Aboriginal artist finds commercial success with artistic flair
She's nurturing her art into a Ken Done inspired mini-empire and has just expanded into the brightly-lit shopping world of international airports, but Toronto-based painter Saretta Fielding is keeping her thinking at the sandbox level.
"It's kind of like it comes from my gut, not my head," the Aboriginal artist says. "It's like being in a sandpit when you're a kid, that's the same kind of feeling I get when I'm doing my art work."
On one hand Fielding is chasing those elemental joys of play that are too often forgotten when childhood days are over. On the other, she is a storyteller using ancient tools as she drags her finger through the sand to create swirls that represent the landscape, people and their connections.
In her former work heading local Aboriginal organisations, Fielding took trips through the Hunter Valley where she studied rock engravings.
"I was part of the early group of people recording the sites up and around on country at Mt Yengo National Park," she says.
Those experiences, viewing ancient pictures by lantern at night ("then all the engravings stay dark so you can see them better") resonated deeply with Fielding, eventually leading her back to the childhood passion she held for art.
When Fielding started painting again, she found it instinctive to add sand, pushing it around the canvas with paint to create a sculptural texture much like those engravings she saw in rock.
Over more than a decade Fielding has grown her work from exhibiting in art shows to creating a homeware and fashion line, called Saretta, using traditional symbolism to connect with contemporary markets. She offers everything from scarves to UV-protected poolside cushions and custom-made lounges.
"I have always said I want to be an Aboriginal Ken Done," Fielding says. "That's been my vision since first starting. I love his work, how it just draws you in."
Fielding's mum was a teacher, and she'd help decorate classroom resources that illustrated numbers and letters. "I remember trying to bring all that colour of Ken Done, the way he brings colours together, into that," she says. "I was about 12."
But Fielding's brightly-coloured dream faded as she left school disheartened after Year 10 with low grades and feeling "really dumb". While her life got back on track through an indigenous nurse training program, which led her to work with Aboriginal organisations where she made her way to the top, Fielding's connection with art had diminished to doodling.
But when those little doodled works of hers were spied by a colleague, Fielding found herself invited to join an art exhibition showcasing bush tucker at a café launch in Newcastle. It was short notice and all she had to work with was "recycled paint", half-used tins of house and marine paints. But all her work sold.
"It was a little scary putting myself out there," Fielding says. "When I actually realised that I had an opportunity, and people would pay money for it, that blew me away. I started to dream again about being an artist, I thought 'maybe I can do what I really love'."
For years painting was juggled with a full-time job, until she won a professional development prize in a Ray Ban design competition. That opened doors, and allowed Fielding to develop her art into a business rather than a sideline.
Now she's well on her way to being a Done-style success, with her sand-drawing imagery attracting retailer buyers. Her work has recently been picked up by airport boutique Australia Way, and she has grown her décor line to be on listed with wholesalers.
Fielding's work is also in demand from architects and interior designers. Her work hangs in the Sydney headquarters of international engineering firm Laing O'Rourke, and she worked on Ernst & Young's Sydney innovation centre, Wavespace.
The team of doctors who are behind the new Royal Institute for Deaf & Blind Children building planned for Broadmeadow have invited Fielding to tell their story, too, and plan to use her work to make a sculpture that will wrap around the front of the building. It will be Fielding's largest scale public showing yet and make a national statement as an "Aboriginal-themed" building.
In her home studio Fielding runs her hand across the canvas that she's created for the Broadmeadow building and recounts the story it tells about healing.
"I love that it's alive because it shows off shadow and light," she says. "Sand engraving is that link back to country."
By Jo Bevan, photography by Jonathan Carroll
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