Julia Roche in conversation with arts writer Emma-Kate Wilson

Emma-Kate Wilson: The environment is such an essential tool in your work. When did you start drawing on the landscape? 


Julia Roche: Even when I lived in Sydney, I was always painting interpretive landscapes. But I was more focused on seascapes—the land and sky—than the morphing of natural elements. It wasn't until I moved out to the farm, and I was literally painting in the elements that the interest magnified because now I'm living in it. It's hard not to be; I'm working in the seasons.  When we moved out to the farm three and a half - four years ago, I did a couple of workshops with the Earth Canvas group. They orchestrate linking regenerative farmers with artists, and getting artists to interpret the farms. It's a fascinating conversation and connection between the farmer seeing their farm in a different light, but then also the artists, understanding the environment from a farming perspective. 


Emma-Kate Wilson: That must be a thought-provoking position for you, as a farmer and artist? 


Julia Roche: It’s really been what's pushed and challenged my interest. Having that connection and having that concept explored so close to me by other artists has been amazing. The group is run by Gillian Sanbrook, and she's had some incredible artists on her farm exploring the concept of regenerative farming—like John Wolseley, Idris Murphy and Jo Davenport. 


Emma-Kate Wilson: Could you describe the effect this interest had on your works? Is it more intuitive? 


Julia Roche: It really feels like lived experience, and then, it morphs. Often when I'm painting, it almost feels like an out of body experience. I'll step back an hour or two later and be like, yikes, I don't even really know where I've been. Intuitive is a funny word because it doesn't really give much and sounds very mysterious, but it's not. I sit down with a palette, and I pick majority of my colours before starting, and while I have a very broad concept in my head I tend to let the environment and my emotional response to it guide the work. When I sit down with too much of a preconceived idea of what I want to create, it ends up a painting that looks and feels forced. It’s one of the reasons I prefer not to do commissions, because as soon as you're briefed, the natural fluid process has gone, and then you're trying to force colours into a landscape that you don’t see or feel. 


Emma-Kate Wilson: Does that flow on with the materials that you use? Have you found yourself reaching for different mediums now? 


Julia Roche: I've always been quite experimental with my paints, but in the last three or four years, I've moved from acrylics to oils. I also paint with a few other mediums. For example, since the bushfires, I've been using a lot of charcoal in my works. I’ll use it as a direct point for line or shadow or shave it directly onto the canvas. A part of my process is leaving the works, letting materials resist or unite, and allowing that tension. This links in with leaving them out in the elements for hours on end or overnight while they are still wet. I'll let the dew or the mist settle on the paintings, or let raindrops hit it, and bugs crawl across them. This process creates lines, shadows, and motifs that you can't forge. It comes back to that idea of challenging yourself on what's perfect, what's right or pretty and accepting the power of nature—trying to relinquish a bit of control and being okay with that.  


Emma-Kate Wilson: I noticed looking through your paintings on your website there seems to be these glimmers of rawness that comes through, which might be the effect from the environment?  


Julia Roche: My works are textured and pretty gritty, and I work in layers. For the first layer, I might do a blanket of pink or violet or some crazy fluro yellow. But by the end of it, you’ll just see a glimmer of that colour poking through. So they're very textured, and then there's probably, on average, 20 or 30 layers—diluted swaths of oil colours, layered and layered. When I'm layering to create depth, at the start they're very thin layers, and very flat, but then as I start building up the landscape, the texture becomes much more chunky and gritty. I often use materials that resist each other, particularly when I leave pieces outside. I do use paintbrushes, but I rarely paint where you can see brush strokes. Instead, I use spatulas, scraping and pulling back and putting back on, or I’ll use my hands. I also use the canvas and tilt it in different directions to help direct paint. Usually, the way I apply paint is pretty fluid as well. Now and again, I do use oil sticks, which are beautiful—a lot of my mark-making is oil sticks. The nature of the way I work lets the environment in, in my 80-year-old woolshed studio with draft holes and mice. So, when I start letting the conceptual practice be a part of my process, it takes away a lot of my anxiety. I remind myself daily to just let things be rather than trying to force a particular aesthetic. If it's not working, then that's okay.  


Emma-Kate Wilson: Do you feel like that might be a country spirit in itself? 


Julia Roche: Yeah, it probably is. When you live in the country, especially in a farmhouse with the elements around, you have to learn to let go because you cannot keep everything clean, prim and proper. If there's a dust storm, for example! When I was working in the middle of Bondi, in a very controlled environment, my work felt controlled. Whereas now it's much more experimental and fluid. I love to challenge the materials. 


Emma-Kate Wilson: You mentioned you started using charcoal in your artworks; how did the bushfires impact you? Did it leave any other residual traces in your practice?  


Julia Roche: We had a block up near Adelong with my brother-in-law and his wife, which was burned; it neighbours their farm. And Mick was up there, helping Paul and Lauren in the community. Everybody rallied together with cooking and assisting farmers to re-fence. They're a really strong, tight-knit community.  In terms of my art, I was asked to be a part of a project called Arbour Festival, which brought together different creatives who were, on some level, affected by the fires to come together at the arboretum at Pilot Hill. It was a really nice way of seeing creatives come together and express what they had experienced through different mediums and installations. Fanny Lumsden came and did a big performance; they had a couple of hundred people there. Everyone could walk around the different installations. I think that event was to encourage everyone to come out because, I think probably from the trauma of the fire, a lot of people hadn't really ventured out. I went around and collected charcoal, sticks and beautiful big, charred gum leaves and branches, and I was using some of those tools to create my artworks, shaving some of the charcoal onto the canvas and capturing it on there with shellac. There's a symbolic reference to the bushfires and the effort that people had gone into saving the community. I guess that's symbolic for, on a broader note, all of the communities that were under threat. 


Emma-Kate Wilson: I noticed that the work for that festival was more installation-based; it looked like a new venture for you. 


Julia Roche: Yeah, and that was really exciting, actually. Vanessa Keenan created this under a fellowship and got in touch after the fires to ask if I'd be interested. At the start, I had an idea of creating large format canvases and installing them, maybe just outside of the arboretum, and having them like an outdoor exhibition. But then the festival developed into a 50-day festival that represented the 50 days the fires gave threat, and I realised I couldn't suspend an enormous artwork up in the bush for 50 days, safely. It wasn't going to be monitored at night, and it gets very windy up there, and they're almost like the wind sails, canvases. So I created the works and then tore them into 50 flags, representing the 50 days, and hung them under some beautiful old Petula Alba—European White Birch trees. The audience could stand under them and be immersed in these big swaths of canvas with lots of colours. They're still up there now.  


Emma-Kate Wilson: The installation works so well because there's a lot of movement captured within the two-dimensionality of the paintings. They are active representations of the environment, but then they actually become active in the installation. 


Julia Roche: They dance with the wind, and they hang still when it's calm.  


Emma-Kate Wilson: Is that something you'd continue with, more installations? 


Julia Roche: Yeah, definitely. Even in my last exhibition, Works from a Foggy Year at Cadell Place in Wagga Wagga, I rented this big shed down Wagga's Main Street, a big old mechanic shed. Down one side of the shed, I hung the artworks on the wall, but on the other side, I ended up suspending the canvases. So even though it's not an installation as such, the idea of even just not having the works stuck to the wall but suspended gave it more of an interactive feel. I also did a little bit of ceramic sculpture work. In terms of the flags, that was a new concept, and I'm definitely always open to projects and evolving—extending it to suit different environments. Often, it’s not until you get given a project, and you have to sit down and really think about pushing your practice or considering different ways to curate your work so that it’s a more relevant to the audience or project. 


Emma-Kate Wilson: I noticed those ceramic sculptures and the hanging paintings in the pictures of the exhibition. The reframing pushes the works into a conceptual space. 


Julia Roche: Yes, I do like the idea of fresh gallery walls, especially because of the way I work. Sometimes it's nice to move my work into a space and have it represented differently from how they were produced. There's something about having fresh, clean walls that's a little bit of a relief for me to make sure that they suit a different environment. That they can evolve or transition into a really clean space. However, probably the way I like our house, I like to be intrigued. And I like texture. So the idea of suspending paintings and letting people feel like they can move around, allows them to consider the artworks from all angles. Having little textured installation pieces, ceramics and sculptures, creates another interest point for people. In that exhibition, my sister and I created a ceramic family portrait. Maybe around 20 or so figurines, and every person had their little something unique to their character. Yeah, so that was really good fun too.  


Emma-Kate Wilson: Have you collaborated with your sister much? 


Julia Roche: We've done a few collaborations. We did one called 'Eight Artists' a couple of years ago now, and that was through Eastern Riverina Arts, which is in The Art Factory—two awesome bodies in Wagga. For that, there were four emerging artists with a disability linked with four emerging artists. Jacqui and I worked on a series of tiles, and then we exhibited those alongside the other six artists at the Wagga Art Gallery. Through my gallery, Otomys, they're quite interested in exploring something collaborative down the track.  


Emma-Kate Wilson: Do you have any plans together at the moment? 


Julia Roche: Nothing concrete. I was doing a little bit of work with Jacqui at The Art Factory at the end of last year, which was really fun. I can't wait to work with her again, and when the right opportunity emerges, we'll jump on it. But when we've exhibited together, they're really meaningful exhibitions. 


Emma-Kate Wilson: I'd love to hear more about Otomys' plans. I understand they are based in Melbourne but have an online gallery rather than brick and mortar? 


Julia Roche: It’s a really exciting opportunity to have gallerist interest in my regional projects. I feel like I'm at a place in my practice where I'm ready and excited to show consistently. I live in a small community and work regionally, and it's really important for me to continue exploring that and practising on regional projects, as well as having the capacity to exhibit in the city. 


Emma-Kate Wilson: The art world has a duality of showing in commercial and public galleries, combined with social media and an online presence, to reach different audiences. That's the success of a good artist, balancing the conceptual and experimental practices with the commercial. 


Julia Roche: It is an interesting balance... one that is forever evolving and being challenged in every artist’s practice, I imagine. The collection of art in the home most definitely helps to tell a story or convey one’s character. For me, what is important is, that at the end of the day, regardless of social media or where the art is exhibited, is that it is accessible, tells a story and is able to be seen and felt in the flesh.


Emma-Kate Wilson: What sort of works will you be creating {in the future}? 


Julia Roche: I plan to create the majority of the [next] series outside, and I'm going to set up a workstation here on our farm, up on top of a hill called Picnic. I'll also be working in an outside workstation, on a farm near Albury. It will be a whole new body of work created outside, really responding directly to nature. Keeping it fluid and intuitive and challenging the materials; creating obvious and really symbolic references to nature and what I see on our farm and on the regenerative farm I’m painting on. So that will be really interesting to see if there's an aesthetic difference between the two farms. It's always good to have a project to get out there and immerse myself, ideally spending two or three days at a time working on the body of work, so it's very fluid and consistent and not too fragmented and broken up. I don't really have a visual outcome set up in my head exactly what it will look like. I'm just going to work, paint, create, and then see what it is when it all comes together. 


Emma-Kate Wilson: As a final point, did you have any comments on your experience studying a Bachelor of Visual Arts at the University of Sydney’s College of the Arts (SCA)? Do you feel like that still impacts your practice today? 


Julia Roche: Yes, definitely. I can't wait to go back and do some more study. I wished I'd given it more energy and focus when I was 20. I loved art school. I don't think you have to go to art school from a technical point of view, but I think it's vital from a conceptual point of view. It's a place with like-minded people and tutors who are often practising themselves. It's a great way of challenging what you're trying to do aesthetically and what your work symbolises—thinking about what is referenced on a deeper level than the palette or the technical composition. My degree still informs the way I work. It's definitely been a process and a journey; my work has evolved. It's more consistent now than it has been. Even though I work in different environments that are forever changing and I like to challenge the way I present or exhibit the works. I think what art school helped me understand about me, and how I like to work is, that for me, the work needs to have some element of intrigue—whether that’s in the concept, composition, the palette or all of the above. As people start to follow your practice and understand what drives your process, I think that becomes of equal importance to the aesthetic outcome. 


Emma-Kate Wilson: I agree with that; art school isn’t essential, but it's such a good way of testing out your practices to see what might be there that you don't realise. 


Julia Roche: It's not until you're given a really good solid amount of time to really explore something that you challenge it. Because otherwise, you just sit on the surface. I think that longevity in that interest point, in that exploration, can sometimes be a bit cemented. The idea of extending or evolving on an idea was challenged for me at SCA. 


Emma-Kate Wilson: If you've got that conceptual base, you can move freely through an art practice, learning new techniques along the way.  


Julia Roche: I think that's right, I try to keep open-minded, and I think that's the thing when you challenge yourself. I know a lot of artists don't like working outside because it's not a controlled environment, and that can be frustrating. I've consciously created that as part of my identity and exploration because of the lack of environmental control in my studio space. I think once you start accepting that as a part of it, it's exciting. 


Emma-Kate Wilson: This is the thing about art that some people don't quite realise, but it is really such a window and a portal into emotions and thoughts. There's so much that goes into them, and I think that's what audiences feel when they see the work, and maybe they're not sure of how they feel, but if there's that little bit of tension in there from, say, the environment, people can relate to that in their own way. 


Julia Roche: That's definitely the way people respond to my work. There's something identifiable, a horizon line, or hint of a water source which confirms my works landscapes. In my latest series, things are a bit more identifiable, but often, it's very murky and morphed—it's hard to see exactly what's what. But you know you're looking at a landscape, and often I'll paint out in the paddock, and the person that buys it hangs it down the south coast with the ocean behind it, and all they see is ocean. A few of my landscapes have ended up in ski lodges—they’ve interpreted the work as a snow-scape.  People often ask what it is and, really, it is what you want it to be. It's all my experiences, mashed into a painting. Everybody interprets things differently, and I don't enforce what I see. Often, I'll put photos up of where I've created the work, but when I am standing out there, it's all my history and all my experiences going into that painting, it's not just where I'm looking at.  


Emma-Kate Wilson: Sometimes it's much more about the process, than necessarily, what the painting means. 


Julia Roche: Yeah, that's right. I'd say my work is of equal importance to the process and the final outcome. After leaving the canvases outside, they always end up back to my studio, and I'm refining elements or aspects of it— cleaning or maybe blurring lines, leaving that intrigue. It's letting there be a little bit of awkwardness, a little bit of ugliness, some uncomfortable palette. Because that's a part of what we live in, and it's a part of nature, not everything is pretty. It's finding that balance between something aesthetically pleasing, but then something intriguing and something that feels real and authentic.  

November 16, 2021