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It’s life as usual for renowned painter Clare Reilly. Lockdown doesn’t affect her dedicated studio time and sensory outlook on life. Every morning she’s out early for a beach walk in the small community of Blueskin Bay.

Clare started painting in the mid 1970s – around the time that she met her husband, fellow painter and collaborator Max Podstolski. While much of her life and art has revolved around this partnership, Clare has shaped out a successful career depicting local wildlife and landscapes, primarily in oil. After 45 years, Clare’s work often goes out of the studio before it’s even shown – and there’s a waiting list for her commissioned work.

At any one time, she has upwards of 18 pieces in varying stages of completion, a consequence of her chosen medium but, also, Clare’s nature.

“I never know how long each painting will take, as six to seven layers could be needed, working on highlights for example. It’s quite a process, especially as I need to wait for the oil paint to dry.

“I’ve also learnt to use my energy wisely. For me, I work better at different times of the day. I do tricky bits first thing in the morning and at the end of the day I might do something simple – like dots on leaves. When I get an idea I start anew.”

Feeding the inner light

A charming old Next article Clare has kept shines a light on the couple’s life in Christchurch, circa 1992; parenting two young sons, holding down day jobs (her a Montessori teacher and he a humanities librarian at the University of Canterbury), painting and exhibiting whenever they could. Swimming and playing musical instruments also featured in their long yet fulfilling days.

“Living without a TV certainly helped!” she quips when asked how they did it all. “Painting was really important to us. We were so committed to carving out time – we’d wake at 5am and were exhausted by the end of the day. But it was a very joyful time; we had such energy between us and the creativity really fed our inner light.”

Max and Clare formed the Primitive Bird Group in 2001, a collective aimed at encompassing artists with a similar passion and common focus. As a group of two, their shared drive fuelled the couple’s individual work – both were influenced by bird symbolism and a primitivistic affinity.

“We used to have these official little meetings – just the two of us – where we’d discuss our goals, where we were heading, what shows we had coming up,” she says with a smile in her voice.

A 2010 trip saw the pair fall in love with Doctors Point, just north of Dunedin, with its large sandy beaches and rock sea caves. A few years (and quakes) later, a property ad prompted a trip to secure one of the “hidden properties tucked away in the bush”.

“I can paint anywhere but you can get stuck in your own comfort zone,” Clare says. “We’d had a little holiday place in French Farm, Banks Peninsula, for 20 years and I’ve always found calm by the sea. This was our chance to embark on new horizons as we headed towards retirement,” she says.

Birds of bold

Clare’s formative influences came from the naïve naturalism of bygone artists like Henri Rousseau. “I like to hark back to an earlier, calmer world,” she has admitted in the past. Her depictions of native birds and iconic New Zealand landscapes are luminous yet meditative.

“Birds are very important to me. In the book I tell the story of how I used to come to Dunedin to visit my grandma for the summer holidays (my parents were both born there). I loved it; I loved the climate and the birds at her big house – the tūīs, bellbirds and wood pigeons.”

As well as the symbolism involved with her Primitive Bird Group work, for the last 20 years, Clare has contributed to groups such as the Banks Peninsula Conservation Trust. “I like to document something to help raise money for it,” she says. Working on their Tūī Restoration Project since 2008, Clare has even helped bring tūīs back to Hinewai Reserve on Banks Peninsula.

At times, her paintings subtly hint of habitat destruction and renewal. In conversation, Clare bemoans that the nation’s land has been stripped of bush and marshland drained for farms and industry – both landscapes where birdlife used to find sanctuary. Which is why she’s so excited about Fiordland.

“I went on a cruise there recently – it’s an incredible place, a completely wild landscape.” An upcoming exhibition at Little River Gallery will show some of her recent paintings of this region.

“Through my art, I can show that restoration is possible; that there are places, like the ancient forests of Fiordland, that still exist.”

Water Song of the Fiords, oil painting by Clare Reilly
Watersong of the Fiords (2021) is an oil painting by Clare Reilly that will feature at her upcoming exhibition in Canterbury.

Word play

About a decade ago, during one of the Group’s ‘work meetings’, Max suggested there should be a book of Clare’s work. “He said he’d love to write it; he was a very good writer. So we put that on the list of things to do,” she recalls.

However, Max passed away in 2017. Losing her personal and professional partner meant Clare had to “find new ways of doing things”.

“I’ve always thought you’ve got to be a bit of a dreamer, visualising what you want to happen, but I’ve also learnt to give yourself up to the possibility of it happening at a different time, or not at all.”

Several years ago, a Dunedin publisher approached Clare about producing a book that showcases her life and work. Eye of the Calm is autobiographical in nature and packed full of Clare’s art.

“It was hard to put 45 years into 5000 words!” she exclaims. “It was the opportunity to tell the story of our journey. Max and I were married for 41 years – it wasn’t always easy with two artists living in the same space, but we shared a passion for life.”

Divided into sections to represent the different stages of her life, Eye of the Calm wraps her words and memories around the images. “I’ve had good feedback on my use of words in exhibitions, and how this helps take people to another place,” she says.

The importance of calmness

Clare Reilly offers plenty of reassuring existential observations as she speaks.

“The artist’s eye is always taking in the visual world,” she says. “The times I feel most serene, moving into the sublime, is when I’m calm. It gives me sustenance and energy when I’m happy within my world.”

Originally due to be published in 2020, Covid-19 delayed Eye of the Calm, much to her disappointment. “I really wanted the book to come out last year, after all that people had been through. With the issue of mental health coming to the fore, we need to learn to live with the uncertainty of what’s happening in the world.”

As hinted at in her book title, the juxtaposition of tranquil meditation with passionate action is an intriguing elemental mix in Clare. She teaches dance classes in the local community, focusing on the sensations of joy and pleasure in being present. It’s a useful foil to the negativity of news stories, she finds.

“Life is about finding balance. A sense of wellbeing flows out into the world from goodness, but it doesn’t from terrible acts. We need to remember that when we’re anxious about the pandemic.”

The Delta variant may have put the book’s launch back, but none of it stops Clare from her painting, walking or dancing. Remaining playful later in life has been important to Clare.

“It’s exciting to have a huge storehouse of ideas; it makes me feel like a big kid. I want to live my life with a sense of the same wonderment that a toddler has. I guess I do that by doing what I’m passionate about – I get to play in my studio every day!”

Cover of Clare Reilly's book, Eye of the Calm
Clare's book is available from October 6.

Scenes that resonate

“I’ve always painted exactly what I want to, in my own world. So I’ve never really understood how the power of what I do uplifts others. People relate to my work in a positive way.”

For that reason, Clare is delighted to partner with Live Wires, which produces cards and calendars that take her art into more people’s homes, all over the world.

“Art’s a very personal thing, but people tell me that the dream-like qualities of the New Zealand landscapes I paint translate into something more universal. I get emails from people abroad – it blows me away.”

Pre-orders for Eye of the Calm are steadily coming in – including from as far away as Idaho. It turns out the American was learning about Clare’s work in an art appreciation class there.

“I often get asked where someone can go to see the view,” she laughs. “Some of my work is strongly geographical, whereas others are more an interpretation. I don’t use photos in creating my paintings – I write and sketch and it all goes into my dreamtime and I never know when it will come back out!”

Clare tells stories in vignettes, in keeping with her painting style. “I hear of people saying they’ve just ‘had a Clare Reilly moment’,” something she experiences too.

“I redesigned my house to what I could envision and now it’s like I’m living in one of my own paintings,” she chuckles, “complete with tūīs swooping past.”

Clare Reilly’s exhibition, 'Calming the Wild Heart', runs October 30 – November 23 at Little River Gallery in Canterbury.
Clare Reilly: Eye of the Calm will be launched at the exhibition and can be ordered from exislepublishing.com

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