Leah-Nicole Torbay is a talented local artist whose work has been recognised in some of the most prestigious forums around the country. She talks to Kim Gould about the joy of finding herself through art, by breaking all the rules and helping others to do the same.
> How did you first develop an interest for art?
Throughout my childhood I was always creating. However, the overwhelming desire to create really came alive in high school. I attended Armidale High School and was fortunate enough to have a fantastic art teacher, who was also my homeroom teacher for 6 years.
Students would spend 20 minutes in their homeroom reading daily. I would always pretend to read while looking around at all the art, the materials, the ideas, and the progress that people were making with their work each day. I could smell the paint and feel the clay pressed on the floor under my feet. I believe this is why I have always loved the studio environment.
> You have a degree in Fine Art and are currently completing your Masters in Art. How have these studies influenced your work?
Art school is an unforgettable experience. You meet so many creative people and undertake some very ‘out-there’ projects. I remember my first day at art school I saw a vacuum cleaner being ‘installed’ into a tree in the courtyard. I didn’t quite ‘get it’, but I quickly learned that art school exposes you to the extremities of creativity – a very challenging and exciting experience. The experience has shaped me as a creative practitioner, but perhaps not in the traditional sense.
Years of rigid academic training in drawing and painting taught me technical skills and the ability to imitate virtually anything. But that didn’t excite me. I came alive when I decided that my art wanted its own voice and embraced the energy of creating something new.
I began to work under the pseudonym of ‘Mona’, in a very child-like and un-academic way. I was having a lot of fun, and it gave me the chance to break free of anything I was supposed to ‘know’ about art.
After some time, I started to paint like this under my own name. One particular day, I was developing an idea that ironically would become my Blake Prize entry, and my painting lecturer, a well known Sydney artist, pulled me aside and said, “Miss Torbay, can I have a word? Are you taking my class seriously?” I had been warned.
This ‘new’ approach saw my academic grades dropping as my recognition in the world outside art school increased. I kept thinking of that saying about not letting your schooling interfere with your education. I was making ground with selection into a group show at the Museum of Contemporary Art and an invitation to participate in some very exciting collaborative projects and events. I decided to go for it.
I made the most technically unskilled work I had ever made, and it felt great. A defining moment came when I arrived at art school one day to find three of my paintings missing from the studio. I was heartbroken, but came to see it as the ultimate compliment. Wow, I thought, my work was worth taking? I’d better keep painting. It was a sign. I haven’t looked back.
> Describe your artistic style.
I work from a child’s perspective to harness a viewpoint unconcerned with the quest of reality. I believe that an improvisational approach to practice and use of raw symbols and vivid colour are my tools in achieving a punchy immediacy and fresh narrative.
> Tell us about the different artistic mediums in which your creativity finds expression.
I work across painting, drawing and sculpture. I do a lot of little sketches, documenting raw ‘thoughts’ and often comic little ‘ideas’. These can lead to larger bodies of work across different mediums, and they are sometimes complete pieces in themselves.
My paintings are more of a process; I work on them for longer, and typically there can be many layers. I just keep going until it feels right. Or my mum drops in and says, “STOP!” But it’s hard to listen.
> You were one of the finalists in the 58th Blake Prize in Sydney. This is a very prestigious award. How did it feel to be nominated?
It is most encouraging to be a finalist in a major Australian art prize, particularly so early in my career. It was very exciting to have my work hung with the work of so many Australian artists whom I admire.
> You recently spent three months in Cambodia. What was this experience like?
Yes, this was my second trip to Cambodia, and it was an amazing adventure. I volunteered my time working with a local NGO in Phnom Penh and collaborated with a Welsh Photographer on a series of street projects engaging creatively with local children.
Waking up every morning and jumping on a dirt bike to mentor young people and ‘go make some art’ is pretty exhilarating – I won’t lie!
> After living and exhibiting in Sydney for so long, you now have a studio based in Armidale. Why did you decide to move back north?
I love Armidale, and the beauty of the New England is breathtaking. I grew up here, and the area is a huge part of who I am.
Being a regional artist in the city is a great experience, but home offers me such an authentic connection to my environment, and I am seeing the benefits of this in the studio already.
> What is your studio like?
My studio? Well, it is a creative space always ready for a new idea to be thrown at it. The sun pours in and a cup of tea is never far away.
I am always working on a number of projects at once and I like to use the whole space, the walls, floor and tables. When I run out of room, I know it is time to finish something and make some plans to show it.
> What lies ahead for you?
I feel really fortunate to have such a rewarding job, and I love getting up every day to work in the studio. I will be showing in Sydney in the coming weeks as part of the COFA Annual, and I have a solo show in Armidale planned for April. There are also a couple of collaborative projects in planning for 2010.
The exciting thing about my job is that there are so many fantastic people to collaborate with, and embark on new projects with, both in and outside of the arts. My Cambodia adventures have left me really passionate about creatively coaching young people, and I am currently planning to take on a small number of private students in the new year, coaching them through their own creative processes and aspirations in a focused one-on-one studio environment.
> Thank you Leah-Nicole.