Themes of Hope. Beauty.
The sublime. Paintings like psalms.
Dark, deep clear colours and radiant luminous iridescent colours.
Mountains and valleys. Beautiful contrasts.
With our hands clutched around mugs of Earl Grey tea on a cool, Sydney Winters day I spoke with award winning oil painter, Carla Hananiah in her Petersham studio.
Tell us about what you do.
I’m an artist. My practice is centered on painting and drawings. The majority of my time is spent working towards solo shows that are exhibited in commercial galleries. I have gallery representation with Arthouse Gallery in Sydney and Edwina Corlette Gallery in Brisbane. I also teach art part-time to adults, and balance all this with being a mum.
From a very young age I’ve been drawn to paint and do anything crafty, yet choosing to pursue it as my area of study and career was a big step. It felt audacious, particularly when faced with practical questions such as ‘What job will you do after you finish your course?’, and the honest internal answer being a nervous ‘I don’t know, hahaha’.
Art is one of those funny career aspirations that force you to forge your own parthway. To quote my husband, “you’ll never find your job on seek.com, you have to make your own job” and he is right. It takes a lot of tenacity and a large dose of self-confidence in your creativity…which is something I initially struggled with.
In finishing my undergraduate degree (BFA), I felt less prepared than I had hoped to be in pursuing a career as an artist, which led to a sense of discouragement. I stopped painting seriously for a while and worked in the hospitality industry. With the encouragement and support of my husband I enrolled a few years later in a coursework masters degree that then lead to applying for a master of fine arts (MFA) by research degree. Finishing my MFA and having a focused body of work was what launched my arts career. In the last few years of my MFA I entered a lot of prizes and applied for different scholarships. After a while my persistence was rewarded as the ratio of no’s to yes’s I received in response improved to the point that I won a number of prestigious awards and scholarships.
Winning the Winsor & Newton Start your Studio scholarship was the first thing I ever won and was the most amazing confidence booster. This opportunity initiated an ongoing relationship, which has also proved valuable for how it has enabled me to gain a greater technical understanding of the materials I work with. Subsequently, I possess a real passion for continued learning of materiality – to understand colour, pigments and paints at a scientific level. This has significantly influenced the way that I approach and make decisions about the creating of work.
The other key winning was The Blake Prize’s John Coburn Emerging Artist Award, which is known as the spiritual prize in Australia. This prize toured nationally and therefore gave my work significant exposure.
When I look back at the not very straightforward path to getting to where I am now I feel completely blessed and am thankful for all I learnt in the tough times – I spent a decade working in hospitality, studying part time and working till late at night and on weekends in the studio. It taught me not to despise the days of small beginnings, to trust the dreams planted in my heart and to also work really hard. I was challenged to write down what I wanted to see happen in my arts career way before anything noteworthy had happened. I remember writing a page of specific dreams and feeling completely crazy for writing them but I learnt the power of writing vision down. Years later I came across that paper and the amazing thing was that a large number of them had become my living reality.
How long have you been a Christian?
Apparently since I was 4. I went to kindy the next day and painted Jesus (he visited me in a dream that night). We always went to church as a family from a young age so I grew up knowing all the bible stories etc. However, it was in my teenage years that it became a real and lived out decision for me.
How does your faith inform/inspire your work?
Well my faith is part of who I am and the work comes out of that. Each show is a reflection of my internal journey and how my faith has impacted that. But on a more conscious level my faith is how I engage with the ideas on beauty and the sublime that I cover in the next question. I often know that I get set up with moments in the land – grand skies on the mornings I plan to get up early. Paintings and shows have also been named after bits of hymns or psalms. Time spent painting and in that quiet space of reflection feels somewhat sacred – the paintings are almost like prayers. The process and the time spent creating the work is a joy, the end result of the work is always exciting to see but also sad because it’s finished…almost that feeling after reading a good book and having to say goodbye to it.
Tell me about Beauty and what it means to you.
Beauty is a gift. I can’t imagine life without it. It is so intrinsically tied to all I hold dear…it’s not the most beautiful vistas or a lovely face that I think of when I reflect on beauty. It’s how the light can make anything beautiful for a time…the light beaming brightly through leaves on a branch highlighting their colours…or the beauty of an encounter. Or how an ordinary pastoral scene can be made otherworldly by a dawn sky. I love the idea of beauty being an invitation & a pointer to God. Simone Weil considers the idea of beauty as a path pointing to our desire for something beyond the confines of this world. In her words: ” yet that meaning, purpose and perfection is always elusive; the beauty of the world constantly promises, yet never satisfies. The very fact that beauty has no finality can suggest to us that the universe itself has no finality; that it’s purpose, if it has any, lies beyond it.”
I also loved discovering this idea in the writing of CS Lewis in The Weight of Glory who wrote of ‘our own far-off country’ that we see or hear echoes of. It is like nostalgia for some place that we have not yet seen…as if we are homesick for heaven. He writes “We do not merely want to see beauty…we want something else that can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become a part of it.”
Notions of the sublime became a central theme and focus of research in my work. Ideas on beauty that resonate with me are that of the romantic and the sublime – transcendent beauty that harkens to the infinite; leaving us aware of our humanity and in awe of divinity. In Art and the beauty of God Richard Harries writes on beauty that points to something beyond itself: “for beauty delights us, takes us out of ourselves in appreciation and wonder, and at the same time leaves us outside. It makes us at once utterly satisfied and strangely unsatisfied.”
I find beauty speaks to me. Beauty cheers me up on a hard day. It reminds me of what is important, to be still for a time & just be – taking time to soak that beauty in and see what it has to say. Often when in the landscape I feel ideas I can only partly grasp start to take root in my heart and mind. For me, paying attention to beauty is like reading love letters from our Creator. I love that beauty is lavishly bestowed on us – that a flower will bloom on top of a mountain whether or not anyone climbs up and encounters it – it’s there for the discovering.
Beauty helps to heal. It can awaken buried emotions, cause us to reflect, or encourage us to just stop and be our true selves in a moment. Essentially it helps us stay human and reminds us of our own finite humanity. The world needs beauty.
How much does the ‘color’ of life, the highs and lows, affect your work?
I like that there are no filters on how we react to colour; colour bypasses the analytical part of our mind and goes straight to the heart. That is why I feel so strongly about my passion for art. In ‘John Coburn: The Spirit of Colour’ Lou Klepac examines the importance of colour: “But what is colour? How could we describe or explain it to a blind person? After centuries of investigation, we have learned some of the properties of colour, but the phenomenon remains a marvelous mystery. Colour is life and as such it has a direction connection with our emotions and state of mind.” I love that both sound and colour are universal languages. As artist Paul Gauguin shared in his journal colour alone is “the language of the listening eye” – its “suggestive quality is suited to help our imaginations soar, decorating our dream, opening a new door to mystery and the infinite.”
My use of colour tends to shift according to where I am in my internal journey, for instance, it’s hard to belt out a dramatic sky in reds, yellows and oranges when you’re feeling blah or in somber mood!
I feel colour and emotions are closely tied. The darks need to be there to show the light. I love the idea of brilliance of colour and its pure intensity being best read through layers of transparent colour and how light bounces through the layers to the white of the paper or linen and back again. To me it’s a metaphor for life – living the colours of each season with grace by being transparent and letting the light shine through.
When I discover or am introduced to a new colour I almost cry because it is like unearthing a new treasure.
How do you balance work and motherhood?
Not an easy one in any industry for any mummy! I’m learning as I go. I have discovered that I need to keep creating to be the best version of myself so even if it’s only a bit each week it keeps me sane. Making it work in the reality of sleep deprivation, feeding and being a fulltime Mum in the first year was extremely difficult. I worked when she slept as much as possible. Now that my daughter is 2 years old, I’ve begun to put her into some formal care a few days a week. Having that dedicated time set aside each week and being able to work without a cloud of tiredness is gold to me. As a result, I find that I am fresher and more purposeful in enjoying my days and the time spent with my daughter. It’s a good balance.
How do you stay inspired?
I like pulling out the paints to create something without it being for a specific deadline, such as a colour study. Although it has been created outside of an agenda, it will often end up informing my next work in the studio. I love taking a sketchbook and some watercolours outdoors. A good dose of being outdoors in wide-open spaces inspires me. Mountains and oceans are my forever loves & if I haven’t been near one or the other for a while I ache to be. When I get in nature I find myself letting go of a breath I didn’t realize I was holding.
Viewing a dawn or dusk always wakes my soul up. I also find writing really helps me. As does reading, long solitary walks, gallery visits, speaking with other creatives and coffees in the sunshine.
Who are the people that have influenced or inspired you most in your chosen field?
I am inspired by people who continue to create and develop their craft; those who continue to pursue their creative vision no matter what and don’t adapt their work to current fads.
I am now also so inspired by others who continue working in their creative industry whilst on the journey of motherhood. Hats off to you all! x
There are far too many artists that inspire me to be able to start naming them, but these sources of inspiration span the centuries as well as being some of my contemporaries. I love spending time really looking in a museum at the greats. I like to see their brushstrokes, how they handled paint and colour. Being in their physical presence and understanding their scale is so completely different from knowing them only through a book reproduction. It changes my response to it – I always leave more inspired. Seeing works in the real that I have always loved in a book influences me in how I think about process of making.
This is almost a too hard basket question; seriously I am a slightly obsessive collector of books! Bookstores are one of my favourite places to wile away some time.
An empty journal and sketch book – all the blank possibilities. The Bible..especially the psalms.
A childhood favorite was LM Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon – I think her sensitivity to beauty and her desire to pursue a creative career resonated with me. Any Jane Austen. I love her dry humour. I also love a good cookbook or travel book with lots of pictures.
BBC Pride and Prejudice – yes all 6 hours worth watched many a time.
Queenstown for the mountains, Sydney for the beaches, Melbourne for the food, Paris and Vienna for the art galleries. Auckland for family and my first home. Sorry, totally cheeky answer but it’s all true.
Favorite activity on a day off?
Some ‘me’ time in nature. Seeing a sunrise at the beach, breakfast at a favorite café, a swim and time spent with family and catching up with friends.
“When i arrive into the landscape, its almost as if Ive let go of a breath Ive been holding for a long time”, she says. “Im a romantic, and i paint to capture the essence of the sublime expressed through natural beauty”.