Cathy, Rachael & Felicity: artists on the fringe

April 25, 2016

Little creatures come in and watch me paint sometimes: a lizard called Alfie, birds and the odd frog

A trio of women artists—all Boonah locals—has claimed an abandoned, light-filled former butter factory as shared studio space and you’re invited to visit them.

Collectively known as ABS Studios, Cathy Anderson, Rachael Brook and Felicity Smith pour in time, talent and raw materials. Out the other end come bronze sculptures, bespoke jewellery, beautiful still life scenes and surreal explosions of colour. No butter.

In the early 20th century, this factory boomed. Located in the small country town of Boonah (just over an hour’s drive from Brisbane) it was the southern hemisphere’s biggest butter factory. Fast forward a century and the butter makers have gone – but thanks to the ladies of ABS Studios, creative alchemy is still going on beneath the aged rafters of the old factory.

Cathy’s World War II sailor (soon to be seen at the Brisbane Museum)

Cathy's life-sized sculpture of a WWII sailor for the Queensland Maritime Museum
Cathy’s life-sized sculpture of a WWII sailor for the Queensland Maritime Museum

Cathy Anderson was a rodeo rider before taking up bronze sculpture; eight seconds on the back of a bucking bronc can’t compare with the months of hard, hands-on work required to produce a single sculpture.

Cathy uses the ‘lost wax’ method to create her pieces – a pithy name for a procedure that’s about as long, complex and labour intensive as it can possibly be.

“First, you make your sculpture using clay or plasticine,” explains Cathy. “Then you make a silicon rubber mold and throw away the original sculpture. Then the mold is taken apart and filled with casting wax so you have a wax copy of the original sculpture. Then you dip the wax copy into liquid ceramics so it forms a ceramic shell. Once that ceramic shell is dry, you put it in a kiln and melt the wax out. That’s why it’s called the lost wax process – because you lose the wax every time.”

The ceramic shell, baked in a kiln, forms a second mold into which molten bronze is poured.

“Once that’s cooled, you smash the shell and you have a bronze copy, of your wax copy, of your original sculpture.”

Got all that? No wonder a single sculpture comes with a hefty price tag. Yet that almost mythical process of creation-destruction-creation clearly suits Cathy’s perfectionist sensibility.

Cathy is currently working on a life-sized sculpture (left) for the Queensland Maritime Museum – a World War II sailor, his hand raised in farewell to family. Once complete, it’ll stand outside the Brisbane Museum as a memorial to naval officers who served in the South Pacific. Being the stickler for accuracy that she is, Cathy has acquired a full 1940’s naval uniform as reference, complete with dufflebag.

Originally from California, she and her partner resettled in the Scenic Rim in the 1980s.

“I originally came to Boonah because it’s close to Brisbane but still has that rural feel. The people of the township are really supportive of art and artists, people who are doing anything different. That’s what makes artists come to Boonah.”

Felicity – scholarship winner, out of Africa

Felicity Smith at work, painting
Felicity Smith at work, painting

Felicity Smith concurs that the rural life has much to offer the artist. She’s been working at the Old Butter Factory studio for twenty years, creating art that rides a razor’s edge between realism and surrealism. Her current series of paintings feature African animals – including gravity-defying zebras – an echo from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe where her father worked as a civil engineer.

“We lived out in the bush, underneath Victoria Falls. My grandfather was a cattleman and for some reason, zebras became part of his cattle herd. We actually had a pet zebra at home.”

I defy anyone to grow up with a pet zebra and not retain a touch of whimsy. Felicity has it in spades and it thoroughly informs her art.

“Magic and curiosity are child-like qualities. You have to look at a thing as if it’s the first time you’ve ever seen it. What you strive for is to find the beauty within – find the light and ignore everything else.”

Classically trained at a renowned art school, Felicity also studied human anatomy at the University of New South Wales.

“I used to paint figures and portraits quite a lot and it’s important to understand how the body moves and works, what’s going under the skin.”

The master class involved careful analysis of bodies donated by their once animated owners to science.

“We were studying one woman’s hand and she had lovely nails – dirty but lovely: she’d obviously been living on the street. I felt such reverence for this person who was helping me learn my craft so I placed a band of gold on her finger – something she may never have had in her life. I won a scholarship for that very painting.”

Rachael – from Archibald to her creative sanctum

Rachael Brook – an artist featured in the 2015 Archibald Prize
Rachael Brook – an artist featured in the 2015 Archibald Prize

Rachael Brook completes the trifecta of talent at ABS Studios. Rachael is a mouth artist – unable to use her hands because of cerebral palsy. Her vividly colourful works in acrylics and papier mache (not to mention her fabulous purple hair and dazzling smile) reflect an infectious vivacity for life. Rachael uses a computer system with mouth-operated keyboard to communicate to visitors – but it’s canvas and paper that provide the vehicles for her deeply productive imagination.

“I express myself through my art. Since I can remember, as a little girl of five, art has been my release and inner strength. Through my imaginative life, I’m able to excavate images from within myself.

“My art is sometimes quirky, sometimes thought-provoking and always highly-imaginative.”

Rachael’s works have won accolades at Ispwich and Boonah art shows and her portrait of noted Brisbane artist, Michael Zavros, was an entrant in the 2015 Archibald Prize.

Their artistic home

The ABS studio at Boonah
The ABS studio at Boonah

Like her fellow artists at ABS Studios, she has a soft spot for the crumbling building that offers them a creative sanctum.

Ferns sprout from the brickwork, a listing timber staircase is slowly being strangled by the invasive roots of a figtree and concrete floors where milk once splashed are daubed with big black splotches – an homage to the jersey cows that kept the butter factory supplied in its heyday.

Rachael describes the studio as “rather old and unique… a lovely place to be an artist. Little creatures come in and watch me paint sometimes: a lizard called Alfie, birds and the odd frog. All are welcome!”

And that includes curious humans too.

Open Studio weekend 21 and 22 May 2016:

You can visit ABS Studios as part of the Open Studios of the Scenic Rim – an annual celebration of the abundant artistic talent flowering in the countryside, just an hour or so from Brisbane.

The event is spread across five weekends and Boonah’s artists, including the ladies at ABS Studios, are welcoming the public into their creative spaces over the weekend of 21st and 22nd May.

Carole Horne
As a writer, news reporter, documentary maker and lifestyle television producer, Carole’s professional raison d’etre for more than 30 years has been uncovering Brisbane’s secrets (both dodgy and delightful).
Happily, the latter are in far greater supply!

Carole lives in Brisbane’s leafy western suburbs and when she’s not working or chasing after her energetic teenager, she likes taking happy snaps, striking yoga poses, drinking chai lattes and embarking on the occasional overseas adventure.