In conversation with Hilary Herrmann

Otomys: Your compositions draw on something mystical - the fantastical figures and creatures seem to be from a time and place unknown. There often seems to be a friendship or even a spiritual connection between them. Who are these characters and what conversations might they be having?


Hilary Herrmann: My painting practice is storytelling; communicating what touches me, it explores relationships, domesticity and memory, it studies and exaggerates the creatures that surround me. I want belonging to be part of the communication, for the relationships of my life and imagination to be expanded outwards, to resonate out of the paint. For my characters, though touch or gesture, often through a flower offered as a gift, that the feeling of being alone is lessened. 


It’s about wanting simplicity, it’s about hope, about protection. My incorporeal figures float through the world with their golden crowns and protective halos, caught in time, not able to move forward or move backwards, transfixed, spellbound to a place that is captive and protected. The complexity of the world is contained. My paintings represent a type of vulnerability and offer a quiet despatch that things will be okay. 


As a fairly pragmatic person, I have often been puzzled as to why the language of my paintings extends to dreamlike landscapes, celestial skies and otherworldly states. I’ve come to think this far-flung creative process allows answers that are ambiguous and elusive, solutions that provide stillness and solace while being far removed from definitives.


Otomys: Is your approach to the canvas one of intellect or free flowing spontaneous thought?


Hilary Herrmann: I begin with a thought, an idea, an event, an emotion, a word or the fumbling of daily events. I begin and then it becomes a very intuitive process about resolve and aesthetic. I love the language and intelligence of paint.


I am aware that I have strategies in place, a repetition of procedures – tools or skillsets that have become my signature, my place of resolution. These patterns have a strong force and have become central to how my creative process works, functioning as both inspiration and identity. 



Otomys: Tell us about your working day and how you use your time and space?


Hilary Herrmann: I live in rural NSW. It’s stunningly beautiful. We’re surrounded by rainforest trees, undulating hills and are bordered by the close sea. I listen to the bird songs as I wake early, drink a mandatory black coffee and curl back into bed, considering the day ahead. A daily walk at the beach before I enter the studio. Water, clouds, light, starting off the day... one of my many psychiatric couches. 


My studio is on the veranda of my house – a rambling old homestead, over a hundred years old. I am fairly disciplined. I pretty much paint and stare and look at art books each day. I listen to documentaries, radio, music or audio books while I paint. Impossible to know how much seeps in. 


I love my routine. It is dotted by domestic and gardening chores and interruptions from neurotic dogs, demanding chickens, mournful ducks and the occasional tawny frogmouth perched on my easel. My daughter has been home for the pandemic, and there are plenty of shared cups of tea in the sun. Dust and cobwebs and bills to pay are on the list but avoided whenever possible. 


Otomys: I read that you once said, “Whatever I am working on in the studio inevitably gets dragged into the lounge room so I can stare at it while I am eating my dinner.” What thoughts go through your mind while you stare at your painting and how do you know when the painting is resolved?


Hilary Herrmann: Stare at a painting long enough and I see pieces that just don’t work, that jut out, don’t feel right; too vague, too abrupt, too much space. Aesthetic issues show themselves quickly, but often there’s a fear of losing what’s there and not being able to recapture it … and that certainly does happen. Sometimes I paint over things 30 times; change backgrounds, faces, add and remove figures, or just start over again. There’s an alchemy. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and that’s where discipline comes in. 



Otomys: What do you draw on to inspire / influence your work? 


Hilary Herrmann: There are hundreds of artists that have coloured my world and who have influenced who I am and how I think. My home is full of novels, art books and music, paintings and prints and photos. We don’t believe in wall space. 
From the existentialists that took over my youth, to the magical realists that have enchanted me, the modernist painters that have guided me and the poets and musicians that have narrated and lyricised my life, my work is saturated in and layered with a myriad of influences. 



Otomys: You live in the lush tropical Northern Rivers region which is home to rich and diverse creative communities. Can you share a few of your favourite local vocal artists or musicians?


Hilary Herrmann: The North Coast hosts an astonishing array of talented musicians. Although fairly reclusive when it comes to live venues, I always love seeing Jez Meade play, hearing his lingeringly poignant lyrics. The beautiful voice and instruments of Gyan and Si, with their haunting tunes and clever words are also a pleasure to catch. 
June 22, 2021