People and Places

Sam Michelle is the Kiwi artist everyone who loves still-life should know about

Kiwi artist Sam Michelle paints vivid still lifes from her home studio south of Melbourne

After moving from Wellington to Melbourne at the age of 17, Sam Michelle embarked on a 13-year career in banking. She continued her beloved painting practice in her downtime until five years ago, when she took the plunge and went full time. Unsurprisingly, the beautiful oil paintings Sam creates, of seasonal floral arrangements styled with her unique collection of ceramics and textiles, have been a hit.

She now lives and works just south of Melbourne with her husband, Darren, and sons Carter and Jasper (named after All Black Dan Carter and Australian artist Jasper Knight), plus “two elderly dogs, one elderly cat and one teenage cat”. Here she shares some insights into her background and creative process.

Did your upbringing influence you as an artist?

My sister and I were spoilt without even knowing it as both sets of grandparents were very creative. As youngsters, we would enter and blitz all the local colouring competitions (lovingly encouraged and supported by our artistic mum). Visits to our grandparents’ were great fun and we were always learning new ways to be creative. Around the time I turned 16, my grandpa could see how passionate I was about painting and, as his eyesight was sadly deteriorating, he kindly gifted me his oil paints, painting tools and lovely art books.

How did you get into painting?

I took up painting in fourth form at Wellington Girls’ College and it quickly became a constant for me. It was all I wanted to be doing during my lunch breaks and weekends. I had a wonderful art teacher who gave me a beautiful confidence in experimentation. She employed me to teach her niece once a week after school, which was an amazing experience for me at that age. I had another after-school job at New World, and my boss commissioned me to paint a work of his house, which made it into the local newspaper – things snowballed from there.

Why did you move to Australia?

Darren (later to become my husband) and I dreamt of heading to Australia from New Zealand and working and travelling our way around the country. We gladly got stuck in Melbourne and now, 17 years on, we have two young Aussie kids and adore living here.

We recently moved from a busy, fast-growing suburb to a small, sleepy town an hour south of the city, called Blind Bight. It reminds us both of home as it is exactly like a little town you would find in New Zealand. The house has a beautiful detached studio just off the kitchen so I can work away and still feel part of family activities, but I can also close it up when I need to switch off.

How did you turn your painting into a job?

From the age of 14, painting was a very precious and important outlet for me. I decided to keep it as an outlet and work on it through workshops and art classes in my spare time while working full time.

I started at National Australia Bank when I was 18, beginning in home loan sales at the Melbourne call centre and finishing, 13 years later, in private banking. When my art practice finally grew into something I felt I could take full time, I took the risk to go for it and now, five years on, I am so happy with how everything has turned out.

What flowers are inspiring you right now?

This year I have been focusing on seasonal collections with my gallery, Gallerysmith. I especially love to visit my florist and find new flowers I haven’t seen before and take on the challenge of trying to paint them. I am most excited about the hydrangeas and magnolias growing in my garden but, above all else, peonies are my ultimate.

What else inspires you?

I am inspired by creativity that I connect with, which for me is constant. It could be interior or fashion designers and their use of colour, musicians and their way with words, or even one of the kids’ Pixar movies with all of its creative imagination, colour palette and design.

What other creative hobbies do you enjoy?

I am a trial-by-error keen gardener and I have just started a clay course so I can – hopefully – make my own vessels to paint in my works.

What do you love about painting in oils?

I love the versatility of oil paint. I love how I can manipulate the paint to be thin or thick and to dry slow or fast. I love the range of tones and brands available, and I love finding new ones I haven’t used before. It’s so exciting to open an online delivery and add a dash from a tube to my colour reference diaries.

What does an average day look like for you?

I enjoy a long period of uninterrupted painting time to get a good flow happening. I’m lucky as my husband does the school drop-off so I can get some good hours in before pick-up. If I’m coming towards the end of a collection, I will often head back into the studio after dinner. In the studio I sometimes listen to podcasts and watch Netflix but mostly I like to put a song on repeat and zone out while I paint. I usually head to a fitness class either in the early morning or evening. To avoid a week on my own in the studio I make it a priority to have friends over or meet for lunch.

How do you style a still life?

I put up some beautiful long shelves in my studio to hold the ceramics, vases and textiles I have collected – these are great for inspiration. I head to my florist and buy a bunch of interesting blooms and then use the inspiration from my shelves to set up a scene. I have great lighting and tend to always have my light source coming in from the left. I also like the freedom to sketch my own compositions and can paint from these, too.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on my next exhibition, ‘The Peony Portrait Collection’, which will run from 28 March until 27 April at Gallerysmith, North Melbourne. This collection is inspired by my love of peonies and Matisse. I’m currently in the middle of reading and researching about both. | @sammichellepaintings | sam.michelle.paintings

Words by: Fiona Ralph. Photography by: Narelle Bailey.

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