Beauty is a mat­ter of life and death for art photographer Bil­lie Culy.

North & South - - In This Issue -

Bil­lie Culy’s still-lifes are a hy­drid of pho­tog­ra­phy and paint­ing.

Bil­lie Culy sees beauty in el­e­ments of na­ture many fail to no­tice. Work­ing from a stu­dio over­look­ing wild and dra­matic Hau­moana beach in Hawke’s Bay, the 23-year-old artist puts dy­ing flow­ers into a vase and pho­to­graphs them, paint­ing an orig­i­nal can­vas to use as a back­drop. For other pieces, she gath­ers flora from a spe­cific place, look­ing to cre­ate an emo­tion in the way she cap­tures them through her lens.

The flo­ral-art still lifes she cre­ates are a hy­brid of pho­tog­ra­phy and paint­ing. Her work has a rare beauty – a ro­man­tic, whim­si­cal look rem­i­nis­cent of the Dutch masters she ad­mires, in par­tic­u­lar the works of Am­bro­sius Boss­chaert and the way they are lit.

It was a nat­u­ral step for Culy to be­come an artist – she learned through os­mo­sis. Her fa­ther, Brian Culy, is a photographer, who bought his younger daugh­ter her first cam­era when she was 13 and taught her how to use it. Her sis­ter, Ja­cobina, 27, is also a photographer, and their mother, artist Leanne Culy, is known for her se­ries of hand­painted oars. Leanne and Brian run Home­base Col­lec­tions, a stu­dio space in Napier spe­cial­is­ing in hand­made art and ob­jects de­signed in New Zealand; their her­itage home, Balquhid­der House, high on the hills above Napier, has rooms full of Leanne’s can­vases.

When Culy re­turned to set­tle in Hawke’s Bay two years ago, her grand­fa­ther – a bee­keeper on Great Bar­rier Is­land – gave her a few hives. She de­cided to train as a bee­keeper and be­gan mak­ing honey in the gar­den at home. “Bees are fas­ci­nat­ing, ma­jes­tic crea­tures and there’s some­thing so re­lax­ing about work­ing hives,” she says.

There’s a syn­ergy between the bees and the flow­ers they feed on that Culy is now trans­lat­ing into her art­works. Along with the Euro­pean masters and flo­ral paint­ings by Rita An­gus that Culy has stud­ied, she’s also been in­spired by her mother’s beau­ti­ful gardens. “I love the wild, crazy things you find in gardens, the things you don’t see at florists,” she says. “I’m drawn to old ram­bling gardens, old-fash­ioned plants you don’t find around much any­more.’’

Each of the works she cre­ates tells a story. “A River Walk” fea­tures pieces gath­ered on a reg­u­lar walk from her Hau­moana stu­dio to the Tuk­i­tuki River. “Love-lies-bleed­ing” is named af­ter the com­mon name for the flow­er­ing plant Amaran­thus cau­da­tus, which Cully pho­tographed in a pot­tery vase she in­her­ited from her great-grand­mother, Mar­garet Herne, who was an art teacher and pot­ter. Asked about “Stolen Roses”, she smiles, ad­mit­ting she nicked a few blooms for that piece.

Culy shows her work at Par­lour Projects, a new gallery in Hast­ings that held a Shane Cot­ton ex­hi­bi­tion last year. She’s now ex­per­i­ment­ing with mixed me­dia – paint­ing over the top of her pho­to­graphs – for her next ex­hi­bi­tion later this year. She loves Hawke’s Bay, with its di­verse coast­line and land­scape, and the sea­sonal changes when plants are on the turn. “I love it here,” she says. “There’s all this in­cred­i­ble space. I feel like I couldn’t do this any­where else.” SARAH CATHERALL

Top left: Bil­lie Culy cre­ates flo­ral-art still lifes that are a hy­brid of pho­tog­ra­phy and paint­ing. Clock­wise from top right: “Hau­moana II”; “Love-lies-bleed­ing”; Culy’s stu­dio, where she sets flow­ers against a painted can­vas.

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