Zoe Young

Zoe Young paints to capture fleeting moments in time. At the ramchackle barn she has transformed into a studio in the NSW Southern Highlands, Zoe spoke to Artist Profile about her recent projects, upcoming exhibition and the effect that motherhood and the Archibald have had on her practice.


What are you working on at the moment?
In my upstairs studio I’m just putting the last marks on a series of paintings about a mythical, popsical beach paradise titled Salt Life, which is being shipped to Chicago next week. It was created in Thailand where I was just doing a residency. It’s a pretty bonkers body of work – it couldn’t have been made anywhere else but Phuket!
Downstairs, it’s all about still-life. The compositions are a collage of things I’ve collected over the years or stolen from my husband Reg’s garden – so theoretically these paintings start before I enter the studio. Often I scavenge things from friends’ houses – “this is a lovely tea cup” – and once I’m happy with the arrangement, I start painting.

Do you do more than one painting from each arrangement?
I’ll generally do a new set-up for each work – each work tells a story; I’m not going to tell two stories about the same incident. I often get an idea about one thing and base the other objects around it. I just got obsessed by the book by Russell Drysdale and Jock Marshall, Journey Among Men. If I hadn’t had two kids I’d be on the road following their path right now. I always get all these ideas of what I want to do, and then remember I have two toddlers!

They’ll grow up though!
And they are growing up so quickly, I think that’s all right, I’m where I want to be right now, they’re inspiring me. My “Journey among Men” can wait.

Tell me about your recent commission for Barangaroo.
I don’t usually do commissions, but I liked the idea of being part of Barangaroo and the client was really enthusiastic about whatever I wanted to do. They just gave me the sizes and a deadline, the rest was up to me. I was watching a lot of Jacques Tati films and listening to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead on audio book while I painted, so the series ended up being a minimalist, limited palette, dada data kind of thing. The Barangaroo series led to the Chicago series.

You majored in sculpture, is that right?
I started at the National Art School when I was 17 and I kind of weaved my way in and out there, travelling a lot between stints, until I finally graduated when I was 30. I did my time in every department at some stage but yes, I majored in sculpture.

Do you still sculpt?
Not currently, but when I was artist in residence between Sturt College and Frensham School I focused on creating woodcuts and I enjoyed its tactile nature and quilting wood together with a nail gun. I’ve got a space allocated in the studio for woodwork and it’s quiet for now, but maybe not for long.

Did you teach during your residency?
I taught portraiture and drawing and it was a really rewarding experience, especially when one of my students won the Young Archies. Unfortunately I don’t have time to teach now, between painting and parenting there’s not much time for anything else.

I think at this point in my career there’s an art to navigating how you do your art, and the things you say no to are just as important as the things you say yes to. 2017 for me is about spending the time I need in the studio and pushing through with my own work.

Did your practice change when you had children?
Yeah! I’ve always struggled with deadlines, staying organised and focusing. Having children was a revelation, I realised I needed to pull my socks up, so I did. Pregnancy gave me a humbling sense of purpose and place in the world that inspired me to paint.

You have an exhibition coming up, what will that include?
I have a solo show coming up in April at Piermarq Gallery. It will focus on still-life and colour harmony. The objects are just a way to get in and then it all goes a bit abstract. I really enjoyed working with the things from our house. I brought a washing basket in one day and painted that, and it resonated with me. I try to keep it real to the objects around me and see them in a different light. Once the Chicago works are done I’ll resume painting portraits upstairs.

Tell me more about your approach to portraiture.
My favourite portraits are the ones that happen quickly, which I love because they are so of that moment and there’s fluidity in the paintwork. There’s a lot of people around the world with my portraits of them on beer coasters – it’s a good way to make ends meet while travelling! My work is more refined now, but has the same essence of engaging with a character, translating the living in one moment of life onto a flat surface to last longer.

Did the Archibald have a tangible impact on your career? [Young was a finalist in 2014 with her portrait of Torah Bright and in 2016 with Sam Harris].
Oh definitely! Torah was a total game-changer for me. I have to send two kids to day care to keep my studio practice running, so it was a blessing. It otherwise would have meant that I might have ended up like so many female painters, having a large part of my painting career gone for a while. It’s confirmation from your peers, and people know that you’re dedicated. Everyone in the industry knows it’s not just a hobby, but now other people realise it’s your career. It keeps punters off your back!

What’s a typical day in the studio for you?
I come up to the studio, and when the fire’s lit, the music’s chosen and lights are on I run out the door and get a coffee. When I get back I usually have this moment where I think of all the things I need to get done, and I want to run back outside and get another coffee! The first hour is all about motivating myself and then it’s like running – once you’ve run the first 100 metres you’re in the zone. I break the day swimming laps at the local pool. There’s a certain kind of tension that painting creates so I like to do something physical. It relaxes me and makes it easier to wander through my imagination and solve problems.

Zoe Young is represented by Piermarq Gallery, Paddington, NSW


Courtesy the artist and Piermarq Gallery, Sydney.

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