Ebb+Flow Artist Feature: Siobhan Kelley

Ebb+Flow Artist Feature: Siobhan Kelley

Regional Arts WA

This story has been submitted by Sarah-Jayne Eeles, who was engaged by the Regional Arts Network to create a series of stories that celebrates the artists involved in the Ebb+Flow residency.

We love sharing stories from the sector. If you want to find out how to submit your own stories, take a look at the submit your story page. We can’t wait to hear from you!

The positive impact and lasting effects of the residency are incredible.

A visual artist who works in many mediums, Siobhan Kelley felt that for eight months her life was like escaping COVID as she moved around many places before it finally caught up with her. She travelled from Victoria to New South Wales to Queensland, and eventually to Port Hedland where her husband is working, before relocating to back to Victoria. It was while she was in Port Hedland that Siobhan was accepted into the Ebb+Flow residency program. Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a temporary stay in Victoria beforehand, was extended – we can all guess why – and it postponed her month-long artistic stay in Carnamah. However, when a short window in border crossings opened up, Siobhan jumped at the chance to complete the residency, fearing she might miss out of the opportunity altogether if she didn’t grab the chance when she could. Now back in Victoria, Siobhan was able to talk about her arts practice and experiences in North Midlands from the state in lockdown by phone.

                “It’s very different being back home. I left for the Carnamah residency before lockdown and was there for four weeks, but when I came back, Melbourne was in another lockdown, so I haven’t seen some of my friends and contacts for literally months. In some ways that has made my time in North Midlands even more special and it’s a lasting feeling I’ve brought back with me.”

Artist Siobhan Kelley working on a plein air painting of a wheat field and blue sky. Siobhan is in the foreground and is wearing a black and red jumper and straw hat while she paints a canvas on an easel.Siobhan working on a plein air painting. Photo courtesy Siobhan Kelley.

Siobhan was impressed with the small, but gorgeous community and felt accepted from the start, with a feeling that everyone had great respect for each other and other people they didn’t even know. She found it to be a very welcoming experience. And the residency was a completely different gear to Siobhan’s regular pace of life. With teenage children and a husband that works interstate, the artist’s everyday home life means she is constantly busy even without her fulltime art practice.

 “I haven’t been on my own in over 14 years. Starting the residency and with only 2 days notice before leaving, was a contrasting experience. It was so quiet when I got to Carnamah. I had all this time. All this silence. I’m not much for TV so I started a few audible books to fill in the blanks. Then I started to meet a few of the locals.  I would see them out walking on the street. It was so comforting. Everyone I met was so welcoming. I felt really embraced by the community.”

Ebb+Flow is the fourth residency Siobhan has undertaken, the longest, at 6 weeks, being at the Melbourne Aquarium with their educational department. The Port Hedland residency was her first where the studio space was in the gallery and open to the public, an experience Siobhan found beneficial and rewarding.

 “Working while the public could come up and talk to you in the Courthouse Gallery was wonderful. I loved it. You have instant feedback on what you are working on. In Carnamah it was even more so. I spent the first two weeks of my residence painting. There was this beautiful paddock with the wheat growing at the end of the street. People would come up to me and talk about the painting. Sometimes the conversations would be about the previous Ebb+Flow artists. It was a really connecting experience. I’ve met most of the other artists through our monthly Connect+Share meetings on Teams, and I really hope we all get to meet in person one day.”

During the residency, Siobhan found she had more time to create than she was used to, and was so prolific during her time in Carnamah, she was able to include some new paintings of the region in her exhibition while she was there, so it included works from the Pilbara, the Kimberley and local North Midlands landscapes.

“People recognised the places I had painted. It was a unique feeling to have them recognise these places without me telling them where they were painted. I’ve never had that before… I sold two works from the exhibition. One was a series of seven paintings conceived as one painting. It was painted from the end of the street looking in detail at the grain sheds, the wheat, the weeds and the sky. It was bought for the North Midlands Project’s Collection.

Then, I received a commission based on that work. Painting that commission was another impactful experience for me. One of the local farmers wanted a similar style, multi panel painting of her farm. She took me out to her property and showed me her favourite places and views. It felt like a real privilege for someone I didn’t know to take me to their farm and share such personal stories and memories with me and to allow me to experience her farm from her perspective. The final place we drove to was where she and her children would picnic when they were younger. It was up on a ridge and looked back down to the family home. Her children are now older living in Perth, studying at university and at boarding school.

This was towards the end of my residence, and I felt the importance of home and the growing up of children. The paintings are based around the family home, the wheat fields, their beautiful gum trees and the saltbush. I learned that’s very important to the lamb and sheep farming… the saltbush. I sold another painting shortly after coming home. 

That’s a lot of sales for me in such a short time…I’m still riding that high.”

Siobhan pinpoints her creative journey as starting somewhere around when she was a Year 10 student. She credits Australian Impressionism and Pop Art as her two main influences. Both very different styles, but both are strong in her work. Later Siobhan undertook a year of graphic design, but quickly swapped it out for painting and never looked back, although she does still do precise lettering, it is not something that really comes up in her residencies and is more reserved for studio work.

“I find graphic work is more precise and neat, whereas more expressive works have a tendency to be messy. I work in acrylic paint mostly. It’s important to let the paint dry or it will pick up the colour underneath… you can overwork a painting. Keep going it over it too much and you end up making a mess of something that was looking so promising.”

The size of the canvas has a lot to do with how long it can take Siobhan to complete a work, with canvases around 30-40 cm square sometimes can take only a couple of hours, but the larger ones can easily take a few days.

 “If I’m working on something that takes more than one day, then it’s important to go out to paint at the same time each day. The weather conditions might be different, but the light will be the same.”

Like many artists, Imposter Syndrome is a very real thing for Siobhan and something she has to deal with most days. The residency was a wonderful validation and helped to keep the ever-present doubts at bay.

“We all grind away at our creative careers, but don’t always feel like we are getting anywhere…are we making a dent? A difference? Everyone deals with that I think… Having time away from my family life and identity, meant I was more submerged in my artist identity… I could do whatever artist me wanted to do instead of working around children and regular life schedules. Outside of the residency it is always a balancing act… but for a whole month I could just be an artist without any competing commitments.

Everything around the residency was so positive and affirmative… David and Andrew (North Midlands Project) are just the best. Those feelings from the residency have had such a positive influence on me… it resonates with me, still does… and I hope it continues to do so. It’s had such a profound, positive impact on me, that I can reach inside to that feeling when the doubt tries to creep in and I can draw on that and feel better.”

Part of the Ebb+Flow residency includes the creation of a collaborative artwork with the community. Siobhan worked with students from the surrounding schools to form the core of her piece.

Siobhan’s mark making workshop in Carnamah. Photo courtesy Siobhan Kelley.

“For my workshops, I refer to them as ‘mark makings’ rather than drawing workshops. People can get a ‘fear’ about it… they think they can’t draw… or aren’t good at it. When you say mark making, everyone feels they can do that… even though it’s the same thing. I loved the school workshops… I’d been warned some of the students might not want to participate and I’m OK with that… I don’t push. Two older students were adamant they weren’t going to do it… but when I started talking about the trees, inviting them to look at the texture of the trunks and the light… everyone just lay on the grass and started drawing… including those two… and they started drawing things that I had not even noticed. That’s one of the amazing things when working with children, they see things adults just don’t.”

Siobhan sewed all the drawings – correction – markings together to make one large drawing. It was important for the artist to finish the work before she left, as the logistics of transporting it back and forth between states wasn’t an optimal idea.

“I was so grateful for the use of The Exchange. It is such an embracing, warm, and caring space in nature, and so reflective of the people there. My experience in Carnamah and with the residency has changed me, and I’m blessed by the experience.”

See more of Siobhan’s works and journey on Instagram.

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