Michelle Gearin has been painting since childhood. As a shy, awkward girl, her fourth-class teacher told her she was good at mixing paint colours and because of this skill she was allowed to mix the palette for the classroom mural.
This early encouragement was something Gearin clung to. It is the world of her own childhood that the painter has turned her eye to in a new body of work, the first in 12 years, titled Matriarch.
Gearin established an art practice after graduating from Hunter Street Art School, and the University of Newcastle, and was widely exhibited in solo shows and regional galleries.
In 2010, she was awarded the $25,000 Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship, which took her to France and Spain.
After the birth of her second child in 2011, Gearin stopped painting. As an intuitive painter, she feared the emotional terrain she would need to navigate if she were to continue with her work.
"I had two boys in that time," she says.
"I was worried about delving into my own childhood. I needed to keep it together as a mother ... because making art is such an emotional process. I reached a point where I just felt scared and didn't know how to start again."
The COVID lockdown proved to be a turning point. Gearin took a studio at The Creator Incubator in June 2020 and began to paint the works for Matriarch.
Gearin grew up on a farm outside Tamworth, before moving to Newcastle in 2001 to attend art school. It is the landscape of the artist's early life that looms, sometimes ominously, in the works that comprise this exhibition.
The Warrumbungle mountains mystically overshadow a sleeping child in the painting titled Sleeping in a volcano.
"It's me as a little baby and the Warrumbungles are where my ancestors, from Ireland and Scotland, first came when they came to Australia in 1870," Gearin says.
"A lot of the work is about inheriting things, trauma as well."
I just want to put it out there because it's me and it's human.Michelle Gearin
Gearin uses her art to rewrite, alter and perhaps heal histories and personal stories. In this painting the now dormant mountain is still an active, vaporous volcano - an unruly natural force bearing down upon a vulnerable and sleeping child.
Another work, titled Self Portrait, was drawn from a photo of the artist as a little girl. It, like much of the work in this exhibition, has an uncanny, yet beautiful, gravitas.
"It captures that lost outsider thing that I felt all through childhood. I just wanted to hang around on the outer. I found things confusing," Gearin says.
"As a painter, I would always paint out the vulnerability. I didn't want to expose that, my vulnerability.
"I have come to a place now as a painter that it's so much a part of me that I don't want to put a veil over it any more. I just want to put it out there because it's me and it's human."
For Gearin the process of developing an artwork sees her paint "stories" in and out of the work as it resolves. Sometimes she is unaware of where the images have come from.
"It's kind of like a dream, and when you wake up you wonder what it was about. You think about it and then you begin to realise what it means. Painting is like that, I begin to recognise the stories in the paintings," Gearin says.
The eight oil paintings in this show are hung in the recently renovated, and vastly improved, The Creator Incubator at Hamilton North, on dark green walls with spotlighting intensifying the narrative drama of the work. It makes for an immersive experience.
The Creator Incubator founder and creative director Braddon Snape says it's "exciting to see Michelle present her work so strongly after 10 years. She is a deep and complex thinker, but her works ... are intuitive, dreamlike and poetic responses to her imaginings. I am sure this body of work will attract significant attention."
The exhibition was opened on Friday by Dr Una Rey, editor of the national arts publication Artlink Magazine.
"Michelle is a particularly strong painter," Dr Rey says.
"She has a real artistic vision and has stayed with that early promise and is now striking a powerful chord as a painter. She is on a roll and is going to keep rolling."
Matriarch is on exhibition at The Creator Incubator until December 12.
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