My earliest art-related memory is finger painting a lyrebird when I was in kindergarten. I can still remember the feeling of joy when I saw the lyrebird emerge. I enjoyed art all through school and had a wonderful Year 12 teacher who encouraged me greatly. I started an arts degree at Melbourne Uni, with Fine Art as one of my subjects. But when I deferred after one year, life took over – travel, children, farm work and other odd jobs, several years bookselling, and finally my lucky break in 1988 leading to my life-long work in children’s book publishing – so it was 1994 before I was able to return to serious art study.
My interests have always circled around literature and art and my publishing career combines the two in a powerful way that has also fed back into my own creative life.
I always drew even when life was very busy and I was working full time. But as the years went by, I became frustrated by my lack of technical skills. So when my children were older, I started evening classes with Walter Magilton – learning observational drawing and a tonal realist approach to painting, working mainly in pastel.
Walter encouraged me to add life drawing to the mix, and I joined Yvonne Audette’s dynamic and challenging classes at the Hawthorn Artists Society. I loved the challenge of capturing the essence of a figure in movement through short poses of 1-2 minutes as well as longer poses and continuous movement. I loved the spontaneity of working in charcoal, with no time to overthink. But I struggled to meld this quick method of mark making with the more deliberate way I constructed my paintings. I needed to find a way to bring the two together.
That’s when I picked up a flyer in an art shop and started Richard Birmingham’s classes at the Melbourne Studio School. This was liberating! I learnt to see how colour could be used to evoke mood and atmosphere. Richard encouraged our group to just start – doing something, anything! – to work in layers, to transcribe works of great masters to understand compositional forces, to use direct observation and imagination to allow imagery to arise and develop naturally. I loved seeing how a meaningful image could emerge from seemingly random chaotic marks and a free, intuitive application of paint.
After a time I became frustrated that I didn’t have enough understanding of the subtleties of colour mixing. So I did a week-long course with Geoff Dupree, which changed my life. Classes and workshops with Christine Wrest Smith, Emmy Mavroidis, Godwin Bradbeer, Heather Betts, Katharine Hattam and Martin King were all immensely valuable.
I started to exhibit regularly, at the Victorian Artists Society, at Manningham Gallery, Glen Eira City Gallery, Cambridge Studio Gallery, Tussock Gallery. My first solo show at Cambridge Studio Gallery – ‘Dark Horse’ in 2011 – marked a turning point in how I viewed myself and shifted the balance between my art life and publishing life and I gradually cut back my working hours to find more time for my art.
During the last eight years, I’ve travelled widely in central and northern Australia with my partner, including six months living in Darwin in 2019 while co-facilitating the inaugural Octopus Story Camp. Sketching and painting en plein air inspires larger works that I later develop in the studio.
A residency at Nyora Studio Gallery in Eltham in 2015 enabled me to find a deeper understanding of my creative process and a way to see the connection between my life drawings, landscape painting, collages and imaginative/symbolic paintings. This work informed my solo shows, ‘Sanctuary’ and ‘Little Wings’ at No Vacancy Gallery, Federation Square, in 2016 and 2018, and ‘Outside In’ at the Peisley Street Gallery in Orange in 2019.
I am now working freelance as a publishing consultant and project manager and love having more time to explore ideas and draw and paint. COVID has slowed down travel and in the last two years I’ve focused on illustrating my first picture book, while also preparing for a solo exhibition at the VAS in February 2023.
I’m hugely grateful to the doors that have opened for me through my long association with the VAS and in particular a shout out to Walter Magilton who started me on this path so many years ago, and whose words of advice still ring in my ears!
Erica Wagner is a painter, publisher and creative consultant to storytellers. Inspired by the natural world, her paintings and collages appear regularly in solo and group shows. Erica was a finalist in the 2021 VAS Artist of the Year and was the 2017 winner of the inaugural VAS George Hicks Foundation Contemporary Art Prize. Erica is currently illustrating her first picture book, Hope is the Thing by Johanna Bell, due to be published in 2023.
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