An Interview with Melinda Harper

During the lockdown as part of the Reflections series, CAM published several email interviews with local artists. Of particular interest was how an artist's daily studio routine was impacted by the lockdown. Here we republish the interview with Melinda Harper in celebration of her major exhibition Melinda Harper: in conversation with the collection currently on view in the Higgins Gallery.

Installation view, Melinda Harper in Conversation with the Collection, Castlemaine Art Museum. Image: Julie Millowick.

How long have you been working in the Castlemaine area and what drew you here?
We have lived in Castlemaine for six years. I moved from Melbourne with my children. We had never been to Castlemaine. I did a Google Maps search and Castlemaine came up. I wanted to be close to Melbourne because of my parents and friends and also to see exhibitions easily. When I drove up here, it just seemed possible and culturally there was a life that we could participate in. A cinema, bookshops and a gallery made the decision. I also wanted to experience nature and see something visually different. I do love Melbourne but having more time to read and look has been really valuable. Our life here is very different; there is a beauty in the extreme weather. The colour of summer: that Naples yellow, which is also a pastel yellow which I can't really describe, is as beautiful as the green of winter. We often reflect that we made a good decision.

Can you please describe where you work?
I paint in a studio at the back of my home. It was carpenter's shed; a bit uncomfortable which I don’t really mind. I prefer having a studio at home. I tend to work in the studio and also in the house, depending on the nature of the work. I do the messy work outside and drawing and watercolours and textile works inside.

Melinda Harper, Painting, 2019, oil on canvas, Private Collection. Copyright Melinda Harper. Image Melinda Harper.

What can you see out of your window?
The studio looks out to the garden, which is quite large and unruly. There is a pathway from the house to the studio, which has a garden that I have planted. I rarely use purple in my paintings. I find it a colour that changes other colours in a way that I don’t like or I just can't get it to work tonally. But have always loved the Pre-Raphaelites and the Pre-Raphaelite palette, which heavily uses purple. What I noticed recently is that I have planted a range of purple and silver flowering plants, which I look at every day and although purple isn’t present in the studio, it leads me there.

Do you have a special way of commencing your day, a cup of coffee or a ritual to get you into a productive frame of mind?
As soon as my young adults are off to school, my day commences with a coffee; sometimes reading and a walk. Coffee is the essential beginning. If I am going into the studio or starting work a bit later I would aim to take my dog for a 30-minute walk before starting. I do love watching colour in nature, not only in the changing of seasons but the everyday presence of colour.

What special object is sitting on your bench at the moment?
Several. I have a Peter Shire mug (Echo Park Pottery). I have a few but one is very beautiful; pink, white and black with a very large handle. I have also just purchased the catalogue Erica McGilchrist: For The Record from Heide which I have spent days reading and looking at.

Melinda Harper, Untitled, 2019, Screen print and gouache on paper. Collection Melinda Harper. Copyright Melinda Harper. Image Melinda Harper.

Do you structure your day, or not?
Yes, depending on work commitments. I also coordinate Murnong Mamas, a social enterprise Aboriginal catering service. We operate out of Castlemaine Community House and employ Aboriginal women from Bendigo and Castlemaine. We work as a collective; Aunty Julie McHale shares her extensive knowledge and lots of talking is involved while cooking. What started as an idea for creating employment has become a meaningful learning platform for women. Aunty Julie and I also aim to support micro businesses that emerge from staff. It’s very exciting to be able to support ideas and create opportunities and some of the colours and tastes of the ingredients are really fantastic.Because I do have a complex working life, structure is really important. A rigorous studio practice is very important and that involves some structure and organisation. I am an artist who works consistently and likes to be in the studio daily. Because the paintings take a long time, looking at the paintings is a process that is very important. The experience of that process is something I really love - the looking and thinking. I don’t work wet into wet paint, so I am always waiting for paint to dry and the slowness is also a really important part of the process. The studio is a place where I slow everything down.

What music are you listening to when you work?
I am not listening to music in the studio at the moment. I have been listening to a lot of interviews and conversations with artists. The one that I keep coming back to is Stanley Whitney and Ben Okri in conversation. Ben Okri's questions and reflections on Whitney’s paintings are very thoughtful. He has looked deeply at these works, as I have over the last few years. I have listened to this interview many times in the last month.

Is your practice solitary or do you work with others?
I work alone, but have collaborated with peers and also artists who have skills that I don’t have. I have worked with Rebecca Mayo on prints. Working with an artist who has expertise in printing and an understanding of my process is very rewarding. The exchange informs other works; it becomes a collaboration. I worked with Kerrie Poliness on a fabric project in 1999 at the Meat Market in North Melbourne. This is a project we would both like to revisit.

Melinda Harper, Untitled, 2019, oil on canvas, Private Collection. Copyright Melinda Harper. Image Melinda Harper.

Is there a ritual you have in closing down your studio for the day?
At the end of the day I bring 2 or 3 paintings inside my home. I work on several paintings at once but just hang one painting to look at for several days. I usually go back into the studio for a short period in the late afternoon to clean up and end the painting part of the day.

Are you disciplined about finishing up or do you take your work with you into the evening?
I often work at night, either drawing or doing embroideries and reading. The textile works I only do at night. They do take a long time so I generally work for a couple of hours.

Can our readers view your work in any way at the moment?
I have an exhibition of embroideries currently showing at Neon Parc, in Melbourne until 29 August.

Melinda Harper
June 2020

Installation view, Melinda Harper in Conversation with the Collection, Castlemaine Art Museum. Image: Julie Millowick.
Melinda Harper

Melinda Harper
Working in a variety of media including drawing, collage, photography, screen printing, painted objects and embroideries, Melinda Harper’s abstraction work is characterised by the use of colours, stripes and geometrical designs. Harper studied at the Victorian College of the Arts, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts with a major in painting.Since her first exhibition at Melbourne's Pinacotheca Gallery in 1987, Harper has exhibited extensively in solo and group exhibitions and is represented in major public and private collections. She was one of a small number of artists who set up Store 5, a hugely influential artist-run exhibition space in High Street, Prahran in 1989. There is a wonderful selection of Melinda’s recent work on the Neon Parc website. Harper also exhibits at Pestorius Sweeney House, Brisbane; Tim Olsen Gallery, Sydney and Queenscliff Gallery & Workshop.

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