Tylden artist Carmel Seymour creates art that is both beguiling and mysterious. She talks to Calder Western about her Icelandic adventures, the serendipitous nature of watercolours, the importance of the natural world and her new project, creating botanical illustrations of poisonous plants.
You spent several years in Europe and Iceland. Have your travels influenced your art and your creative process?
Travelling made me appreciate home a lot more, especially the flora and fauna. The landscape in Iceland is incredibly beautiful and so completely at odds with the Australian landscape. I found myself examining micro pockets of mosses, lichens and rocks things I had never really noticed in Australia. Now I see this small botanical world everywhere here.
Iceland, due to its isolation, has created a unique blend of musical artists and designers. How did you find the creative scene over there?
It’s quite amazing, everyone is an artist or some kind of creative over there. There are strong traditions of poetry and theatre. The arts are much more central in culture than here in Australia. Reykjavik is also very small so all these wonderful events spill into each other. Everything was a bit more D.I.Y. There weren't as many big galleries and institutions so tiny artist-run spaces could draw the same crowd as a museum, it made it very exciting.
You have said that the work you were undertaking in the fashion industry, as a pattern maker and designer, left you “feeling cold”. Is this due to the functional nature of ready-to-wear fashion, that it is relatively limited in its creative expression?
The fast-fashion company I worked for didn't allow much room for creativity, it's the nature of that aspect of the fashion industry. We were not making clothes for fashion leaders and our customers didn’t wear anything too daring unless they had seen it somewhere else first. It was a lot of reinterpretation. It was exciting in my early twenties for a while but I never felt like I fitted in there. I loved drawing the designs and eventually, it became apparent that drawing was my favourite part of the job.
Considering that you love creating fashion, do you make any of your clothes?
It’s been over a decade since I worked in fashion and I feel I have been wearing the same few cardigans almost every day since then! I do enjoy making things, I learned to knit well while I was in Iceland and I still sew a little. My fashionista days are behind me I fear, I’d rather be gardening than working out what to wear.
You like watercolours due to their “unpredictable” nature, that they can change a works direction. Do you like to be surprised by the creative process, that by relinquishing some control, a hidden truth may be revealed?
Some lovely organic things can happen when using watercolours. Spills and bleeds and colour separations. It can feel a bit like magic when unexpected things appear. This was important in some of my older works. I have been painting in a more controlled way for the last few pieces and that is nice too. It's always surprising how a work will evolve, I try to leave some areas unplanned so they can evolve on the page. It is a bit harder to do this with watercolour as it is almost impossible to remove a mark once you have made it. I have been making some ceramics in the last few years and I find that same unpredictable element with the glazing process.
How do you know when a work is complete? Does it “speak” to you?
It is really hard. I often think something is finished and then I need to add to it as it is on its way to the framer. It is very easy to get lost in the details and I often have to take a step back and examine whether that area is important to the overall work. Sometimes my sketches of works look better than the finished ones and yet I think I could keep reworking things infinitely if I had the time.
What kind of source material do you use as inspiration?
I take a lot of photos of nature. I have hundreds of images of rocks, lichens, mushrooms, etc that I have taken all over the world. I like looking through old photographic books, National Geographic magazines or old home magazines for imagery. I have been looking at lots of botanical illustration, early scientific imagery and explorer’s notes lately. Inspiration comes from all sorts of places from film, pop culture, fiction, and poetry.
What artists inspire you and have informed your work?
While I was at art school I discovered artists like Amy Cutler, Marcel Dzama and Shary Boyle who all have figurative drawing as a major part of their practice. I love the storytelling in their work and that has remained an important element for my drawing. Seeing work like theirs allowed me to explore a more illustrative language and feel it was a legitimate form of artistic expression. Even though I am not such a prolific oil painter, figurative painting is what I find myself most drawn to. I love the works of Bonnard, Munch and Peter Doig for their colour and texture and Casper David Friedrich for his drama.
Do you have a favourite colour palette?
Not really, just lots of colour. There are so many vibrant and unexpected colours in the natural world I just follow them.
I know you sketch your ideas first. Are there many sketches that do not make it to a finished piece of art?
I generally sketch all my bigger works in A4 or A3 first, just to get a sense of the composition. Some of these sketches are my favourite works. I think because the watercolour can be so unforgiving it is important to play the idea out loosely first, often really unexpected changes happen because of these sketches.
What was the first piece of art you created that you were truly happy with?
I can’t quite remember but it was a thrill when I sold my first piece. A wonderful art teacher told to us the money from the first artwork you sell to buy another artwork to mark the occasion. I still have the very special handmade garnet ring I bought with that first sale and it reminds me of the excitement I felt as an early artist.
How do you want people to feel when looking at your work? Do you like it if they see or feel a different concept to what you intended?
I hope to provoke curiosity in the viewer. My imagery comes from such a wide range of ideas that it can be fairly ambiguous so I love to hear different interpretations.
Have you ever doubted your artist's abilities or vision?
All the time. Art is so subjective and for the most part, it is made alone in a room without much feedback. It’s hard not to doubt yourself but it is just part of the process. If something is enjoyable to make and makes me laugh or keeps me curious I usually know I am on the right track.
You have said that you would dream of attending art school long before it happened. Have you had other dreams that have come true?
I had actual dreams of going to art school long before I ever considered it as a realistic option. When I was working in fashion I think my subconscious was telling me to move on, not so much a premonition as a little push. If something comes up in my dreams it is often an anxiety I haven't addressed.
Your brother Kieren Seymour is also an artist. Did you grow up in a creative home?
My brother Kieren is also an artist and my youngest brother Liam is an actor. They are both brilliant stars. We were all encouraged to follow our interests as children. Mum would borrow a tonne of books from the library and we all did extra classes in art or drama outside school. Dad is a builder and was always making things, he has helped us all build things for our artworks. We are a lucky family and are all supportive of each other, I think that is where the creativity comes from.
What has been your favourite exhibition to date and why?
My second solo show at Helen Gory Gallerie was really great. I had been living in Iceland for a while and the work was made in this intense, dark winter, locked away in a studio in the middle of nowhere. It was great to share it. I am also really proud of the work I made for Delineation at the Town Hall Gallery this year. It was mostly made during my pregnancy and in the first months of my daughter's life. It felt like a great achievement to get it done and it contains some research into historical medicine which was super interesting to discover.
When and why did your interest in the unknown, occult and different forms of mysticism begin?
I have always been interested in the fantastical. I remember making magic potions in a bucket in the backyard when I was a kid and I had a witch-themed birthday party for my tenth birthday. I enjoy researching things on the edge of science or the history of occult practices. I like the secretive nature of these areas and it allows a bit of mystery into my artwork.
I know you have a baby girl called Winter. What has been your biggest surprise about motherhood?
So much changes when you become a mother. I don’t think anything can prepare you for it. In a way you are only living in the present moment; they change so fast and every day is so different from the day before. I had to let go of the expectations I had of myself before she was born. Instead of feeling guilty about not getting anything done, I focus on the fun stuff with her.
Choosing a child’s name can be incredibly difficult. How did you decide on the name Winter?
Winter was a name that had been floating around for a while, it went in and out of favour but after a very difficult labor, we decided this baby needed to be called Winter. My husband is Icelandic and it seemed fitting in that respect as well. I had wanted to give her an Icelandic name but many of the beautiful names we loved became horribly mangled with an Australian accent.
What do you do in your downtime? Have you any hobbies outside of art?
I’m enjoying my garden and maintaining that takes a lot of time. It is so nice to see the changes each season especially up here where the seasons are so different.
How would you describe your relationship with nature?
It is so important to be in nature. On an average day, I can see twenty different bird species in my backyard, it is better than the television. I used to research magic and mysticism and was always looking for these elements of wonder, new discoveries and fringes of our understanding but I feel I can find so much of that in the natural world now. Just last week I did a mycological tour on Mount Macedon. I saw mushrooms that looked like something from a Disney movie and I would have walked right past them if we hadn’t slowed down and examined what was around us.
How did you find yourself in Tylden? Was the move to a country lifestyle always on the cards?
I had wanted to move out this way before I moved to Iceland. When we returned after six years my husband and I both found Melbourne crowded and overwhelming and missed the sense of community we had experienced in Reykjavik. Tylden is in a great position ten minutes in three directions to Trentham, Woodend and Kyneton. I love my garden, the great walks in Trentham, Blackwood and the fantastic sense of community particularly in Kyneton. I feel less and less interested in Melbourne the longer I live here.
Where should people visit while in Tylden?
There is a great view of Mount Macedon from the swing set on the main road but it’s pretty sleepy here, maybe just come to my house for a cup of tea.
If you can play the lead in any movie, what character would you play and why?
I would never do that, I’ll leave it to my brother Liam.
What are you working on right now?
My last body of work was closely linked to motherhood and while researching herbal cures related to birth I have become interested in the other qualities of plants. I am currently working on some botanical illustration style drawings of poisonous plants. It makes me feel like a witch to be playing with these covert plants.
Carmel Seymour's works can be viewed at carmelseymour.com