A Beautifully Crafted Life

Words and Pictures by Brooke Powell

Walking into Clare James’ home and garden is like stepping into the pages of a story book. Enter a home where every space is taken up with carefully arranged treasures that represent memories of special places and times. You then walk through the backdoor into a tangled, rambling space where animals, children and make believe coexist beautifully. It’s an environment that is a natural extension of the artist Clare James: texture, nostalgia, flora, fauna and just enough sweetness to make you smile from the inside out.

Clare grew up locally, on a bush block in Monbulk, where her fascination and love of nature was nurtured by both her parents. They too had a deep respect and attachment to the natural world. Clare admits to being a wonderful mix of them both.

“My mum saw beauty in everyday things around us such as fallen birds nests and veins on leaves. She kept a nature table where we would add ‘treasures’ from our garden, the beach or forest. Dad is the keenest of bird nerds. He has a botanical background and loves to spend hours searching for native orchids and identifying every plant on a bush walk.”

Their influence is reflected in the astonishingly beautiful journals Clare has created since she was a teenager and kept her whole adult life. Holidays, bush walks, people, ideas and valuable finds all carefully written about, drawn and stored for future reading and inspiration.

“I have been a keeper of journals for many years. I kept scrap books and diaries as a teenager, and have kept visual diaries throughout my years studying art. I always make journals when I travel, little ones for back-packing in Australia and overseas, larger ones for road trips and base camping. I love focusing on the small details of a place I am in. It is often how I remember being somewhere; by the simple action of sitting still and really looking at the details. If I can’t collect them…then I draw them.”

Clare studied at the Victorian College of the Arts and graduated in 2001, majoring in drawing. She then completed her Diploma of Education to become an Art teacher. The Melbourne Rudolf Steiner School, where she did her final high school year in 1998, heard Clare had become a teacher and asked her to apply for an arts / craft position.

“I was completely surprised to actually get the job and felt like it really was too good to knock back. I worked there for 4 years, stopping to become a mumma.”

Clare now lives in Healesville with her husband Mark and two delightful young daughters, Lylah and Olive. The move was easy for Clare. As a heavily pregnant mum she was moving closer to her sister, also an artist, as well as ending up closer to other family. For Mark he came to Healesville via the rest of the world.

“I grew up in the Dandenong Ranges, so it wasn’t at all a big move compared with Mark. He was born in Germany, grew up in Michegan USA and moved to Melbourne aged 12, later to live in Thailand as a volunteer for two years.”

Mark runs a program called Greensteps that is run out of Monash Uni. His beliefs about planet care and sustainability support Clare’s ideas but from a different angle. They met at a house party in Abbotsford when Clare was only twenty one. A shared love for nature and being outdoors saw them off to the High Country camping and falling for each other in no time.

“We have been together for 11 years now! We share a very similar sense of humour and spend a lot of our time making each other laugh. We are very different, which is why we probably find each other so interesting.”

In 2011 Clare was asked to submit some paintings for Nancybird, the Melbourne fashion accessories label. They wanted to use them on their handbags, wallets and scarves.  The theme for the range was focused on threatened native orchid species. This seems like a brief designed specially for Clare, a theme that is to return in her art practice. It would also be the first time Clare had seen her work digitally reproduced on fabric.

“For the Nancybird range…I painted many different pieces and posted them off. I was delighted to find out that several were going to be used. The following season I also painted many pieces following a different colour and style brief. Many of these were also used. One of them, a fish scale watercolour design, was used on the doona cover of Nina’s bed in ‘Offspring’ last year.”

This was the motivation Clare needed to start seriously committing to her art practice again. Clare’s sister Kate encouraged her to create enough work to hang in Kate’s studio and put on a solo show. The show included some of her work printed on pillows and delicate fabric hoops.

Called, ‘Because you couldn’t fly, I thought you’d never leave me,’ The theme for the exhibition was dedicated to Goolash the Galah that had spent twelve years with Clare. She was a road victim that had a broken wing when found. The wing never healed properly. Goolash was meant to live until eighty years of age but tragically, in her twenties, the bird choked on a seed husk and died in Clare’s hands.

“I decided in January last year that I really did want to be an artist, not a teacher. I chose birds to draw as I wanted to get a lot of practice and had always loved all things feathered. My memories and mourning over the loss of my galah fitted seamlessly into this work. It took many tears to paint this amazing little pink bird that had left my world…but I did it.”

The show was a wonderful success, with Clare selling almost everything hung. Orders for more cushions plus wonderful retail outlets such as TarraWarra Museum Shop, Morris Brown Heathmont and Clarence in Healesville all asking to stock her cushions. The studio was filled with friends, family and others that were simply attracted to her delicate work. It was the perfect path back into the world of being an independent artist.

Earlier this year one of Clare’s pieces was chosen to be used by the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) for an online postcard campaign to be sent to the Prime Minister on Valentine’s Day called ‘Places You Love’.

“I was thrilled to know that my work was bought by the ACF. It was used for a social media campaign that asked people to email the card to campaign to Julia Gillard and the Environment Minister Tony Burke about protecting the places we love. 6400 people did so in a couple of days and also 5,000 postcards were printed and handed out at Melbourne’s Sustainability festival in February. It was another lovely project to be part of as the theme is so very close to my heart.”

In late February the inaugural Xtinction exhibition and awards were held in Healesville, supported by the Healesville Sanctuary. The exhibition highlighted many Australian species that are presently endangered. Clare enthusiastically entered new work and tentatively attended the opening at Three Stories Art Space. When asked on the night how she was feeling Clare admitted that she’d never wanted to win anything so much in her life before so was completely overcome with nerves. Fortunately she did win and this has extended her even more support and opportunity to develop her artistic dreams.

“I was so excited to make work for this show. The idea came very quickly and it felt like such a natural process to look deeply at this issue and come up with a work that illustrated it. I spend a lot of my time worrying about the environment, so it felt great to be able to put my worries into something that may encourage others to think about this tragic theme and take action in their own lives. Winning was such a joy. It definitely helped me to acknowledge my skills as an artist and to give myself the time and space to keep practising.”

Clare is currently working on beautiful recreations of the work she did as a child. Representing a change of theme from her other recent works, as an observer they seem quite personal and whimsical. They tip toe softly, and with good humour, on the territory of adults trying to remember and represent childhood.

“These have been so much fun to do. Mum kept many drawings that I did as a child and recently I looked at some and had a go at drawing them again. I love the look of children’s drawings, with their own perspective and strange shapes and lines. We forget how to draw like this as we get ’better’ or more practiced.”

At home Clare proudly creates entire meals that have come wholly from her garden. On the kitchen table there is fresh bread and the shelf is lined with Mark’s preserving efforts. They dream that in their old age, Clare and Mark will provide preserving classes, art classes and general workshops from their beloved backyard. As Clare walks and talks, all the while gently patting the chook under her arm, the dream is entirely believable. Kate and Clare already run hugely anticipated Christmas decoration making classes each year, so no doubt it will be a family affair.

Clare loves her richly layered life in the Yarra Valley. It provides inspiration, love and support to both her art practice and her family. Clare’s love of craft and an artfully put together life is contagious.

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