Mary Tonkin – Artist

I get the chance to have a look at exhibitions in galleries across Melbourne from time to time and sometimes I am delighted, other times I am underwhelmed… sometimes I drive by a gallery window, have a glance and move on.
Well to my surprise one sunny Saturday afternoon a few years back it was hot and I was enjoying the airconditioned comfort of the car… but then it hit me. I drove by the Works on Paper Gallery of Australian Galleries in Collingwood and was visually ‘hit’ by one of Mary’s works through a glimpse through the window.
I pulled up in a hurry and to my amazement, here was an exhibition dealing with the Australian landscape which begged me to look, I was drawn into the gallery by intoxicating colours, masterful drawing skills and a sense of arriving (not sure what that really means but it fits).
I said to the attendant in the gallery that “I have now seen a contemporary Masterpiece or three!” (She probably thought I was nuts…) As a person who grew up in the country and had camped and played about in the bush I immediately thought Mary’s works had hit the spot.
It looked as if she had gone “up to the top paddock”, found a dam surrounded with ugly messy scrub, found the beauty in it and bought the essence of that beauty and her depth of that experience to life. The scale, the colours the earthiness of it all, was, and still is so compelling and such a rich experience for me personally.
When I read she was to give a talk about her work it was more than I could hope for. It was a special experience I will not forget in a hurry. Readers I hope you enjoy Mary’s Interview as much as I have and seek out her works ‘in the flesh’ so you too can experience some of the raw essence and beauty of the Australian Landscape.
A HUGE Thank you to Caroline Field from Australian Galleries for allowing me access to one of their premier Visual Artists and organising the interview.

– Steve Gray…

Mary Tonkin is represented by Australian Galleries in Melbourne and Sydney.

Mary works on a flower and bulb farm at Kalorama in the Dandenong Ranges to the east of Melbourne. The farm has a fair bit of bush and is surrounded by National Park – In Mary’s words “it is paradise”.

How long have you been making art?

I went from high school to art school and have continued since then. I first used oil paint in year 11; it felt like a homecoming, a deeply familiar action and intoxication.

What are the main medium/s you work in…

At the moment I mostly draw in pencil/graphite, and paint in oils.

How do you describe your work, realistic, stylised, abstract, narrative, symbolic, other?

Currently it is mostly figurative landscape painting that employs local form (often encompassing multiple points of view) but generally not local colour. I work on site, en plein air and assess what I’m doing in the studio of an evening as the larger work (up to about five metres wide) is made in panels and is impossible to see on site.

What fascinates you?

I find the natural world an endless source of fascination and peace. The pulse of life that inhabits things is very moving.

Why are you an artist?

I need to make work to make sense of the world, of what I’m seeing and how I’m feeling. It makes me feel alive and attached to the world, a part of things. I love the capacity to draw the seen into oneself, to open oneself upon the seen – a kind of inherence of the seer in the seen. I love the opportunity simply doing this thing  (drawing or painting) affords to make sense of my interior life as I enjoy the presence of the exterior world.

How important is art for you?

Seeing great art intoxicates me, making it is both deeply frustrating and satisfying – it is also necessary.

What is it about Visual Art you find compelling?

The capacity of it to shake your heart and mind, to be far more than the sum of its parts, far more than the rendering of a thing or application of paint. For instance, those scruffily painted little Morandi paintings of dusty bottles are poems about time and exquisite beauty. And I’ll never forget seeing the Rothko room at the Tate for the first time, the charge they have, the powerful sense of being deeply rooted by gravity yet soaring, ones soul soaring with them. Who can explain that, the capacity of a few blocks of colour or muddy smears to generate those powerful bodily sensations and say so much about life?

Your art education was…?

Incredibly privileged. I studied painting at Monash at a time when there were staff sympathetic to painting and one or two who could actually teach it. After honours I went to do a summer school in New York at the New York Studio School. I went back the next year and stayed seven months on a scholarship. My teacher was Graham Nickson and his educational lineage was similar to the helpful stuff from Monash  (from Geoff Dupree) essentially English Formalist Modernist.

Nickson had been taught by Euan Uglow and was a great advocate of the French moderns I love: Cezanne, Bonnard and Matisse. It was a very intense few months that I’ve often wished I could have over again with the foresight to stay longer. I cannot explain just how thrilling it is to be in a place where the language of painting, its potency and potential is daily parlance. I struggled to make use of it because I had no sense of what content I wanted to convey. I could not make paintings without that question answered. Aside from which I dreamt of our bush and farm, ached for it and silence and solitude. New York’s art collections and small ramblings in galleries in the UK and Europe were just as edifying.

What is your earliest memory of art?

We had a jigsaw of Vincent Van Gogh’s bedroom painting as children. It haunted me, but I didn’t know it was a Vincent until the first year of Uni.  I just remembered it as a powerful, warm image that radiated love and familiarity.

Do you remember your first artwork?

Yes, after the Ash Wednesday bushfires I made little before and after images of the bush. It was hardly original, but a very instinctive response to the need to express the horror of it. I was ten. I knew no artists, had little concept of what art was.

Was art a “thing” that was encouraged in your family?

Yes and no. I think my Dad felt it was a suitably ladylike pursuit. Both my parents were immensely proud of anything I made, without understanding why I needed it so much I think. We went to no galleries and had very little art in the home.

Did the place where you grew up have an influence?

Absolutely, but more important was the manner in which we were raised in that place. My father taught us to pay attention to the world around us, to its mysteries, to enjoy it sensually and to wonder at the glory of it. He was a horticulturalist who asked us to identify the best forms or colours in a row of seedling tulips, to enjoy mud in our toes, the smell of the bush after rain, the marvel of migratory birds – he taught us to see, to question and to wonder. There is no better art education.

What or who inspires your art?

I think I’d prefer to say my work is compelled by my life, by my need to make sense of or process emotion. It is also a great daily joy to be scribbling or slopping paint around.

What caused you to choose the medium you currently work in?

I currently draw a lot in pencil/graphite as it is a fast and precise medium, and paint in oils because I love the smell and the mess of them and need the accuracy (I hate acrylic for instance which drops back in luminosity and darkens in tone as it dries).

If you mean more broadly why paint, simply because it best conveys the content I want. Painting is an inherently visceral process and medium – certainly compared to photography, it has the capacity to be a record of elapsing time, of sensations and associations that arise during the process. For me it is also an incredibly present medium – when everything is working well it records my state of being.


Has your work changed much since your early efforts? (e.g. as a student).

I think the content has not changed greatly, its just that I’m vastly more aware of what I think it is and want it to be and have a great deal more experience with the vocabulary of painting. Through undergraduate at Uni I painted a lot of portraits and still life images. I was intent on making the image look like the thing I was painting, now I am concerned with making it feel like a relationship between the thing I am seeing and my internal state. I think I have much more control of what I’m doing now, I can at least make better guesses about how controlling the tonal values, narrowing the colour range, shifting scale of some parts or combining multiple points of view might effect how the image reads. Very simply, it is possible to make poems naively, but they’re far more likely to have the desired impact if one has a greater grasp of the language. I’m still learning.

Do you have much contact with other artists?

Not as much as I’d like, but probably as much as my need to work obsessively and be something of a hermit allows. I find it hard to get a conversation about painting at a level beyond what medium you use or what you paint. That dearth, and I think it is an educational want, makes me feel lonely at times.

Can you name a favourite artist or three… and why?

My ‘teachers’, the great touchstones are Cezanne, Bonnard and Matisse. Cezanne because I am there, I feel the air, smell the fruit and sense the deep honesty of his being. Bonnard because he makes me wonder and delight, because he gets to the internal radiance of things – the shimmer each and everything has. Matisse because he is so thoroughly sensuous, his colour is subtle and exquisite and frankly, he turns me on. My favourite Australian artists are Clarice Beckett, Elizabeth Cummings, Emily Kngwarreye, Sally Gabori and Penny Coss.

Have you had any “big breaks” in your career?

I am the luckiest person I know.  Having an honours year painting acquired by the NGV (development collection), an Elizabeth Greenshield’s grant to travel, a fees grant for the New York Studio School, the Dobell Drawing prize and a sale to build a studio were all crucially important lucky breaks.

Do the seasons affect your work or work habits?

Mostly the length of daylight is a large factor. I’m constantly frustrated at the lack of time in winter, just not enough daylight hours. The weather is also a problem, as I can’t often work when it is wet – occasionally the site allows me to set up a tarp.

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?

Absolutely. When I learn to paint, I want them to be utterly unforgettable. I want them to dwell within a viewer’s somatic memory, as clearly as though they had been there and felt similar sensations.

What advice would you give to an artist just starting out?

Draw, draw and draw. Drawing is the bones, it will tell you why you are looking at something, what interests and compels you about the thing or the nature of your looking. Drawing is largely free of the baggage of ‘art’ making, it is quite pure and raw; more directly related to a persons unconscious gestures, it almost cannot help but be of the persons mind body as they respond to the seen. A student should draw until they understand what content it is that they wish to convey and then master the medium or mediums that best communicates that content – if it isn’t simply drawing.

By content I do not mean the thing that can be easily articulated, the social or political subtext that will satisfy your lecturers, I mean the thing that will not go away, the thing about looking, about the way you live your life and make sense of things that is consistently present. A student should be deeply stubborn, clever enough to both listen and ignore advice that doesn’t feel right, mostly they must come to know, trust and be true to themselves. No one will tell you it is a ‘real’ job, few will value what you do and there will be few if any pecuniary rewards. Good Luck!

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Compiled and edited by Steve Gray © 2011+

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5 Responses to “Mary Tonkin – Artist”

  1. maria on June 20th, 2011 6:15 pm

    absolutely the most inspiring painter ive seen for quite awhile, I dont need to read an essay on this work for it to speak to me, the brilliance of
    mary’s work does that quite well! thanks for sharing

  2. Ursula on August 9th, 2011 10:32 am

    Absolutely beautiful work! I adore your drawings. I am in love with the bush too and understand your sense of serene knowing. Living in Callignee and surviving Black Saturday has intensified my questioning and explorations. Cheers Ursula

  3. Sue on November 16th, 2011 1:52 pm

    Thanks so much for sharing this interview – I found it a fascinating insight into the life of a talented artist. Many thanks. Sue

  4. Liz on November 21st, 2011 1:03 pm

    What a wonderful discovery to come across this website and then to discover this gem of an interview. I have been in to see your work over the years there in Collingwood it certainly felt like an oasis in the gallery, stepping in off the street. I too feel that your work has a very authentic and contemporary Australian bush feel…that lush, wet undergrowth… I love the tints and tones that you graduate and juxtapose for the hues that you use. Your paintings have a wonderful tactile quality to them… Thank you for giving a little insight behind the artist.

  5. rita lazauskas on July 21st, 2013 6:27 am

    What a great interview and wonderful paintings. Alas I can’t see them in the flesh, but being familiar with Mary’s work I can see they are truly masterful. I have been a fan of Mary Tonkin for sometime and have also had the great pleasure and privilege to spend a short time with Graham Nixon at a drawing and painting marathon here in Australia some years ago. It is such a delight to see someone who works from life and can find excitement in exploring their immediate environment without trying to pander to the ‘political and social subtexts’ that the art world seems to favour. I am excited to see Mary’s work go from strength to strength and can see a great leap in this work in her understanding of colour. After spending the last 10 years drawing, drawing I think I might pick up a brush and some colour! I am excited – thanks.