Irene Wellm – Artist

Irene Wellm is a Melbourne based artist whose large scale oil paintings of mysterious and magical scenes reveal a fascination for the human psyche.

With a career spanning 30 years, Irene has exhibited extensively both in Australia and internationally. Her work likewise is in international and Australian collections notably Artbank and Ballarat Regional Gallery.

Irene is currently working long hours in her Clifton Hill studio as she completes work for her first solo exhibition with Catherine Asquith gallery, who she joined earlier this year. “Something Like Us” is due to open on Thursday 8th October, 6 – 8pm. Irene’s work can also be seen online at


Image: Something Like Us, oil on linen, 122 x 183 cm, 2009

Artist’s statement…
Painting for me is a way to tell a story. It provides a conversation with the unconscious and is a way to gain insight, a way to become civilised.

Most people aren’t what they appear to be. We are ambiguous expressions of varying facts and fictions at different times, and as an artist I am interested in finding a way to express this about myself, and about people in general. The background to my work is inspired by a personal interest in depth psychology and Carl Jung’s theories on the process of individuation.

Recurring themes are searching, displacement and the idea of ‘home’, or belonging – where do I belong? So a painting may address this along the lines of ‘lost and displaced’ or may express associations of where the feeling of belonging is met, or the search for such. The sense of a dreamscape is often in my work, whose meanings are also explored through the physical handling of the painting style.

Have you always been interested in art?
Yes, ever since I can remember, I have liked being creative by drawing and writing. My family on my mother’s side was particularly creative, and my mother had been on the path to becoming an opera singer when she was in Denmark after WW2, but she got tuberculosis and it stopped all that. My Aunt creates pictures by weaving that have been quite large in the past – some bigger than my work!

My earliest work of art was in my older sister’s room, on her wall, in ink. It was grand, but my parents apparently didn’t think so! I was 5, supposed to be having a nap. But the allure of the ink bottle on the desk was too great.


Image: Von dem Vater, oil on linen, 152.5 x 122 cm, 2008

What is your earliest memory of art?
A Salvadore Dali painting – one of his more gruesome ones, Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), 1936. I was probably no older than ten, and it was my mother’s book. I remember sitting on the floor and staring at it for ages, trying to fathom what on earth it was all about.

Some say a measure of an artwork is the ability for it to hold a persons attention or cause the viewer to come back after an initial glance and become captivated by the work, is that so for your works or an intention of yours?
That certainly is what I hope for, that my work might live on a little in the minds of those who see it. I think some part of me wishes to make art that makes a difference in some way. I know from my experience that there are paintings I have seen by other artists that live in me continually, and they have broadened my language and visual perceptions of my environment. I think a good artwork contains a dynamism even within its stasis as a physical structure, and it holds this movement like a life force. One can only aspire!

Which is more important to you, the subject of your painting, or the way it is executed?
I try to give equal importance to both, because with my current work the way the paint is laid down is an important part of the language about an idea, so it all ties in together. I like to use the paint in a more expressive way that will add depth of meaning to the subject, so I vary the technique accordingly.

What are the main medium/s that you work in?
I work primarily in oil paint on canvas or lately, a fine linen that is oil primed. It suits the way I work in that the weave doesn’t interfere visually with the thin layers I mostly use. Oil primer allows the paint to sit on top, rather than sink in as happens on an acrylic primed surface.

Do you work from life, or from photographs or from imagination or some other method?
All of the above. Sometimes I begin with an interesting photo I might have found, from my own collection, or from the Internet, and I play around with it as one might do with a collage, but on the computer. Other times, the seed of an idea flashes through my mind, and then I go on a hunt for references or make my own, and piece it together. After that, I draw it up on my canvas and let another process begin. The collage work is really only a starting point most of the time, because then the painting process takes over, and decisions get made along the way accordingly.

It’s a bit like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle – every new development sets off another conundrum, and I keep going until the last piece slots into place. Of course, its not always so straight forward… It can really be an emotional roller coaster, with one day up, the next really low. And when there’s the added pressure of a show approaching, it can bring a lot of sleepless nights. But mostly by now I have learnt that I just have to trust the process, and generally I will get there in the end.

When you create your work is it somehow an emotional relief as you do it or at the end?
Not so much an emotional relief but a joy that starts to bubble up when things start to pull together towards the end. Before that I can get quite stressed and impatient.

Would you say your paintings reveal something private about yourself?
Most definitely, they do, but half the time it takes me until long after they’ve been completed to really understand what that might be. Because of my working method and my interest in ideas from the unconscious being allowed to come through, it seems to be inevitable. Of course, then people want to know what it is they mean, and I have to say, well, I’m not sure, I don’t know yet. And if I have a clue, well, then I don’t really wish to share such things with a stranger anyway. And really, it doesn’t matter that I don’t know, because people will always bring their own ideas and experiences and their own unconscious with them – which can then make for a very interesting discussion.

So mostly I prefer to leave the mystery within rather than analysing it too much.

Does some of your current work reflect your earlier works?
I find that the making of work has a cycle, one that goes around and comes back to ways of seeing that you did when you first started to paint. But you never arrive at the same point as you did, so it’s like a spiral. Ideas develop and mature as you do. So, yes, I constantly find echoes of past paintings, especially lately. I keep finding myself in the forest, but thankfully not as a little girl anymore!

Recently my work has become more about people again, which was what I was interested in during the ‘80’s and early ‘90s.


Image: Siren, oil on linen, 142.2 x 152.4 cm, 2009

How did your first solo show go?
I had my first solo show the year after I graduated from Melbourne State College (now Melbourne Uni) in 1986. It was at the long defunct Roar Studios in Fitzroy, and I exhibited the paintings I did in my final year. In hindsight, it was probably too soon, but I just assumed that’s what you did if you wanted to be an artist. It seemed very natural.

It was a good night with friends and family, and I even sold two paintings. It’s so long ago, I don’t recall any reviews or such.

I have a long exhibition history of various solo and group shows from that time on, all at various cafes and artist run spaces up until 1999. After that it was with commercial spaces.

Did you have any idea about how the art world worked in the beginning?
I had absolutely no idea. My training had been for teaching, and that’s what was focused on, not how to be an artist – although we were taught by artists, including Terry Batt, Godwin Bradbeer and Claire Day. We had an incredible professional practice regime in those years, hours of drawing and painting. How could I teach after experiencing that? The main turning point came after hearing Wendy Stavrianos give a talk in one of Suzanne Davies’ Contemporary Art classes. That was it – I had to paint forever!

After graduating, I wanted to do a post-grad course at RMIT, but I didn’t get in, and I didn’t know anything else about art schools. I was very naïve, very young. So I went and found myself a studio to work in, found part time work, and just kept going.


Image: Silent Dreaming: The Warning, 152 x 178 cm, 2006 (Collection of Ballarat Regional Gallery)

You have been exhibited many times since that first showing and been represented by some quite prestigious dealers – has it met your expectations?
I think, first of all, that a lot of my expectations were unrealistic. My first commercial gallery was Gallery 101, and I left them after a year to try and find my place in what I believed was a gallery with more kudos.

I had felt that I was lost in a large, much older stable, and I wanted to be in amongst artists my own age, where I believed the ‘pulse’ would be…. I’m sure I came across to Diana as incredibly ungrateful. Thankfully, she still talks to me! I respect what she does immensely, and her gallery was a beautiful place to show my MFA work.

After that I was taken on by Nellie Castan, and it made a lot of difference to everyone else that I was there. I know now that it helped my need to be seen as an artist of merit. That’s the honest truth. I was so thrilled to be a part of that scene, and it did my ego an awful lot of good!! But it was not meant to be forever, as life had different plans for me.

I had believed that a gallery would support an artist through their whole career, but I found out that this is probably an old fashioned idea. And not one that NCG could honour for various reasons. The experience of being asked to leave was a very painful one, but a good wake up call. Leaving there relieved me of a lot of pressure to “be” someone, someone that it wasn’t in my nature to be.

During this time I was taken on by Michael Carr in Sydney, but that was short lived as he went bankrupt after a few years. But my one show there went really well.

Since then I haven’t pursued a gallery in quite the same way. I needed to let someone find me, someone who would understand where my work was coming from, and hopefully build a relationship from there. This is what has happened with Catherine Asquith, where I am about to have my next show.

Do you have any cultural connections that you think may be relevant to viewing you work?
I have cultural connections to Germany and Lithuania, providing me with influences as I grew up. Ghost stories seemed to be everywhere! Faeries and other creatures inhabited the trees and flowers, and goodness knows what trolls lived in dark places. The dead walked among us, and to spook my elders was the greatest challenge for me (I learnt this talent from my maternal grandmother).

As I am growing older, I seem to be developing a strong connection to my German side, especially as I am mostly attracted to German painters – Anselm Keifer, Neo Rauch and Daniel Richter to name a few. I think the attraction is the cultural element, and Germany’s history of Romanticism in connection to the forest. A lot of my work over the years has had elements about a person being connected to nature in one way or another.

In 2000 you were one of three Australian finalists in the UBS Art Award in London which traveled to Basel, Zurich, Geneva, Monaco, & Munich. What was that experience like? Did it lead to further success for you?
That particular time in my life was such a turning point! I was at the VCA doing my Masters degree, and the opportunity came up to enter a new prize. My supervisor Su Baker encouraged me to try – I almost backed away as I didn’t feel I had anything current in my work that was up to scratch for an international competition.

The experience was exhilarating and frightening all at once. I was chosen as one of three finalists from Australia, and we were flown to London by the UBS Corporation to partake in a huge event. The show was held at the Whitechapel Gallery, and was judged by Nicholas Serrota from the Tate. I have never seen so much money put into something for art. They flew all the artists (worldwide – twenty or so) and their work there. They put us up for a couple of nights at a big hotel, did a swanky catalogue, and generally made us feel great.

After that was done, I stayed in London with a friend who was there from the VCA on exchange at Slade Art School. We were on a houseboat on the Thames! Then I traveled to Madrid and Bilbao, Spain and Paris, France for another two weeks, looking at art and just walking everywhere.

As to where it led, well, here in Australia, the whole event barely registered a blip, as far as I know. That was a strangely disconcerting experience, after all the fuss I had experienced in the UK. I really don’t know how much external success it granted me when I returned, but as far as my painting was concerned, I launched immediately into a new body of work with real confidence. I think that was what the whole experience gave me – a greater confidence in myself as an artist.


Image: Untitled (Fall), oil on canvas, 168 x 168 cm, 2000

How do you continue to grow, or is this not important?
This is really important to me. All my creative and personal life, developing who I am and how I create is all that has mattered to me. And as I get older, it matters more and more.

It is often commented to me about how my work has changed over the years, that I don’t do the same thing over and over. It’s really been a long journey finding my way as a painter. I don’t know how young kids just go out and do instant styles – I guess we’re all different, thank goodness! But for me, it was trial after trial, and a lot of exploration of other artists. I know now I could never have done anything differently, because you are who you are.

The ‘Art Market’ may not have been able to keep up with me, but that’s their problem. Well, actually, it’s yours too if you really just do art to sell. And of course, I want to sell my work too, but my deepest creative impulses never seemed to have the same agenda! I was and am driven from a place that has it’s own path, so that has effected my career greatly. I’m pretty sure I even lost representation by one gallery because of it. But what do you do?

If I try to do what I think is the way to go commercially, it all dries up inside me and I get bored with what I’m doing after a year. I feel empty, and really, there’s no point painting then. Conversely, that’s not to say it wasn’t all a part of a learning process ultimately. Every diversion, every exploration has taught me a lot.

Now, in my practice, I grow by continually looking at art – on the internet, in magazines, and go on the very infrequent overseas trip when I can – that is definitely the best way to grow. Each time I went overseas, it gave me such a distance to look at what I was doing so I could gain the courage to make a leap forward.

And personally, I am very interested in Jungian psychology and dream interpretation, and what Jung calls the process of individuation. I am currently devouring all the books I can on these subjects, and others by associated authors. It brings me into the interpretive fields of myth, fairytales, and alchemy, which are all rich pickings for my work as a painter and storyteller.

This aspect has never changed in my work.


Image: August, oil on linen, 134.6 x 167.6 cm, 2009

Do you feel there is a contradiction in the inherent nature of creativity and desire to experiment with the way the art industry seems to operate (e.g. establishing a recognisable ‘style’)?
Well, yes, I do. It goes back to what I was saying before about the need for growth. The Art industry is a business like any other in this current climate, and of course they want to make money, or gain kudos. I think an artist has to find a way to travel along on the outside of this if they really want to find their own personal way, especially in the early years.

After a while, you find you can dip your toes into that realm every now and again, but I don’t think it’s healthy for an artist to stay there. But when we are young, we want to be appreciated by whatever the Art authority is, and we are easily swayed. Well, at least I was. Maybe things are different for younger artists now. Their education is certainly different.

Perhaps it comes down to a separation from what was once seen as the inherent value of Art and the Artist in our culture? Ever since the concept of ‘Economy’ took a hold, it seems to me the more humanistic values have mostly been forgotten in lieu of fame and fortune, and ‘sell-ability’. It’s not that it is bad to want all that, it’s just that I think an artist needs to find more of a balance, more of a deeper understanding of where their internal creative motivations and drives are coming from, if they want to work confidently with the Industry without it effecting who they are within.

What do you believe is the hardest or most challenging aspect of being a professional artist… and the most satisfying?
The hardest is staying true to myself at all cost, regardless of whether others like or approve of what I do. I would say this has been my greatest challenge – to believe in myself, to persist and maintain courage in what I was doing, even when external ‘success’ was not apparent. And to learn that ‘success’ has different meanings and that things take time.

The most satisfying is being able to paint, and making work that is interesting to me. And the feeling I get when a work starts to come together!

Every day I am grateful that I can come to my studio and work.

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Compiled and edited by Amanda van Gils © 2009+


4 Responses to “Irene Wellm – Artist”

  1. michelle on September 17th, 2009 10:42 am

    What a riveting read. I just can’t wait to see Irene’s next show now. 🙂

  2. Irene Wellm - Artist Interview : ArtStuff on September 17th, 2009 2:38 pm

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  3. Artist interview - Irene Wellm : ArtStuff on September 21st, 2009 8:29 am

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  4. Gabrielle Jones on November 6th, 2010 1:55 pm

    A really interesting interview from an authentic artist. So brave and honest. I don’t think it is age that allows us to know ourselves -artistically or otherwise. It’s the ability and time taken to reflect on experiences. We all need to make the mistakes, we are often driven to succeed and do our best (otherwise, we couldn’t continue in art for very long)and need to learn what makes us tick. I, too see my art practice as a never ending circle/spiral, and noticing the “return visits” is important to untangle what it is that makes your work unique. I alos think many artists struggle with the commercial V creative needs, and I too, get bored with my work if it doesn’t challenge me, so doing the same thing again and again has no attraction. I wish it did – it’d be a whole lot easier! (and financially rewarding). I reckon changing and challenging yourself goes with the artistc territory – see Picasso. I often wonder whether he would make it today in our “brand-driven” art market. Great interview Amanada