German born artist Claire Schmidt stumbled across her idea of heaven, when at the young age of 16 she studied at the Division of Rydal Penrhos School at Colwyn Bay in Wales.
The school housed a huge Art Faculty, which according to Claire, “Provided all the design materials and tools an artist could only ever dream about”. She went on to focus her studies on life drawing and illustration, before coming to Australia in 2008 to seek out opportunities, eventually settling in the Bunyah community, where she indulges her passion for ‘old-fashioned’ hand painting.
Claire also creates large-scale portraits, using acrylic paint, masonite and corrugated sheets as the main mediums in her works. To form the portraits, she adopts a ‘scratched’ or etched style, using a humble screwdriver and knife.
With a strong interest in Australian poets and writers, Claire recently created a large-scale expressive portrait of fellow local Bunyah resident, Les Murray. In a portrait of the late and revered Judith Wright, Claire endeavoured to encapsulate the poet’s “strength and power as a very strong and determined environmentalist”…
Before moving to Bunyah, you worked in Sydney in Art Direction for national clients including Saxby’s, CHANEL and Prime Television. What brought you to Bunyah, and how has the area inspired you from an artist’s point of view?
I always appreciate changing my place of scenery. When I was working in Sydney, I spent many weekends in the area of Bunyah. My body and my mind had absorbed this peaceful environment, and I fell in love with the true beauty of Bunyah and the district. Last year, I finally decided to give up my busy lifestyle in Sydney and to satisfy my curiosity by living in the countryside.
The inspirations I gain from living here are well and truly my encouraging friends, neighbours and the community of the district. Being able to share people’s diverse stories and also their various life experiences is inspiring to me. Bunyah’s tranquility and beauty is another source of creativity for my artistic work. I currently live on a farm. Here I find the time, the energy and a lot of space to work freely – which I could not find in Sydney.
When you studied in Wales, you said you were “finally able to dive into a world of vibrant design possibility and be part of an active Art School …” It sounds like the artist in you really came alive at this time?
Yes, you are absolutely right. I have been passionate about art and design from an early age. Therefore, I was very lucky to receive a Scholarship in art from the Rydal Penrhos Division in the beautiful countryside of North Wales. The school has a very high standard and supplied us art students with every tool we needed and taught us everything that we were keen to learn. The Art and Design Faculty was open seven days a week and was therefore a non-stop 24-hour adventurous experience for me. My dream had come true … to be part of a very active art community.
Returning to Germany in 1997, packed with the great experiences I gained living away from home, I decided to study Product Design at the University of Applied Sciences College of Higher Education Niederrhein, in Krefeld, Germany. My first focus in my studies here was to deepen my favourite studies in life drawing and illustration of fantasy stories for children.
I then later set my priorities into 3D dimensional design projects, such as designing TV sceneries and developing corporate design and interior design for big business companies. I left with a Degree as a Product Designer in 2002.
You have a strong interest in observing faces and bodies and spent a lot of time studying Life Drawing. What is about this field which most appeals to you?
Reading people’s body language is just as exciting to me as listening to people’s stories. Also, as unique as the personality of each individual person may be, so too, unique and special, are their bodies. For over a year, I had two models for my life drawings: a young couple who were professional dancing acrobats. I admired their body language, their performance and their bond. Feeling their emotion, strength and power in their movements was absolute beauty to me.
The pleasure in painting bodies has nothing to do with the age, gender or shape of the individual. It is the person, who wears the body, who is expressing oneself with their body language. If the person wears the body in a very proud and confident manner, it draws my interest straight away.
Tell us about the process of your large-scale ‘scratched’ paintings …
I use this large scale scratched painting technique for portraying people, as it permits me to sharpen the individual characteristics of the chosen person.
This is a multi-step process. It starts by selecting the person who inspires me. I work with photography, which I believe delivers a good starting point for my portrait. I might also first change my photograph on the computer, to form a base with which I can work.
I digitally optimise the light settings, the contrast and the color scheme of the photograph, which helps me to focus on the mood and the lines I aim for with the portrait.
I then prepare the masonite and corrugated sheets, by overpainting the complete surface with several layers of acrylic paint. In order to enhance the strength of my drawing lines, I scratch the portrait into the surface with a screwdriver and a knife.
The marks of the scratched lines show the texture of the base. This then forms the portrait with a great depth.
With respect to the ‘scratched’ paintings, is there a fine line of not making the etching too deep (so that the subject does not appear ‘harsh’)?
Not at all! It might become more abstract, but the marks of the scratched masonite brings the portrait even more to life … makes a brave statement and expresses confidence. The same applies to coins, where we recognise the value not over the simple shape of the coin, but we value the engraved-embossed information on the coin, as it appears also more eternal than a print that can fade.
Due to the size of large-scale paintings, is there a risk that you are creating double the angst, double the pain?
Yes, you are right in thinking that working on a large scale canvas might create double the angst. But I do not worry too much about mistakes in my art. The joy of my work makes me more fortunate than the ‘fear to fail’ in my projects.
It is great to feel the big space on a large medium and make a bold statement. This applies especially to the two recent portraits of Les Murray and Judith Wright, whom I feel deserve a large, and therefore bold, appearance.
You found the late Judith Wright to be inspiring both as an artist and also for her work as an environmentalist …
Yes, that’s right. Judith Wright believed that the poet should be concerned with national and social problems. She was not only a prolific Australian poet, critic, and short-story writer, but also an uncompromising environmentalist and social activist campaigning for Aboriginal land rights. Judith Wright was a strong woman and had the courage to act in a minority.
Her work should be a big example not only for women, but for all of us. Judith Wright sets a wonderful example of how to put things into action with positive thinking and by using our talents and skills wisely.
Famous words to live by …
The secret of happiness is freedom, and the secret of freedom is courage: ‘Thucydides’.
How can people contact you?
You can contact me via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you Claire.
Interview by Karen Farrell.
This story was published in issue 66 of the Manning-Great Lakes Focus