Liss Finney, By Hannah Stretton / by Hannah Stretton

NOW IN ITS 13TH YEAR, THE BRENDA CLOUTEN MEMORIAL TRAVELLING SCHOLARSHIP FOR YOUNG ACHIEVERS IN VISUAL ARTS (BCMTS) AT MAITLAND REGIONAL ART GALLERY IS UP FOR GRABS – AND THE GOOD NEWS IS THAT IT’S STILL OPEN FOR NEW ENTRIES.

IN THE LEAD-UP TO THE SUBMISSION DEADLINE OF FRIDAY JUNE 8, AND THE EXHIBITION OF FINALISTS OPENING ON 8 SEPTEMBER AT MRAG WE GOT TO TALK TO 2016 BCMTS RUNNER-UP, LISS FINNEY. HER WORK TACKLES SOME OF THE WORLD’S CONFRONTING AND ALL-TOO-EVIDENT ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES IN A VERY BEAUTIFUL WAY. I LIKE TO CALL HER THE DAVID ATTENBOROUGH OF THE LOCAL ART SCENE – YOU BE THE JUDGE.

Liss MRAG

MRAG is hosting the Brenda Clouten Scholarship once again this year. What was it like for you to be runner-up back in 2016?

I was really stoked and really excited to know that my work was being recognised, and also enabling me to travel and pursue my creativity further overseas. Just even being a part of the exhibition was an awesome exposure opportunity and a chance to work with a great gallery – and the great people who run it. 

It was actually my second time in the scholarship; I was a finalist back in 2014. So to be able to come back with fresh ideas and a bit more experience and then come out with a scholarship was super gratifying. As part of the entry process you have to detail exactly what you would do with the scholarship money – so spending time dreaming and planning that all out, and then being given the opportunity to actually do it, was amazing.

Brendan Clouten MRAG Liss

From what I’ve heard, your entry into the 2016 BCMTS was your first time exhibiting a combination of video, installation and photography works. Can you talk a little bit about the inspiration behind your entry?

Yeah, it was! It was my first time delving into the world of conceptual art, and I guess it paid off! I actually worked on two different bodies of work for the entry and really couldn’t decide whether to enter my paintings (which I was far more confident about) or risk it with something a little more out there.

The creation of the conceptual works was heaps of fun (and funny), as the video instillation required me to find a good condition secondhand cow hide (being vegan, a big moral dilemma went on behind that decision), and then talk some kind people into letting me use their laser cutter to burn a branding into it… And then get some council workers onside to let me sink a dining table and chairs in one of the Newcastle ocean baths while it was being refilled (won’t name which one, as I owe it to the absolute legend who was working that day and turned a blind eye to my ‘not-so-public-health-and-safety’ activities).

As for my photography pieces, I hairsprayed some meaty-looking veggie burgers and sent a poor local soul out into the ocean blindfolded with them while his daughter warned him of oncoming waves. All this and I had no idea what it all would turn out like until I had set it up in the gallery! So it really was a combined Newcastle community effort. Thanks champs.

What did you want people to take away from your exhibition?

I’d label myself as an activist, and I guess I just really wanted to harness a way to reach people in a less confrontational way than waving banners and posting exposés on social media.

Art is a really awesome way to connect with all kinds of people from all different walks of life – you don’t have to speak any kind of language to create meaning from art, and the main thing I wanted people to take away from my works is how we all need to take a look at our daily impacts on this planet through what we put into our mouths.

A lot of people are completely unaware that diet plays one of the biggest roles in our ability to live more sustainable lives.

Some artists specialise in one particular medium – oil painting, sculpture, photography, etc. You, however, like to mix it up a bit and work across multiple mediums. Is there a particular medium you prefer, or do you really just like to go crazy with it? I personally struggle to draw a circle, so I am in awe.

[Laughs] I’m sure your circles are wonderful! Yeah, I am a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to creating. When people ask what I work in, I usually fall back on the old ‘mixed media artist’ title. I have a background in scientific illustration, as that’s what I did my Bachelor’s degree in, so that gave me great drawing, sculpture and observational skills. And I studied painting and photography at the Newcastle Art School, so that really broadened my horizons in regards to being more liberal with directions and getting into abstraction.

I probably prefer oil painting; I tend to let go a little more and let my subconscious lead, which is always a really interesting outcome. However, the satisfaction of doing realistic or scientific works is really rewarding too, and conceptual works let me flex more of my intellectual/research muscles. So I guess I do just go crazy with it – it does make it hard creating cohesive sets of work sometimes, though, as I often have a few ideas running at the same time.

A lot of your work is centred around environmentalism, conservation and agriculture. How did you develop this passion and then integrate that with your art?

I have always had a very deep love of nature and animals especially. I grew up in Tasmania and so my childhood was spent bushwalking, spotlighting and watching an array of native animals eat Mum’s garden. Speaking of Mum, she’s the one who encouraged me to take the vegetarian path growing up (cheers Mum!), so I grew up loving animals and living off plants and not really understanding people or their dietary choices so well.

The first complete body of paintings I ever did was about the poor treatment of animals and the irony that occurred within the advertisements of the meat, dairy and live export industries.

Looking back, it was actually a super clever concept for a 15-year-old (although my painting technique could have done with some work [laughs], but I was just a freshy painter). I think I’d like to re-do it one day. It placed images of suffering animals – painted from real-life references – alongside the cheerful, happy slogans that we so often hear from food industry companies: ‘Australia – we love our lamb!’ etc.

Creating this work actually led to me stepping up my lifestyle game to veganism and losing even more understanding of the way of the world and how we treat our fellow animals. The more I learnt about the plight humans were inflicting on animals and the planet, the more I wanted to inspire people to do more to help them and old Mother Earth out. And yeah, I could write lengthy Facebook statuses, research articles or drone on to my friends, but making art and challenging people by doing so is way more fun and hopefully more effective.

Looking back on entries in the 2016/17   BCMTS, were there any particular standouts that you remember? Or maybe you can mention a local artist you really love and why?

I really liked all of the entries – particularly Maddyson Hatton’s work. Her non-functional ceramic pieces were just beautiful. Also Maisie Neal’s photography and soft sculptures were intriguing and beautifully uncomfortable. Newcastle is lucky enough to have so many wonderful artists: Jason Lowe does amazing landscapes, John Morris does incredible large moody paintings, Ellie Hannon’s work is full of life and personality, Trevor Weekes’ work is so skilled and clever, Ileigh Hellier’s landscapes are bold and beautiful, Clare Weeks, Danielle Nelson… The list could go on.

What benefits did you see come out of this scholarship? What did it allow you to do with your art going forward?

Firstly, just the written application was great practice for grant writing; then the publicity and media coverage from the exhibit was great. MRAG is an amazing supporter of local upcoming artists and they really put in so much effort to help you follow your creative career goals.

The actual grant itself enabled me to travel to the place that had inspired a lot of my paintings previously: Iceland. I have always had a fascination with Icelandic landscapes and the colours there, and it basically gave me the go-ahead to be able to apply and travel there to do a residency.

The residency was extremely unique – it was a shared studio space with 11 other international artists, and although I initially went there to paint, I ended up doing a collaborative textile piece with Brazilian artist Samantha Canovas. So it was a great learning experience in further broadening my skills, and the piece (a jacket made from kelp) will be featured in the Blöndos Textile Museum this Icelandic summer.

It has really inspired me to create a show based around the landscapes I experienced over there – it’s honestly like being on another planet, all volcanic and mountainous… Also, there are no trees (the Vikings chopped them all down). So inspiration overload!   

For people who are thinking of entering the 2018 Brenda Clouten Memorial Travelling Scholarship for Young Achievers in the Visual Arts, do you have any tips or recommendations for putting their best foot forward?

Put a decent amount of time and effort into your application. The first year I entered I did it last minute, and although it got me across the line and I was chosen as a finalist, it let me down in the final decision for the scholarship recipient (there was only one on offer back in 2014).

Also, be confident in your concepts! Know exactly what it is you want your art to do and say, take into account who is judging, and do some research around that.

Oh, and stop thinking about applying and do it! It’s an amazing opportunity to even just be a finalist, and one year I got to hang paintings alongside the Archibald Prize when it was on show. Super cool.

Speaking of putting your best foot forward, are you currently working on any art projects? If so, what focal point and issues are you exploring?

Yes, as I mentioned before, I am working on a show based around the Icelandic landscapes, so keep your eyes peeled for dates (hopefully opening towards the end of this year).

I am also further developing my conceptual ideas, and would like to have a show based purely on environment and human impact. But we shall see where that takes me! You can keep up to date with things going on via my website.

Hit up lissfinney.com to see more of Liss’ work and check out mrag.org.au for all details about the 2018 Brenda Clouten Memorial Travelling Scholarship for Young Achievers in the Visual Arts.