From an enviable studio nestled under Puriri trees in front of native bush, Deborah Moss creates striking abstracts. A journalist, a gallery director and now an artist, Deborah is a passionate environmentalist and supporter of the arts. We spoke to her about art, nature and how little things can make a difference...
Deborah Moss at home (with adorable pup and oversized pencils)
Explain to us the process you undergo when creating a new work of art ... do you have a special space? Certain routines you follow? Do you work in silence or enjoy listening to a certain artist or piece of music?
There is A LOT of administration involved in being an artist so I spend a significant portion of time in my office. I have a number of different sketchbooks there (I’m a sucker for sketchbook covers!) but sadly they often get neglected as I whip out pieces of A4 paper from my printer when a lot of ideas are coming to me at speed and then my stash of paper gets shoved into my sketchbooks later.
When I’m elsewhere in the house and inspiration strikes, I’ll grab the nearest thing available (back of an envelope, an old magazine etc.) and jot down ideas or sketches.
I love photography so that plays an integral role in my practice and I typically use my iPhone for quick snaps when I’m out somewhere and something captures my attention. I also send a lot of emails to myself with notes or a title for an artwork when it finally reveals itself to me.
Phase two of the creation process takes place in my art studio which was built earlier this year on our rural property. It is perched at the base of acres of native bush so I’m surrounded by a mix of very mature trees – mostly Puriri, which is why I called my studio “Under the Puriri”. As a writer I love naming things and giving them an identity.
I have a couple of long trestle tables where I work. The largely expressionist style of my paintings lends itself more to working on a flat surface rather than an easel. Larger paintings are often propped on a plinth on the studio floor so I can move around a piece – it can be a very physical act if I’m working in a wet-on-wet application style because I have to work at speed.
I like to photograph my work as I create it because I somehow find that looking at it on a screen gives you a different perspective when you’re so intimately involved with a work. It also means when I head “back home” after I’ve shut the studio door I can examine it and get ideas for additions or tweaks.
Unless the weather is absolutely horrid I generally go for a daily walk late afternoon with one of my dogs who will come and rest his nose on my leg as a not-so-subtle reminder that it’s time to go out. Walking down a country lane is fantastic with its open space and I find it’s great for resolving something within a work or fleshing out a new concept I have.
Another part of my practice is generally having a few projects underway simultaneously featuring different media – so I might do some work on a larger painting for example, then work on a smaller object like a shoe last. It forces me to pause when I might otherwise rush a work as well as providing a bit of cerebral relief because it can be very intense work so it’s good to mix things up.
With regards to noise and creating... I have to work in silence whether writing or creating an artwork as I find music or podcasts too distracting. I absolutely LOVE music though so I have a sound system in the studio and it gets a workout in my breaks when I cut loose and the art studio morphs into a singing/dance studio and I have my full blown James Corden moments.
Your studio looks amazing. Do you find you work best in an organised space or something more chaotic? What is the weirdest thing you have in there at the moment?
I am very grateful for my studio which friends and family helped bring to life. To get as much light in as possible I had clear view panels put into the ceiling and it’s wonderful to look up and see a mass of green and hear the odd Puriri berry plop on the roof along with birdsong (that’s one noise I don’t get distracted by). An organised space with defined areas and storage puts me in the right headspace to create but I’m sure I’m like many artists who have big studio clean ups after they’ve worked intensely on projects. I know an overhaul is due when there’s barely a centimetre left to work in!
Hmmm ... weird things. I’m a bit of a magpie so if I see something interesting and it’s reasonably priced I tend to grab it even if I don’t have a vision for it at the time. So aside from paper made from elephant poo, probably a bunch of wooden shoe stays I found at a vintage fair. Most are painted in a “bad kitsch” way so they’ll definitely need a lot of reworking.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
I am a sociologist so I enjoy exploring social constructs. For instance my son came home from school one day and said a group of boys had been ardently discussing how pink “was only for girls”. That formed the basis of a piece I created called 'No One Owns Colour' which has a mix of blue and pink with subtle male and female chromosomes painted on the surface. I’m also really interested in exploring the changes we are seeing with rampant urban development and the impact it is having on people, the land and flora and fauna.
I’m never short of inspiration ... nature, history, genealogy, literature, film, music, poetry, memories, people, daily events and photography are just a few sources. With regards to other artists, although their work may not specifically influence me, reading books about them is certainly inspirational. I love reading about their lives - the dedication to their craft, their struggles and triumphs.
I appreciate art from so many countries and cultures but have a real fondness for Australian art. I think the light and climate has such an interesting effect on their work and I love the vibrancy of many abstract expressionist painters there.
Sing Your Waiata Forever, Whio
You were recently named a finalist in the Fieldays No. 8 Wire National Art Award for your piece inspired by the whio, or blue duck, 'Sing Your Waiata Forever, Whio'. You also write a blog The Green Artist. Conservation and ecology are obviously matters close to your heart. How do you incorporate “green” principles into the creative process?
Conservation is definitely something I am very passionate about and after moving to a rural environment where I’m surrounded by nature, it has become increasingly important to me. The cosmetic and fashion industries (amongst others) have come under a lot of scrutiny and there’s been some great improvements and education about where and how things are manufactured. I think there’s plenty of scope for improvement in the Fine Art industry with regards to questioning things like the toxicity of art supplies. Besides solvents, if you consider the problematic nature of the cotton industry for instance and the thousands of non GOTS-certified cotton canvases being churned out, it’s pretty scary. There’s also a tremendous amount of animal by-products in many art materials and while many people are against factory farming when it comes to what’s in their fridges, I think there’s less thought given to the conditions animals may live in for the creation and testing of art supplies. As I own pet Kune pigs, I use synthetic brushes rather than hog-hair brushes and I’ve found a couple of companies who provide sustainable options. I’m slowly greening my studio with low to no toxic acrylic paints; recycled and Fairtrade papers, mid-century finds which make interesting substrates to reinvent, op shop finds for collage materials and things like recycled and sustainable packaging materials.
I also don’t destroy or throw away any works. Some of my best pieces have come from works that have been painted over and the history of the previous work has actually enhanced the new work. I made a decision earlier this year to stop using Perspex – although I loved its aesthetic appeal, it didn’t sit right with my overall ethos.
As I work from home I’m also saving petrol which is a bonus!
In what ways do you challenge yourself? What difficulties/challenges do you face in your everyday life regarding your creativity/process/life as an artist?
I think just being an artist is a challenge in itself. There are no “hourly rates” and it can be a fiscally and emotionally vulnerable occupation. I have pushed myself by trying new media like the creation of two large sculpture pieces in a year and saying “yes” to appearing on TV to discuss one of them which I never imagined would happen! I’m often told my work is very unique which I take as a compliment because I think that means I’m fulfilling my challenge to create pieces that are a reflection of my personal response to the world. I’ve taken risks by painting on “irregular” shapes like puzzle shapes which I felt inspired to do to convey messages about my work.
Although I have a background in journalism and writing; blogging has been a relatively new experience for me too.
In terms of everyday experiences – there’s the challenge of balancing a career, motherhood and self care; releasing works which are intensely personal; battling with my inner critic (I need big gloves for her!) and learning to be patient with the creative process and myself.
Estimating the time something will take is another big daily challenge. When appealing opportunities present themselves it’s easy to think “sure, I can do that” then you find yourself juggling multiple projects with deadlines and end up looking like the lead star in "Don’t throw Momma from the Train".
These days it feels like every artist has to have an established presence on social media, whether it is Facebook, Instagram or another medium. What role has social media/networking played in your career as an artist?
Unless you’re working in a group studio, the life of an artist can be a very solitary existence. Communicating with other artists online has been a fantastic way of being part of a community and the support I’ve received has been really beneficial in building my confidence as an artist and also gauging people’s responses to new ideas. I also genuinely love assisting others when I can and providing feedback – I think it’s important to show your appreciation in any social setting. Likewise some people have been so generous with their comments and even sent me gifts or lovely notes which I really treasure.
Some people who follow me on social media have said that my posts seem very honest. I try to inject my personality and provide insights about my work in my posts and I think that has helped to foster trust and build interest in my work.
It has been a really valuable tool for dialoguing with people outside of the Fine Art industry who have sustainable practices as a core part of their business too. There has been a couple of great exchanges where we have had mutual interest in each other’s works which has in turn led to sales.
I have been asked to be involved in exhibitions as a result of being on some platforms so it definitely has had a positive impact on my career. Like anything, it has its moments and is a constant learning curve.
What are your thoughts on the relevance of galleries today?
Despite artists having unprecedented abilities to promote themselves through platforms like social media and websites, I think galleries are more important than ever. They provide a physical space for work to be viewed and discussed and for people to meet. If artists have little curatorial experience, galleries can display work to really showcase it well.
I think we need to support all local businesses to help our economy unless we want to continue to see a growth of indistinguishable chain stores.
“Middle people” are worth their weight in gold IF you are fortunate to find the right ones who really understand your work and are passionate about it. They are there to handle a lot of work that impinges on an artist’s creative time.
A good gallery director should be like a good film director – in partnership with an artist to bring out the best in their work through feedback and insights. They can provide new opportunities for an artist and should be supportive in general.
Obviously my past experience as a gallery director has some bearing on my opinions about this topic but having worn both caps, I know how much work goes into running a gallery.
Finally, if you could sum up your work in one sentence how would you describe it?
An Irish artist Noel Murphy (whose work I greatly admire) once described my art as revealing the “inner workings of a restless mind”. I think that’s very apt.
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