“Here Amid the Wild Woods” by Kari-Lise Alexander is her first Australian solo show currently on display at Auguste Clown Gallery. Coming to Melbourne all the way from her home in Seattle, we managed to sit her down for a quick chat about life, art and polar bears.
First up, how on earth is your name pronounced?
“Car-a-lease”, it’s like lease-a-car but backwards. Someone once pronounced it as ‘Calories’. So now, the only continent that will know how to say my name will be Australia. It’s a Norwegian name, my mum’s side is Norwegian, and it’s not even a common name in Norway!
What’s your favourite piece in the show?
As an artist you’re toiling away by yourself, for me I’m doing what I want and I have no idea if anybody else will like it. A lot of times because it is so personal, I’m surprised when other people enjoy it as much as I do. Typically the pieces that I like the most are ones that have presented the most challenge for me. My favourite piece is… “When One Wonders”. It was my second take on that painting, I scrapped the first. I love it so much because of the colour palette, the level of detail and the way it turned out was really rewarding. I love doing a lot of detailed stuff and the painting is very simplistic, but there’s a lot happening. It just works so well. For me it’s the most satisfying painting because it’s all-encompassing. My favourite pieces are usually not my audiences favourite pieces though! I never scrap paintings, “When One Wonders” was the first I ever scrapped and started over, which I don’t normally like doing because I’m not as excited the second time around. I was however more determined, the first attempt turned out good but not perfect. I saw where I was going so it was easier for me the second time, but it was still hard. The piece in the gallery originally had rabbits in it, but it just didn’t work, so I set it aside and came back to it. And I’m really happy with how it turned out.
Kari-Lise Alexander with her work “When One Wonders”
How long does it usually take you to complete a painting?
About two weeks, I don’t work very fast and I don’t have a problem with that. It’s easy to compare yourself to other artists that can produce incredible paintings in just a couple of days. But I’m not like that, I take two weeks to do a painting, which can be a long time. It took me 6 months to do the entire body of work. It’s a learning experience too, that’s my process and I have to accept it. And it’s turned out great, so why try to change it. I’ll get really excited about all the different elements, and then I’ll get half way through and think why did I do this! If I have to paint another flower petal I’ll kill myself! I get really mad at the painting. I describe it as, I’ve never given birth before, but I’ve heard that after you do, you have the memory wipe of how painful it was, so you’re more willing to have another child. And that’s definitely how I feel about painting. When finished I’m so thrilled and excited because I have the memory wipe of how excruciating it was.
Pretty much all of your work features a female figure as the main component, what is it that you enjoy about painting people (girls in particular) over any other subject matter?
It just goes back to human nature, women are beautiful. And I want people to be able to put themselves in the shoes of my girls. They represent a type of fantasy I have, with this series I’m definitely living vicariously through my work. Who doesn’t want to cuddle animals? Or talk to a field mouse? Or ride a polar bear? So they are a representation of me to that degree.
Do you spend much time in nature to find inspiration and reference?
I do spend a lot of time in nature! In Seattle it’s very green, lots of mountains. Michael and I go hiking a lot, so there’s a lot of elements in my paintings that are sourced from there. The moss hangs in blankets in Hoh Rainforest, which is surreal and absolutely gorgeous, so the inspiration for ‘Tokens of Hoh Forest’ came from there. In Spring, I took some reference photos of my backyard. So for ‘Meadow Gossip’, the flowers and leaves she’s sitting in is actually our backyard! I buy a lot of flowers from Pike Place Market to use as reference, so all the flowers in ‘Free Fallen’ are all from there! The animals are a little more challenging, a lot of times I’ll source reference from the internet and do a composite. People have asked me what I use, especially with the fox pieces that are in crazy poses. I also have two dogs, so sometimes I’ll have Michael pose them like they’re jumping to use as a reference. One thing i really strive for with my animals is for them to have a human quality, so you can relate to them.
What do you find is the most challenging part about being an artist?
Being creative. And what I mean by that is, coming up with new concepts that are inspiring and not the same old, same old. Which can be really challenging. Especially if you’re on social media, being bombarded with what’s going on in the art world on a daily basis. You think you have an original idea but you’ve subconsciously somehow picked it up from somewhere else. I’ve had that happen with another artist, and our styles are completely different but our thought processes are the same. It’s like a doppelgänger version of myself. She always seems to do my idea before me and then I’ll run into it, and it’s happened 3 or 4 times. We’re inspired by the same things, somehow that translates into the same vision. I started painting white haired girls and I ran across someone else who paints white hair girls, which surprised me because I thought that was unique to me. So being original can be quite challenging. Between having an idea, putting it down in a thumbnail sketch and then into a painting, so many things can change. Coming up with original ideas that I’m able to translate into the world, and being able to still keep my voice and originality. That’s what I aim for. I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job of that but there’s always room for improvement. I’ve really learned in the past year to just accept me, to not be too hard on myself. There can be a lot of self doubt and never being satisfied with what you do. Don’t beat yourself up to the point where you hurt your creative process. It’s easy to think that you have nothing to say to the world, when there are so many other artists out there. Confidence comes with self acceptance. For myself, I can see where I’m going and it’s very enlightening. I’m really excited. If people don’t like something, don’t let it discourage you.
“Further Than Far”
Exhibition opening night at Auguste Clown Gallery.
There’s a certain level of vulnerability in sharing your art with others, particularly online. Do you worry about people judging you and how do you handle negative feedback/comments?
Being an artist and posting work online, you’re signing an unwritten contract of putting yourself out there and people can say whatever they want. You can get worked up about it, but you have to do it. And there will be people that don’t like your work. I know some artists that get really upset. I try not to let that stuff get to me, everybody has their own opinion. Especially on Facebook, there are some interesting characters, seems like for some reason Instagram people are more reigned in. I really try to laugh it off, I’ve had people that don’t like my work, and that’s understandable. I’m more surprised by the positive than the negative. I totally accept that if I put my work out there, there will be negative feedback. I take it as a mile marker in my career, if I get negative feedback that’s one step forward. People are paying attention and took the time to type something.
What does art mean to you? Is it therapeutic? An outlet? A compulsion? A hobby? A career?
Let me give you a bit of my personal story. I really pursued art when I was in high school and went to college being really passionate about it. Unfortunately, I had a really terrible painting teacher that thought that there was only one way to paint. And she just didn’t nurture me at all. A guidance counsellor told me that there’s no money in fine art and that I should go into graphic design. And being a college student, I was like, no money? I need money! So I went down an avenue and ended up working in retail for ten years. I ended up being in this crazy position as a retail manager in cosmetics, that was really stressful. So ten years after I left college, I bought a couple of paints and a cheap canvas just to play. And I realised it was a huge stress reliever! It was the only way I could let go after work. I thought to myself, why haven’t I been doing this? This is where my passion is. So from there it just took off, I didn’t stop. When people first start out, I think they see how terrible they are and get discouraged and stop. But I didn’t. Because I knew where I wanted to be, what I wanted to do and that I would get there someday. So I worked at it every day. But it just didn’t stop and it was really amazing to me, I thought it would take me ten years to get to where I am today and it’s only taken me four. It’s been a long hard road but really exciting. So I’m looking forward to seeing my work ten years from now!
Do you have a creative process, or do you just make it up as you go along?
I’m a planner, but a lot of times I do just wing it. I have the idea, then do a thumbnail – tonnes of thumbnail sketches. My idea might be loose and when I put it down in a sketch, sometimes that’s not it. So I’ll do tonnes. Eventually I’ll do a loose sketch and then if it’s acceptable, I’ll move it to painting. But most of the time the sketches are unacceptable. That’s why it takes so long to do a painting! Sometimes the sketch will have half the vision there, but there’ll something lacking. So I’ll come back to it. Sometimes it goes from thumbnail to sketch so quickly, and some pieces it just happens that way. With ‘Mere Memories’ the vision was so clear, the sketch turned out exactly how I wanted. I have sketches from like three years ago that I’ve been eyeing recently, I like the way this is headed, let’s see if i can amp it up. One of the pieces that was the most challenging for me to accomplish, concept-wise, was ‘Free Fallen’. I had this concept of this girl falling through a dream, or her favourite things and memories. I’d taken the reference photo and everything, but I just could not figure out the composition. I played with so many different aspects of it. At one point there were polar bears sleeping in her hair, and I was like, no. So I put the thumbnail for that one aside, stewed on it because I was mad. I knew what I wanted, I just didn’t know how to get to that point. It was a long process, overall it took about six months. But it was really rewarding. It’s not even public yet and it’s been really well received which is kind of strange.
You’ve really created a distinct style across your pieces, do you think it’s important for an artist to develop a consistency to their work?
My style was easy to find – it just came naturally. It was more the content and my voice that was the challenging part. With any young artist, they look to who’s trendy and cool, they follow artists they like and they try to mimic them and learn from them. That really didn’t get me anywhere, it was great practise but I wanted to find my own voice. Reaching back and going to my heritage is where it started to blossom and I began to say what I wanted to say. I’ve always really loved illustrators that have done children’s books and folklore. The amazing 19th Century illustrators, like Swede, John Bauer really inspired me. He does a kind of minimalism that’s really impactful. Once I embraced what came naturally, it was easy from there and my style just developed. I wasn’t trying to be somebody else. There are a lot of people who like to paint the big-eyed girl and try to be like other artists that are successful, which is something I didn’t want to do, because you won’t get noticed that way.
“Here Amid the Wild Woods”
It seems that a lot of artists’ work ends up resembling themselves in some way, why do you think this is the case? Do you think your characters reflect you at all?
I always laugh about this, because I have short dark hair and love wearing black, and my paintings don’t look like me at all. I don’t know if they reflect me or if I reflect them. I’m not really sure which way that goes. I don’t physically resemble them, I wish I had long white hair, it looks awesome! Seriously. I actually was talking to my beautician and I was like, wouldn’t it be amazing if I had white hair, and she was like your hair is way too thick! I am however very much living vicariously through this body of work. I hope everybody else can too! I wish I could be falling through flowers and talking to foxes and sleeping naked with a polar bear. I love polar bears, they are amazing. I’m really drawn to them because they might not be here in twenty years. I like the idea of them being a spirit animal. My work is really sourced a lot from Norwegian and Scandinavian folklore. There’s this amazing story ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon’, about a princess who’s kidnapped by a polar bear and married to him. It’s a beautiful story. A few of the pieces are based off of that, I want to be this girl, being with this bear would be amazing! If you you ever find out where you can ride a polar bear, let me know.
Have you found an amazing technique or approach that you wish you’d discovered earlier?
Confidence. Honestly, it’s not a material, but confidence and being nice to myself when something goes wrong. And not being as hard on myself as I was at the beginning, it got me really far but there was unnecessary heart-ache. It’s so easy to give up, and think will this ever get anywhere, will I ever be in a gallery. There was a really hard growing period for a long time. And I wish I could go back and tell myself to be kinder and not as hard on myself. Now, I see where I’m headed, I see my future self and I know how to get there, and I have the tools to get there. I think really the most important tool for an artist is to have is confidence and follow their own creative process.
What are your favourite materials and why?
They’re so unglamorous! I feel like I need to have a glamourous answer to that. I love painting on wood panel. And we have a brand – Daniel Smith, and I absolutely adore their oil paint, I love the texture of them, it’s really nice. And I love being able to support locally. I really don’t have favourites, I have pencils I prefer, but nothing is amazing. And drawing really isn’t my thing, if you see a sketch of mine that’s finished it’s a really big deal! I have double the amount of paintings than complete sketches.
Who’s your favourite artist at the moment?
Currently my favourite artist is Seamus Conley, and our work is completely different. What I love about his work is the simplicity that creates these amazing complex worlds. I feel like I can really get lost in his artworks. I also love that often you don’t see the character’s face, I can really put myself into the pieces, like you want that person to turn around. I find myself being in the real world and seeing somebody in front of me, but their back is turned and I think ‘oh wow that looks like a Seamus Conley piece’! I just really respect his vision, he’s like an unsung hero.
“Token of Hoh Forest”
Do you have any artistic plans or goals for the coming year?
Experiment! I want to start experimenting a little bit more. And really practise and take time to get even better. I think that’s super important and I don’t think enough artists do that. It’s so enticing to be like, show show show show show, but at the same time I think it’s important to take time to grow as an artist. So that’s the plan for the next few months – no deadlines. It’s gonna be so fun to play and have some fun ideas and take my work in a slightly bit different direction, hopefully I will surprise everyone… but not too much!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Honestly, never give up. There’s so many artists who stop pursuing their dreams because they think they’re not good enough, or they’ll never get into a gallery. And they follow all these great artists on Instagram and think they’ll never be able to do that. But it’s not true. I’m a firm believer that anyone can be an artist, it just takes willpower and commitment. I want to communicate to young artists – you don’t have to go to college. Do it in your own way, pursue your dreams. I really want young artists to be inspired by my story and my art, I want to tell them that they can do it. And at any age, too. I started getting back into painting at 28, it doesn’t matter what age you are, just follow your passion. Just do it, stop talking about it and just do it. I was really fortunate that my husband is extremely supportive and saw my future in art before I did. He became my patron! I’m really blessed to have that opportunity because most people don’t. It’s rewarding for me to give back to him. Next, it’s all about experimentation. I want to do some really crazy reference photo shoots. I want to spend a lot of time on that and have the reference shots be art themselves.
“Here Amid the Wild Woods” is on show from 21st February – 9th March. Pop in to Auguste Clown Gallery in Fitzroy to see this beautiful exhibition featuring the works of Kari-Lise Alexander.