Cressida Campbell makes an art of everyday life, writes Susan Chenery
ATANGLE of white flowers floating against a sky that is the blue brightness of optimism. The innocence of a child in a summer garden. A perspective of reaching towards a fleeting perfect moment. Ethereal and full of wild promise.
Cressida Campbell was drawing the unfettered delicacy of the flannel flowers at one of the most sombre times of her life. ‘‘ I was drawing them when [my husband] Peter was dying and I wanted that feeling of when you lie down on grass and look up at the sky and just get that incredible sense of peace and freedom.’’
Peter Crayford died of cancer in November 2011 and left his wife in the foreign country of the bereaved. The loss has been profound. In conversation he is still with her and she with him. But after 29 good years together, everything is different now. ‘‘ It is a bit like having one of your arms chopped off. And it is also getting used to living life on your own. Which luckily I don’t seem to mind that, living on your own. But I miss him enormously. He was a wonderful person. The main thing I miss is the conversation. It is a huge shock.
‘‘ I think for the first three months I was just completely manic, running. Then I went through a really low period, I thought it would never end. I don’t think you ever get over it. We had a wonderful time together so you have just got to look at it like that.’’
Crayford had taken care of the practical things so that she could be free to create. ‘‘ He did so many things that I have to learn how to do . . . I never had to learn the computer. All sorts of small things that when you are running your own life take time.’’
It was Crayford who edited and published her book The Woodblock Painting of Cressida Campbell in 2010. Leo Schofield described it as ‘‘ Australia’s most beautiful art book’’. She says: ‘‘ For years and years he said I should do a book. Finally, when I had a retrospective exhibition, at [Sydney’s] SH Ervin Gallery, we did it.’’
A good deal of Campbell’s work is about seeing the beauty in what is around her; what The Australian’s art critic Christopher Allen describes as ‘‘ depth of feeling and resonance’’ in the small things, the fragments, the angles, the corners, a half-peeled orange on a plate, a single flower in a vase, enlarging the still-life qualities of the quotidian, seen and distilled in the lovely light-filled house in Sydney’s Bronte that she and Crayford created together.
There have been landscapes, panorama, the Australian bush and its fauna, but it is the single detail, going in close to the domesticity they shared, that has informed so much of what Allen has described as ‘‘ an almost perfect harmony between her vision and her craft’’.
Since Crayford was diagnosed with cancer at 21, his health had been perilous. There is a sense perhaps in Campbell’s work of knowing to seize and magnify precious moments, to hold them and keep them still; an understanding of mortality, that these things might never come again. Now he is gone and so has the easy intimacy. She wants to tell him things but his side of the bed is empty. ‘‘ I know I am a very sort of routine person and I hate change. So it was a massive change. Being Peter, he did all sorts of things to set everything up to make it as easy as possible. But the biggest change is that the person is not there.’’
She often puts textiles handmade by her sister Sally in her work. One piece is particularly poignant, loaded with import. It is an antique Danish chair she had bought that Crayford hadn’t liked: ‘‘ He said it was like having Danish ghosts in the room.’’ Casting shadows on a bare wall, the empty chair has been vacated, only an open book left behind. ‘‘ When you do everything autobiographically, the things that you choose do have a subliminal element to them,’’ she says. ‘‘ I didn’t consciously do a lonely chair, but it has got a mood without intending it that someone has left.’’
Last year in a kind of fog of grief that affected her concentration — ‘‘ it is an awful word grief, it sounds so Victorian’’ — she delayed an exhibition. But a now intractable deadline that is only weeks away has jolted her into working as frantically as her painstakingly laborious process allows.
‘‘ I have been doing an enormous amount of work in the last six months. At the moment I am working so hard I often don’t see anyone, I can go for a week or more. I am pretty sort of reclusive really. I love my friends and stuff but I am not the sort of person who loves going to everything.’’
Recalling her good friend, artist Margaret Olley, Campbell observes that they shared the characteristic of not ‘‘ endlessly talking about our work’’. Our conversation over lunch ranges instead across life and death, books, people, ideas. With the modesty that she says characterised her father Ross Campbell, the writer who found the ridiculousness in observing everyday life where she was Baby Pip in his columns, there is no hint that she is, in terms of works sold (usually before an exhibition even opens), one of Australia’s most successful artists. She is sensitive and warm, and those who know her say this is reflected in her work.
Of growing up in a creative family — her sister Nell was the toast of New York in the 1990s with her eponymous nightclub — Campbell says: ‘‘ There was never a business bone in anyone’s body, pretty much, and no one was ever encouraged to do anything to make money.’’
Her art dealer Philip Bacon, whose Brisbane gallery will stage a new exhibition of her work this month, describes her as ‘‘ determined in a quiet, fey sort of way. She wants to achieve the most immaculate work and analyses a lot of what she has to say.’’ After Peter’s death, Bacon had expected the works for the new show ‘‘ to be a lot darker and more introspective . . . but these are celebratory things. She has really thrown herself into these works.’’
Campbell found her way forward and the texture that enriches her work early, at East Sydney Tech, when she was just 17. Since a child she had felt the need to draw as a way of responding to and experiencing life. In her second year at art school, she chose to do printmaking, ‘‘ because they didn’t tell you how to paint. A teacher just said: ‘ Why don’t you try and do woodblocks?’
‘‘ The reason I like my particular method is that I like the combination of painting and printing. I kind of fell into it and it suited me. It was like finding your musical instrument. I have always just worked in an isolated way.’’ She would refine this unique process in Japan learning traditional printmaking.
Each piece can take months. ‘‘ You think about what you want to paint, then draw it from life, then carve it. When you are carving it, you think about the colour. And then you remove yourself from the reality when you paint it. It is realistic but stylised. And you have the freedom of making it look more interesting than a photographic reproduction.’’
Allen says people respond to Campbell’s images ‘‘ because of the patience and care that have gone into their making’’; the intensity of her engagement with her particular process of printmaking ‘‘ results in images full of a compelling sense of life and beauty’’.
Campbell is not sad, not really. You sense she would be horrified by self-pity. She has her interior life, her work, her imagination; the ability to see the small miracles in the tiny forgotten fragments of life to lift her up. ‘‘ I regard myself as incredibly lucky.’’
Cressida Campbell, at Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane, July 9 to August 3.