Painter Emily Ferretti on her merging of the observed and the imagined

For Australian artist Emily Ferretti, maintaining an open-ended approach to creating is of utmost importance. Her process embraces perpetual flux, often shifting between abstract and figurative forms, between imagined scenes and observed objects. Working primarily in oil on linen, Emily creates still life arrangements, domestic scenes and landscapes drawn partly from direct observation, partly from her memory and imagination. She has an instinct for formal and chromatic composition that allows her to seamlessly merge visual impressions from the world around her with more conceptual elements and fluid artistic expression. Her painterly style combines delicate strokes with bold marks, sharp delineation with subtle contouring, illustrative detail with painterly colour-washes. Gossamer-textured blue leaves overlap with one another to create new shapes and blocks of colour; intricate, repeated patterns and tessellations emerge from landscapes and objects; things arranged on a table, or views observed from windows, become flat, pictorial mosaics or tapestries, with forms picked out among the intersecting lines.

An avid collector of visual references, Emily relies on her sketchbooks as a means of observing, a space for experimentation and a source of inspiration. As is clear from the fine, illustrative linework that appears in many of her works, drawing is foundational to Emily’s painterly practice. In a solo show earlier this year at Bus Projects in Collingwood, Melbourne, Emily exhibited a selection of recent drawings from her sketchbooks. These studies in coloured pencil, flitting between the expressionistic and the representational, deliver key insights into the painter’s methodology while standing as total works of art in and of themselves.

A graduate of the fine art programme at the Victorian College of the Arts, Emily has been exhibiting regularly with Sophie Gannon Gallery since 2008. Currently working from her studio in an old furniture factory in Melbourne, she explains to us how experimenting with different mediums and modes of creating provides her with a constant impetus towards her continued artistic development.

Photo by Alicia Taylor

AMM: Hi Emily! You completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts with honours at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne in 2006 and have been exhibiting annually with Sophie Gannon Gallery since 2008. How has your work changed over this time? What have been some of the influences and insights that have shaped its evolution?

EF: There have always been themes that I have revisited and a sensibility that is distinct but it’s been important to keep pushing in new directions to keep it exciting for myself in the studio, as well as propel the evolution of the work forward. When I finished art school thirteen years ago my work was more figurative and pared back in colour and mark making. As I have gained a more confident technical ability over the years it’s given me a freedom to push the abstract qualities in the work. My pictures have gotten bolder and brighter and more direct. I understand what
I want to achieve with the work and have gotten more playful compositionally because of that. I do think this never ending shifting is one of the most exciting parts about being dedicated to something.

AMM: What inspired your interest in creating art? Were you brought up in a creative environment?

EF: I grew up on a country hobby farm in Victoria in Australia. I was definitely not a gifted drawer but enjoyed making things and my creativity was always encouraged by my family. I was a sporty kid and in a way thought I would head in that direction but In the middle of my high school years I visited a professional artists studio and was totally excited by the idea of a space to produce work. Soon after I got into art school and dedicated myself to my painting practice. It was definitely seeing a working studio and what it could represent that was the turning point.

AMM: You have had a very busy and productive 2019. We’d love to hear more about some of the highlights. Can we start with your most recent exhibition in Sydney Contemporary? What inspired this body of work?

EF: Yes I have had a big year of shows. At Sydney Contemporary recently I had a solo presentation with Sophie Gannon Gallery. It consisted of a suite of twenty eight new oil paintings of mostly landscapes and some still life scenes. Another highlight this year was being selected as a finalist in the Ramsay Art Prize at the Art Gallery of South Australia.
I showed a suite of twenty six Monotypes that I made with Negative Press, a print studio in Melbourne. I was very proud to be involved. I made the Monotypes before the work at Sydney Contemporary and there is a direct link between the projects. The freedom of the Monotypes directly changed the way I wanted to paint on the canvas.

Bridge at night (small), oil on linen, 51 x 41 cm

AMM: Do you have a philosophy or motto that you work by? If so what is it?

EF: Work hard and believe in your work.

AMM: Your solo exhibition Drawn Together ended on May 4. Here you showed a range of new drawings taken from your ongoing sketch books. Can you take us through your reasons for exhibiting work often seen as a more private part of one’s practice?

EF: Yes earlier this year I had the opportunity to show at Bus Projects which is one of the most established artist run spaces in Melbourne. I wanted to show some of my drawings reserved for the studio or the sketch book as a way of exposing a private methodology to an audience. The show highlighted the role of drawing in my primary painting practice and
I felt like it was an important part of my process that could be shared.

AMM: We’d love to get an insight into your process. For instance, do you work on multiple canvases? What materials do you use? Do you plan your next piece or is it created intuitively?

EF: I always have quite a few paintings going all at once. Starting new work is one of my favourite parts of the process so I often have many paintings around me in different states of completion. Once a work is three quarters done I get going on another. This keeps things exciting and creates a flow on effect into the next piece. Lately I am making sure to stop and complete works before I get carried away again. For large paintings I will have a basic plan for the work but for my smaller pieces it’s a lot more intuitive. Most work comes from a drawing or reference as a loose starting point and then once I start there is a lot of visual problem solving to get to the result I feel happy with. I primarily use oil paint on oil primed linen. I like to draw with coloured pencils.

AMM: Are there overarching themes in your work?

EF: There are many motifs within the landscape genre that I continue to work with because I feel like there are endless possibilities to explore through biographical memory, form, and imagination.

Curvy tree, oil on linen, 46 x 60 cm

AMM: How wonderful to have a book of your work published, ‘Walking in both directions’. Can you tell us more?

EF: Yes it really was an excellent experience to get a book published by my friends at Perimeter Books in Melbourne. They are a really amazing team to work with and have really changed the landscape for arts publishing in Australia. We made my book in 2017 and it documented work from over the past few years. In an age where images are mostly seen online it feels nice to have something out in the world that’s tangible,
an archive.

AMM: The images of your studio look amazing.Can you tell us a little about it? It looks like a great space.

EF: I’ve been in my studio complex for about 15 years now. It used to be an old furniture factory but has been studios for about 30 years. It’s very run down so only time will tell how long it will last. I live only about 3 mins away so it means I can pop in and out when I need to and can work late at night easily. I have small kids so it makes it ideal to be close. My space itself is a 70 square meters rectangle which is great because I can paint at one end and then use the other side for preparation and a workshop area. It has nice natural light so that’s crucial.

AMM: How do you plan your working day? When not in the studio what do you enjoy?

EF: This changes but at the moment I am either getting in very early in the morning and leave by the afternoon or a little later and go back at night. I always go get a coffee as it’s a nice way to touch base with other people even if it’s only brief. I usually do some drawing when I first get in and then switch to painting. I work for about three hours at a time before I start to fatigue so I usually take a little break and then do another three to four hours. When I am not in the studio I really like being active, going to thrift stores, and being with my partner and kids in nature, and if I had more time, singing karaoke.

AMM: How do you navigate the art scene in Australia where you currently live, and also internationally? What are you excited about in the art world? What worries you?

EF: I am very excited by the international painting scene. There seems to be a real buzz around picture making and process and that’s exciting. Australia has a great art scene especially in Melbourne where I live but I find that its institutions don’t appreciate painting the way I observe overseas. This can be challenging at times. I have a great support network of friends who make images and we encourage each other and create dialogue around work.

Steering wheel at night and day, oil on linen 51 x 41 cm

AMM: How important is social media in your creative process?

EF: I really resisted Instagram for such a long time but now I find it very important to my practice. I am not interested in many other forms of social media like Facebook but I find that coming from Australia Instagram is such a great way to connect with other artists on the other side of the world. I really like that it’s so direct in nature and based on what you’re making. It also gives me ideas so I can use it as a tool to gather references as well as keep up with current exhibitions and the international art scene. I feel like it’s a very supportive community and I have gotten opportunities that would otherwise not have happened.

AMM: If you happen to experience a creative standstill how would you overcome it?

EF: I don’t often experience creative blocks because I try to keep up a momentum in the studio but if I ever feel stuck I usually overcome it by drawing. I am constantly collecting images and printing them out hundreds at a time so usually I go through my references and sketch. I find once I do this for a few hours I get ideas and they lead me back into the next work. I also have a few select artist books that I look at that excite me back into the work.

AMM: You have experienced a residency at the Greene Street Studio in New York and one in Paris at the Cite de Arts Internationale. How beneficial were the experiences, and what in particular did you take away from them? Would you enjoy working abroad for longer periods? If so where would you like to create art?

EF: I am a home body so it’s always been very beneficial to do residencies to take me out of my comfort zone. My residency experience in NYC was one of the most precious and important times in my life. Having months to explore and research and paint and just look and look was unbelievable. I would love to go back to New York and explore the countryside a bit more.

AMM: What ideas or themes are you currently exploring and how do you see your art developing in the future? What projects are on the horizon?

EF: I have had a very busy few years so I am excited to get back to the drawing board and chip away at a few experimental ideas that have been put to the side for a while. It’s hard to see too far into the future when it comes to further development. I’ll just keep on working and see what happens. Only time will tell.

Find out more about the artist: www.sophiegannongallery.com.au/artists/emily-ferretti-260

Interview by Maria Zemtsova, text by Rebecca Irvin

Skyward, oil on linen, 51 x 41 cm