Immediacy of Expression
Enjoy this unabridged transcript of our discussion with rising Indonesian artist Natisa Jones , including insight into her childhood growing up in Bali, her creative process and showing her work at this year’s edition of Art Stage Jakarta.
Your work explores many themes including the inner child. What was your own childhood like?
My childhood was happy. I am an only child and my parents both worked when we were living in Jakarta, so I had a lot of time to myself and I spent most of it making things and creating. I always used that time to draw or paint. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always carried a drawing book with me for waiting for my mom at her office, going on family trips on the plane, in the bus, at home, at school recess — I was always drawing. When I was six years old we moved to Bali and my mother stopped working and decided to be a ‘stay at home mom’ while my dad travelled a lot for work. She also wanted to move to Bali to have more time to paint — it was her biggest hobby.
So growing up, my mum always had a space to use as a painting studio in the house, where she’d have canvases, paints and art books. She spent evenings or mornings painting and I’d accompany her and make my own paintings and drawings. She taught me little tricks about colour mixing and the different brushes. I don’t think she ever wanted to make it a career, she just loved it. And she’d make commissions here and there.
My grandmother was also a big influence on my creativity. She used to teach arts and crafts for some friends and me at home. She taught me a great deal about creativity and using your hands. Most of the presents I received from her were always something she’d made herself like quilts, costumes and dolls.
Creating has always been an integral part of my life — it played a significant role in my childhood and has become a necessity for me as an adult to process the world around me. The inner child in me comes alive when I am doing anything creative — the excitement of being able to make anything you want, the endless freedom of possibilities. In a way, it juxtaposes the reality we live in as adults, so creating and painting is a way for me to keep that inner child alive and intact with my being.
At what age did you start creating art?
Ever since I could hold a pencil. The earliest pictures of me painting are from when I was about two years old. My mother made me a mini easel and pinned some papers up with some paint ready for me, and I would spend hours just doing that. Even in play groups, my mother told me that my teachers were slightly worried because I barely spent time playing with the other children and I would spend most of the day sitting in the creative room that they had and painting all day. Maybe that hasn’t changed much. [laughs]
The material and medium you typically work with allows for a much quicker process than others. Was that deliberate? How much time does it take to produce one of your pieces?
My work is a way for me to document a moment and feeling — like a diary. My mind and heart are very much connected to my hands. It’s almost as if I need immediate expression to record my feelings as raw and truthfully as possible. The quicker the medium records my expressions, the closer it is to the truth. Quick-drying media like ink on paper and acrylic on canvas are less forgiving. There’s no space for me to lie — once it’s on, it’s on. If I was hesitant during the making of a stroke, you’d be able to tell, you’d be able to see it. If a stroke is calculative, I’d know and I can’t deal with that. So it takes practice to paint with confidence, decisiveness and conviction within each stroke. It’s not easy, but to me it feels liberating when I draw or paint how I feel accurately within a figure or a stroke. If I were to work with media that are slow-drying, I might never finish a work because it would keep changing with my psychological and emotional states from moment to moment.
Some works take a couple hours while other works take up to a year. I often work on some, leave them and come back later in time. Some works even get time in storage before I ever revisit them again and complete them. When you leave a work for a long period of time, once you return to it, you are in a different mental and emotional state. Your perspective changes. And this is a good way for me to readdress things in a painting.
You studied in Melbourne. How did the experience of being in a foreign country affect your studies and your art practice?
I am very responsive to my environment. So wherever I am, it always inspires something or translates somehow in my artistic practice. In terms of being in a foreign country, growing up we travelled quite often. My father’s family reside in Canada, so I spent most of my childhood summers and winter holidays there. When I was fifteen, I went to boarding school in Chiang Mai, Thailand and completed my International Baccalaureate diploma there before continuing on to University in Melbourne. So I’ve always been pretty good at adapting to a new environment. Melbourne wasn’t too foreign to me, as it was another multicultural western city with a lot of familiarities to me.
When I was fifteen, I learnt that being away from your home country does have its perks. It allows you the space to be someone, to build yourself without the attachments of the society you are culturally or traditionally bound to, especially as an Indonesian. On the one hand it gave me a lot of freedom to build my own cultural identity, and on the other hand it can become quite confusing. I think this translates quite significantly in my work — exploring personal identities which partially stem from culture and environment.
Being away also helps you to appreciate where you come from.
How does living and working in a place like Bali affect your work?
Bali has a very particular vibe. You feel it as soon as you land there. The island definitely holds strong mystical energy — it’s very intense and romantic. With tourism as a major part of the island, I really feel an atmosphere and tone of escapism quite strongly there, unlike Jakarta or Jogja or any other city in Indonesia or the world, for that fact. I think in a way it helps me to focus and to be in a certain state when I paint there — like a twilight zone almost.
Most of the galleries I work with are outside of Bali, so I feel very lucky to be able to really utilise my space and time in Bali as a place to create and to be present. Living in Bali is very enjoyable as an artist — the beaches and greenery are always good places to contemplate. When I am in Bali, my migration is from my home, to my studio, to the cafe, to the beach. I save all the other stuff for when I visit a big city. I do miss museums in the city and art libraries. I don’t indulge in that very often in Bali. I really stick myself in the studio.
Can you tell us what a typical day in your studio is like?
I come into the studio and, depending on the mess from the day before, I clean a little. A clean space is very important to me. I need to be able to see what I am doing. Then I usually write or read for an hour. Writing helps me compartmentalise my thoughts and emotions and is usually a good way to start a creative flow.
Sometimes I might have a movie playing in the background, but it’s usually music. Some days, silence is helpful. I work on several pieces at once, with about five to seven canvas pieces up and I move from canvas to canvas, or from sketchbooks to paper works. Working on several works at a time helps take the pressure off creating one perfect work and it helps divide my moods and to keep a rhythm in my painting process.
When I have lunch, I like to watch documentaries or go through my art books. I usually work a nine-to-five workday, two hours of which are often spent staring at the ceiling, doing nothing. I just try to really enjoy the process and let the creativity flow as naturally as it can, while doing certain things to help that happen and to harness and channel my emotions.
As my work is highly personal, every day it’s usually a different situation. On good days, it’s effortless and every stroke makes sense. On bad days, I go home early, order delivery and try to forget about painting and art completely for a couple of days.
You were born in Jakarta. How was the experience of showing your work at Art Stage Jakarta this year?
Jakarta is a very interesting place. Once I think I’ve understood or figured out my relationship with the city, I always stand corrected. I uncover a new layer of myself with every visit to Jakarta, whether it’s for work or for family. There’s always new spaces, people and self discoveries I make there.
Any time and place an artist gets to share their work with the world outside their studio, it’s always a great thing. But Jakarta, in particular, has become more and more special to me as I get older. Even though I didn’t grow up there, I’m always proud to show in Jakarta, as most of my family and relatives still live there, including my grandmother. She is ninety-one years old and can’t travel much anymore. So, when I have a show in Jakarta and get to invite her to see my work, it makes me feel really proud and happy. A lot of my creativity come from her and what she taught me. To get to show her a physical and literal translation of that, is very special.
The art scene in Jakarta is also flourishing at the moment, so the energy at events like Art Stage is alive and exciting. I always discover new artists and galleries, which is great, and watching the art world function at events like this is always something fascinating and strange.
I’m excited at the fact that there are a lot of young people coming to these events and showing a lot of interest in the arts. High-school and university kids in Jakarta right now have access to things that weren’t available in the city ten years ago. Kids get to see what artists and galleries from Tokyo, Manila, Beijing and Sydney are interested in, all in one space. They also get to see what their own artists are currently up to. To see them get excited and curious about art is inspiring — it goes back to my inner child again.