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Martine Emdur – Celebrating the Human Form

By Madeleine Gray on June 27, 2017 in People

Photo: Jem Cresswell

Where are you originally from?
I lived in Bexley when I was a baby and then moved to Double Bay for a year or so, and then to Bondi. I’ve lived in Bondi ever since, apart from a brief stint in Rose Bay.

What are your favourite memories of being a kid in Bondi?
It was a daily pilgrimage down to the beach. Milkshakes at Bate’s Milk Bar: I was an absolute champion on the pinball machines. We used to fish in the rock pool at North Bondi for the puffer fish with one of those cork lines. And of course getting custard tarts from the Flying Pieman. We’re talking a long, long time ago there.

Where are you living now?
I’m living at South Bondi, kind of on the edge of Tamarama.

What do you love about living in the Eastern Suburbs?
I like this side of Bondi, away from the more touristy part. It’s more of a community, more familiar faces. True Bondi is made up of a lot of transient travellers and backpackers, tourists and also locals. I love that I’ve got a great café on the corner of my street, M Deli. It’s like my extended lounge room. I often race down there in my pyjamas and ugg boots and they are still kind enough to serve me, which is great. I love all of the familiar faces and to have someone know your name and coffee. And someone who can tell when you need a double shot! Plus, the obvious attraction in the area is the incredible coastline.

What are your favourite local haunts, apart from M Deli?
I used to go to the Tratt all the time. It’s just changed hands. I haven’t really tried the new Tratt, but it was an absolute staple in our week. We’d go regularly, at least once a week, partly because it was owned by a good friend of my brother, so we were going there from the start. My mum had her 50th there. On the one hand it’s sad that it’s the end of an era, but on the other hand it’s interesting to see how it will evolve. My other absolute go-to place most days is Power Living Yoga. It helps keep me sane. Oh, and I love a green smoothie up at Health Emporium, and to balance things out, a vodka at the Corner House is always fun.

What annoys you about the Eastern Suburbs?
There’s an unreasonable amount of exceptionally perfect physical specimens – that’s just not right! It needs mixing up a little bit, please! And Bondi Beach does get very crowded. But it’s the same reason I’m here, because it’s just a gorgeous place to be.

How has the area changed since you arrived here?
It’s so different. I was here when the Bondi Junction train station was built. It used to be a smaller, more intimate community of locals. That being said, it’s just so much more easily accessible now, which is great. That’s how it should be. But it is busier and louder, and more hectic. The businesses along Campbell Parade are all huge corporates. It’s lost its local village charm from how I remember it. And I witnessed the first traffic lights being installed on Campbell Parade, which was shocking at the time!

Did you have a different career before moving into art, or has painting always been what you’ve done?
I did have fantasies while I was at school that I would be an artist, but that dream didn’t take its course until much later. I ventured into more secretarial type roles. I did a lot of waitressing, a lot of making ends meet through odd jobs. I had a few jobs in advertising agencies, imagining that I might end up in the creative side of things. That wasn’t to be. It turned out I was not at all cut out for anything that required organisational skills, and being efficient in the office was something I spectacularly failed at, though I gave it a nudge. I realised eventually after being sacked from every job that I shouldn’t push on in that direction, which was a blessing in disguise.

How did you break into the arts then?
At the last “real” job I had, I stuffed up so hugely that I was marched out of the office. This was a stressful experience for me at the time and I left Sydney for Dunk Island for a fresh start, which is where I started to draw. I got a job in hospitality there. I ended up drawing a board for the place I was working at, advertising what the drink of the day was. It kind of started from there. They ended up using me to do all of their signage, and consequently I had to research painting and drawing all manner of subjects. It just steamrolled on from there.

Did you have any formal painting or drawing education?
No, not at that point. I ended up drawing every day there. I eventually stopped working at the resort and went to live in a mud brick hut in the middle of the rainforest with another artist by the name of Bruce Arthur. I started making artworks to sell in his shop. When I returned to Sydney, I had a crack at art school, but I didn’t last long. I wanted to just focus on painting. Art school required a lot of time and energy studying other subjects that took me away from this.

The subject matter you’re best known for is bodies submerged underwater; what drew you to that, and why does it appeal to so many people?
My very first show was just looking at the ocean from a distance, your general seascape. I slowly kept getting closer and closer, until it was a really detailed study of the surface of the water, and then I ended up underwater. It was just a whole other world under there. I found it really captivating. There’s something super soothing and mysterious and incredibly beautiful and kind of scary. I imagine that’s why other people might like it too. Usually if you head to the beach you want to chill out and relax. People associate the water with time-out and escaping. The other thing I love about it is the relief from the weight of gravity. Your feet are up. You’re floating, feeling embraced. It’s refreshing.

You have over 25,000 Instagram followers; how is social media changing the way you connect as an artist with the community, and with art buyers as well?
I actually really love Instagram. I think it’s great. The only thing I find a little bit spooky is that you don’t know who is looking at your stuff and what people’s intentions are. But on the other hand, being an artist is quite a solo venture. You’re on your own. There’s so much going on in your mind while you’re painting. It’s wonderful to be able to have a voice during that process that people respond to. I’ve found it really interesting that people are so interested in the process, and not just mine. I follow a lot of other artists. I see the conversations that happen about the process. I think on that level it can be really interesting and entertaining, and educational in a lot of ways.

I get a lot of enquiries, which I generally feed straight through to the gallery; they’ve got my back with all that stuff. It’s wonderful having conversations with people. People say beautiful things. It’s really nice to get ongoing feedback because back then artists didn’t even have websites. So at that stage you were just working away on a series of paintings over the course of six months or so and you had no idea whether what you were doing was going to be remotely well received. That continuous feedback now is really gratifying and inspiring, and can often help you over the creative slumps.

There’s an interesting parallel here I think between self-publishing in the publishing industry, and going without gallery representation as an artist; do you think that social media democratises access to art so that the ‘traditional gatekeepers’ of the art world are no longer necessary, or is that codswallop?
To me, my gallery (Olsen Gallery) is still 100 per cent necessary, because they actually do a lot of hard work that I just don’t have time nor the interest to do. They employ so many staff to hang the work, to deal with all the enquiries; they are fantastic salespeople, really knowledgeable about art, art history, the way my work fits in. The other thing is, I think if a gallery is doing a really good job then the commission they take, which is substantial, should pay off. In the event that your work is not gaining value, or not getting a good audience, I would argue whether they would be needed. But if a gallery’s doing a good job, then it’s definitely mutually beneficial. And I love having the big celebration at the exhibition opening. Your work is in a big mess in your studio; everything’s everywhere and it’s a shit fight. To see your work up in a clean, beautiful space and to celebrate that, it’s something inspiring to work towards.

Can you talk us through how you create these huge pieces?
I used to take photos myself, with my little point and shoot disposables, and paint them. I survived off the images from those shoots for a long time. I’ve since started using photographers. My current photographer, Jem Cresswell, is fabulous, as is my friend Karl Page. Now I feel more confident about inviting more people into the mix, and more models, trying new things. We take a million photos. I’ll use the photos generally as a broad reference, and quite often make up my own compositions. I like working on the large scale because you can really immerse yourself and imagine yourself under the water. That’s what I’m hoping.

Your works are often quite sensual, with unclothed bodies intertwined; is representing that kind of physical intimacy something that you’re striving to do?
It’s kind of funny; obviously I acknowledge they’re quite intimate, but to me it’s more like shapes and colours. I actually love the space and shadows between the bodies. The sensuality kind of happened accidentally, at first. I was modelling with a friend at the time and my friend Karl Page was photographing. I just wanted to get two bodies together. It was literally about changing the shapes, and changing the composition, because when I was taking the photos before I would only ever use one model. When I saw the first piece we did as a couple, I just thought it was beautiful. There’s also that sense of a couple being alone underwater. It was so still and quiet, and private, and away from the rest of the world.

How do you tackle the creative process? Are you a ‘9 to 5’ kind of artist or are you all about spontaneous inspiration?
Before I was a mother to my son Asher, I was completely hopeless in the morning. I would arrive at some ridiculous hour, midday or something, and just work until I could work no more. Now I’m kind of forced to work in school hours. But it’s great. It’s actually made me more efficient in work hours. Plus I can’t work at night because my eyesight is failing rapidly.

Do you do commissions at all?
I try to avoid commissions. Ideally I just like to make what I like to make. If something excites me, I want to express it how I see it. I’d rather do that and exhibit it then hope that it appeals to someone. Commissions are fraught with complexities as people have all these particular expectations. It’s really hard to want to work towards fitting into someone else’s idea.

Speaking of having to adhere to someone else’s standards, what is your take on the Instagram ‘free the nipple’ debate (whereby representations of female nipples are banned, while male nipples are not)?
I find it f**king ridiculous. It’s insanity. It doesn’t make any sense to me at all. The unfortunate thing is, you have no power in Instagram, so you can’t even attempt it because they can just wipe your account out without any warning or reasoning, and then it’s gone. I follow a number of people who’ve had their accounts wiped, gone.

For people to assume that the male nipple is ‘safe’, as opposed to the female nipple, is just a very small example of many double standards on Instagram. One small part of me acknowledges the fact that there are a lot of people looking at Instagram, and some might have questionable motives, but you can’t moderate what people think.

From my point of view, I am celebrating the human form within nature, but I’ve had so many images removed. Then you go through Instagram and you see some of the most horrific, pornographic, denigrating stuff that isn’t taken down.

What are your thoughts on the state of arts funding in Australia? Do you think that the government should provide more arts funding for creatives, or is it up to creatives to get their own funding?
I actually know a lot of incredibly talented creative people who have got so much to offer the artistic community, and the public in general, but they just can’t find the funds to fulfill their visions. It’s a hard slog.

Also, funding is really hard to get for the artists who are looking at non-commercial work. For them to have a voice is a really important thing. So bring it on and give more. The creation of art is for the good of the public.

We recently interviewed an all-female art collective from Sydney called ‘The Ladies Network’, and they were talking about the lack of opportunities for females in the visual art industry; is that something you’ve found?
It’s really clear to see that the art world has been dominated by men, but that’s slowly changing with many successful female gallerists, artists, and collectors. Hopefully it continues in this direction, but that’s definitely been an issue that I am unsure how to resolve.

You’re represented by the Olsen Gallery in Woollahra, and Tim Olsen has just opened his first New York branch; would you like your work to be exhibited in New York?

I would love that. It’s something I haven’t really explored much. I’ve had two or three shows overseas, but they’ve been few and far between. I really admire people who will just continually put their feelers out for overseas opportunities. I think Tim’s just waiting to find his feet with the new gallery, and see how his clientele develops and what kind of work people respond to over there. Hopefully there’ll be an opportunity for me to make something that I feel inspired by that might also appeal to overseas collectors.

On the Real Housewives of Sydney, aspiring artist and housewife Athena X goes to the Olsen Gallery and wants her art to be shown there. Tim Olsen tells her no, because there’s a difference between decoration and art; is there a difference, and is one better than the other?
That is a hard one. It depends who’s looking at it, really. Some people call my work decorative, and I’m fine with that. It’s called ‘decorative’ by virtue of it being slightly on the photographic, realistic side, and also by being pleasant. I don’t have a problem making work that makes some people feel happy. If that is decorative, that’s fine with me. I remember reading an interview with Adam Cullen saying anything that’s pretty is boring and everything should be expressing your anger and your fear. It should be shocking. I disagree, wholeheartedly. In today’s world, you wake up and it’s horror after horror. I’m happy to bring a little bit of joy.

What is your advice for aspiring artists?
Work hard. Paint every single day. Success is about persistence, consistency. You have to develop a thick skin, and you have to just be out there showing your work. Also enter lots of art prizes, put your work in group shows, hang your work in cafes. Exposure is the key. Sell it cheaply at first. Get it on walls. Get it out there. And make lots of mistakes, really f**k it up. That’s where the lessons are.

What are the galleries in Sydney that Beast readers should frequent?
My old studio’s just been transformed into this spectacular space at Chalk Horse Gallery. That looks great. And White Rabbit is a must.

Do you support any charities?
Yes, my latest donation was last week to the Starlight Foundation, for their big ball. I’ve just agreed to give them a major work for next year’s charity. I donate a lot of work, but mostly prints, as I’m usually scrambling to get a show together. I just don’t have the spare works available, but I do want to become a constant major work donator to Starlight.

Finally, in an ideal world what does the future hold for Martine Emdur?
Today I feel quite content. Things are changing rapidly with work and life, so I’m happy to go with the flow at the moment. I think free time to experiment and more overseas shows would be on the list for an ideal world. And time to get involved in the movement against plastic; that’s necessary for us all.