Aclaimed painter Rose Wilson. Archibald prize finalist 2012.

Rose Wilson

Words by Steven Winstanley
Images by Tara Moore

Rose Wilson is a warm, generous and incredibly talented artist who allowed Calder Western into her beautiful historic home and studio. She talks here about her humble beginnings, her ascent within the art world and her little gallery in Trentham.

Were you a creative child?

Yes, I remember as a child the kids in my class would pay me in Sunny Boys [flavoured ice blocks] and lollies in return for me doing illustrations and flamboyant headings for their school projects. And I think my mother still has a tiger I painted by numbers at a very young age. She throws nothing out!

What words of advice would you give a young Rose Wilson?

I was a weedy, shy, awkward kid and lacked confidence, like most kids, and I was not alone. Every day at school you seemed to dodge a bullet. It was tough, which I think added to my self-esteem issues as a youngster. If I could whisper in the ear of a young Rose Wilson, I would be constantly telling her to feel the fear and do it anyway. Never bork at any challenge, as I think that fear stopped me from doing a lot way back then. Life has a habit of balancing out and once out of the school of hard knocks, I left that awkward kid behind and embraced life, work, love, travel, adventure and thrills; and experienced a full life and rare opportunities. Although fear would rear its ugly head at times, I had to push myself to challenge the unknown.

I think my only regret was I didn't start my artistic vocation till later in life, but fate perhaps played a part in this, and my life made a sharp turn in my late twenties.

After high school, you didn’t study art but business administration. What inspired you to change directions and study drawing?

That’s correct. I came from a middle-class family: my father worked hard and my mother looked after five children. We lived very modestly and there were no airs and graces, yet it was still a good upbringing and growing up in the neighbourhood was fun.

All of us kids knew ‘our lot in life’ and that was to finish school as best we could and then get a job, and that’s exactly what we did. Any fantasies about becoming an artist were never entertained, and this idealist notion was suppressed for many years. The catalyst that changed everything was when I twenty-eight, I decided to travel for the first time to Italy. Not for the wonders of this cultured land of art, architecture, and history. Nope. It was for soccer, to see the world cup.

It happened when I first stepped foot into St. Peter's Basilica in Rome: just the sheer size and beauty stopped me in my tracks! I was totally overwhelmed and in awe of this wonder with its opulent interior and breathtaking architecture. No matter where I turned, towering above me were gigantic and magnificent Renaissance paintings. They were breath-taking! So from that day forward, whatever lay dormant was unleashed! The more I looked, the more I wanted, and I couldn’t get enough. The artistic side of me was tapped and I drank as much as I could, where ever I went. For two months I soaked up everything like a sponge and visited as many museums, galleries and art attractions I could find, not just in Italy but in Scotland as well.

When I finally returned to Sydney, the first thing I did was enroll at the International Art School and I was fortunately accepted.

Years later I returned to St Peter's, and once again the flood gates of emotion opened up. It was difficult to compose myself, after all, this is where it all began.

You headed out to east Arnhem land and taught within an Aboriginal community? Can you talk a little about this experience?

Living in a remote Aboriginal community gave me a good grounding for storytelling and symbolism, which is evident in my work. I loved to just sit and listen to the stories and watch the local artists paint or carve away while they talked about their dreaming.

While living there I would sketch a lot. I dropped out of arts school to follow love and adventure up north, so keeping up my skills was paramount, and my new found love of art was still raw and fresh. Often while out hunting or fishing, I’d take my sketch pad. We’d sit in a circle chatting and the women would say, "Whatchu gunna do with those drawings Rose?" I’d laugh and say "I am gunna paint big bullah ones, and there gunna be in a big bullah gallery and I am gunna be famous!" We’d all laugh. Funnily enough, most of it came true. I am still waiting for the "famous" bit though. (laughs)

Living up north was an amazing adventure and one I will definitely cherish and hold dear to my heart. To have been fortunate enough to live in a remote area with the good people of Numbulwar. Even though they were cautious and shy, they soon embraced us and generously shared a small part of their culture and life with us. It was truly unforgettable.

Portrait of artist Tim Jones by painter Rose Wilson Artist in the studio. Painter Rose Wilson demonstrating her unique oil painting techniques. Painter Rose Wilson in her beautiful studio near Trentham Australia

What are your feelings on the commercialization of indigenous art?

Don’t get me started! (laughs) I must admit I haven’t thought about it as much while living so far away, stuck in my little bush bubble I affectionally call "My Brigadoon". But if I do have something to say, it’s usually about the commercialization prompting mass production. That’s how it started off: exploiting the aboriginal culture. One of the major problems with the commercialization of indigenous art is that most of the art is rarely controlled by indigenous people. It is the dealers, the art centres, and the art experts who earn both the money and fame in this industry. I thought the demand for Aboriginal art would have lessened over the years once the hype died down, yet that has not been the case.

The indigenous technique of dot painting to tell a story is globally recognised and sought after. In some cases, Aboriginal art is no longer about their own culture, but rather is a ‘white’ framework, almost completely driven by commercialism. You can't ignore that the increasing popularity of Aboriginal art is valuable for the indigenous people as long as it is handled with sensitivity and not greed. There are many communities or towns with indigenous artists that are forming groups, organizations or centres that give indigenous artists a voice within contemporary society; not necessarily making art about the sacred Dreamtime or creation, but creating new work with what it is to be in the present. It’s been a while since I’ve thought about it, as it was a lifetime ago, but I still collaborate with the community up at Gawa on Elcho Island, where the late and great musician Gurumul came from, and through Facebook I love to see how much the community we lived in has grown and become their own.

Your portraiture is visually dynamic: there are a lot of tones within the skin textures, a ‘ruddiness’ as it were. Why are your portraits rendered in such a manner? Could it be called a ‘signature style’?

I use my hands often to create my work. Oil paint comes straight from the tube onto my fingers and then onto the canvas; almost like my fingers are the brushes. It’s like one less obstacle, there are no added extensions to pass the creative message from the brain to the hand through, and the flow isn’t interrupted by a brush. I guess almost like the energy flow of “chi” in Tai Chi.

This idea came from my time in Arnhem Land. There was a ceremony at least once a week. The old women would cover the body of the performer in white clay and this accentuated the form, the tone, and the expression. So that is how I decided to paint my first series. That was many years ago and I have been painting that way ever since. I haven’t seen that technique used in such a way before so, yes, I guess you could say it’s a signature style. During the Daylesford Macedon Ranges Open Studios event, someone asked me if using paint like that was dangerous. My reply was, well, I am not dead yet! (laughs)

For you, what defines a great portrait?

A portrait doesn’t necessarily have to be realistic, be detailed or even resemble the sitter. What makes a great portrait is its connection with the viewer: to evoke emotion and, perhaps, if you are lucky, you get to see what the artist sees.

Which artists have been an inspiration in your life?

I am drawn to artists that tend to tell a story. As a younger artist, I studied and become infatuated by Frida Khalo and Gustav Klimt. Their work is provocative and riddled with symbolism. The Australian artist Fred Cress was another great storyteller through his imagery. DjongI Murrungun, a true storyteller, and his carved and painted totems. Wendy Sharpe, for her confidence in her work. I love the Aboriginal painter Julie Dowling and her very confronting and powerful works. Ben Quilty, for his expressiveness and rawness of his work. Ben is the "Mr Nice Guy" of art and has become a great patron of the arts in Australia and artists as well. I admire his passion and his ability to portray political messages through his art. Landscape painter Fred Willams, for his use of colour and style and light. Joshua Yeldham, for his provocative symbolism and storytelling in his landscapes.

Your painting style, which leaves little room for error, and your adventures into the depths of the outback, suggest you are a woman who likes the thrill of the unknown, adventure and maybe to live a little dangerously sometimes. Is this a fair observation?

As I mentioned, I lacked the confidence to try new things as a youngster, though I was a dreamer, and the thrills and adventures would remain in my mind until I was older and more of a risk-taker. When I finally stepped to the other side, I filled that void pretty quickly. Though I must admit living in the bush has mellowed me, and I have become too comfortable; I take fewer risks and embark on only minor challenges.

But then there’s that little voice whispering in my ear when it feels I have become too complacent. So to rectify that complacency I embarked just recently on a major solo exhibition at the Regional Gallery in Albury. The series was on the disappearing farmers of the central highlands. That was very challenging.

Even more recently I undertook a more exciting and thrilling challenge; not an art one but art was used as a vessel for major fundraising. In January I rode a pushbike through the rough, dusty, poor and oppressed country of Cambodia. A 650-kilometer ride in eight days for a friend's charity called “Feeding Dreams”. What was I thinking! I have to say that was one of the biggest challenges I have ever done! And with my partner and twenty-two other riders, we did it! I have the T-shirt to prove it! (laughs)

Some creatives love a deadline and believe they generate their best work under stress. Is this something you can subscribe to?

Yes, the exhibition I mentioned at the Regional Gallery in Albury, was a huge deadline: 14 large portraits of farmers and their working dogs. The room was a hell of a lot bigger than I anticipated and I needed to paint more than I had originally thought. Funnily enough, I found one of my best portraits was the one I spent the least time on. It was still wet when it went into the truck!

What milestones are you particularly proud of in your artistic career?

Having the courage to enter the arena of art prizes, as rejection is not for the faint-hearted. I know artists, really brilliant and gifted artists, that don’t enter for this reason. It took the encouragement of my art peers for me to enter. I always had an excuse: I am not ready, I am not good enough, how can I compete with the big guns ... blah blah blah. Anyway, in my first year of entering, I received a call from the Irvine Gallery saying I’d got into the Salon De Refuse! Still in disbelief, and saying it was perhaps beginners luck, I then got a phone call from The Doug Moran Prize saying I was a finalist! So perhaps I wasn’t too bad after all. In my 3rd year, I got into the Archibald and that was a hell of a ride! Anyway, I have been lucky to be a finalist in most of the major prizes once or twice. I laugh with friends and say: “Always a bridesmaid, never the bride! Hopefully one day I’ll be a bride!” (laughs) I suppose I can take solace in the fact that if I never get into another art prize again, at least I can say I was a finalist in the Archibald.

After much moving about you have settled now in beautiful north-western Victoria. What is it about this region that appeals to you?

Community is paramount in a small town, and with my husband being a pilot, we have traveled to many towns and cities so I can honestly say Trentham and it’s surrounding towns have enchanted me. I am not sure I could ever leave it, but from past life experiences, never say never.

The enchantment of this region offers the beauty of the bush and it’s vast wildlife. Having always been a portrait painter, I never really challenged myself with painting the bush, but it has a way of calling you and I have been painting the bush for a few years now. I am obsessed with gum trees, and my partner and I ride and bushwalk often through the Wombat Forest. He mocks me and says “I wish you’d show me as much attention as you do those gum trees." (laughs) Just quietly, I have been known to talk to them often and take tree-hugging to a different level, when I rub my hands over the smooth and flawless trunks after they have shed their stringy bark. Yes, it’s quite obvious I am a tactile person as you’ve already discovered with my art techniques. (laughs) It pays to be a little crazy in this industry!

The artist house - the beautiful country retreat of painter Rose Wilson.

You have a beautiful home. Can you tell me a little about its history?

It is the old Fern Hill General Store. It was opened in 1890 by Joseph Clowes. His brothers were local farmers but he wasn’t interested in farming. It is actually an old shed. They moved it here from Tylden and converted it into a store.

The store serviced all the farmers and locals around the region, and was adjacent to the railway station, which was very busy back then with people bustling about. It had a blacksmith, a butcher shop and a telephone exchange. When the railway closed down in the 1970s so did the store. Some buildings were dismantled and the little village of Fern Hill almost became a ghost town. However, in the 1980s the building was bought back to life by a farmer's daughter who turned it into a residence. When we bought it, people told us that we had paid too much! We just laugh and say we paid extra for the history.

You are part of a co-op running the Little Gallery in Trentham. What challenges have you faced with this space?

No challenges really. That is because it is a co-op. It’s survival and smooth running solely dependent on it operating as a shared business. Fortunately, it has been successful for the eight years it’s been operational, and even though only small, it has a huge following and is supported by locals as well as constant visitors to the area. Galleries struggle in our country, our climate does not accommodate artists and art galleries, for reasons most artists and art enthusiasts know. I want to rant on about that but let us leave that for another day. (laughs) Making money from your art is difficult enough without getting hooked up in a gallery you have little control over, and, in some instances, gallery owners can charge over fifty percent for commission. Having a co-op there is no commission at all, your only overheads are your rent and incidentals and everything is divided equally as well. This allows time for us to create our work and not be consumed with the running of the gallery.

We are also a community-based gallery and have group exhibitions and a Christmas show whereby we showcase around fifty local artists with small affordable works. It’s been a huge success and a calendar event. The town loves the Little Gallery and we have continual support by the locals and visitors love popping in to admire the local artists work. I believe every town should have an art gallery, no matter how small.

What solutions would you like to see implemented that could help artists with their careers?

Scholarships for artists, especially the young ones, giving them the financial stability to continue their artistic career, here or overseas. After completing a fine arts degree, there is little opportunity out there for fine artists, and most find themselves taking on another job or teaching art. While at university, the arts writer and lecturer Ross Woodrow said that only twenty five percent of us would continue our careers, as an artist, outside of university. We thought he was completely off target and we assumed we would all become fine artists. Fine artist we may have been but the bloke was right, I only know of a small handful of artists I went to uni with that have continued. It’s a bloody tough gig out there and resilience is the key but our government doesn’t do us any favours, unless you can kick a footy or backstroke while holding a brush, forget it! (laughs) Curating, or graphics, are other options, but there are not really many avenues, that’s why I think art prizes are important; not only does it elevate your status but you get prize money, some over $150,000, though there are many others that offer a nice kitty.

Most students usually enroll in a fine arts degree as adults or mature aged students, I was one of them. European artists are respected and encouraged more with many benefits, they see how imperative it is to have art in their lives, and to them, it is second nature.

In a nutshell, the profile of artists needs to be recognised and celebrated, have art teachers in every school, buy more art for art sake and surround yourself with as much art as you can. Unfortunately, when they removed the government clause in regards to allowing you to invest in art by offsetting it with your super, a lot of artists suffered and many galleries folded.

What places would you recommend people visit while in Trentham?

Now, do you have all day? (laughs) I know I am biased and am very proud of my little town, and realise it cant be kept a secret anymore, so I’ll try and condense it as best I can.

Well, the Little Gallery, of course. (laughs) It’s small, hence the name, but its main focus is on quality and fine art, the main four artists of this co-op are me, ceramists Kim Haughie and Ri Van Veen, and the acclaimed painter Helen Cottle. We also have various local commission artists with outstanding work.

It’s only a small town, but I can honestly say each cafe and pub has a great reputation. When people ask me where to eat, I usually say pick your decor as all the food is good everywhere. (laughs)

The Trentham Falls is the largest drop fall waterfall in Victoria and quite beautiful. The adjoining towns of Lyonville and Blackwood are quaint and quirky. Don’t forget the Pig & Whistle in East Trentham. They call it the Pub in the Paddock and it’s a great local. There are so many beautiful retail stores adding to the charm of the old quaint little town, all offering different wares. Once again it is hard to pin-point, you could spend a good few hours promenading down Market and High Street, eating and shopping, all stress-free as everyone is so friendly. It’s just that sort of town.

There are great trails, either walking or biking, through the Wombat State Forest, or you can follow the picturesque rail trail from Trentham to Lyonville.

The area has many artists. We have printmaking and photography workshops and exhibitions happening regularly: Hip-Cat printmaking, Agave print studio and Gold Street studios, which specializes in old techniques of photography. That’s just to name a few. We also have beautiful B & B’s and great markets too.

Beautiful garden fountain at the home of artist Rose Wilson. The historic telegraph station near Trentham, Australia. Old door bell at the historic general store near Trentham, Australia.

Do you enjoy music? What artists are currently on high rotation?

You would never know me by my music. If I need to do some serious splashing of paint I put on some 80’s and 90’s rock and pop; a flashback to my party, crazy wild days. Actually, there’s still a bit of that these days. (laughs) Then on the other end of the spectrum, for a more somber tone is Lucinda Williams grungy country, and through my dad's influence, Johnny Cash. I do love Tracey Chapman or Fleetwood Mac, another blast from the past. I never do classical, I’d be asleep on the couch! (laughs) As you can see, I really like most music but you won’t find heavy metal or screamo!

Are there websites that you frequently visit for inspiration or a good read?

Small towns are busy, and I am busy, I have my finger in many pots, usually volunteer or community stuff to do, so don’t have a great deal of time. I buy many art books but am lucky to flick through the pages. With the running of the gallery and keeping social media updated constantly, it doesn’t allow me a great deal of time to paint as much as I'd like to. I used to listen to podcasts on artists but now I check out the ‘Talking With Painters’ on Instagam, they are shorter and suitable to my time frame. I subscribe to Artsy and when I get time, I check out what’s happening in art internationally, they have some great articles. Art Prizes Australia, to check out what prizes are coming up, as I do enter them if I have the time. (laughs)

You can have three people over for dinner, living or dead? Who would they be and why?

God that’s a tough one! We love a party and known for hosting a good bash, so I could think of many to add to a fun night!

The first that comes to mind is my idol Frida Khalo. After I chew her ear off about her amazing paintings, Diego and why the hell she loved him and Mexico in the 1940’s, we’d dance, sing and drink till the early hours of the morning. The perfect guest! I would definitely have to buy a few more extra bottles of tequila though. (laughs)

Ben Quilty. He is so down to earth! I have little time for "art snobs." I had a brief conversation with him at the Archibald: he’s a passionate bloke with no aires and graces, I reckon he’d be a great storyteller! I think he plays the guitar too. I reckon Ben could get along with just about anyone so would make a great addition to the dinner party.

I always like a sing-a-long. A well-known country singer moved in over the road. We have had many gatherings around our outdoor fire, and after feeding my guests well, and never a glass of wine empty, I would take advantage of that and hand her the guitar. Often, the instruments would come out: clapper sticks, didges, squeezeboxes, and we’ll all get involved. God help us if anyone ever recorded us. (laughs) So I’d have to add a couple of my favourite singers in the mix. Maybe Johnny Cash, maybe before he found God, or Stevie Nicks, she'd be up for a good sing-a-long.

What would you like the next five years to have in store for you?

I have many series and ideas running around in my brain, some come and go, others have remained for a while. I am currently working on the Murray River series. It is a place I grew up as a child and adored those family times on the river. It does have a slight political overtone but ultimately its about the beauty of the river. Perhaps the series could be shown in my home town, we’ll see. A group exhibition with fellow artists Daniel Butterworth and Co is in the pipe-line but no rush.

I will still enter art prizes, I am hooked now, but not to the point I have to enter each year, as I have a family and my parents have been ill of late so to me family is my priority. Life is too short, and this has become more real after recently losing two artist friends of mine, Matt Harding & David Bryant. So sharing time with loved ones has an added value to me, as you just never know when it all just stops. I’ve been entering the prize arena for a few years now and even though quite honoured, I have been ‘the finalist’ on a number of occasions so it would be a hoot to win one! It’s a tough gig, and you just never know as art is so subjective. Last year in Doug Moran competition I was competing with over 1300 other portraits. So it’s a bit like the Melbourne Cup: you could never lay a bet on the winner.

The Little Gallery

32B High St, Trentham,
Victoria Australia