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Artist Fleur Wickes’ studio is a masterclass in mixing vintage with modern

Moving from a studio in a caravan to a heritage-listed central city building has given a Whanganui artist Fleur Wickes room to breathe and create

Whanganui-based artist Fleur Wickes has always been a great believer in writing down what you want. So, when she found herself outgrowing a tiny 1950s caravan that she used as a painting studio in her backyard, she wrote a list about her dream workspace and left it on her bedside table.

“I wanted five things,” tells Fleur. “Gentle light, room to breathe and an entrance that was unremarkable, leading to an upstairs area with good bones.”

Months later, while searching Trade Me, her manifesting paid off. After finding a 100sqm space for rent on the second floor of the heritage-listed Trinity Buildings’ in Whanganui’s main street, Fleur could tick everything off the list.

Kooky and calm

Built in 1927 by the Trinity Methodist Church Trustees and designed by architect Robert Talboys, the building housed long-time clothing manufacturers Kooky Fashions before it sat empty for five years.

“As soon as I walked in I fell in love with the golden afternoon light streaming in the windows and the sense of calm,” recalls Fleur, describing the space as a “big, empty white box” when she took over the lease in July 2020.

“I could see I could make it look like an apartment to show my work in context, which is what I’ve wanted to do for a really long time. I make work for people’s homes, not galleries and to show it in the manner in which I wanted it to be seen was really important.”

Her first move was to remove the harsh fluorescent lighting, before a builder friend erected blade walls to create different spaces – an office, painting studio, lounge and dining areas, and storage room.

Next, she painted feature walls in various shades of grass-green, inspired by a wooden dining table left behind from the previous tenant. “It looked like someone might’ve tried to set fire to it,” she says.

Lofty ambitions

A wander around reveals New York-loft vibes decorated with a mix of eclectic second-hand furnishings or pieces she “cobbled together” herself, such as curtains made from painter’s drop sheets from Bunnings Warehouse. The first thing visitors to the studio usually ask is if Fleur lives there too.

“I wanted to able to create a space that is gentle and comfortable while on a small budget. I subscribe to British designer Ilse Crawford’s idea of making ‘how a place feels’ the main priority,” explains the mum-of-one. “And I like Swedish interior designer Beata Heuman’s design aesthetic of mixing vintage items with modern things. Such as putting new linen cushions on an old floral Nana couch.

“Interiors are a hobby for me but I just wing it, really. I fly a bit blind with it and put things together my gut says yes to.”

Colour and texture were added in the form of olive-green print wallpaper from The Inside and a retro red velvet couch. Lighting included gold globe pendants from acclaimed Whanganui glass blower Katie Brown along with a pair of chandeliers, sourced from local second-hand store Ginza Bargains, which Fleur spray-painted blush pink.

“They look nasty in a good way now as opposed to nasty in a ‘bridal salon’ way,” she laughs. “I think interiors, much like the clothes we choose to wear, are as much a portrait of who we are as any photo we might take of our face.”

That’s the reason why, she believes, having a carefully curated studio is important in telling the story of her emotion-fuelled art, because it’s another way of expressing herself.

Simple pleasures

Her new collection titled “These Ordinary Days” of original word paintings and photographs was launched online last month, due to lockdown.

The work was made in celebration of the precious quiet moments in life, brought about from the first lockdown in 2020, where she also released her first artist’s book, Parentheses.

“During that time I wrote a poem which reads: ‘When I was a girl I dreamt of stars and Paris. Houses and decades later, turns out lying down with you in the bright sunshine of an ordinary day in Wadestown is what I like best’.

“It’s about focusing on things that aren’t actually material but the simple everyday things that make me the most happy,” smiles Fleur. “So I take my pleasure where I find it – sheets fresh from the line, or my son’s lovely hug, or my partner John O’Leary cooking an epic roast chicken.

“Maybe these things make me most happy because I’ve fought so hard for ordinary happy days, instead of the years of difficult, painful ones fighting my way out of the shadows. My whole work is trying to make things beautiful in counterpoint to what’s difficult.”

Raw and personal

The 50-year-old is talking candidly about growing up being bullied for having a cleft palate; being sexually abused as a teen and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which occurred around the same time as her marriage ended in 2010.

Fleur gave up a successful career as a portrait and wedding photographer to move from Wellington to her hometown of Whanganui and focus on healing herself. “I had to take a good look at myself and my life and work out what my strengths were that I could use in order to make a new life.”

Knowing she was “good with words” – her short stories and poems were published in literary magazines – Fleur started drawing her poetry and sharing it on social media. Commissions, and her fan base, quickly grew.

“I realised that making myself vulnerable through my work was actually a strength. If the words meant something to me, others could feel the emotion and put their own spin on it,” she says.

Fleur describes her works as raw. When she paints onto fabric, edges are left rough on purpose and she often uses sandpaper to add scratches. To make her studio prints, she writes the words with white chalk, pencil or paint, transferring the image to her computer.

“Being an artist is a bit like being a stranger on a train. People will come into the studio and tell me all sorts of things that they’re going through, or cry, possibly because my work stirs a response within them. They tell me it’s a very therapeutic place.

“And sometimes I wonder what kind of life I would have if it weren’t for the relief and release I get from making my work. It’s a bloody gift.”

Words by: Fleur Guthrie. Photography by: Gina Fabish

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