Brett Brogan, “Brett came and set up a tripod over the top with his flash and we had a photo taken every five seconds,” she says, “for three days and two nights. Brett wove it together into a stop motion animation and he added this beautiful soundtrack to it.”
Just enjoy it
Clare’s advice to aspiring artists is to enjoy what you do, “I don’t feel like I’m an expert at all in anything,” she says, “I feel self-conscious. If I see people who are taught to do watercolour painting, they’re so technical, and they do wash after wash after wash. And I feel so self-conscious if they watch me paint because I’m totally self-taught. I’ve just worked out how I like to do it, and it works. I’ve taught lots of people how I paint and I think the main thing I always try to get through to people is to experiment and have fun. Try not to be uptight. The 10,000 hours of practice can make you control paint in a certain way or mix that colour perfectly, but you don’t need to be an expert at all. You can just enjoy it.”
About the artist
Clare James is an artist, freelance florist, gardener, general maker and mother living in a little house in the Yarra Valley, Australia.
Drawing inspiration from her surroundings which include her garden, the forest and the wild and domestic animals that live around her, Clare paints, draws, stitches, sculpts, and designs.