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The Artist in Flux with Chanel Tobler

Both in person and through her work, Sydney-based artist Chanel Tobler proves to be as introspective as she is expressive. Her abstract, primarily pastel-based drawings explode in delightful color, yet hint at deep-feeling themes around place and making sense of one’s surroundings. We visited Chanel at her beachside studio to peruse her latest visual explorations and discuss the challenges of translating ideas to paper.

Photography by Saskia Wilson

When did you start making art, and what inspired you to pursue it as a vocation?

I had been in and out of art school since 18 before finally committing to finishing the degree when I started at The National Art School in my mid-twenties. It’s been slow, challenging, but beautiful. There has never been specific inspiration – it was always wanted and always felt, [but] I resisted it for a long time because the avenues aren’t always that forgiving. But I think it’s something that is perpetually being negotiated – wanting it so much and trying to make it work.

Are there any principles that guide your philosophy as an artist?

I believe in flux and chaos, in humanness, in contradictions, in multiple truths as truth. The work generally knows what it needs and to start anything, my hands just need to be moving.

What are some of the prevailing themes explored in your work?

Home. Inter- and intra-personal relationships. Internal and external worlds. Love. Being alive. Hot mess and tenderness. People, romance, the sky. Discord. Feeling and feelings.

Tell us a bit about your creative process. How do you translate ideas to paper?

I mine for, seek, take, make, string and consume images and words. It’s a perpetual overwhelm, so there’s a lot of down time, processing time, and introspection that is both dense and superficial as well as ephemeral. There are elements of automatic drawing, writing and associative thinking.

This external and internal data is gathered then metabolized and then I visually map it in the form of a drawing or a painting. The work, by definition, is abstract in content and outcome. Some paintings and drawings may be left for months to be resolved; others are completed within a single time frame.

Your practice spans drawing, painting, ceramics and installation. Do you find that certain ideas translate better in a particular medium?

I studied ceramics at art school; it appealed to me as a trade rather than as a part of my practice. I felt I needed something tangible like a trade if I was also going to draw and paint. Whereas image-making is a freer, less constrained process for me – it’s just how it's privileged in my head, for better or worse, and as such is what I regard as my formal art practice. It has always come so naturally and is immediate, which allows for me to get out and down what's swirling in my head.

I admit, however, I undervalue the ceramic medium, but I am enamored by its capacity to produce utilitarian objects. That’s largely how I approach it still, I make only functional work on a commission basis and have never exhibited any ceramic work. More and more, though, I see how it has the potential to grow and morph into and within my other work.

We love that you are unafraid of color. Are your choices instinctual or are you quite purposeful in your colour mixing?

I work largely with pastels. Using mainly two brands, both of which have generous but limited color ranges. So unlike paint, because pastels don’t require mixing, there isn’t a nearly endless palette at my disposal. The limitation provides a structure which I enjoy, and has to a degree determined my color palette. And within this dictated structure, color becomes both intuitive and deliberate. Color provides a robustness and evokes narratives.

Your studio is beautiful. What do you need in your environment to foster creativity?

Thank you. I'm grateful to have the opportunity to rent a space in such an unconventional domestic setting where I am surrounded by close friends and people I love. It’s a space that provides natural light and I see the sky from where I work. Beyond this, it’s idle time, rest and external stimulation that I gather to work.

Where have you been looking for inspiration lately?

In the sky forever, and currently in the written conversations with and between artists which I find in books, articles, and journals.

Finally, are there any exhibitions in the works?

My brother, Livio Tobler, and I are working on a project at the moment but it is still TBC, as is the next solo show. In the interim, I have a group show at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery in July/August, and a current group show at Michael Reid Art Bar.