ANNALISA Lawrence dropped out of fine arts school in her hometown of Tasmania because she thought it was a waste of time.
"I was right into surfing and I thought it interrupted my flow," she says with a chuckle at the memory.
It was not until Lawrence moved to Newcastle and gave birth to her son in 2014 that she decided to dabble with a water paint set that her husband had bought at Newcastle Museum.
She quickly fell into a habit of taking images on her phone most days of people at beaches between Redhead and Bar Beach.
"I would go to the beach with my baby and I wasn't able to surf, so part of me painting was the need to recreate that feeling I was missing out on," she explains.
"I was by myself a lot because my husband was away for work, and I thought how can I bring joy for what I love by painting rather than just wishing I could be there."
Lawrence, known as Saltwater Woman on social media, is one of three female artists and Newcastle thalassophiles featured in the exhibition Blue Spaces, opening at Onwards Studio on February 5.
Wilt Living founder and oceanic photographer Jessica Blacklow and artist and Make Space co-founder Suz Bailey (on Instagram as SuzThanks) will also show their latest works.
The trio's ocean-driven friendship was cemented in September 2019 when they each exhibited at STANCE, an exhibition at Make Space at The Station.
"Since then we have stuck together being creative and motivating each other, and this time we thought it would be good to collaborate again because we are all very much ocean-inspired artists," says Bailey.
Meeting regularly for coffee to talk life and art, the trio began talking about a joint exhibition in January last year before the pandemic closed in. By October they were back on track and are now each madly finishing pieces for the new show.
A restless spirit who has long questioned her path in life, Lawrence relies upon the ocean as her anchor.
"It is a steadfast and it's pulled me around the country, I don't live somewhere where there is no beach or holiday with no beach," she says.
Lawrence uses acrylic paints to depict various beach scenes, describing her style as "pretty loose" and driven by her perception of light, all while being a lens on to the egalitarian nature of beach-going.
"Anyone can go to the beach, I want to create pictures that represent that, not just hot surfers and mums who don't put on weight post babies, and there is a theme of friendship," she says.
Lawrence's painting, along with surfing and learning the ukulele, helped her cope with and release her grief after suffering multiple miscarriages after her first "easy" pregnancy.
"It was intense ... when I felt really, really sad, water was the best thing, to fully immerse my body," she says.
"There was so much sadness stuck in my body and if you go swimming, surfing, painting, doing physical things ... that's how I moved through it.
"If I have a friend who is sad, I say 'When was the last time you went swimming, like fully underwater, dunked and washed everything away?' I go swimming a minimum of three times a week."
Blacklow's love for the ocean formed in childhood: her parents ran a camping ground at Delicate Nobby, near Crescent Head.
She studied graphic design, including photography, at Enmore Design School then worked in Sydney and London before moving to Newcastle.
Three years ago she began taking photographs with a drone her partner had bought but was not using.
"As soon as tried it I was pretty hooked because everything looks amazing from above," she says.
Blacklow - who recently obtained her remote pilot licence for drones, allowing her to operate commercially - can often be found wandering at 6am along Newcastle beaches.
Posting her work on Instagram, she is thrilled one of her sons is now surfing.
"I love watching everyday activities, everyone doing their thing, I love the way I feel in the morning around the beach, when everything is fresh and still. The textures and colours look amazing," she says.
Blacklow's work in Blue Spaces focuses on the swimming lifestyle around the coastline and is heavily influenced by Newcastle Ocean Baths: "The colours are so beautiful, it's difficult to take a bad shot, it's just magical."
Darwin-raised Bailey has lived in Newcastle for 20 years and long worked with textiles before trying her hand at painting. A co-founder of Make Space under Renew Newcastle in 2009, her paintings in STANCE influenced her progression with acrylic.
Surfing inner Newcastle breaks as often as she can, Bailey uses images she has taken of the ocean up to 20 years ago to create her works, which are often mixed media.
"I like surfing in my spare time and I love painting. I have a lot to learn, I have a hard time calling myself an artist, but the images I want to create are surfing," she says.
Blue Spaces has been a process of self-discovery and a focus on "shadow work".
"I feel like with COVID everyone is heading into the unknown and forced to face their shadows - I love Jess's work where you see her shadows, and Annalisa is focused on it too. It's about exploring the human psyche."
The Blue Spaces series, she adds, will include "the spiral of the wave, that inward journey we must take to truly know and love ourselves".
Bailey says the ocean teaches her something each time she takes the plunge.
"Sitting in the ocean changes your perspective every time," she says.
"It keeps your mind still, nothing much goes through my head when I'm on my board, and that's why I love painting too. You are concentrating on how you will execute the next thing rather than thinking about your problems.
"Any time in the past I've avoided surfing .... when you don't do the things you love to do, you realise you are not well.
"Surfing is one of those things that calls me."
Blue Spaces opens at Onwards Studio in Hamilton on February 5. Registrations are essential.
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