Helga Visser – Local Artist

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Local artist, Helga Visser, studied art in Sydney with the late Archibald Prize winner, Arthur Murch. Helga now resides in Taree, where nature, light and patterns provide fascination and inspiration for her work …


How long have you lived in the Manning-Great Lakes?

We moved to the area in 1996. It was to be a complete lifestyle change from busy Hong Kong to quiet country Australia. We still enjoy this hassle-free area and its beautiful surroundings.

What brought you to the area?

We visited friends at Coomba Park and fell in love with this part of the country. Then we saw a completely enchanting property for sale – and bought it.

I became fascinated with the local wildlife, especially the birds … watching them, I realised they each have different personalities, just like people. Some, like Bowerbirds, double as builders and decorators, as well as singers and dancers. They ate everything we grew, but have since been forgiven, as they provided the inspiration for my first children’s picture book, The Bush Concert (published in 2011). It’s a book about the drought and how birds organise a concert to cheer themselves up. I hope it’s an entertaining way to introduce kids to our beautiful and interesting Australian birds.

You worked as a commercial artist in Hong Kong, and life there provided stimulation for other illustration books. Tell us about this …

Whenever I move to a different culture, I’m struck by the different attitudes, customs and way of life. In my illustrations in Life in Hong Kong, I tried to capture some of the funny, odd and typical scenes that are unique to the place. The books proved quite popular with tourists and expats and were on the South China Morning Post’s best-seller list.

During your time in Sydney, you assisted with the mural painting at the Overseas Terminal at Circular Quay. Was this a career highlight?

It was when I was studio assistant to Arthur Murch … it was an old fashioned art apprenticeship. At the time, I was just very happy to be working at what I loved doing best, and I was very fortunate to learn from such a fine artist. Everything I learned was very traditional, as Murch thought Modern Art was just a passing fashion – an aberration to be strictly avoided.

I received a good grounding in drawing and oil painting techniques. Working on the mural provided practice in layout, researching the subject and enlarging the painting onto a big area. Arthur Murch was a very erudite man and a patient teacher, so there was a lot to be learnt. I remember having to look up many-a-word in the dictionary when I got home after work.

One of the things I learnt from the whole experience was that fine art wasn’t going to provide me with a living, and I switched to commercial art.

It is now a great pleasure to paint without having to think of an income – and perhaps to sometimes make a statement about modern life, as we know it.

 You work in oils and pastels and use clay for sculptures. Are you a traditionalist?

Mostly yes, in the materials I use. I was taught to paint with oils and could never get used to the slippery plastic quality of acrylics, which dry so fast you can’t stop for a cup of coffee or answer the phone. Later, I took up pastels and loved their immediacy and texture. The vibrant colours are easy to blend, and I prefer to use them for my bird illustrations.

Clay is another wonderful material to work with. It can be re-used if something goes wrong, and it’s environmentally friendly. Working with clay is fun – it’s like drawing in three dimensions … if nobody buys the sculptures, I can put them in the garden and create ornamental sunning spots for lizards!

Some artists don’t like to enter art competitions, yet you are prolific in this area and have won numerous esteemed awards. How important is this to you?

It’s nice to get some recognition, but important to remember that winning prizes can be, to quote a judge, “A bit like a chook raffle”… it’s nicer to sell a painting, because it means that person likes your painting enough to buy it. Then again, it might be just because it goes with the curtains!

Art competitions do concentrate one’s mind on the job and are a good way to get works displayed. There are so few venues available to artists.

The important thing with the work is to do the best you can and accept constructive criticism. The fun is really in the doing – prizes are the icing on the cake.

Where did your inspiration for the Burgers of Malaise painting come from? 

The inspiration came from Rodin’s famous sculptures of the Burghers of Calais. The title lent itself to an awful pun and fitted in with my thoughts on fast food and consumerism, which is also reflected in some of the sculptures I make.

You’re an active member of Taree Artists Inc. Tell us about this organisation?

Taree Artists Inc. is the art society of the Manning Valley, which has been active since 1976. It currently enjoys an increased membership, plus several quality workshops and tutorials throughout the year.

We have many local accomplished artists in our group and organise a number of exhibitions throughout the year. This involves fundraising for prizes, distributing entry forms, setting up an exhibition area, organising paperwork for entries, receiving and hanging art works and generating publicity.

We are now preparing for the annual Taree Open Art Exhibition. It’s taking place in the July school holidays. The exhibition offers prize money of over $5,000 and is open to anyone. Entry forms will be available from March 2012 from the Regional Gallery and All About Arts & Framing at 231  Victoria Street.

In 2012, Taree Artists will work with Valley Industries, where some of our members will provide art lessons for handicapped people.

What are you working on now & where can we see it?

A few months ago, I went on my first trip to Central Australia and was completely enthralled by the land … its vastness, antiquity, contrasts and colours. It provided a lot of inspiration for the pastels and oil paintings currently on my easel. My orange, red and violet paints all need replacing!

Cynthia Bourke, from Bower’s Café & Gallery, asked me to exhibit some of my recent work there this month.

What are your favourite words to live by?

Fruits and veggies.

Thanks Helga.


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