Exploring the Bush: An Interview with Figurative Landscape Artist Mary Tonkin

Exploring the Bush: An Interview with Figurative Landscape Artist Mary Tonkin

What is it that catches your eye when you are determining what to paint? Do you look for color that speaks to you, are you drawn to certain subjects or locations? Growing up in Australia, Mary Tonkin quickly became enamored with, “The bush” - a term mostly used in the English vernacular of Australia and New Zealand where it is largely synonymous with backwoods or hinterland, referring to a natural undeveloped area.

Mary completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1995 and a Master of Fine Arts in 2002 at Monash University, where she has also lectured. Tonkin has held solo exhibitions in Melbourne and Sydney since 1999. Her work has been included in group exhibitions at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, and internationally in New York. 

It was my privilege to host Mary for a live session of our interview. It was a joy to have Mary open up about her process, what she sees when she’s out here in the bush, how she juggles life as a working mother, and so much more. I can’t wait for you to get to know Mary’s engaging story! 

Brining the bush to life 

When you speak with Mary, you get a quick impression that she means business when she talks about slowing down and paying attention. For Mary, phrases like stillness, being present, and “taking in” a place, aren't' strangers - they are well-known companions on her journey. While it may be challenging to have a living and constantly changing subject like the Australian bush, Mary says that the experience has been well worth it. What stands out to you when you observe Mary’s artwork? Make sure to catch images of her paintings located at the end of this post. 

Learning to adapt 

Working in the wilderness in many ways can prepare you for challenging situations you face later in life. Learning to prepare for variables that you can’t control is a helpful training ground for parents. Mary was kind enough to open up about her experience as a working mother trying to navigate her time in the wilderness with her responsibilities at home. At the end of the day, it all comes down to quality over quantity for Mary, she is grateful for the time in the bush that she can reserve. 

Feeding your curiosity 

I loved hearing from Mary about her own journey with compartmentalizing her painting life for both the good and bad, I know so many artists just like her! One big takeaway from my conversation with Mary comes down to the value of feeding your curiosity. Some of us love to explore our curiosity over conversations with friends, while others need time in solitude. What works best for you? How do you feed your curiosity and let it fuel your creativity? I want to hear from you! 

Outline of This Episode

  • [2:00] I welcome my guest, Mary Tonkin. 
  • [3:15] How Mary got started as an artist. 
  • [6:15] Mary describes her artwork. 
  • [10:45] How does Mary manage the seeming complexity in her paintings? 
  • [16:00] Mary opens up about how wildfires and COVID-19 have impacted her work.
  • [18:30] The challenge of conveying color from the wild. 
  • [20:30] Using collage to branch out. 
  • [23:00] What is it like working in the wild? Do you incorporate changes in the landscape? 
  • [27:15] Artists that inspire Mary. 
  • [29:30] How Mary gets “Unstuck.” 
  • [35:00] Why it’s important to Mary to nurture her curiosity. 
  • [39:15] What Mary wants people to experience when they see her artwork. 
  • [41:00] Artwork that Mary wishes she owned. 
  • [44:30] Why it can be good to embrace your stubbornness. 
  • [46:00] Compartmentalizing and focusing on what works.
  • [47:30] Mary answers questions from listeners about her process.
  • [54:00] Closing thoughts. 

Other artists mentioned on this episode

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  • This was a wonderful interview with an artist I’m so happy to know about. From learning about how Mary discovered her love of painting to hearing about her painting set-up in the Australian bush, this was a great listen that inspired me. I looked up Mary’s work and saw photos of her working and it’s so interesting. Thanks, Antrese and Mary!

  • Beautiful!! It feels like you are there, I would be the person at the exhibit that sits down and takes in every leaf! Thank you Mary!

  • This was one of my favorite interviews! I particularly loved what Mary said about trying to convey the multi-sense experience of being in the bush through her colors.

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