Rachel Milne is a quietly confident artist.
When you first meet her, she's smiling, friendly and warm. She's the kind of person you would want in your inner-circle of friends, the kind of friend who will tell you exactly how it is. She's free from pretension and when the conversation gets going, she's not thinking about the 10 other things she has to do later in the day.
This attention to the moment is Milne's strength as an artist.
She captures in paint those fleeting moments that others pass by, documenting the world around her. It might be the pram of one of her children or the interior of an empty retail store or the inside of a friend's home. Her eye works simultaneously with her brush, hand and paint to reveal imagery that is beyond nostalgia, far from matter-of-fact and uncovers more about the society in which she lives than Milne probably first intended.
As a viewer, I see her as a cultural anthropologist reminding us of the transitory nature of our existence as we ebb and flow throughout our daily lives.
As an artist, Milne is concerned about painting. Painting pictures has always been her end goal.
"I was really ambitious but I didn't know what kind of painter I wanted to be, I just knew I wanted to paint," she says.
Rachel Mary Claire Milne was born in the university town of Cambridge, in the east of England, in 1978. Margaret Thatcher was Opposition leader, killer The Yorkshire Ripper was still at large, and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by cult writer Douglas Adams was read on BBC radio for the first time.
Milne spent the first seven years of her life living in small villages within Cambridgeshire with her older brother Oliver, mother Vanessa and father Simon. Her mother cared for both children while painting and teaching art from the family home.
Milne remembers a potter who lived down the street who taught her mother, and that there was always art around the house.
Her father had left the military before she was born and worked in the corporate world.
Her mother favoured watercolour and regularly exhibited and sold her work but when Milne was 10, her mother tragically died.
"I think she was just getting somewhere with her art when she died. In my mind she wanted to take it more seriously than she was able," Milne remembers.
Without her mother, Milne ended up growing up in a no-nonsense household that left little room for romance or sentimentality.
Milne completed a fine art degree in England before relocating to Newcastle, Australia, in 2013. She found herself a studio space at the Newcastle Community Arts Centre (now known as Newcastle Art Space) and started to paint portrait commissions; anything to give that art muscle a good work-out.
Her commitment to making art her full-time career, on the outside at least, seemed unwavering.
"I'm just trying to paint as intelligently as possible but I live in fear of becoming too comfortable and complacent, and I often think my best work comes from blindly agreeing to turn up somewhere, set up and work," she says.
"Working from life whenever possible for me is also fundamental. I find the camera makes too many decisions on my behalf and having used photos in the past the results, for me, are always unsatisfying."
For me, I am always trying to paint myself into belonging and painting these spaces is my way of trying to connect to people.Rachel Milne
Milne's first solo exhibition in a regional gallery will be held from May 15 until August 1 at Newcastle Art Gallery. NEST is a major achievement for any artist, let alone one who arrived in Australia less than a decade ago. It will include a curated selection of Milne's past work and new paintings that were painted specifically for this exhibition.
Milne has come a long way in a relatively a short amount of time; she's been a finalist in the Kilgour Prize at Newcastle Art Gallery in 2014, 2016 and 2018, as well as the prestigious Wynne Prize in 2017 and 2018 at the Art Gallery of NSW. In 2016 she found gallery representation with King Street Gallery on William, easily one of the oldest and most-respected commercial galleries in Australia.
Novocastrians will be enchanted by the Newcastle Art Gallery exhibition. Milne has painted many well-known sites including the abandoned Victoria Theatre, the old David Jones Building before and after it was demolished, plus more intimate subjects including a piece of cake, her studio chair and a self-portrait.
She says her first solo exhibition in Australia was at Newcastle Art Space where John Morris asked her to "take the smaller gallery". Milne credits the art space for starting her painting journey into interiors.
"It all started at NAS, wanting to paint inside other people's studios because in the UK, I was painting outside. It was after that, that I got the David Jones building.
"I can't remember exactly, but it was probably Wendy Peacock (then administration manager of NAS) who said to get in touch with Christopher Saunders at Renew Newcastle, as they had loads of spaces, that I found out about the DJs building.
"I slowly learned how important this building was to the people of Newcastle. That was what was really nice about being an outsider and being able to paint inside these buildings.
"I want to show people how important these places are, how I see the importance they have to the community. For me, I am always trying to paint myself into belonging and painting these spaces is my way of trying to connect to people.
"I just always want to push harder, I always want to get better. All I'm really trying to do is to be a better painter and painting these places, I think, will make me a better painter."
When viewing these paintings, take your time, immerse yourself in the paint as well as the subject, allow yourself to be taken away into Milne's world. There you will find a pragmatic painter, a thinker, a technician.
"When I'm painting, I'm thinking about tone, structure and colour, and thinking about shapes and about how I'm going to be able to slowly piece all these things together," she says.
"I don't agonise over composition, I put what I like smack in the middle, especially on the big paintings.
"I'll be working on a small area and then I'll look back and check that everything is in proportion."
If you're lucky enough to own one of Milne's paintings, like I do, you'll go back home and relish the joy of constantly discovering something new every time you look at it. If you don't, be sure to re-visit this exhibition, for I promise you, you'll undercover a garden of delights in Milne's paintings.
NEST opens at Newcastle Art Gallery on Saturday, May 15 until Sunday, August 1, 2021. Milne exhibits next at King Street Gallery on William from October 26 until November 20, 2021.
Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content: