Australian Painter, Ella Dunn, Portrays the Heart of Storytelling in Her Latest Collection, Deeper Water

Kacey Perez

March 5, 2022

Images Courtesy of Ella Dunn and Saint Cloche Art Gallery

Hi Ella, we are glad to meet you and congratulations on your current show. We’ve read you are an emerging artist, how long have you been painting?

I have been creating art for as long as I can remember, it has always been a way for me to make sense of my experiences and the world around me. I originally began my undergraduate in the drawing and printmaking department which gave me a strong appreciation for form, simplicity and immediacy as well as an understanding of the technical side of printmaking like etchings and lithographs. A regular component of the course was a life drawing class, this disciplined approach involved switching between drawing long and short poses. This taught me to see shape, form and line in a different way so the presence of the model could be felt in the drawing. In my first year of art school a housemate’s friend gave me an old wooden suitcase filled with half used oil paints, so I did a painting and fell in love with it as it offered a more malleable medium. So I’ve been painting ever since, I guess that’s coming close to ten years.

What ultimately made you decide to study art?

I have always been creating so it felt like a natural direction for me to go in. I am very aware of my privilege to be able to study art for four years and I understand that not many people get the opportunity or choice to do that. I am also very lucky to have had very supportive parents who always encouraged me on my artistic journey. From a young age they both made me aware of the significance the role of arts have in society. I grew up having this appreciation for artists and viewed it as a career option.

How Important is storytelling to you as a painter?

Storytelling is at the heart of my art practice. I see the everyday as being embedded with endless stories. Whether it be peculiar, humorous moments that you catch between the people around you or stories set within domestic scenes that take on a particular feeling. My paintings are very much inspired by my lived experience and what happens when you manipulate memories with the medium of paint.

Meet You by the Swans, Oil on Canvas

What inspired you to develop a collection surrounding bodies of water?

I grew up on a property that was ten minutes from the sea on the mid north coast of NSW. It was very much a part of my childhood and my teenage years. The sea has been a constant and a comfort throughout my life. Most summers I make the long drive up the east coast to my parents place. Here days are marked by swims in the ocean and in the estuary. Images and themes of water followed me home to inner city Melbourne and I began seeing the parallels between water and my life. Seeing water as a symbol of change, rebirth and the passing of time. The last couple of years I’ve noticed a shift in directions for both me and my friends. I’ve seen friends move away, new life come into the world, passing of loved ones and people finding themselves heading in a new direction.

Floating Down the Estuary

We enjoy this collection – it has a certain care-free feeling to some of the pieces. How do you evoke certain feelings and emotions into your paintings?

There is a fine line between wanting the painting to have a sense of its own agency and also holding a certain feeling or memory that I was intending on capturing. To evoke certain feelings and emotions is to not overwork a painting and to find out what is at the heart of the story or the experience. For example my painting ‘Floating down the estuary’ in my recent exhibition at Saint Cloche, I began painting over an old work, blocking in spaces of blue and sketching figures with charcoal. I chose not to paint over certain areas of the old painting so that there was a sense of transparency and fluidity like water. I was always going to continue painting but I decided to stop and let it rest in my studio for a few weeks then looking at it after some time I knew it was finished as it captured the soft slow feeling of floating down an estuary.

What has been the most challenging part about being an artist today?

The challenge of balancing my time between paid work and my art practice. I feel like I am getting better at disciplining myself to be strict with my art days and turning down other plans and people in order for my painting to come first. For me one of the most challenging things has been learning to be selfish in order for the art practice to take precedence. 

When you put yourself into your “creative place”, what does that look like for you?  What’s your process, what is the space like, how long does it take? 

My studio is in my shed in the backyard. I share this space with my partner who builds my frames. As soon as I walk into the shed I have entered a creative space, where my attention is given to a different way of thinking. A type of thinking that is a combination of daydreaming and critical thinking. There is a lot of time spent sitting in my chair thinking, drawing quick sketches, writing down thoughts, creating mind maps and words that come to mind. My studio starts off organised and when I get stuck into a new body of work it often gets quite chaotic, with paintings, photographs, drawings and words all around me like a bower birds nest. Drawings are a vital part of my practice, they are created from my day to day or where my thoughts have taken me, often from a recent experience or feeling I’ve had. They can range from quick loose sketches or to longer detailed drawings. These drawings help to build the scaffolding behind my paintings and the essence of what my body of work will be about. Whilst the drawing process goes on, I will always have a few paintings on the go. I like to bounce around from painting to painting as I find I often get ideas from one work that may help me to see another in a different light. The duration of a painting of mine varies drastically from being painted in a few minutes to being painted over many times and can take a year or more to complete. 

Moonee Headland, Oil on Canvas
White Wash, Oil on Canvas

What are your greatest sources of inspiration?

Other than my day to day experiences with people and the natural world the arts in general are a huge inspiration including other artists, literature, theatre and music. It amazes me how creatives can speak of challenging complex ideas, push boundaries, speak of the human condition time and time again in creative different ways. Art can be like magic, it can be irrational and can take you out of your comfort zone or fixed ways of thinking and I love that about art.

What are you most proud of thus far?

I am proud that I have continued to prioritise my painting practice in my life. I am proud to have been invited to present my first solo exhibition in Sydney at the beginning of this year. Its always great to get my art seen by the public and to share with a wider audience, seeing other people have a response to my art inspires me  and gives an additional motivation to my time in the studio. I like the fact that when my work is shown it is able to take on a new story as the viewers derive different meanings and interpretations.

Where do you like to travel most, and do you find that travel inspires your work?

I am a bit biased but I love to travel around parts of Australia. I find I am drawn and inspired by the diverse landscape that this country offers. This country has a long Indigenous history that stretches back over 65,000 years, long before white colonisation, their rich culture is very much present everywhere you go. So I definitely feel lucky to be able to be in this country and see places that were and are important for the traditional custodians of this land. I have done a lot of road tripping around Australia, the beauty is it allows for chance encounters with strangers, seeing the landscape change as you drive in different directions and be brought out of your usual day to day routine. Travel I believe allows for a heightened sense of awareness and you start to notice and observe minute aspects around you which can be very inspiring for creating art.

Treading Water, Oil on Canvas
By the Pool, Oil on Canvas

Can you leave us with one of your favorite travel memories? 

One of my favorite travel memories is going to the Venice Art Biennale in 2015. It was organized as an optional field trip during my study at VCA. We stayed in a convent in a residential area a long walk away from the main Biennale. I would wake early to the sound of the nuns’ hymns, walk the empty streets, grab a coffee at the same local café and watch the simple act of people rising and getting ready for the day. Whilst Venice is a visually captivating city with its beautiful old architecture and history I found myself drawn to the small moments of everyday life I encountered with the people that lived there.  

Through the Hills, Oil on Canvas
Swan in Fountain, Oil on Canvas

Follow Ella Dunn @ellardunn

Visit her website: www.ellarosedunn.com