Local Artist…Alex Snellgrove from Coogee
Coogee artist Alex Snellgrove is one of 57 finalists in the Portia Geach Memorial Award with her portrait of Sydney Morning Herald journalist and fellow Coogee local Helen Pitt. In Her Element was painted at Ross Jones Memorial Pool, Coogee, where her parents met. The Portia Geach Award is Australia’s premier portrait prize for women and runs until December 19 at the S.H. Ervin Gallery.
What is your first memory of visiting Coogee? My earliest memories were in about 1959. I was held up to look at the ocean standing on the massive sandstone wall, which is still there, to my absolute joy, but the fantastic light poles with dolphins on the bases are sadly gone. They were painted a verdegris colour, somewhat rusty, and were mounted on the wall right along the beach. My parents, who grew up in Coogee, lived for several years with my maternal grandmother, as housing was scarce and rather unaffordable in 1956 (some things never change!). They eventually bought a bush block in South Turramurra and built a Beachcomber style house there. Grandma wouldn’t visit because she was terrified of spiders, so I used to visit her back in Coogee.
Can you tell us about your links to the Ross Jones Pool? It was our regular swimming spot, where we could dry off sitting on the rocks above, with the ocean and all the people to look at below. Early swimming lessons were held here, and I spent many happy holiday mornings here too. I remember the Greek families well, with the older kids looking after the little ones – something I’d never seen before – getting them dried and dressed, helping them. And I remember drawing and painting people I’d seen when we got home.
When did you start painting and why? Painting seemed to be a dying art around the time I finished high school in the mid 1970s, so I didn’t think of it as a career, even though I’d always done plenty of artwork. It was the time of performance art and installations, so I came to it later on when it became clear to me that it was something I simply had to do. I became interested in Chippendale’s grimy streets and history and did a series of these. My next series was of ocean pools and Coogee in particular.
How do you paint water? It’s very challenging. Apart from the colour, which is quite complex, there are surface reflections, wave shadows, shadows on the bottom, light refraction through the water and bouncing back off the bottom, and the patterns these things make. I also try to show the visceral experience of being in water, how it feels, moves and looks. I imagine I’m actually in it. Sometimes I’m barely looking at what I’m painting. The way light plays on it is extremely important.
What’s a recent favourite subject? The Grand Pacific Hotel in Coogee. I’d often noticed it, but never thought of painting it. I did a few sketches, and then a painting, which reflected the oddness and charm of the little white building at the end of the promenade. I’ve since found that lots of people love this place too.
Any tips for budding artists? I’m prompted to paint things that make me feel something – often I’m not even sure what – and this emotion and fascination takes me into a state of simple response. I would advise anyone thinking of creative work to try to do this.
Do you accept commissions? Yes, but not pet portraits!
Visit www.shervingallery.com.au/event/portia-geach-memorial-award-2021 for more information. You can see more of Alex’s work at www.alexsnellgrove.com.au.