In Conversation With Fiona Lowry

Sydney-based artist Fiona Lowry is known for her delicate, yet disturbing contemporary renderings of conventional portraiture and landscapes. Her works have a clear signature through her use of airbrushing and a restricted palette of soft, pastel colours. Since holding her first solo exhibition in 2002, she has firmly established herself as one of Australia’s most talented and accomplished painters. She was awarded the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize in 2008, and the Fleurieu Prize in 2013. A finalist in the 2011 and 2013 Archibald Prize, Australia’s most prestigious Art Award, Fiona went on to win in 2014 for her haunting portrait of Penelope Seidler.
When did you understand that you had a talent and passion for painting? Drawing and observing people is something I have always done and I would spend hours as a child doing this, I didn’t think about doing anything else and it has flowed on from there.
You have such a clear signature, how did you develop your technique? It’s actually the technique of blur and focus that airbrushing allows that ends up helping carry the content of the work, making viewing a disorientating ambiguous experience. For me, making work is often about deepening one’s doubt about the situation under discussion.
What impact did the Archibald Prize win have on your career and how did painting Penelope Seidler come about? I first saw Penelope Seidler at a gallery opening and I was struck by this woman’s presence and beauty. She really stood out. From memory she was wearing some incredible patterned stockings and looked very stylish. I decided then that I wanted to paint her. As a young girl watching the Archibald Prize, it really was one of my first experiences of what was happening in the contemporary art world - a world very distant from my own growing up. In one respect it’s a fulfilment of a thought I had of being in the prize a long time ago but it is also wonderful to be recognised in this way and to be part of this history. I think every artist wants people to see the work they are making and the prize highlights your work to a much broader audience.
The Archibald Prize is now celebrating its 73rd anniversary and you were only the 9th woman to win it. How do you feel about female representation in the Arts currently? The National Gallery of Australia is running a campaign at the moment called #KnowMyName. It’s a call for equal power, respect and recognition for female creators. The ongoing objective is to recognise and celebrate Australian women artists through social media, exhibitions, research and creative collaborations. I think there is a recognition that things need to change.
What is the most exciting place that you have ever exhibited your work? At the moment my work, The Ties That Bind, is hanging in the National Gallery. It was an absolute thrill to have my work hanging with some of my all time heroes including Francis Bacon, Louise Bourgeois and Arthur Boyd.
Your work has such a strong connection with nature and there are darker elements to some of your pieces, where does that inspiration come from? At the base of every landscape I paint there is a deep love for the natural world. It was something as a child that I would always enjoy with my mother as she would point out the different trees and the smell of the flowers. For me though, painting the landscape and specifically at the moment painting the Australian landscape, allows me to talk about ideas that are connected to all of our experience here. Recently, I have been reading Turcottes essay “Australian Gothic” and he talks about Australia even before it was ever confirmed as a place. Then with the transportation of convicts it became embedded as being this dark under world. Historically the landscape in Australia has always been animated with these hidden energies. It holds a great beauty and I am interested in this duality, not just within the landscape but also within ourselves.
How much does your personal experience drive your narrative? I think all artists are drawing from their life to make work and they become a kind of constructed archive of their experience. Growing up in a deeply religious environment, I was very aware of how places and people could have a complexity of experience attached to them. It’s important for me when I am making a work and specifically when I’m working with people, that I take that person to a place that has history to it and there is a connection with the landscape. Often it’s about recording the response to that place.
You have an 8 year old son, Vincent. How do you balance your career and motherhood? I have less time painting now, but it’s more constructively spent. Before I’d float in and out whenever I wanted to, now I have set days when I work and have to make the best of those days. It can be tricky to navigate and there are moments when it’s hard, when you’re on a deadline for a show — I get totally absorbed in that moment and want it to be the best work. But I wouldn’t have it any other way, being a mum to Vincent has been amazing and I love the time that I have with him.
What are you reading? Bad Boy by Eric Fischl.
Do you have a favourite film? Any film by Tarkovsky it’s pure cinema, his philosophy was that communication does not have to be expressed vocally.
What are you listening to? I listen to a lot of podcasts while I am working, but right this moment I’m listening to the great New Zealand band The Chills, Kaleidoscope World.
What would be your absolute dream project? So many! I am showing in New York next year and I would love to collaborate on a theatre production doing painted sets.
If you could have dinner with any four people who would they be? Nick Cave, Francis Bacon, Louise Bourgeois and Walt Whitman. That would be an intense evening!