Fiona Currey-Billyard

For Fiona Currey-Billyard, ocean currents and landscapes are custodians of memory. Through the processes of stapling or nailing and soaking her work in salt water, Currey-Billyard imbues the memories of specific sites into the fibres of her materials. The memories solidified through this practice are her own, or others’ that are framed by her own experiences.

An artistic life was inevitable for Currey-Billyard, who descends from a “family of artists,” her mother a visual artist, and her father a collaborator who also wrote limericks. Growing up, Currey-Billyard had always drawn, a practice “just given” in the household. She studied at East Sydney Technical College (now the National Art School), and rather than pursue the career of a professional artist she had “a million jobs” overseas, and across Australia and the Torres Strait, including working on a prawn trawler.

It was a visit to the Dobell Drawing Prize in Sydney that prompted Currey-Billyard to consider more deeply how she wanted to spend her time. She noted that “I never really had anything interesting to say as an artist until I got older. And then suddenly you reach a certain age, and you go, ‘You know what? I think I might just embrace it.’” Believing that “a life lived creatively is a good life,” she decided to pursue a Master of Fine Art at the National Art School in Sydney, which she completed in 2022.

In her canvas, linen, and paper works, Currey-Billyard uses staples or nails to map out ocean currents where significant personal events have occurred. The staples or nails are then “rusted with the water from that place, in an attempt to solidify that memory.” While these metal adhesives often have connotations of finality and danger, for Currey-Billyard “the stapling process is one that attempts to pin down and adhere the memory to something” – to capture the uncapturable, like the ocean currents themselves.

The memories depicted in her texturally rich works are multifaceted and balanced; they are not all positive or all negative, but allow for a spectrum of joy and sorrow to seep in. This sentiment is echoed in her limited colour palette, favouring washes of blacks, whites, and earthy browns with intermittent glimpses of glitter.

In her work For the Drowned, 2019, Currey-Billyard marked the surface of a piece of large-scale paper with short, single lines in graphite pencil. Each line represented an asylum seeker who has drowned seeking refuge in Australia. The work was conceived after hearing people say that “drowning was meant to be peaceful.” Having almost drowned as a child and needing to be rescued herself, Currey-Billyard knows there is “nothing pleasant or peaceful about it.” Through the process of demarking these lines, which together form an enveloping seascape, Currey-Billyard raises needed attention and memorialises these individuals.

While other works are infused with seemingly joyous memories, like all memories they are also tinged with a sense of sadness. Last Time I Swam with my Father II, 2022, maps the ocean currents near Port Stephens, where Currey-Billyard once swam with her father, using swarms of rusted staples on browning paper. Even though these times were cheerful for Currey-Billyard, her father is no longer here with her and, thus, a sense of absence and grief also permeates the work.

Despite the memories being of personal significance, Currey-Billyard “want[s] people to engage with it themselves, without knowing [her] story.” She rejects ascribed interpretations and didactics, preferring to provoke the viewer to pin down their own memories, however slippery or immaterial.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 62. 

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