Growing up, Sydney-based artist Camie Lyons - her varied mediums include sculpture, painting and drawing – wanted to be a ballerina, and then an artist. She did both...
Starting at 16, when she moved from the country to study full time dance, going on to work professionally as a dancer for over a decade. She later went on to study sculpture. “I was always a maker of things, for as long as I can remember I have always had a thousand projects around the house, but I always knew I had to dance first,” she says. It was in her late twenties, after dancing professionally for over a decade, that she began looking for a new artistic challenge and found it in sculpting. Much of her work is inspired by her life as a dancer – she explores free-flowing possibility of lines, form and movement created by the human body.
Travel is also a great source of inspiration and her boys have been lucky enough to see a lot of the world with their mother and Swedish father. Camie has been an Artist in Residence in Sweden, Bulgaria, Bull Bay (Tasmania) and most recently at the Haefligers cottage in Hill End (NSW) in 2019, which resulted in her first solo regional museum exhibition at Bathurst Regional Art Gallery. And as if this wasn’t exciting enough, in 2019, Camie completed four large scale drawing commissions for Tiffany & Co. which are now on permanent display at their new flagship store in Sydney, and most recently was awarded Highly Commended in the Live in Art 2020 Art Prize. Hers is a life well lived, but as she talks about here, the life of an artist is far from all glamour. So how has she nurtured her art while raising a family. Let’s meet this incredible woman!
Growing up, you wanted to be a ballerina and then an artist. At 16, you moved from the country to study full-time dance. What were the ups and downs?
It was a really, really long time ago now, a lifetime ago now, but still, my formative years as a dancer shapes my every day. I prefer not to reminisce as to just think of it all as a whole, this journey – the tools learnt during that time, the disciple, the hard work, the spacial thinking, the practice, the lack of cash and the hours of mastering difficult movements and choreography, all carry me directly into my now artist studio each day. The output has just changed, from the ephemeral quality of dance to the very present existence of sculpture. It takes all those early lessons learnt to produce work and push through each day, it’s a very physical practice the making of bronze sculpture. I am still working out hard in the studio! There are still ‘steps’ in the process that I don’t enjoy (like polishing, I really don’t like polishing) but I know they are necessary steps that need taking to get me to where I need to be. Like warmup exercises at the barre each morning, you just have to do them to reach the end performance, to make it look effortless, to find balance and beauty.
I also learnt very early on to survive on very little and value working on creative and interesting projects – vital qualities for a contemporary dancer in the ’80s in Australia as there was very little to no funding for dance companies. I worked with ‘Storm in a Teacup’ Dance Theatre for many years, we really were breaking new territory in movement and very dedicated to our craft. Uno Flash Mobs… well we were doing that in the ’80s, seriously! I was young and just doing my thing and finding ways to pay the rent and it is only in retrospect that I can see what incredibly fertile ground this all was to grow up in. Brave too, you have to be brave to be a surviving creative – it’s a must-have quality.
You went on to study sculpture – what drew you to sculpture?
I was always a maker of things, for as long as I can remember I have always had a thousand projects around the house but I always knew I had to dance first. You need a young body. By my late 20’s after dancing professionally for over a decade I was looking for something else, new challenges so marched into RMIT in Melbourne and asked the Head of Sculpture about what they do there. He, Robert Owen, must have been amused by this and let me into mid-year intake to do my Bachelor’s Degree. Well, that changed my whole world. It blew my mind. A massive learning curve, I had left school at 16 to dance full time and not written an essay for decades! But, I’d found my people. I worked so hard to make up the difference. I am still a pretty crappy speller but it seems bold and naïve can sometimes work for you. I totally threw myself into this new world of learning and have never looked back. It was my best move. I continued to dance for the first year or so of uni and then just didn’t – it was not a decision, just a transition. I still love dance, I just no longer feel the need to do it, besides, it was starting to hurt and I was so, so, so tired of being body conscious. What I learnt showed me I was more than that.
How did you become to explore the possibilities of line, form and movement in your work?
This is how I see the world. This is how I experience the world. Line, form and movement is the place I come from and now I express this in another way, always striving for balance and the capture of sinuous, muscular, rhythmic movement and gesture. I think this way of working will sustain me for a long time.
What are the biggest misconceptions about the life of an artist?
That it is a romantic world and we sit around staring at our navels all day. No people. It is hard work to make it as a professional artist. It’s a tough industry with rules and guidelines that are sometimes very difficult to navigate. Like any business, you have to be organised and resourceful and reliable. Like all small business, you have to wear many hats and juggle all the production and media and admin and continue to grow and produce excellence. I work every day, often still sending emails late into the night to get through my long lists each day. If it’s glamour you want, don’t become an artist. It can also be a solitary business, I can go for days without talking to anyone except my immediate family and being stuck for long hours in your own head can be treacherous. It can get dark there. This is the very nature of creativity. As I said, you have to be brave and continue to find ways to have faith in your own path and practice.
When you became a mother, did it impact your creativity – how did motherhood influence your work?
Like this… BOOOMMM! Gosh, where do I start? It was such a huge, all-consuming transition – like someone threw open all these rooms in my heart that I didn’t even know existed. I could hardly breathe with the new fears and joys all coming at me at once. It was like drowning and being reborn at the same time. I loved it. I was terrified. I was also soooooo exhausted that it’s all a bit of a blur, but the main taste left from that time is sweet, sweet tangible joy. I didn’t get sleepers, neither of my boys slept through the night until they started school. The exhaustion kinda transported me to another place of instinct for a long time. This place of rawness is quite a good place for an artist to be IF you can survive it. Conflicting emotions but wouldn’t change the experience of motherhood for anything. It bought out the warrior in me and I’m grateful for that. It has also made me much more vulnerable, I suppose that’s the price you pay. But, back to your question, how did it impact creativity – it now is my creativity because it is me and they are part of me and they enhance my world every-single-precious-day. The good, the bad and the ugly – you take it all on and learn life is gloriously messy and unpredictable and that is OK.
What kind of childhood did you want to give your boys?
I never had a plan. I just did my best. As mentioned earlier I was so exhausted in those early years that I was happy to get to the end of the day with boys fed, mostly clothed and relatively unscathed! That eased as they got older and a new enormity of responsibility came with that ‘lifting of the dream days’ (my exhausted years) to the years ahead. My boys are blessed. I am blessed by them. We have had a great childhood together. We have travelled extensively and this makes them open-minded, compassionate souls with an understanding that the world is a big and varied place. They are interested in a great many things, they are interested in other people and other ways of living and doing things. They are kind. I am so proud of the men they are becoming that I know we must have got something right, we being my partner Sverker and I. I think we are doing OK.
What time of day are you most creative, and in those early days, how would you structure your days around work/kids?
I still work around school hours – it has become so habitual that it is just what I do now and as I work from home the boys coming and goings dictate my day to a certain extent. Early days were harder – squeezing in work time when I could. I would literally drag out my welding equipment and work during naps – I think back on it and think it was crazy but it was also the key to my sanity those early days. I also decided to do my Masters MFA when the boys where tiny – Jesus, I don’t know what I was thinking but to this day love that I pulled that one off! It was all madness those early years, passionate, crazy, exhausted, noisy, dirty LOVE. I wouldn’t change a thing and developed a very good sense of humour. We are a tight self-sustaining little unit and I’m good with that.
You’ve travelled a lot as a family, tell me about some of your most memorable family trips?
Sverker is Swedish so we try to get over as often as possible to check in with family. It is our happy place in the forest so soft and gentle compared to the Aussie bush. We have so many sweet memories there. As it is such a long way we always break the trip up with side adventures which take us far and wide. The boys have been dragged from pillar to post since they were born, from flea-bitten AirBnb’s in the back streets of Amsterdam to a chateau at the foot of the Pyrenees in France. We have stayed with families holding out cardboard signs with rooms to rent in Spain and traditional Japanese grass matt boarding houses. They were the Best Little Men and only attendees at our wedding in Vegas and have swam with turtles in Thailand and the icy lakes of Norway. Our last trip was paddling for five days totally off the grid on a river in New Zealand. I could go on and on but will stop because I know it is really annoying! I realise how lucky we are to have these experiences and that they colour the boys understanding of the world. We do it on a tight budget, but it is important to us to just do it. I wonder what future travel will look like but hold faith for the world knowing we are resilient and that basically, people are good. The more you move about, the smaller the world becomes, we really are all in this together.
The art world is a tough industry – what are your tips for success in this industry?
In the words of Jerry Saltz – ‘get rid of envy’, there is no place for that, you will just waste your time feeling that. Work hard, talk about art with other artists, support other artists and go see as much as you can. Then put your head down and work, work, work. Be honest with yourself about where your work fits and your abilities, and then, again, put your head down and work, work, work some more… this is your routine, you will get somewhere eventually if you do this.
What have you taught your boys about art?
Art is just an accepted part of life for them, they have grown up surrounded by it, helping with it, seeing me consumed in the process, coming to exhibitions and know it is vitally important in our lives and emotional understanding of all things.
You’ve described yourself as overly sensitive which is something so many of us grapple with – how do you feel when you put on a show or see people looking at your art?
Yes, this is where the vulnerability comes in. You just have to do it. You just have to do it afraid. I’m learning to trust the realisation that I survive it every time, regardless of the outcome. It is a necessary part of being a professional artist and also ties back into once being a performer… see, same journey.
What role has persistence played in your life?
EVERYTHING. EVERYTHING, really, it is everything. I could have quit a thousand times and I have had a thousand setbacks. Believe me, there have been many tears and too many wines and times when I just want to give up. But… then what? Where would I be? Who would I even be? This is all I want to be doing. Persistence leads to authenticity and that is what it is really all about. There are no short cuts. You just have to do your thang, trust your own decisions, take the knocks and push on. OH, and always celebrate the GOOD STUFF!