When I was conducting image research for The Art of the Occult, I quite by accident stumbled upon the sumptuous, spectacular still-life botanical drama of Gatya Kelly’s oil paintings. And if there’s anything I love to rest my gaze upon more than artworks infused with mystical, magical imagery …it’s a painterly depiction of a beautiful flower!
Perusing this artist’s lush, gorgeous portfolio of blooms and blossoms was such a balm for my eyes when they needed a quiet rest during that period of time, but as luck and wily circumstance would have it, I soon fell upon an imaginative series of her works incorporating and exploring alchemical themes, and, A-HA! Epiphanies were had, connections were made, and, as it turns out, such discoveries were meant to be…and if you have peeked inside the pages of The Art of the Occult, you will no doubt recognize the featured image of this post as painted by none other than Gatya Kelly, herself.
I could not let the opportunity pass to nose about and ask some questions, and so in the following interview, artist Gatya Kelly and I chat about the personal nature of her work, the influence and thrilling inspiration of light and color on canvas, and how every flower is beauty, sex, and death, all furled up into one perfumed package.
S. Elizabeth: You remark in your artist statement that, “What I try to do is to explore myself in terms of paint. It’s personal.” I LOVE THAT. “It’s personal.” There’s just something so thrilling about an artist you admire coming right out of the gate, making no bones about it, stating that as an absolute. And because your art is so personal, I don’t want to put words in your mouth. To get us started, how would you describe your style?
Gatya Kelly: It’s my natural style – it’s the way the paint comes off the brush when I don’t think about it. I have painted all my life, although there have been gaps of decades when I haven’t picked up a tube of paint. Part of the reason it took me a long while to get serious about my art is that I have been so resistant to painting this way – because representational art is uncool and still life is really a bit embarrassing. I tried experimenting with all sorts of other techniques and approaches, searching for a way to override my natural tendencies. In other words, trying to paint like someone else. I had to get over that to be able to put the work out there.
Many people think my style is photographic or hyper-realist because they only ever see the images on social media. But most of the works are quite large and if you get up close you will see the brushwork is loose. Get really close and it’s practically abstract. Still, part of my personal struggle is to reign myself in, to keep the marks fresh and not get lost in the minutiae.
What influences and inspiration do you draw from in your daily art practice? What, if anything, do you consider to be your greatest source of inspiration?
My practice is influenced by my circumstances. I travel and move house a lot. My studio space might be the corner of a dark room or the whole floor of a disused butter factory. Right now I am in lockdown on Corfu Greece painting in a bedroom. Parts of the studio setup are cobbled together with fishing line, driftwood, and smooth round stones from the beach. Sounds romantic, doesn’t it?
Still life works for me because wherever I am there will be something to relate to and use in a composition. Out walking, a flower or rock or seed will catch my eye and I’ll bring it back to the workspace. It won’t necessarily become a painting but it might spark an enquiry. This happened with weeds when Covid began in the UK. They were so delicate and lovely in the fields, yet they seemed to reflect the uneasy uncertainty of the times.
The light is an influence too, and that is reflected in the painting. In Australia, the light is quite harsh and bright. In Europe, especially in winter, it’s softer and the colours are more subtle. So the work will have a flavour of a place. I guess my greatest source of inspiration is always what’s right in front of me and the way I’m feeling about it. I try to follow my intuition and not analyse the situation too closely.
Much of your work features vivid florals and fruits. I’ve read your statement that you’re not literally painting those objects, but rather, “the emotions they create … balance, truth, serenity.” I suppose my question then becomes, what is it about blooms and blossoms and fruiting things that are so compelling, that evoke these feelings in you?
Not just in me, in everybody. I think an attraction to the natural world is hardwired into our DNA and it has been a fascinating part of the still life journey to observe this through viewers’ reactions. Before the mind kicks in with judgments about whether it’s good or bad, whether you like it or not and so on, there’s this primitive, uncontrollable response of Yum or Ahh. That’s the response I am interested in working with, seeing how far I can push it. We seem to have a universal deep-rooted attraction to certain things, regardless of our gender, age or background. That’s really fascinating because it demonstrates our basic common human connection.
Maybe this is a silly question, but I would love to know! Is gardening a part of your artistry? Do you grow the beautiful peonies and other flowers in your still life painting?
There are no silly questions! I used to garden, mainly fruit and veg, but not at the moment. One day. Mostly I pick blooms from friends’ gardens, sometimes I nick them from over a fence or knock on a stranger’s door, and very very rarely I buy them from a florist, but I don’t much like doing that because it feels a bit impersonal. And I need lots to choose from to get the right shapes and sizes in the compositions.
I just read the most fascinating essay about floral motifs in art in which the author posits, “…what is stunning about the flowers is that, though they are not us, there is something about them that we recognize in us.” I’m curious as to your thoughts on this, what is there of the flower that you recognize in yourself? Here is a link to the essay, if you would like to read it!
A beautiful essay with so many rich ideas. I think this relates back to what I said earlier about the hardwiring and the connectedness of living things. There’s no escaping or denying it no matter how many layers we build around ourselves. What do I recognise personally? It always comes back to the same thing, mortality. This is the allure of the vanitas genre of paintings too. In a flower there is youth, beauty, fragility, vulnerability, sexuality and death all contained in one scented package. It’s the ephemeral nature of flowers that I find irresistible, almost tragic.
I believe that you paint predominantly in oils; have you worked in other mediums besides oil? If so, why have you chosen oil to be your primary medium?
I have dabbled in other mediums but for me it can only be oil. I did my first oil painting when I was 10 years old and fell in love. The smell, the texture, the slow drying times, the history, the pigments, I adore it all. I think it’s the romance with the paint itself that excites me every morning I walk into the studio. Just looking at the tubes is heavenly.
As someone who is just now starting to appreciate colors again (I had a 25 year-long “all black everything” phase!) I am struck by the luminous hues on your canvas. I think your use of color is absolutely breathtaking. Do you have a favorite shade to work with or a color palette to work within?
Colour is so important and I give it a lot of attention. It drives me crazy sometimes. Just the slightest shift in one area can change the way a whole painting looks. And of course the colours look different under different lighting, which can be frustrating. I try to work under controlled artificial daylight to keep some consistency whenever I’m at the easel but it’s not always possible.
I tend to plan the colour palette out before I start and try to keep the colours in a fairly limited range as far as possible. The luminous quality is one I particularly want to achieve. It’s not brightness or high chroma. I don’t really know what it is, but I know it’s there when the painting has presence. One minute it’s all a bit flat and uninteresting and then suddenly it’s as if a being has inhabited the canvas. Thrilling. Also I want the painting to still look good in very low light levels, say in a darkened room. It should glow in the gloom. I’ve had a longish affair with red and play with blue contrasts. I do like neutrals though and I can’t stand green, which is why you see so many dead leaves from me.
Your paintings, full of beautiful objects paying tribute to the natural world, are, you share, “an invitation to step back and reconnect with who we are.” In “Alchemy Alchemia” which you graciously permitted use of in The Art of the Occult, we observe a still-life tableaux, glowing with otherworldly incandescence and which evokes a mysterious branch of philosophy. This mystical/metaphysical setting and series seems a bit of a departure from the more earthly/terrestrial tone of your other works, and I am wondering what it was that you yourself connected/reconnected with when creating these beautiful, alchemically-inspired paintings?
The Alchemy works emerged after a month-long artist residency in an Australian gold rush ghost town. In the 1800s the area was thriving but today the population is around 70. I had a month to myself in an old house that once belonged to a famous artist and really started to feel the history of the place – the hopes and aspirations, the pain and failure, the relentless searching for the mysterious, immutable material that is gold. I got quite lost in this contemplative realm of the imagination.
On my daily walks I found objects to use in the compositions. Kangaroo skulls, fragments of ceramics, various vessels. The bottle in Alchemia is an old ink bottle I found half-buried at the back of the house, still with dried-out chunks of ink inside. I felt a sense of lineage to the old artist when I dug it up, and back to the gold miners too. I think it’s very valuable to take yourself away from your known environment and to look with fresh perspectives. I would like to continue exploring the metaphysical theme. It’s a bottomless pool of inspiration that resonates with me.