Vivienne Ferguson

Gardens are transitional spaces that lie between the domestic and the wild. They can be meeting places where you engage with others, or somewhere you go for private reflection. Vivienne Ferguson is an artist and a gardener. She is showing me some botanical sketches before we go up to her studio, via the bush-rock steps she built herself.

“I didn’t imagine when I enrolled in the horticulture course at TAFE how much I’d love it, or what effect it would have on my work,” says Ferguson. “We designed gardens, drew plant forms and leaf margins – I love leaf margins!” (They’re the shapes of the edges of leaves). “Look, it was the best thing I’ve done since going to the National Art School (NAS)

“Basically the NAS was anything you wanted it to be – for some it was a party every day. I just wanted to do the work. Ron Lambert was my favourite teacher – he was so full of life. Nothing in the way he instructed you was about him. He didn’t impose anything, and there were no areas you couldn’t go to.”

Like Lambert, Ferguson is an abstract artist. She believes that abstract art is more emotional than figurative art: colour and line work together as subject matter, triggering intense ideas and feelings. She sees art as a meeting place where you engage with others, a place where you can experience the private in the public space. Her sense is that, like a garden, abstract art allows for more varied readings than figurative art does.

With an exhibition in September, Vivienne’s beginnings are a suite of leaf-margin-themed paintings on canvas, some loose pastel drawings and two series of collages. A gift from her niece of some gaudy bright origami paper gave rise to the first series of collages, which in turn led on to a series of black and white collages made of her own, hand-painted paper. Most are small, but seem monumental. Like a garden, like all artwork really, they are transitional: you look forward to what they will give rise to while reflecting on what came before.

While Ferguson’s work has gone in and out of being minimal, she’s never built up painterly surfaces like Ron Lambert and, for an artist who remembers her childhood as being in bright colours, she’s avoided the heightened combinations with which her former teacher electrified his work.

Ferguson’s power is generated by her marks. A Ferguson mark, big or small, is muscular and activates the space around it in a particular “Fergusony” way that combines extravagance with restraint. Both in her art and in her gardening Vivienne is focused on restraint: a similar excitement colours her voice when she talks about making small amounts of paint go a long way and using a restricted palette, as when she talks about making-do with propagating plants. She’s stimulated by variations within a small range: marks on paper, leaf margins. These are liminal spaces, transitional points on her creative continuum.

Ferguson’s first artistic engagement with the ‘wild’ came about in the early 2000s. Her paintings from that time eloquently express the awe she felt in front of the menacing, seemingly limitless Australian bush that she did not yet feel at home in. Her brushstrokes sat, unflinching, in large areas of pure white. Her new paintings have a different vibrancy – we see through leaf margins to other plants and on to a leafy sanctuary beyond. In them there is a strong sense of the influence of happiness in her move to the Blue Mountains, and her ever-growing passion for horticulture.

In Sydney, Ferguson felt disengaged. The stimulation of city life was not artistically profitable for her, nor pleasant: she had her head down. Now she marvels at the sky.

“I’m a private person, I don’t see anyone, really, except my partner – and I’m so happy,” she says. “Sometimes I have to remind myself that it’s real, that I’m actually living in the wild, painting in my studio in my garden. Some people can’t see, and they don’t even know it. Recently I was in the garden, I was marvelling at the play of light on the leaves and mentioned out loud to the person I was with how struck I was by all that gorgeousness, and by all the colours working together. She turned to me and said, ‘But Viv, they’re just green’.”

Vivienne Ferguson
30 September – 17 October, 2015
Watters Gallery, East Sydney

Courtesy the artist and Watters Gallery, East Sydney

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