Heather Brown was a busy business owner. But bubbling beneath was her artist’s soul waiting to be released. She talks to Shelley Robinson about her latest exhibition and finding her ‘soul dance’.
For hours on end, Heather Brown will work. Frenetically stroking layers of paint in sweeping motions across her canvas. Clad in her slippers and pyjamas, she had only intended to pop across the driveway to her studio for a moment. But when she reemerges from the place she goes to create, she realises the day has slipped away.
Heather laughs and shakes her head at herself. When we meet, she is wearing an apron splattered with paint and classical music plays softly in the background. Her Christchurch studio is filled with early afternoon light, bouncing off the resin on her artwork. Paintings are propped on walls, tables and easels and wait, like expectant children, to be packed into the car. At the time of publishing, they will be on display at the SCAPE Public Art exhibition, In the Stillness.
Heather has led life at a swift pace. With her husband Neville, she owns FreshChoice City Market and Barrington, working together while juggling family life. All the while, however, bubbling beneath the surface has been a stream of creative energy waiting patiently to be released.
It was when the Browns were building a new home in 2003 that inspiration struck. The white walls suddenly beckoned to Heather, asking to be completed with works of art that were of her own hand. So, she bought some canvases and headed to her garage to respond.
“It [the garage] was a place where I got my joy, where time became expanded, irrelevant,” she says. “It was restful to my mind, but at the same time energising because I was only thinking of one thing, instead of the life I would lead outside of the garage.”
She still had the business to run, so the garage was abandoned once the artwork were complete.
A chance meeting with renowned New Zealand artist Max Gimblett saw her take up an invitation to spend time with him in New York in 2012. Then, on a trip to France, she had an opportunity to paint one-on-one with a French American painter, Véronique Porter, in a small town called Vence.
“We painted all day in her atelier [studio] and she would invite her other artist friends to join us. They would come and paint and then disappear and then someone else would come and join us,” she says.
In 2015, Heather went to Tuscany, Italy and this time sought out a painting class. In an old watermill building in a village of Posara, she joined 10 other artists to study with Sandra Iafrate. With her creative fire thoroughly stoked, Heather returned to New Zealand and she knew it was time to get “cracking”. She purchased a building at 125 Aikmans Road, Merivale, to use as a working studio and gallery, which she would later call Studio 125 Gallery. While she waited for the then occupier’s lease to run out, she found a space three doors down to serve as her temporary studio.
“I would go there and paint all day, every day. I couldn’t get the paint on the canvas quick enough,” she smiles.
When Heather was working on opening FreshChoice City Market, she offered use of the building to SCAPE Public Art. Heather is showing her series Psalm 46:10 there alongside other artists for the In the Stillness exhibition. She donates a portion of her sales to SCAPE.
Heather has a wonderful way of talking; gesticulating with her elegant artist’s hands. But this shifts into another gear when she talks about her series.
She rises from her chair and moves across the studio to where her painting Shepherd’s Delight rests on an easel. The light streaming in from the skylights almost illuminates her and the painting.
“It is like the series came up in my spirit almost. When I pray about what I should create, I like to tap into a place that is much higher than myself,” she says.
The words ‘Psalm 46:10’ sprang into her mind and she didn’t know what they meant. Her bible revealed it was, ‘Be still, and know that I am God.’
“The whole collection is about the stilling of your mind. To bring you down from the frenetic pace that most of us live our lives. We almost race every day to get to the end of the day.
“And so, the whole collection in my mind was about creating something that didn’t demand too much of the viewer but still the mind of the viewer a little,” she says. She turns towards the painting, the resin reflecting her own image.
“When you look at the painting you are then part of it when you gaze in.”
She moves deftly once again to where another piece, Morning Glory, rests. They work together, she explains, representing the start and the end of the day, and an opportunity to live better with each new dawn. Clarity, a black and white piece, explores the stillness of the day at which time wisdom can be heard.
“In the busyness of the day there is noise and we can’t actually hear the wisdom. And the voice of wisdom is calling out to us all the time, to lead us in the right direction.” Heather smiles as she moves back to her chair. “And now it is like I can’t actually do anything else. I believe it is what I am meant to be doing. Finally, after all these years I’ve found the sweet spot. I’ve found the dance of my soul. Because that is what it feels like when I am painting, like my soul is dancing.
“It heals, it makes something whole within you. I feel as a woman it is a very important part of who we are and when we don’t allow it to express itself, I do feel like something is missing,” she says.
And now it is time for us to leave, for Heather’s soul is beckoning her to dance once more.
In the Stillness, SCAPE Public Art exhibition, Studio 125 Gallery, 125 Aikmans Road, Merivale, 11am–4pm or by appointment.