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Zoe's Special Place

The Australian December 2017

Alex Speed

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There‚??s nothing like a near-death experience to end procrastination. Just ask Zoe Young. The modernist-inspired artist came to public attention in the 2014 Archibald Prize with her contemplative portrait of snowboarder Torah Bright. She was a finalist again two years later with her painting of model Samantha Harris.

But the breakthroughs came late, says Young ‚?? after she had spent 17 years variously messing about at the National Art School, downhill ski racing in Europe, going to film school, starting a fashion label in Amsterdam, and working as a designer in Sydney. She even opened a cafe at Berkelouw Books near her home, Bowral, in NSW‚??s southern highlands.

‚??Because I‚??ve always had so many interests, I was a complete nightmare ‚?? especially at art school. Most people were there to learn, and I was there to get my hands on as much of the equipment as possible, so it‚??s been quite difficult to find my way,‚?Ě Young says, laughing on the eve last week of The Orchard House, her first exhibition at Olsen Gallery in Sydney.

‚??I spent years dropping out and going back to art school, and dancing between whether to be a painter or a designer, and then I ended up graduating with a major in sculpture under Ronald Robertson-Swann.

‚??I‚??m just very fortunate my family and friends didn‚??t get totally fed up with me, and people like the Berkelouws, who‚??ve supported my paintings, seemed ¬≠to understand I had other aspirations when ¬≠customers complained I was painting while I should have been making coffee,‚?Ě she says.

Young grew up the youngest of four children in the Snowy Mountains of NSW. Parents Margaret and Butch ran a ski lodge, and Butch was also a ski instructor. At 10, Young started training at the Institute of Sport, Jindabyne.

‚??I could ski before I could walk. It was part of life growing up in the mountains. Later, getting out of school was a major incentive,‚?Ě she says.

At 16 she travelled with the Thredbo race squad to the Czech Republic for the junior Olympics, which were cancelled due to lack of snow. ‚??I spent the whole time running away from the gruelling training, getting lost in the beauty of Prague. It occurred to me then I think the life of an elite athlete might not be for me, and I‚??d rather travel the world as an artist. When I told my family, they rolled their eyes.‚?Ě

Young‚??s paintings draw on memories like these. Fresh and whimsical, her works are full of the domestic details of her life: old books, flowers, paintings, food, memories, a nostalgic kaleidoscopic of objects and moments. Yet it was another occurrence, the traumatic birth of her first child, that delivered the wake-up call she needed, Young says.

‚??Wilbur got shoulder dystocia, which means his head was out but a shoulder got stuck, and basically you‚??ve got about seven minutes to get the baby out. It was like this scene where suddenly 10 people rush into the room, and I‚??m there on happy gas going, ‚??OK, something is seriously not right.‚?? And in the midst of the pain, I was in this hallucination and I found myself coming here to my studio to paint. And in that moment, I understood that‚??s the most beautiful thing. To be painting here. To be a painter.‚?Ě

Young works in an old barn on a hill overlooking Bowral. The view is a painting in itself. There are plum trees all around. Geckos scurry across weathered walls and oil paint tubes lie discarded on the floor. Young, 39, is a slight figure, erudite and engaging.

‚??When I came to and reflected on that moment, rather than thinking ‚??Oh my God, I could have died‚??, I guess I thought: ‚??Wow, I could have died and I never would have expressed all the things about how much I loved life‚?? ‚?? so it gave me this fire to start painting the paintings I always thought I was going to paint in my head, but had never actually painted.

‚??And now I feel like I‚??m starting to achieve what I had always hoped. I go ... ‚??Wow why didn‚??t I get pregnant when I was 20?‚?? ‚?Ě

Young‚??s work has a whetted lightness of touch. The late British artist Euan Uglow is a big inspiration, and she uses her sculptural training to figuratively carve out her subjects and scenes on to canvas. She is a keen observer of the life she and partner Reg Iremonger, a horticulturist, share with Wilbur, now four, and Lucy, two.

Family treasures, her children, their garden and the transitory nature of life are her daily stimuli. ‚??I try to distil memories and fleeting snapshots of the things I love in my paintings. On initial view they might seem agreeable, even decorative, like something that might match your wallpaper. But live with them, get to know them, and I like to think they allude to narratives going on inside my head, a picture inside a picture. There‚??s such a focus on what‚??s not right with the world at present, my paintings are some kind of stance as if to say, ‚??Well there is beauty in the world. Look around you and find yours.‚?? ‚?Ě The Orchard House is Young‚??s latest in a string of back-to-back shows since 2014. London is calling. Russia too.

‚??Instagram is an amazing tool for artists,‚?Ě she says. For the moment, though, she is happy to have joined the likes of Nicholas Harding, Paul Davies, Sophie Cape and Alan Jones in the Olsen Gallery‚??s artistic line-up.

‚??I grew up in the Snowy Mountains, which I loved, but The Orchard House and this show isn‚??t about a place, it‚??s about a space.

‚??Everyone should build their own place of beauty in their mind to find peace, happiness, inspiration. It‚??s the space I went to when ¬≠Wilbur and I found ourselves in that horrible situation.‚?Ě

The Orchard House is at Olsen Gallery, Woollahra, until Friday.

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