Arts / Culture

Painter Holly Fewson speaks on the floods and carving out a safe space free from alcohol

Holly Fewson

The female form is essential to the painting practice of Holly Fewson. It serves as a conversation starter, dredging up questions (and sometimes answers) we have on strength, sacredness and sexuality. Ahead of her upcoming show 'Super Terrestrial Twilight' at Yeah, Nice Gallery in Byron Bay, Holly Fewson spoke to RUSSH contributing editor Kitty Callaghan.

Their meeting was continuously pushed back, at first because life happens and then, on account of the catastrophic floods. When the two finally had a moment to catch up, the conversation spilled past the subject of painting, touching on the climate crisis, community and removing drugs and alcohol from your life as a creative.

Find Kitty Callaghan's conversation with Holly Fewson, below.

Do you see yourself in your paintings?

Yeah, my paintings are all self-portraits in some way. I can only paint from my own experience and my own body, so even if I were to paint someone else, they are still a larger part me than that person. My iPhone groups some of my paintings in with photos of me which is interesting because I only sometimes register that there is a likeness. It’s rarely intentional but often it does appear that way. Strangely my phone registers most of them as one person and groups them in a file together - you know how phones do that with people’s faces? I found that uncanny.


What themes and notions inspired your current show, Super Terrestrial Twilight?

This show is about cycles and the body being the medium between the macro and the micro. It’s about space travel and introspection.


You recently told me that you usually paint from your mind and not from life, which is impressive, and I imagine rare for a painter of your kind. Have you always painted in this way?

The way I paint body has always been about my mind’s relationship with bodies. My memory of body, the feeling of inhabiting it and my imagination of how my body is perceived.

Do you “see” your compositions before you paint them?

No, I don’t plan, I’ll usually draw a simple face and have their pose and shape flow from the angle or expression I read on it. I’ll strike something down and then the rest of the painting will be in reaction to the last move.


Your hometown and surrounds were recently marred by floods, with many losing their homes, jobs and belongings. What did you learn from the last month?

It’s been devastating for the people in these communities. My family has luckily been safe but thousands haven’t. I don’t think there is always a lesson in tragedy, but I have learnt a few things. We have reached climate emergency and our government will continue to ignore the imminent danger we are all in. I have learnt that when you lose your house, neighbours and livelihood the government will not send help. I have learnt that local grassroots community movements are likely the only chance any of us have at survival when the climate apocalypse is at our doorstep.


At present, what is the best way that people can help those affected in the northern rivers and Queensland affected by the recent damage and destruction?

Please donate only to organisations on the ground. I suggest Koori Mail because I can vouch for the movement of 100% of the donations to those in need.

What is your most helpful tool in remaining creative in your daily practice?

Giving myself a good life, being kind and patient with my body. Lately creativity has sprung from the safety I have found in getting clean from drugs and alcohol.


What advice would you give to fellow creatives who are interested in shifting from drinking to not in social settings – did you find that being in group settings felt different when you initially decided to give up drinking?

I have had substance abuse problems for most of my adult life, I quit hard drugs like ice and heroin before I quit drinking and smoking. It can be fun for a lot of people to drink so unless you have dependency issues like me and alcohol isn’t a nice time for you anymore, I say enjoy yourself! For those of us who aren’t enjoying drinking alcohol it's quite pervasive in our culture so it’s harder to avoid by cutting off friends or deleting phone numbers. In group settings, people who are drinking may push you to drink even after you have refused and then feel let down by you not participating. It’s a nasty thing to do to someone when you don’t know their journey to saying “no thank you”. I like to make myself self a soda and lime and give the impression I already have a drink to avoid the conversation but if I’m pushed, I’ll bark ‘I’m an addict’ to make sure they feel uncomfortable too. Buying an expensive non alcoholic drink is a hack, because it still feels like an indulgence. My favourites are NON, a non alcoholic wine company and Osun Sparkling which are crystal infused sodas, the best flavour is Smokey Quartz with American oak.

What was the last book you read that left a lasting impact on you?

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish. It has this one character in it that lives in 17th century London and gets a little education and then can’t let go of learning for the rest of her life. It’s a beautiful reminder of how liberating an education is. It expresses some Zionist ideas but if you can get past that, it’s really beautiful. I would read it again.


How long have you been painting for? And does it get easier or harder?

Painting is a battle, but the trick is to keep painting.

Holly Fewson

In your favourite artist’s work, what do you admire most?

Jedda Daisy Culley’s works are exactly like her personality and it’s a thrill to always be surprised when I see her new stuff.


If the works in your latest show were a song, what would it be?

Probably ambient night-time sounds for deep sleep with crickets and a storm brewing.

Holly Fewson

What has the last 2 years taught you most?

The last two years have taught me that if you tie yourself to things, you will always be in free fall.


Who do you look up to most in your artistic pursuits?

My partner Lil Palser Barto, they started painting about two years ago and haven’t stopped. The way they approach their work is so foreign and mysterious to me and I learn so much from them every time we share a workspace. ‘The trick is to keep painting’ is a quote I lifted from them and it’s foolproof.

Holly Fewson

Super Terrestrial Twilight opens this Friday, March 18 at Yeah, Nice Gallery. 4 Acacia Street, Byron Bay NSW 2481.


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