In the Studio with Tallulah Nunez

In the studio with self-taught New Zealand based artist Tallulah Nunez, whose working style explores expressionist maximalism & surrealism through her mark-making. We met with Tallulah to tell us more about growing up in New Zealand, the message behind her works, and unexpected sources of inspiration.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

I didn’t really consider myself as a professional artist until I started selling work regularly in group shows in small retail galleries. Even then with the occasional sale I  wasn’t making enough money to live off, but just recouping enough to buy art supplies. So I struggled to justify my status as an artist. I know the majority of artists struggle financially and only a few “make it” but honestly we don’t want to be poor and it’s hard to value oneself as an artist when no one else is taking us seriously. 

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like? How has this impacted your work?

I am a Kiwi, New Zealand born. I had a rather tragic upbringing which I won’t go into details about but just to say I became very creative at a very young age as a way to cope and survive.

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice, artistic work? 

I’ve been painting for over 30 years, self taught. I never had the opportunity to go to art school and there have been periods where I feel I might have missed out on the fast track to fame and fortune. But I also think being self taught means I don’t have any rules to follow and I work completely in a bubble with very little outside influence which is what makes the work unique. 

 I learnt by trial and error. I started when I was living in Sussex, England, my daughters were just starting school and I had a baby at home. I would put the baby in the buggy, march the girls to school, run home and set the easel up in the kitchen. The baby spent a lot of time watching Telly Tubbies on TV I can tell you. 

I started out on big canvases with acrylic and painted from photos of holidays and landscapes, I was really bad at it ha ha. But I never let mistakes or fear or disappointment stop me. I have an obsessive personality and I channeled it into my art. Now 30 years later I work 8 to 10 hours a day every day. If I’m not working, life gets too real for me. 

I read a lot of books about artists. In the beginning the usual ones about Van Gogh, Monet, Manet etc.  I loved the impressionists, surrealists and expressionist artists. The loud un-natural colours and powerful mark making. I wanted to do that so I tried every style of painting and all and every subject from portraits, landscapes, still-life and abstracts. 

I had some mediocre success with some styles but I never felt like I was seeing myself in the work. I was just making nice pictures that often lacked the final twist that makes them great. 

I have tried a multitude of mediums, acrylic, oils, water-colour, gouache, dye and now ink. I have collaged – paper, plastic, tissue and fabric. I have painted on canvas, fabric, walls, wood and panels. There’s probably not a lot of things I haven’t tried. 

The interesting thing is those first 27 years of practice has led to here, this moment where I am now painting 100 % truly me.

 It’s been a really incredible journey and for a very long time I was struggling to believe I would find my own voice, my own style so when it came about 3 years ago (after a mental health crisis and several months of not being able to paint)  I was shocked and excited but also sooooo relieved that finally all the effort and struggle was worth it. 

After my breakdown I stopped painting and I was encouraged to  journal the writing turned into doodling, then drawing. The drawings got bigger and bigger and more and more elaborate. This was shocking to me because I always told myself and everyone else that I couldn’t draw. So it was a whole new unexplored genre for me. 

The drawings saved me and made me. I love the slowness of the drawing, the fine detail, mark making, unusual perspectives and eclectic mix of subjects. 

I am so happy and now I can say I am an artist.

What’s the message of your work?  Where do they come from?

I make unashamedly beautiful paintings. They often feature large ungainly imaginary plants and trees. I love organic shapes and I use silhouettes of plants as a starting point but then I draw into them so they morph into something unexpected. 

I am using the Sun as a muse often populating the drawing with many phases. I like using the circles and half circles as an anchoring point and surround them with a swirling cacophony of marks and colours. I want the works to vibrate. To be instantly beautiful but also slow to reveal their hidden depths. 

Who/what are your greatest influences? 

Today I would say the contemporary American artist Shara Hughes, the UK figurative abstract artist Cecily Brown and the Australian artist Elizabeth Cummings. 

An unexpected source of inspiration?

My husband and I are house sitters so we move constantly up and down New Zealand and the changing locations and homes unexpectedly makes subtle changes to what I paint and what colours I use.

What do you want people to take from your work when they view it? Do you have the audience consciously in mind when you are creating?

I do have an audience in mind – someone who stops and takes the time to look closely to be open to what they see and to make their own mind up whether they like but also to see what they want to see in the image. 

The paintings take a long time to create and they need a lot of looking. It feels horrible if the viewer is indifferent to the work I would prefer if they said they didn’t like them rather than not noticing it at all. 

What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise/aesthetic? 

Moving from England back to New Zealand after being 17 years away brought about a change in how much time and effort I was willing to put into making. The pace of life in New Zealand is slower and is less congested so it became easier to slip into the creative process. 

I’m always experimenting. I love challenges. If the work becomes easy to make then I must be doing something wrong. I’m always pushing myself to create something new and unique. 

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

Isolation, I have to be on my own with no interruptions. My husband is a writer and we both work from home (house sit home) so we are very aware of not interrupting or staying too long in each other’s spaces. 

Tell us about the inspiration behind one your works?

I have been working on the Sun paintings for nearly two years now and still feel there is a lot more to say. I have noticed volcanoes popping up in the work lately which  is interesting as I did a whole series of volcanoes using palette knife about 7 years ago. I love that my past experiences and styles are still making their way into the new work. 

Something in the future you hope to explore?

Spray paint. That’s going to be really difficult to do as I would need a permanent studio space as too risky spray painting in someone else’s home. It will happen all in good time.

Describe your work in three words:

Eclectic, maximalism, organic.

What do you listen to while you work? Is music important to your art?

I listen to audio books. It stops me thinking and then the hand takes over and the work just materializes. Artists talk about the zone and I don’t like to be pretentious or cliched but yes I get in the zone sometimes for many hours. 

What is your favorite read?

The Passage series by Justin Cronin. 

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Attwood. 

I love reading Speculative Fiction because there are no rules and anything could happen. I love that level of risk. 

My favorite read this year is Cloud Cuckoo Land. 

Best piece of advice you’ve ever received (any quotes or mantras you particularly connect with)?

There are no mistakes, it’s all learning and practice. 

If the work gets easy to make then you are not challenging yourself. 

Don’t let anyone tell you what to paint.

What makes you nervous?

Running out of panels to work on and art supplies. 

Delivering art to the gallery.

Exhibitions openings.

People saying the work is nice. 

Is there anything you wish you were asked more often?

Where can I buy your work? Where can I see your work?

Is there anything you’ve recently tried for the first time? 

I am always pushing my creative process and trying new things artistically. 

In the last couple of years I have been making the Sun paintings but each series has a particular theme, Flowers, Tree’s, Mountains etc. But even with a theme such as Tree’s the first few paintings from the series can look quite different from the work I make at the end. Each series takes about 6 months to produce and during that time the seasons change and we move locations between house sits. This constantly shifting stimuli thrusts me into new head spaces and ways of seeing. I like to keep myself open to my environment and as my moods shift so do the compositions and colours.

Would you rather know what the future holds or be surprised? 

Please surprise me. 

What palace in your everyday environment do you go to for inspiration?

I recently read Cloud Cuckoo Land and have noticed my paintings now have Islands floating on top of clouds and my recent work has titles like – Cloud Island and Cloud Crooked Land. 

What are some things you’re most passionate about outside of your practice?

My husband and my children. 

What is your relationship with social media?

I use instagram where I  show my art hopefully  to a wider audience. I don’t post anything personal.  I can’t follow artists if they post too much outside their art practice as it detracts from the work.