When I met with artist and musician Tessa Joy in Fremantle, Western Australia, at the historic Kidogo Arthouse, there was a wedding florist preparing the space for a mid-afternoon ceremony. What a beautiful place to be married in! The bride and groom would be exchanging their vows in this little bit of heaven by the sea, in view of my friend’s exotic art being exhibited on its walls.
Tessa and I did art classes together at high school and have both gone on to lead creative lives. She’s my longest living friendship and her bohemian lifestyle has always fascinated me. She’s had really amazing adventures, the kind that stretches your imagination in all directions, and encountered some of the most delightfully intriguing people on earth.
After a look at Tess Joy’s fourth solo exhibition (her second at Kidogo) we walked back to her art studio, five-minutes away, and another historic site. We sat down to a cuppa tea and a good chat about her art and life, so far. And it left me feeling very inspired! If you are a traveller, creative, or someone with a passion for anything, you’ll just love getting to know her. She will inspire you with her colourful narratives of people from faraway places and diverse cultures. Welcome, Tessa!
I’m really fascinated by people and their stories, and I always come back to that. My works of art are illustrative – snapshots of the experiences I’ve had from travelling all over the world. The human form so interests me because that’s who we are – we’re people. I’m really interested in different races and different physical characteristics, and I see the beauty in physicality.
Whatever you have inside of you comes out into the art, you can’t stop it, so my paintings are also about me. I think when people look at my art it makes them feel good. They like to look at it because it’s colourful and bright and something interesting. It doesn’t have fear or shock value and it’s not political, so they are happy to look at it.
I did a lot of travelling for about 18 years, all around the world, to the United States, and Canada, and then Mexico and Latin America, which I got completely fascinated with. I learned Spanish there. I travelled to these places a number of times. I mostly have an international focus, but lately, my daughter has been creeping into my works.
I’m also a musician and perform world folk music with one of my sisters. Our band is called ‘Las Dos’. I’m a vocalist and I play the regular flute and Andean flute, and my sister is also a vocalist; she plays keyboard and guitar. So musicians and their instruments also feature in my art.
Being creative is having materials and a place to create. You can use anything if you want to be creative. I draw on paper and use oil on canvas. Lately, I’ve been getting interested in decoupage, collage, and mixed media. I love drawing, it was the basis of my art education – charcoal, pastel, and pencil. I’ve done a lot of painting and I’m getting back into drawing now. I also really like printmaking because it’s a validation of drawing – a way to make my drawing permanent.
I’m forty-one and a fifth-generation Australian. I grew up in Perth, Western Australia, and I came to Fremantle in 1997, and I’ve been coming and going from here ever since. This is probably as much my home as anywhere. All my ancestors were German and then they intermarried within the Lutheran tradition here in Australia, in Victoria. It’s only my generation that has married outside of this, my four siblings and I have all married non-Lutherans.
My name is Tessa Joy – Joy was a name that was given to my mother by her mother. My artistic ability comes from my matriarchal line. My grandmother got into Melbourne Art School as a young woman which was very outrageous at the time. It would have been the 1920s or 30s. It wasn’t a thing women did, but then it never eventuated. She got pregnant with my auntie and got quickly married, although she did continue to draw and do illustrations. She and all the women in my family were very good at crafts.
I’ve always been interested in art. As a girl, I was always drawing, cutting, and making. My mother was very encouraging and I was always taken to see exhibitions. I didn’t get the latest fashionable toy for Christmas but I always had colouring books, pencils, textas, and crayons to create with. Before she had us, our mother was an early childhood teacher. She understood how important creativity is to children’s development, so she was strong with that.
I also grew up in the church, my father is a Lutheran pastor and a scholar. I think being an artist is very similar to living a spiritual life. Like my father, I’ve renounced the material world to a certain degree which a lot of artists do. I could have gone into any profession I wanted, and still could, but I have chosen art over a profession that pays well. I have a tolerance for that life which I think I get from my father.
My original inspiration to become an artist was Arthur Kalamaras who is a traditional Greek sculptor. He was the first person I met who was a believer in the magic of art, in Gods and Goddesses and he was the reason I became an artist. He took it seriously, as a religion, as a spiritual experience. His father was the person to bring bronze casting to Western Australia from Greece. I met Arthur the first day I came to Fremantle. He had an art studio in Fremantle for twenty years.
When I returned to Australia from South America I wanted to study visual arts at university, in Perth. I realised once I was there, however, that the school wasn’t really for me because it was very post-modernist and parochial; they weren’t really into beauty and traditional art. So, I organised an exchange to Madrid, Spain, and I ended up at the art school in Spain, the Universidad Complutense.
The art school within the university is the traditional art school of Spain where all the Spanish artists studied. It was the School of San Fernando and more recently it’s been incorporated into the University of Madrid. For example, in the print rooms where they do all the traditional methods of printmaking, they have Rembrandt on the walls. It was really inspiring and the students were not only visual artists, but they were also involved in music, theatre, circus, writing, and poetry. Everyone was involved in more than one art form. I also travelled to Morocco and the Mediterranean and fell in love with both places.
Initially, I did two full years of art practice in Spain, of which there is a five-year degree. Full-time study is six hours a day, five days a week. Art is taken seriously there and it is considered an acceptable career path. There, you are respected as an artist and you can make a living from art, it’s different from here.
About four years later (I was in Spain for three years) I travelled for eleven months through India. I came back to Perth in 2006 and finished my degree at Edith Cowan University. Then, I was to return to Spain, and the day I purchased my plane ticket, had it in hand, I received notification from the City of Fremantle that I was being granted the occupancy of The World’s End Studio. It’s a heritage shed that’s been in Fremantle for more than a hundred years. I’ve now occupied it for seven years, alongside another artist. I did visit Europe again and when I returned from that year’s trip, I met my husband, a Chilean, and we now have a child.
What people notice of my art when they walk into one of my exhibitions is that it is very colourful. I don’t feel like I have a finalised style. I always feel like I will be experimenting and I don’t want to have one style that I’m stuck in. I’m really into beauty – a universal beauty. People are curious about my art. They’re interested in the story that goes with the picture, the narrative, they want to know if I’ve been there, did I see that, what happened there, who are these people?
At my Kidogo exhibition, a lot of people have surprised me by telling me they’re envious: I wish I could do this, I wish I could draw. That’s interesting to me. I mean, if you walk into a fashion shop you don’t automatically think, I want to be a fashion designer. I tell people, everyone can draw and I teach people how to draw. I say it’s like anything else, you have to practise at it, you have to learn it. You can learn to be an artist. People seem to think it’s some kind of magical power, and it’s not, anyone can do it. You can have talent but even then you need to develop it.
People are very self-critical when it comes to practising art, and they often want to be able to perfect the doing of art straight away, but it takes practise. You need to stick with it, to see the results and rewards. Set aside time and space, a regular time that is your studio time, your creative time. If you don’t do that you’re never going to stick with it. Pay for a class, then you’ll feel like you’ve committed yourself and you’ll more likely do it.
When people come here to the studio to learn the art from me, I start them on drawing because anyone can pick up a piece of paper and a pencil and start drawing. I say to them, look around you and see what interests you. Do you pick up pamphlets, cards, or photographs that interest you? Take inspiration from these. Pay attention to what you collect, and see a common theme. Draw from this.
My process of making art is not about creating from the moment. I work from behind time. I take in a lot of images. I do lots of drawings and take lots of photographs. I record lots of music and then I learn songs. I seem to process it for years and then it starts to come out randomly over the next time period. I also do some landscape and life drawings which are more in the moment.
I often see one image, or one fabric, or one colour combination and it inspires me. I can take a starting point in creating art from a lot of different things. Sometimes I have the idea and have to search for the images. It can be an experience of a certain place that then makes me want to somehow capture that, for someone else to be able to have an experience with. I’ve taken the experience in and then I want to put it out.
We all get ideas from each other but our art needs to be authentic. It needs to have your input as well. I often take my own photos and use my own drawings as a starting point. I generally use my own resources from which I do my final work.
Getting a good studio is very difficult. This is the fourth studio I set up in four years in Fremantle. You can set up a studio at home. You need a space where you can collect your stuff. If you have space and materials, you can get working. If you’ve got the ideas but no space or materials, it’s really difficult. So you need to get yourself some space where you can set up an easel, a workbench, have your materials – a place where you can leave things and come back to.
Having space outside of the home separates my roles better. When I go to my studio, I’m at work. When I go home, I’ve left my work behind. Plus it’s a nice social space being in a central location like I am. It’s nice to meet people here and to have a professional space than seeing people in your home. And I think it gives you a different standing with your art, people take you more seriously.
The studio is definitely my sacred space. I’m so blessed here because I have the ocean outside. As soon as I arrive here I feel relaxed and cleansed in a way. A sacred space for me is somewhere you can feel safe and rested. It’s a place to get in touch with your inner-self.
I’m very connected to beauty and nature, and this is my spirituality. Being spiritual for me is being able to see beauty not only in nature but in the people we meet. I’ve always had an anthropological interest in people and their stories. I have a fascination with the Islamic culture and that is very spiritually based. I like making a ‘bridge’ through my art so people can see the beauty of that culture, rather than all they perceive to be wrong with it, like terrorism.
I like showing people through my art the universal connection between us all, and one of those is beauty. Everyone responds to beauty, it’s another language. Beauty is something that is pleasing to you, it’s pleasing to your eye. It uplifts you in a way. My art also captures beautiful moments like looking through those little windows in our lives and seeing people in their moments.
Music is also beautiful to me. If you see the musician series, I have painted musicians playing their instruments. I have always been interested in folk and world music. In my travels, I’ve always been really interested in the variety of instruments and how people play them, and all the different characters that are musicians. I’m interested in their role as keepers of the culture, and storytellers, and holders of the traditions, and holders of the word, and things like that.
As a traveller, I think my role is to show that through my art. Perhaps, in a way, I see myself in the traditional role of a bard or a troubadour, where they went and saw the world and brought back stories and experiences. Even though of course now we have the internet, but that’s something different from personal experience.
Living authentically is living true to yourself, being able to live with yourself no matter what decisions you’ve made, and no matter what consequences have come from those. If you can live with yourself then you are living authentically. If you’re depressed, too stressed out, angry, or whatever, then you’re not living authentically and you need to make changes.
I think I’m living authentically, to the best of my ability. Although, with a family it’s different. As a mother, you’re not the first priority. It really changes the game. When you’re a mother and wife you are not your first priority and that can be very conflicting with the ego of an artist.
To be an artist you need to have an ego and I’ve seen that through lots of different fields of art. A lot of artists have the validation of the self through their creative work and they don’t feel they need to have kids. They have continuity through time, into eternity, through their work. Other people may have it through their children or their descendants. It’s a great conflict. Often an artist parent has to sacrifice their art to make a living, to take care of their children. Some people are not willing to make that sacrifice and they don’t have the same motivation to have children.
I’d like to move back to Europe, but for now, I’m committed to Australia. I’m planning to move to Melbourne with my family, to be closer to my extended family – also for career reasons. I’m slowing down a bit. I’ve been doing longer stops. I love the Mediterranean – I love the culture, the architecture, the food. I feel connected there.
What I’ve learned from all my travels is that people are people, we’re all the same. We may have different cultures but we all have the same wants and the same needs. Everybody wants to be loved. Travelling has taught me a lot of compassion – there’s no right way, or wrong way, no people are better or worse because they live in one country or because they do things this way or that way.
And some of the poorest people I have ever met have been the most generous. I’ve met rich people who are generous also. Travel also taught me that material possession is a weight. If you’re nomadic, as I have been, too many possessions weigh you down. So quickly I’ve accumulated all this stuff, from staying in the one place. Travelling is about letting go. It makes you really adaptable.
Thanks, Tess – you’re a real inspiration, and so wise! What do you think? Does she make you want to pack a small bag and take off to another part of the world? Yes, I do. Does she make you want to pick up a pencil and draw, or set up a studio space, like now? Absolutely.
If you would like to get in touch with Tessa Joy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Some of her wonderful art pieces showcased here are available for purchase. You may like to share this post with a friend!
Tessa is also mentioned in my book Where The Light Lives. In it, I describe an encounter I had with her light body during one of my rather spectacular out-of-body experiences! To find out more click here.
Tessa’s approach to art-making is interesting to me because it’s very different from how I do art. Where do you get your artistic inspiration? If you would like to be practising art, but haven’t begun yet, what has been holding you back? I’d love to hear about it!