Local artist Michelle Zuccolo has lived in the Bayside area for over 25 years. As a secondary visual art teacher, tutor for the Brighton Art Society and Melbourne Art Class, and an exhibiting artist, Zuccolo’s greatest joy is being able to share her passion and skills with as many people as possible.
In 2019, her self-portrait painting Augury was the winner of the prestigious $20,000 (non-acquisitive) Rick Amor Self Portrait Prize, and in 2013 she was the recipient of the ISS Italian Services Institute International Fellowship which gave her the opportunity to conduct research in Italy and Austria studying classical and medieval art forms.
Her practice investigates the human psyche which she explores through portraiture painting, still life drawing and sculpture with recurring influences of her Italian heritage and childhood memories of growing up in rural Victoria.
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Interview with the artist
Bayside Gallery (BG) asked Michelle Zuccolo (MZ) about her disciplined studio practice and tips for aspiring artists.
BG: Michelle, can you start by telling us about your childhood and how these memories have been a catalyst for your paintings?
MZ: I grew up in a small town in East Gippsland, called Orbost. My Australian mother was the local kindergarten teacher and my Italian father (who arrived in the 1950s), cut sleepers for the Victorian Railways. He regularly returned to Italy and would bring back souvenirs from Asia and Europe, which were proudly displayed on the mantelpiece. This prompted my interest in still life objects, and I began collecting ornaments. My mother was a keen musician, although no one in the family had practised visual art. Seeing my interest in drawing and painting, my mother purchased one general art book for our home library through the Readers Digest. My grade six primary teacher, Mr Harry Grosvenor was very encouraging. During my high school education in Orbost, I also received great support from the art teachers (Elisabeth and Jeromy Williams) and even an English teacher, Sally Williams who never directly taught me! Sally arrived at my family home with a large box of art books from her personal collection for me to borrow during HSC. She also took me to Melbourne to see a major travelling Baroque art exhibition at the NGV.
During my first visit to Europe as a teenager with my father, uncle and brother, we were taken to see some of the key art works in Italy. My father was very proud of his country’s cultural heritage and was keen to introduce it to us. Seeing these great frescos in-situ was inspirational. Also, gaining a sense of the history and appreciation of drawing, painting, sculpture and architecture in the context of European civilisation, had a reaffirming effect on me.
BG: You have a unique collection of taxidermy. Can you tell us how you acquired these objects and how they have become recurring themes in your artworks? What does the still life object represent in your paintings?
MZ: During my childhood I was immersed in spectacular coastal vistas along 90 Mile Beach, rural pastures, and national parks with abundant wildlife. I think this instilled in me a long term interest in animals, which feature regularly in my art work. I first came across a taxidermy animal when I was taken to Italy. A small antelope head was mounted on the wall in my grandparents’ living room. Back in Orbost, my mother decided to have a fish she had caught transformed into a taxidermy specimen to showcase on the mantel piece. She was a keen onshore angler, and had landed a record breaking four and a half pound bream from the Snowy River. I also came in contact with many skulls and bones – remains from local animals who had perished during drought conditions.
Over the years many great friends have lent me taxidermy specimens to explore as subject matter – hares, a goat, wild boar, various birds, and a fox. I purchased my own rabbit from an antique dealer in Tasmania – it was his family pet that died prematurely. In order to be preserved, the specimens need to be in immaculate condition, and are often housed in museums for educational purposes. I like to study objects for long periods, and these unique objects afford me that opportunity. I treat the items with a great deal of respect and care, and feel it is a privilege to have temporary access to them. I contemplate the personal journey the specimen has endured. Introduced species cause devastating effects on Australia’s natural environment and eco structure. Although foxes and wild rabbits are considered vermin, the creatures were introduced species and we must accept responsibility for our actions and negligence, having bought them to these shores with the First Fleet more than 200 years ago.
These issues underpin my art works. Paintings incorporating domestic household objects, evoke childhood memories and broader cultural experiences.
BG: Winning the Rick Amor Self-portrait Award last year was a great achievement. Can you tell us about your self-portrait ‘Augury’ and what you wanted to convey in this painting?
MZ: My intention was to portray the “mind journey” of the artist, whilst highlighting necessities of the craft – linen frame and palette. Inspired by the evocative painter De Chirico, I utilised simplified shapes and a light colour palette creating the appearance of a slightly artificial environment. It represents the solitary studio experience where I generally create artworks from observation. I also pay homage to Arika Avigdor, who made extensive and often intimate studies within his home, transforming and elevating the status of a canvas frame, bowl of fruit, or perhaps the daily newspaper, depicted in his artwork.
BG: I’ve heard you speak about your practice in terms of the discipline and steady work ethic needed to develop skills. Can you share your thoughts about this aspect of being an artist and do you have a regular routine with your own studio practice?
MZ: In terms of formal education, I studied drawing as a discipline for four years at tertiary level, starting when I was a teenager. I was trained by Pam Hallandal. Typically we drew for six hours a day, four days a week and undertook art theory, art appreciation, and additional practical electives. From this type of rigour I developed a sense of the time and commitment involved in maintaining and developing one’s personal art practice. Learning is an endless joy of course. In my work I am constantly researching new possibilities, seeking further insight from appropriate resources and other artists. My children say I am always ‘in the studio’. When I am not actually making art work, I am often reflecting on my practice, or considering the direction I should be taking. I often preview the week ahead and calculate the time I will have in the studio, juggling this with my part-time teaching commitments.
BG: As a professional art teacher for over thirty years, what is the most important skill you want to teach your students?
MZ: I feel that drawing from direct observation is an essential skill for students to undertake and practise. Drawing is not just a technique or ‘method’. A range of visual considerations can be explored through this medium which require vision and imagination, calling on intuition, intellect, and the development of one’s artistic sensibility.
BG: One of the hardest skills for an artist is to know when a painting is finished. When do you know your painting is finished?
MZ: For me, it comes at a point whereby further work is detrimental to the painting and my intentions. At this point, it is time to take on a new challenge. I view my paintings as new experiments each time. I am searching for an equilibrium – a balance between the quality of shape and form, colour, texture, etc within that particular composition. I like to retain a certain freshness or visual dynamics created through the interaction of parts and brushstrokes. I hope to preserve the energy or presence of the painting. I often rework sections of a painting multiple times, and if I am particularly dissatisfied, I scrape off areas with a palette knife, and rebuild that section. It can be a lengthy and exhausting process involving trial and error, and careful decision making.
To find out more about Michelle Zuccolo, follow her on Instagram @michelle.zuccolo
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