I first noticed the paintings of Barwon Heads artist Chelsea Gustafsson about 5 years ago in an exhibition at The Gordon Gallery, A5/08. It was a fundraiser exhibition for the Geelong Hospital showing works painted on small A5 canvases. Chelsea’s work depicted swimmers, painted in a highly detailed and realistic style set against a minimal background of block colour. Chelsea’s unique work stood out and unsurprisingly, her paintings received the highest bids on the night.
Since then Chelsea has continued to refine her style and has gone from strength to strength. She has been a finalist in a swag of awards (ANL Maritime Art Prize, John Leslie Art Prize, Metro Art Prize and more) and in 2010 she was a winner in the popular Linden Postcard Show. As a result of the prize, Chelsea received a commission for twenty five paintings from TarraWarra Estate. Her work has been exhibited locally and nationally, and over the past seven months she has been working on a new series of paintings for her first solo show microscapes now showing until 12 October at Boom Gallery.
Such achievements are not bad for an artist who once was told she would never amount to anything more than a waitress by her RMIT painting lecturer.
“He probably thought I needed a kick up the bum and that I wasn’t taking everything as seriously I should be,” Chelsea laughs, unfazed by the teacher’s comment. “I was young and ignorant enough for it to be water off a duck’s back – and I’m not waitressing.”
Chelsea’s recent oil on linen paintings, many of which are no larger than a handkerchief, portray miniature imagined realms, enticing the viewer to examine the fine detail which reveal little surprises. Some paintings show the controlled environment of a terrarium or a concrete planter where oversized cactuses and succulents are juxtaposed with undersized animals, the disproportion creating surreal tableaux, like in a scene from a dream or a Lilliputian world. There is a sense of something about to unfold in Chelsea’s works, a narrative left open to interpretation.
“Terrariums are designed environments created by hand,” Chelsea says. “I have been musing on how, when we are not trying to conquer nature, we are formalising everything. But it doesn’t matter how much you try to control and take over an area, there are always environmental variables. Whether it is the cockatoos that come to tear up the garden in Lorne, or diseases and pests, there’s always something that can take over.”
Cockatoos, cows and a menagerie of other animals feature in her latest series, keenly observed and rendered, and affectionately portrayed with a quirky sense of humour. Chelsea has kept the background linen unpainted, with large areas of negative space around her subjects. She has also included unexpected elements such as hand stitching and embroidery, a technique she has been incorporating into her work since she started cross stitching text on canvas a few years ago.
Chelsea, who is also a qualified graphic designer, likes to experiment with different mediums and believes that the distinction between fine art, graphic design and craft is increasingly blurred.
“There was a trend of computer generated art but it has come full circle, and now there is an appreciation for the hand drawn and old nanna-style crafts,” she says. “People are experimenting with combining mediums, either as a fine art expression to tell a story, or sell a product. I think it is good it has diversified as it gives people more opportunities.”
Delicate needlework and small scale painting suits Chelsea’s detail oriented style although it can be a time consuming process. “I love getting in and working on the detail and using the small brushes,” she says. “But it would take forever to complete a large painting.” She has to force herself to step back from her work when she gets “a bit too nose-up-close-to-the-canvas”.
The other advantage of working small is that she can pack things up easily – a practical necessity for the mother of two who completes most of her work at the kitchen table. Despite the demands of an eight month old baby and a toddler in tow, Chelsea is keen to continue her art practice, and eager to incorporate new mediums and ideas.
“My husband has been so helpful in giving me opportunities and time to get this series done for Boom and finishing it. I was looking forward to having some weekends of family time, and getting outdoors without the pressure of a deadline, but I am already thinking about what I will be working on next.”
You can keep up to date with Chelsea’s work on her blog chelseagustafsson.blogspot.com and view her online portfolio at www.behance.net/chelsgus. And you can read a 2009 interview with her over on Steve Gray’s blog.