The figurative works of Lily Mae Martin are a seamless blend of dual forces. They are delicately rendered yet aggressive in nature, uncluttered in presentation yet complicated in scope, dark in tone but definitely not humorless. With every elastic push and pull of an expressive face or awkward pose, Lily Mae explores feminist, sexual and emotive themes while simultaneously capturing both the subject’s vulnerability and strengths. Here Lily Mae Martin talks with Hi-Fructose about the obstacles she overcame to become an artist, the painters who inspire her and the new outlook motherhood has given her. -Stephanie Chefas
You were born in the bustling metropolis of Melbourne, Australia in the early 80s. Tell me a little about your experiences growing up in this international culture centre and how did it encourage your artistic endeavors?
I grew up in the inner northern suburb of Brunswick, and although the area is pretty trendy now, at the time it was a pretty rough. There wasn’t much to do; I spent a lot of my time with my younger brother just wandering the alleyways and streets. Then he and his friends would play sports and I just retreated into my imagination. Brunswick was so rich in it’s different cultures and they all seemed to keep true to themselves while simultaneously growing together into something new, which I guess in a way defines Australian culture to me. As a child the ability to wander in and out of these different cultures helped to develop my imagination and opened my mind.
Was anyone else in your family an artist or perhaps recognized and nurtured your artistic instincts?
When we were younger my older Brother used to draw a lot and I was always jealous of how good he was. He had a very large collection of heavy metal records, and the cover art may have contributed to my work often being ‘dark’. My Grandmother is also talented in so many ways and always encouraged me with my drawing. Once when I was in my early teens I was on the phone to my her and she asked me how my drawing was going. When I told her that I wasn’t drawing anymore (I had given it up in a fit of teen-angst) she told me that I had a gift and I was being silly. I’ll always remember that call; I was so indignant at the time but she was absolutely right.
You’ve talked about your teenage years as being extremely turbulent; domestic violence, living on the streets and destructive relationships. During these troubled times, your art suffered and you yourself felt creatively ‘stuck’. How did you overcome these obstacles and what was the defining moment that made it happen?
I didn’t have a defining moment per se, but I had a defining thing that kept me from tumbling down any further. Whether I was working in a shitty call-center job or hanging out with dangerous people I would always be drawing. People would ask “what are you doing here?” and suggest I be in art school, university or something of the like. I really didn’t just change my life one day. I changed little by little, improving my situation slowly. Without getting too corny – finding someone who loved me and accepted me for everything that I am really affirmed to me that I was doing something right; that I was of some worth.
Many of your earlier works explore themes of female sexuality using yourself as the subject. It’s evident we’re witnessing some introspection as these images feel cathartic in nature. Can you tell me a little more about that?
I was very angry and so my art was coming from that place; I was angry about what had happened to me, what had happened to people I knew, what happens to women everywhere all the time. In the past when I had tried to talk about the things that troubled me I was often knocked down because people were concentrating too much on the words I was using, rather than what I was saying. Drawing became my way of communicating, it was the one thing that people couldn’t correct me on. It was such a release to have something that I could control and immerse myself in while still telling the world what I really though of it!
Over the past year you’ve moved away from autobiographical imagery with feminist themes and are now creating a series of portraits delving into the individuality of others. Has your introduction into motherhood influenced this shift in focus?
I think it was that I got tired of being angry and so introverted. Becoming a mother means you have to forget yourself a lot. I’ve always found other people fascinating, but never had the confidence in exploring them in my own way – knowing that they would see it. In going through birth and bringing a baby into this world my perspective completely changed. I no longer felt disconnected from my body – I became more aware of my mortality and my limited time here. I think now I am able to accept people for who they are and not place my ideals on them. I can also let go of my anxieties about other people judging me.
You’re primarily known for your pen and ink drawings, but recently returned to working in oils. What led you away from paints and why did you come back to them?
I started painting in high school for all the wrong reasons: I thought it was the only was anyone was going to take me seriously as an artist. Up until then I had been drawing in ball point pen. I loved cartoons and comic books but I was also loved the masters, I was a real art nerd and I didn’t know how to combine these two passions. When I saw that the Victorian College of the Arts offered a drawing course I was beside myself – it validated my true passion. However during my time there I picked up the paint brush again. I just love art and get tired of being defined as drawer or painter. Pfft. Sometimes I love the repetition of line and sometimes I love the layers of oils – it’s still all magical to me. I picked it up the paints again mid way last year as I wanted to see how far I could go with it. When I painted ‘Cinnamon’ (2011) I knew I was onto something.
From a young age, you’ve always had a love for photography and experimenting with disposable black and white cameras. In fact, your first art show was a photography exhibit. How did your interest in this medium develop you as an artist and is it still an influence in your work today?
Photography really makes you think about what you’re looking at and why you want to capture it. Drawing and painting means manually translating life into other mediums which always has a unique quality, whereas photography I feel is a bit more bare-bones. What is it that you are recreating and how are you going to make people see It the way you do? When I am thinking of making an artwork the first thing I think about is composition; where it is going to sit on the page/canvas. Which is the same approach I have with photography. I’m always looking at everything through the viewfinder.
You currently reside in Berlin and have stated it’s a city that’s so inspiring for so many reasons. What about Berlin do you love and how has it energized you creatively?
Berlin is free, less conservative, open to new ideas and new people. Like everywhere else there’s a clique, but people are more willing to let you in than I have experienced anywhere else. Or you can just go and form your own clique and people will join it. There’s constant movement, flow of ideas, trends, mediums; Berlin is forever in transition. It’s not ruled by money – no one makes money so it really is art for arts sake. It wont be like this forever, because more and more people are moving and changing it, but that’s the natural progression of things and I love it for now.
You’ve mentioned in previous interviews being inspired by Caravaggio’s use of light. What other artists from the past move you, and what aspects of their work do you find most intriguing?
Beatrix Potter, May Gibbs, Arthur Rackham, Aubrey Beardsley and William Hogarth – drawers & illustrators that taught me that line is crucial. Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas and Berthe Morisot – painters that taught me that feeling is crucial. Recently Lucian Frued and Jenny Saville (thought she isn’t from the past). They both have a love affair with flesh and paint. I’m really inspired by the fact that they paint all types of people but also seem to be having a love affair with their medium.
If I were to spend the day with Lily Mae, what could I expect?
We’d have to start out with coffee and food – I can’t and will not function without a steady supply of these two things. We’d talk about you, we’d talk about me, then you’d have to pose for me so I can continue to expand my extensive library of reference material. Maybe a walk, definitely a glass or two of wine and a mid afternoon cat nap (If you’re looking after the toddler that is).