#TheProfileCamera: Grace Calnin

I am always so in awe of people who can put paint to paper and create something incredible. Despite my Uncle being an artist, that creative part of the family didn’t quite filter down to me and my artistic abilities extend to that of a poorly drawn stick figure.  Artists can capture just as much as an emotional love song, all from the stroke of a brush.

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I have had the privilege of knowing Grace for the past 12 years and she is one of the most talented people I know. Over those years I have seen her work endlessly for her craft and launch many exhibitions to great success. While for years I have sat in my living room and stared at some of her pieces (of course I have her artwork in my house) or sipped champagne at her gallery launches, I’ve never really asked her why she does what she does and what makes her tick? Is a piece every really finished and how does she juggle being a full time artist and teacher……..?

So finally, after all of these years, I’m sitting her down and asking the big questions… With the added bonus of turning our little ‘interview’ into all-encompassing weekend of Trash T.V. and 90’s movie marathons.

What’s your earliest memory of deciding that art is what you wanted to do?

To be completely honest, my memory is a bit like a leaky ship… but I have always been drawing or making something, and it seemed very natural. I did a lot of creating with my Opa when I was young. I idolized him and his talent and I have absolutely always wanted to make him proud, I still do. By the time I got to VCE it became very clear that art was my very favourite thing and that I had a bit of a knack for it, so it was the natural next step to continue to study it.

Why do you do what you do?

It’s not even a conscious choice at this point. It’s like reading, or some other thing you find enjoyable- only I get paid for it! I am lucky enough to have a part-time job that is incredible and covers my cost of living, so the fact that 5 days out of the week I get to draw and create things for people that mean something to them, and get to work on things that mean something to me… well I count myself as very lucky.

Your signature work is of wolves. What is the reason behind this?

Well now, wolves have been in my brain for a very long time. I’ve never questioned why before but lately that very question has been playing on my mind. The imagery comes from what informs and inspires most of my work: folk tales, myths and legends. I love books, I’d go so far as to say that they are an obsession. I read a lot of Grimm in my youth (and adult life, let’s be honest) and now have a substantial collection of books in this genre. Wolves play a large role in the imagery of fables, folk and fairy tales, often as an anthropomorphised villain. The stories that inform the beautiful, different cultures of the world and our early development, with their imagery, morality and purpose have always been at the root of my work and wolves are such a powerfully loaded and wild symbol.

What is your most important tool as an artist? Is there something you can’t live without in your studio?

I’ve have a boatload of erasers. I’m always searching for the perfect eraser, and I’ve found some good ones but I reckon the perfect match is still out there. I have firm erasers, kneadable erasers, pen erasers, gum erasers and my lovely electric eraser. They are so much fun! I always end up with little bits scattered all over the studio floor… they can be a horror to tidy up!

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“It is not perfect, it is very imperfect in fact, but that’s why I like it”

What is the one piece you are most proud of?

Well, I’m not sure… but I think my favourite piece is this poorly composed big drawing of Sealions that I did a few years ago. It is not perfect, it is very imperfect in fact, but that’s why I like it. It was done during a shift in my technical process and when I look at it I can see the change coming through. It is the only piece of mine that I have ever chosen to keep, it lets me see that there is hope in the unrefined, unconsolidated work. It is wonderfully transitional for me. Also, I bloody love Sealions and seals and Selkie myths.

What’s the best advice you ever had about how to be more creative?

I suppose that my answer to that is more of a lesson learnt than something someone said to me specifically… Since I started teaching art it has become very clear to me that consistency in practice feeds my creativity. Art school was so focused on the concept behind a work that it kind of stifled my ability to just sit and draw and let things happen naturally. That inherent creative experimentation and confidence completely left me in the end. Now, with the kids that I work with being quite demanding, I’ve found I have to earn my stripes in every single class. They want to know I can practice what I preach and because of this, my confidence has grown and I have finally, after years of rebelling against it, figured out the value of keeping sketchbooks. This simple thing has helped me tremendously!

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“The world of fine art is a tricky beast, but in the age of social media it means that the unknowns can get a word in, and scratch a living”

Where do you feel art is going, especially with the added dimension of social media?

So much is unknown. For myself, having social media as a tool has been very liberating! I’ve had consistent commission work over the past few years, I’ve been slowly building a wider audience but on top of that, it gives the artist ownership of their work and is completely boundless. The world of fine art is a tricky beast, but in the age of social media it means that the unknowns can get a word in, and scratch a living. The options for an artist are far greater in a world with social media than they have been in the past, but it adds a weighty administrative role to the individual. Who knows where we will end up? 

You also teach art to teens in the youth justice system. What do you love most about your work in this field?

I’ve been working for Parkville College for the past four years and it is, well, it’s a rollercoaster. Those kids, they are just so inspiring… and sure, it is very difficult sometimes; but more often than not it is not a result of the students but of the situation. I have watched these disenfranchised youths who have learned through life that they have no value, come to the realization that they matter and that they are capable of things that they didn’t think possible. I’ve worked with students who were so resistant to art, because it seemed lame or pointless, become engaged in a way that teaches them about self-regulation and patience and the invaluable lesson that failure is okay- it’s a part of life that we all need in order to develop. It is the perspective I need when I think my (creative) sky is falling and taught me as much as I hope to have taught them. Not to mention that I get to work with some of the most intelligent, artistic, impassioned and weirdly wonderful people in Australia. Parkville College does great things, and it has completely revolutionized my little world with its unflinching support of creative’s and the work it does to re-engage the kids that society casts out. I love it.

Follow Grace on Instagram @graceycalninart and Facebook /graceycalninart

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