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Seven billion faces – Artist Profile: Shelley Kay

There is something oddly haunting about the faces that inhabit Kay’s artworks – a sense of ghostly expressiveness, particularly around the eyes. When prompted to talk about her method of painting, it is as if Kay is in conversation with the face she paints. By Kay’s account, the face seems to emerge from her brushwork of its own accord with a pre-existing identity in its own right, just waiting to be discovered by the artist.

“There are about seven billion people on earth,” Kay says. “We are all human but completely different. I like to exploit that difference in my approach to painting a face.”

But for Kay, none of us has a single face; rather we each wear a multiplicity of faces in the course of our lives. This is perhaps best demonstrated through her artwork, “Becoming Fragmented, I Pull Myself Together” which was purchased by the NSW Mental Health Commission. The artwork consists of a number of faces spread across 15 wooden blocks – multiple faces to represent a single lived experience.

Kay’s own journey is one defined by reinvention. As a child, Kay spent nine months living at Matraville Migrant Hostel. Growing up under the shadow of the South Sydney Junior Rugby League Club, Kay worked for a gemologist-cum-radio and television repairman.

Although her style of painting is deeply intuitive, Kay came to painting comparatively late in life. Sixteen years ago, while watching her daughter learn to draw, it first occurred to Kay to explore whether she could draw and write with her left hand. “It really was an equalizer between us,” she says. “We created some marvelous chaotic explorations of colour together.”

What began as an experiment became an act of self-discovery. “My work is a form of meditation and self-reflection: how to make sense of a world I don’t understand.”

Kay first exhibited her work at Sydney’s Wayside Chapel during an annual art exhibition organised by the NSW Consumer Advisory Group – a statewide non-government peak body that represents the interests of people who use the state’s mental health services.

It was through the work of the Consumer Advisory Group that Kay first recognised the important therapeutic role that art can play in the treatment of mental health disorders. She argues passionately for a paradigm shift in the way that NSW health services operate – in particular by embracing holistic therapeutic services.

She has also developed a particular interest in Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA) – the leading national organisation advancing the needs and interests of the estimated four to five million adult survivors of childhood trauma in Australia. This interest in mental health continues to play an important role in Kay’s work as an artist.

In anticipation of Blue Knot Day last year – an initiative coordinated by ASCA – Kay set about creating an artwork that has become known as the “Mood Order Board”. Over the course of three months, Kay took apart a child’s educational toy she bought at a St Vincent de Paul Society shop and transformed it into an artwork designed to reflect the experience of an adult survivor of child abuse.

“The distressing and scarring of the original numeric and alphabetical toy by sanding and scraping across concrete presents the trauma of childhood adversity,” she says. “The repainting, layers and layers of colour to create 72 separate faces, is an example of post-traumatic growth in the adult survivor.”

The “Mood Order Board” also has a therapeutic impact on people who interact with it; it helps people focus on their brain and increases their understanding of their moods. The 72 faces have either red or blue brains – the blue to represent calm and the red to represent passion. On one side the faces are upside down; on the other the faces are the right way up.

“It’s the topsy-turvy of survival but I have made something hopeful and positive and fun,” she says. “After all, we make our lives out of Chaos and Hope and Love.” The faces that appear in Kay’s artworks exist somewhere between those three forces.

 

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