JOURNEYING WITH YOUTH
By David McMahon, Communications Manager, Society of Jesus in Australia
How do you spread your paint? Generously, like butter? Or sparsely, like Vegemite?
Consider the opinion of Adelaide-based Marisha Matthews, the 2023 Artist in Residence at Saint Ignatius’ College, Adelaide. During her tenure, she explained to students from Year Eight to Twelve that “the paint should spread like butter, not Vegemite”.
Mary-Anne Hobbs, the college’s Curriculum Coordinator of Art, said: “Marisha’s expertise lies in painting large-scale compositions, in oil paint, of subjects ranging from flowers and plants to highly polished silver jugs. Our student-focused residence programme is a regular feature within the Art and Design calendar. As staff, we believe it fosters an understanding of the work of professional artists while creating an awareness of the importance of developing transferable specialist skills.
“Marisha’s focus, during the residency, was on delivering a process that when followed diligently creates impressive results. She instructed students in paint application using the brilliant analogy of butter and Vegemite. I assume she means soft butter! Another focus area has been expertly demonstrated through colour matching, using small pieces of white paper placed alongside colour reference material.
“Having been introduced to her range of techniques, the students’ results are stunning. It has been delightful watching them respond with enthusiasm and pride. Their paintings feature still life items, flowers and portraiture, all captured with precision and flair. Marisha’s generosity in terms of sharing her specialised materials as well as her depth of knowledge was deeply appreciated. Both students and staff now have a deeper working knowledge of an alternative art-making process.”
Marisha, who graduated from the Adelaide Central School of Art with Honours in 2019, works mostly in oils, with a particular focus on light, transparency, surfaces and reflections. Not surprisingly, she laughed when asked about her butter-versus-Vegemite technique. “This is what I said while talking to the students about the physical movement of painting. Part of ‘unfrightening’ process is to tell them that the movements involved in painting are really the same skills they use already. When they butter bread, they are ‘painting’ it. The depth of paint needs to have depth like butter, not a thin scraping of Vegemite. A lack of confidence usually means that less paint is applied and so some students need permission to be generous with paint.
“I’ve often said that in a student setting, terms like glazing and blending create unnecessary fear. Blending was invented by the Devil to get you to mess all your colours together! I tell them to paint the right colours in the right places and then to leave it alone. The only blending should be done by your eyes, and from across the room.”
During my conversation with Marisha, she raises a very interesting point about having been able to use her skills in several seemingly unrelated area of professional life. Specifically, she mentions the building industry and the film industry, among others. I immediately ask if she told the students at Saint Ignatius’ College about the many avenues that tie in to an artist’s transferable skills.
“Yes, I always point this out to students in general. Some students find it interesting, but to be honest I don’t always get much of a reaction when I say this. Students mostly stare into space waiting for a lesson to be over. However, I think it’s very important to explain to students that the range of careers available through a Visual Arts education are many and varied. It’s not just restricted to exhibitions and studios.
“There is constant learning when an artist is open to fresh environments and new challenges. I’ve worked in all kinds of occupations and with all kinds of materials. I’ve worked as a food stylist, a mosaic artist, an art director in film and also with an advertising agency in London. I’ve designed a cafe in China in a hospital and created props for many Australian films. I’ve also done school photography and photographed actors and models. In Greece, I once painted a roof, and I’ve learned to paint Persian miniatures in a bazaar in Iran.”
Having imparted so much knowledge to the students at Saint Ignatius’ College, what did Marisha in turn learn from the students during her time there?
“Whenever I’m with students I learn about teaching. I get better at teaching through watching what works and what doesn’t. It’s all about what I’m doing when painting has become so automatic that it barely counts as a conscious action. I need the students to question the action so that I can teach it to them. I’m understanding more with each residency – for instance, that most of painting can be taught without even unpacking the paints. It’s an explanation of the way that the three-dimensional world is converted to a visual material that can be seen and appreciated by others.
“I’m a little worried that manual skills are dying out and I’m surprised at how many boys particularly, and all students who are post-pen learners are unable to use their hands with dexterity. This may not bother them because they can certainly tap keyboards faster than I can, and their texting skills are amazing. But taking all of that into account means we may just have fewer painters in the future.”
What does she see as the characteristics of a talented junior artist?
“I consider art in a high school setting a research subject, with a visual conclusion. It requires great study, experiments, a deep understanding of the topic and a familiarity with both the history of art, and the work of contemporary practitioners.
“For students to have an area of personal interest is a huge advantage – to be able to follow fascination, and to actually have something to communicate is a great start. A student who is curious about the structure of bee society, or as I found at St Ignatius’ College, a student who’s interested in CCTV footage of interviews with criminals, will have something to investigate, and something to tell us about. This is a lot more interesting than painting for marks, which often means that a student will resort to the ‘usual suspects’ such as eating disorders, the internet, or our dystopian future.
“When I teach painting, a student who is open to learning is a joy. People who are natural painters, and there’s generally one in every class, are often relieved to have concrete steps to follow and not just vague suggestions like ‘express yourself’. I ask the students to stop expressing themselves until they have the skills to use the materials. When they can paint, they will have the tools to express anything they can think of.”
What were the highlights of Marisha’s time as Artist in Residence at the College?
“It was great to meet the art teachers and to see the new building under construction. It looks like it’s going to be amazing. It’s always a highlight to meet really engaged students. It seems that there’s always someone in every class who really wants to learn to paint. The Year Twelves are really committed and were happy to talk about their work. I really enjoyed the exercise with Year Elevens that I created in order to diversify students’ ideas and their perception of materials.
“I know from my own time in high school that students find it hard to isolate their own interests from the desire to produce work which will get good marks. Interesting work comes out of personal fascination with small things.
“For those who haven’t chosen art but have to endure it, I like to point out that all kinds of mastery involve the same skills. The design of a process is necessary to produce anything, whether it is art, sport or science. Essentially, the discipline is the same: Can I learn to do things I don’t necessarily want to do, in order to get the results that I want?
“Often, a student’s objection to art comes about because the subject has been taught without process. Most people feel as helpless with a blank canvas as they would with a violin or in a cockpit of a fighter jet, and they feel that paintings are produced by a type of magic that they will never understand. I think about my work with students as an unfrightening process in a way that opens doors and welcomes them in.”