Northern Beaches artist Gemma Rasdall has been selected as a finalist in the prestigious Wynne Prize.
As one of the ‘big three’ art prizes along with the Archibald and Sulman, the Wynne Prize is awarded annually for the best landscape painting of Australian scenery. The Wynne Prize has been awarded by the Art Gallery of NSW since 1897.
The Art Gallery of NSW last week announced Scotland Island based artist Gemma Rasdall as one of 34 finalists from over 600 entries for her work ‘Framed by life offshore’. The work is a series of watercolour paintings, each a view from a home at Scotland Island.
Ms Rasdall said that being named a finalist in the Wynne Prize is a welcome validation of her decision to commit herself to art as her full-time career. She grew up in an artistic household but almost chose another career.
“I didn’t really decide to be an artist until later on, but my Mum is an art teacher. She runs art classes in Avalon and teaches at local schools. I grew up in a household where the bottom floor of our house was like an art studio and we could just make a mess and do whatever we want.
“My Mum encouraged me to do art at university and I decided not to. I got distracted because I did quite well at school and I had all these marks. I felt I should do something with them, so I ended up doing a Bachelor of Design, which is still creative but looking back I wish I did art to be honest,” she reflected.
Now living and working at her studio at Scotland Island, Ms Rasdall grew up nearby at Clareville, with her strong connection to Pittwater, a clear influence in her work.
“I grew up sailing. My parents had this little timber yacht and we used to go out all the time as kids. It was the best way to grow up, every Sunday racing in little Manly juniors.
“I had been painting boats since school. There was an exhibition at the Avalon Community Centre my first year out of school and I showed my HSC major work. I had a good response and everyone liked it. I kept making art even though I was at university doing design. It was like a side project,” she reminisced.
After graduating from university, she landed a job in the textiles industry but found it lacked the creative outlet she needed.
“My degree majored in textiles and graphic design, and I worked in textiles for a few years, but the whole time I was painting on the side. I was working for this textile company and everyone was lovely. It was a lovely place to work but it was mainly client work and just not creative enough.
“It was a lot of production, working with fabric samples. I tried to quit and they asked me stay a bit longer doing two days a week. That allowed me to rent a studio. I was living in Newtown at that stage and I rented a studio in Alexandria. That was sort of my first big investment in my art career.
“Forking out that money weekly to commit to it was a big deal. I did that for about six months and made the decision to quit completely and go into art full-time,” said Ms Rasdall.
While she remained in the city for two years, Ms Rasdall concedes that the pull of Pittwater brought her home.
“I was in the city and had a studio there, but I got a bit sick of it. The water is a bit yuck, you can’t swim there and it’s noisy. My parents moved to Scotland Island about five years ago and I was coming here to visit them a lot. My Dad was keen for me to move back.
“I’ve been able to focus on my art in a way that I couldn’t otherwise. I paint boats and the water; I’m way closer to my subject matter. When you’re on a boat, you’re part of the sunset and the weather,” she shared.
Entering the Wynne Prize was a result of Ms Rasdall taking stock of her art and challenging herself to re-evaluate the approach to her work.
“I’d mainly been painting acrylic paintings, mixed media paintings of seascapes for the last ten years. Towards the end of last year, I was struggling with overworking my paintings a lot. You care a lot about what it looks like and sometimes you just give too much love and ruin it.
“I was trying to break myself out of the habit and I heard someone talk about unlearning how to paint. You find a way to paint that doesn’t let you overwork your paintings. Working on paper, where you can’t paint over it a million times without the paper falling apart, forces you to be really mindful about the way that you make marks.
“I took that on board and started doing watercolour works on paper, they’re really tiny, perhaps an A5 sheet of paper. I was trying to be deliberate about every brushstroke I made because you see every brushstroke. They’re quite simplistic in the way they’re created but they’re fast, so if you mess it up, it doesn’t matter. Paper is cheap, so you’re not precious about it, you just chuck it away.
“I did heaps of these and I was really enjoying the process. I wanted to tell a story about the island and I thought this was a good way of doing it because it’s quick and spontaneous. I asked my neighbours if I could visit their houses and do little sketches on their balconies. I did this with heaps of my friends from the island, from all angles of the island; I did 24 in total,” she explained.
In compiling her works into ‘Framed by life offshore’, Ms Rasdall says she felt her story of the island was worthy of an entry in the highly prestigious Wynne Prize.
“I really wanted to create something that tells a story and is engaging to people. I’d been to the art gallery recently and I was looking at the works they have hung in there. I was thinking about what they might be inclined to choose, that people can relate to, that the public who are not necessarily artists can engage with or be interested by.
“I felt my work was a nice way to tell a story, with the names of people’s houses and different locations. I felt it may engage the public and was worthy of entering into the Wynne [Prize].
“It’s the same way as for the Archibald Prize, an artist may choose to paint a famous person because that’s what the public want to see, it’s engaging. It’s the same kind of idea but with a landscape. That’s what I was trying to do.
“It kind of worked out because I’ve got a show coming up anyway and this was the sort of work that I was doing for my show. I’ve got heaps of works on paper, which is similar to what I’ve done for the Wynne [Prize]. These little paintings, that are little watercolours, are then studies for my bigger paintings, which are in the show as well,” she said.
Despite believing her work was worthy of entry for the Wynne Prize, being selected as a finalist was none-the-less a surprise for Ms Rasdall.
“The Wynne Prize is one of the few art prizes you have to take the artwork to the gallery. It’s exciting because you get to go to the Art Gallery of NSW and there’s always famous artists dropping off their works.
“I’ve entered the Wynne Prize three times. I dropped off my work and then I didn’t really think much about it. I got an email completely out of the blue to tell me I was a finalist.
“I was in my studio and absolutely lost my head with excitement. It was so unexpected. No way in the whole world I would have ever expected that. I have this big sign on my wall for the last five years, ‘Get hung in the Wynne Prize’.
“The Archibald is the biggest portrait prize and the Wynne is on at the same time, it’s in the same exhibition. For landscape painters, it’s a big deal. It’s also really exciting because to be able to go to the art gallery and see your painting on the wall next to all your art heroes is pretty cool,” she said enthusiastically.
Although winning the Wynne Prize would be a dream for this rising artist, she says being hung as a finalist provides more than enough validation for her work. Asked who she will take to the opening night of the Wynne Prize, she does not hesitate before nominating her mother.
“I’m taking my Mum. My Mum has been so invested in my career, because obviously, she’s an art teacher. When I gave up my job to do art full-time, she has been beside me the whole way, cheering me on,” beamed Ms Rasdall.
In addition to her entry ‘Framed by life offshore’ for the Wynne Prize, Gemma Rasdall has an exhibition of her work at Bathers’ Pavilion at Balmoral, titled ‘Water access only’ showing from 07 May to 20 June. Her works are available for sale but at the time of writing, many had already been sold. Her work is also on the front cover of the May edition of Pittwater Life magazine.
Images: Natalie Page, Gemma Rasdall