Tanya Cole: Creativity Mentor

~Michelle Saleeba

I had the great privilege of becoming acquainted with artist and art mentor Tanya Cole during an art therapy professional development program that we both embarked upon some years ago. Her knowledge, enthusiasm and positive outlook was infectious, and I've watched with great pleasure as her own art practice has gone from strength to strength over the past few years. I was super excited to see Tanya's entry in the Archibald prize for portraiture in 2018 for her painting of the equally remarkable and inspiring Dr Tracy Westerman.

Tanya Cole

MS: Why art? 

TC: I drew a lot when I was younger and dearly wanted to study fine art at Curtin Uni however my dad persuaded me to go into the Sciences. So I studied and qualified as an Occupational Therapist. Working, then family took up my time and only occasionally would I do a painting here and there. After my youngest child was around two (and I was 41), my mother-in-law encouraged me to sew. I started making cot blankets, baby clothes and then dolls. As soon as I picked up a paintbrush to apply fabric paint to the dolls face, I fell in LOVE with painting once more. At the same time, I had been thinking about what my working life was going to look like for the next 20 odd years, and I knew I had to do something that my soul was really aligned with. So I imagined and morphed my past job skills with my passion for personal growth, helping people and being creative and shifted my private OT practice into one of counselling and therapy and helping others to heal through tapping into their creativity. Simultaneously, I taught myself how to paint for my own personal growth and fulfilment, as well as to teach others. I now have several contracts within the local community as an art mentor helping people with autism and mental health challenges to develop their art skills, as well as counselling individuals privately; assisting them to tap into their creativity to problem solve and live their lives more purposefully and meaningfully. I also have private collectors who I sell my own paintings to and I participate in art shows and exhibitions on a regular basis.

Dr. Tracy Westerman - Tanya Cole

MS: Have there been any formative experiences, or lessons along the way that have impacted on your art making?

TC: I started off calling myself a ‘Mixed Media Artist’ as I wanted to stay open to finding what I loved working with and creating most. I also wanted an excuse to go and buy and experiment with new art supplies as often as possible! I worked in an exploratory whimsical style initially but over time I decided to get better at drawing and painting faces and became addicted to painting portraits which are gradually becoming more realistically proportioned. I entered the Archibald Art Prize last year with a painting of the Australian of the Year Award Dr Tracy Westerman who is an Indigenous Psychologist doing incredible work with youth suicide. It was an honour to meet and paint her. I learnt a lot from that experience. Next time I will allow more time to complete the painting and have higher quality reference photo’s. Last year I was also invited by another artist in the US to teach in an online art course for people learning to paint portraits. It was a great experience which enabled me to develop skills in filming and editing art/art processes. I envisage doing more of this in the future.

Frida Kahlo - Tanya Cole

MS: Describe your current art practice. 

TC: At the moment, I am having a bit of an art hiatus as my dad is at his end of life and has just been placed into palliative care in a nursing home. So I am currently using painting as a means for processing my emotions and grief rather than focusing on selling my art. Over time, painting Frida Kahlo has been a constant for me and also a great comfort when my mother-in-law passed away a couple of years ago. To paint an artist who you admire and to delve into their creative process, whilst relating to the suffering they experienced in their lifetime gives you strength. So that is what I am working on at the moment (another painting of Frida) due to my current life circumstance. However, I have a few ideas for a body of work I would like to create later on in the year. They will be more storytelling pieces with children and animals, with relatable stories and personal growth messages held within them. Portraiture is my constant calling. Faces, always. I continue to accept 1 – 2 commissioned Family Portrait paintings per year as well.

MS: Tell us about your choice of medium/s, why do you work with them? 

TC: I primarily work with acrylic on canvas but also paint in oils from time to time. Occasionally, I will incorporate inks & art pens also. I love the freedom of acrylic paints, how quickly they dry and the ease with which I can package and ship paintings to collectors. However, I also love the traditional portraiture approach using oils; how buttery & alive they are and I think down the track I will end up primarily painting in oils. I love that I have a whole body of learning up my sleeve to learn and enjoy down the track too. If I could study the Masters every day for the rest of my life, I would be happy!

What does a typical day of creative work look like for you?

An early morning cuppa and biscuit whilst reading something that I find inspiring and thought provoking…feeling into it. Reviewing images of my current work in progress to critique where I’m going next and to find my foothold of where to recommence when I pick up the brush. Losing myself in the work for several hours until my body reminds me to eat. I try to swing between spiralling out to see the bigger picture of my work and then spiralling in again to render detail. For portraiture paintings I tend to sit at my easel so I have more control for the finer details with my brush but when I start a new painting or am doing more intuitive larger works, I love to stand and dance to my favourite music as I paint on the wall. I like working both ways. Once my boys come home from school, I will dabble and clean up a bit and then go back into the studio in the evenings. I used to love painting until all hours in the morning however, the older I am getting I find it harder to function the next day, plus my motivation and focus dissolves when I am over tired.

Who or what are the strongest influences on your art? 

Every day people I know, my interactions and conversation with others and the incredible people I have the privilege of counselling and mentoring, inspire me with thoughts around life and relationships. I will often get a sentence in my mind that sums up a particular theme or insight which will get me thinking of the best way to convey it in a painting. Often that sentence will decide the title of a piece. Being self-taught, I am largely led and inspired by colour and medium choices and then the image I am rendering; allowing myself to be steered by my curiosity, exploration and intuition. However, techniques employed by Monet, Manet, Klimt, Alice Neel, Charles Blackman, Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Chagall, Modigliani, Vermeer & of course Frida Kahlo also inspire & influence me.

MS: What do you aim to say through your art?  Are there any consistent themes or stories in your work?

TC: My aim is always to convey something I am moved by in my inner world as I experience life. From my counselling work, I know that there are themes, seasons and experiences in life that we all relate to and can grow from. Suffering and transcendence are common themes that are explored and will appear in my art. I guess if there is one thing I wish for my art to bring others, is comfort and hope…that no matter what you are currently living or going through, that there is always hope. I get very passionate about championing Indigenous Australians and their culture; having lived and worked in Broome for many years. Also, having experienced domestic violence myself, I also am very passionate about supporting women and helping them to strengthen their voice, boundaries and confidence and healing. The spiritual connection with people, the land and animals are also a common thread throughout all of my paintings, given my life long interest in personal & spiritual growth and the deeper meaning of life.

MS: What’s essential to you being able to produce art? 

MS: Time, time, time! With three sons, a big house, a private practice and an unwell father, time is the one thing I find I battle with the most. I am also an avid reader, philosopher, journaler and writer; so I am often torn between time to do all of these things, as well as paint. I am lucky enough to have two creative spaces in our home. The front room is where I do my teaching and counselling with clients, art filming, admin/marketing and packaging of prints and paintings. And then a smaller room out the back of the house is my dedicated painting space where I also read, journal or meditate. One day I would like one huge room to incorporate it altogether, so I can also run large painting, journaling and personal growth sessions for women. I am dreaming it into being right now…

MS: What role do you see artist’s and the arts having in society? 

TC: Where do I start in answering this!? SUCH a great and important question.

It was only when I became an Artist and had done the painting hours, that I discovered what the true gift of painting was/is. Making art/being an artist, brings you fully awakened and connected to the greater consciousness. Being present as you create, enables you to get out of limited and fear/anxiety-based left brain thinking and into the creative right brain which brings us full of possibilities, connection to our inner knowing and heart connection and connectedness to the world at large. Making art grows and deepens us as people so that we are able to see the bigger picture in life. It makes us more open minded, more awake, more compassionate and passionate. It makes us care about and ‘see’, the more important things in the world; rather than the stuff born out of the petty ego mind. Artists and the arts can truly change the world. And the change comes about by the artist first changing themselves as they make the art. They then gift the art out into the world which takes the internal dialogue of the artist much broader. The world and a higher consciousness evolves and becomes connected. Art, artists, art appreciators are a total blessing in the world.

MS: Does your own work make any social commentary?  What message are you endeavouring to communicate through your art? Why is this important?

TC: Yes, my art often upholds an internal drive from within me about truth, justice and what is pure and right for the good of all humanity. Equality, compassion, a healthy planet, people and animals; often weave into my art pieces. It’s important that art brings a message to the people, because pretty much all governments in the world are either corrupt in one way or another, or are destroying our people and planet for the pursuit of money and control. I want people to wake up, awaken and fight for all the beauty in this world to remain…ancient wisdom, connection to place, the divinity and vulnerability of people and animals should all be upheld and preserved. What right do the few, have to destroy it all for future generations?

MS: It’s said that creative expression and arts engagement are fundamentally tied to our sense of vitality and wellbeing.   Do you perceive this to be true for you?  Why do you think this might be?

TC: Totally! I have used the modality of art making to process some pretty heavy life experiences ie. relationships breaking down, abandonment, betrayal. Art making saved me from an emotional breakdown six years ago. I was able to express/get the intense emotion cathartically out of me via paint bashed onto the canvas as I sobbed. Interpreting the colours, and placement of the people symbolically represented by the paint, allowed me to process and ‘pack away’ some pretty life jolting realisations. I guess it has become a form of self counselling; having the expression through painting and then later journaling to help me understand it all and make choices going forward. Conversely, when daily stress and the mundaneness of life becomes a little wearing, I turn to my art for the pure joy found in it. The peace and tranquillity is like a balm.

Need some ideas to spark your creativity, read Ways to be More Creative in 2019

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