Q&A/Visual Art

Pandemic silver linings

26 June 2020

While COVID-19 shutdowns have had a massive impact on the arts, for regional WA artists, the global shift in the way we use technology may help to overcome the tyranny of distance, observes Narrogin-based artist Casey Thornton.

Seesaw’s Q&A series is on the road, to find out how artists around WA have been managing the challenges of the pandemic. This week Nina Levy caught up with visual artist Casey Thornton, a contemporary figurative artist whose work brings together influences from the past and present to create paintings that feel familiar yet strange; nostalgic yet new.

Nina Levy: Tell us about your artistic practice, Casey.
Casey Thornton:
I’m a visual artist based in the town of Narrogin, in WA’s Wheatbelt region. I’ve spent the past couple of years developing my skills in representational oil painting, after being awarded a mentorship and funding to develop a body of work to form my first solo exhibition.

I have a deep interest in the style and techniques of the old masters as well as contemporary figurative and hyperrealist painters, and aim to capture an authentic representation of the world around me. Perhaps best known for my focus on portraiture, I’ve recently begun exploring botanical and still life subjects. I aim to create keenly observed and highly detailed works that invite a quiet moment of pause, introspection and welcome respite from a constantly “switched on” world. As an artist, I believe the key challenge lies in seeking out your authentic voice and finding the story only you can tell… I’m definitely still figuring that part out, one piece at a time.

Headshot of Casey Thornton. She appears to be in her studio and holds and easel.
Casey Thornton

NL: What does a “normal” day look like for you?
I work part time, and normally try to focus on my art practice and other creative endeavours at least three days per week, though, of course, in practice this balance varies greatly throughout the year.

On the days I spend in my studio (aka the former main bedroom of the house) I’m more often than not happily cooped up in self-imposed isolation. Any good day starts with coffee, and I usually spend the first part of the morning checking emails, social media, and writing overly optimistic to-do lists. If I can, I’ll try to spend the rest of the day painting. In an ideal world I’d be able to get a solid six to eight hours in, but with working from home comes inevitable distractions. I’ve always got multiple projects on the go, so I tend to focus on whichever one I think I’ll be most productive with.

NL: And how did you day look under pandemic restrictions?
Shortly after the restrictions were put in place, I began working from home. That definitely came with its challenges, and I found that it can be difficult to maintain the separation between work, art practice and real life, when all of those things are existing in the same physical space.

I started off being super optimistic about the number of projects I was going to tackle during lockdown, and wrote lists upon lists of the things I wanted to achieve. I started off making sourdough bread, decluttering, and reorganizing my kitchen drawers, but that early wave of enthusiasm wore off and pretty quickly transitioned into weeknight wine and excessive online shopping.

Honestly, in terms of my day to day arts practice, not all that much has changed in recent times. Working alone is the norm for me, as a studio based visual artist it’s not unusual to be locking myself away for days or weeks at a time. It’s actually been nice not feeling the need to justify my reclusive lifestyle!

A painting by Casey Thornton, depicting a case that is dripping with honey, attracting ants. The colour palette is soft and muted, except for the honey which gleams.
‘Honey and Porcelain’ by Casey Thornton.

NL: What were your plans for 2020 before the COVID-19 shutdowns?
CT: I started 2020 full of momentum. I installed a solo exhibition down in Albany’s Vancouver Arts Centre just after New Year’s, and flew over to Adelaide post-opening to attend a master copy workshop with my mum, under the tuition of Robin Eley at The Art Academy. The week-long intensive was focused on studying a Bougereau painting that hangs in the Art Gallery of South Australia. At one point we were even able to set up easels right there in the main gallery, and sketch the original artwork from life under the guidance of the superbly talented Adelaide artist Ellie Kammer. My drawing wasn’t great, but the experience was unforgettable!

On return to WA I zipped back down to Albany to pack up my solo show and, with a full body of work at my disposal, planned to be entering a string of upcoming art awards and spend the remainder of the year seeking out new opportunities and focusing on developing new works. I was also selected to participate in the Alternative Archive survey exhibition, originally due to be held at John Curtin Gallery mid-year (now postponed to 2021).

NL: How have your 2020 plans been affected by the shutdowns?
Half of my plans went out the window as soon as the world started getting a bit weird, and one by one all the upcoming opportunities I’d applied for were either cancelled or postponed. My 2020 schedule was wiped clean! I count myself pretty fortunate that I wasn’t impacted too heavily, since the rest of my years’ plans involved locking myself away in the studio and focusing on developing new work.

Looking back at it, the new situation was refreshing in some ways and enabled me to alleviate some of the unnecessary pressures I’d been putting on myself. My last two years have been pretty full on, so it was nice to be able to hit the reset button and reassess my priorities.

I’ve been using this time as an opportunity to reinvigorate my online presence. I’ve updated my website, zhuzhed up my Instagram, started a YouTube channel and focused on making more consistent and effective use of my social media channels.

A painting of succulents, in many different, rich yet somehow muted colours.
‘Succulessence’ (detail) by Casey Thornton.

I’ve started selling my work online through Bluethumb for the past 12 months, and in April I was accepted into the European-based online art gallery Singulart. It has been taking a bit of time to maintain my profiles across multiple platforms, but putting in that extra effort has been worthwhile.

After Dark Studio & Gallery have been running online life drawing sessions via Zoom, which has been a fantastic opportunity! We don’t have regular classes out this way (maybe neighbours aren’t so keen on the idea, with the lack of anonymity that comes with living in a small town). It’s pretty great being able to join in from the comfort of home, complete with fluffy slippers and glass of wine.

I actually didn’t get as much painting done as I would have liked during the shutdowns, because I had a lot of personal projects that were vying for my attention. I’ve picked up the pace again in June after being invited to be featured as Regional Arts WA’s artist of the month. I’ve decided to spend this month dealing with unfinished business in the studio, tackling incomplete paintings and sharing time-lapse videos of the processes involved in their creation.

NL: What were the silver linings of of isolation?
I’m sure it’s due to a combination of factors, but I’ve had an increase in artwork sales and higher volume of interest on social media during the past few months. I’ve sold a few pieces to collectors interstate, as well as one that went to Germany, and my first ever international commission, which I’ve just shipped off to Singapore.

The online world can be especially important for regional artists. It opens up a whole realm of opportunities and resources that would otherwise be out of reach, and helps artists form networks and communities that overcome the tyranny of distance we too often face. Having more things made accessible online has been a great thing, and I hope that it can be maintained into the future!

Browse works by Casey Thornton on her website.

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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