Exploring Flora and Femininity with Seth Searle

There’s something soothing about the works in Seth Searle’s upcoming show. They’re calm and gentle, looking — introspective, but also non-combative. And really, in this day and age, isn’t that the ideal way to prove a point? With peacefulness?

Searle, a Melbourne-based artist and illustrator, has a long catalogue of intriguing and thoughtful portraiture to her name and her newest showing, which will be opening shortly at Off the Kerb gallery in Collingwood, is no exception.

Courtesy of Seth Searle. All Rights Reserved.

Called REST / FLORA, the exhibition focusses on nature, the female form, and the themes of strength, nurturing and growth. Filled with glorious gouache works that aim to offer a respectful and empowering commentary on womanhood, Searle’s show is a must-see from an artist who is certainly one to watch.

I had a chat with Seth recently about REST / FLORA, the intricacies of painting nudes, and what lies behind the twinkling eyes of her canine subjects:

Courtesy of Seth Searle. All Rights Reserved.

This is your first solo show. How did you find putting together the exhibition? Was it intimidating at all, or was it liberating?

It has been a strange process because it is so different to what I’d experienced working towards shows with friends in the past. Working alongside someone creates quite a social and supportive atmosphere in a way that working on my own just hasn’t. That being said, while at times it was an intimidating and sometimes isolating process, I am really pleased with the work, and I feel a sense of independence and strength which I think comes directly from doing it all myself.

Can you tell us a little bit about the title of the show, ‘REST / FLORA’, and the works featured in it?

The title, ‘REST / FLORA’, includes two of the main themes I’m exploring in this series of work: the ways in which restfulness allows us the strength to grow, and the similarities between the female form and plant forms – specifically, the robustness and elegance they share. I really wanted the women in this series to display a sense of ease, but also a real strength – a strength connecting them to the often rough and rugged Australian flowers they are entwined with. Those dualities and the general aesthetic beauty of each are what I wanted to explore in this series.

Courtesy of Seth Searle. All Rights Reserved.

‘REST / FLORA’ aims to explore the “themes of strength, growth and nurture” in both the natural world and, comparatively, in the female form. It’s an age-old subject—and a loaded one, as well. What moved you to want to explore those themes?

I wanted to look at the strength and nurturing inherent in being calm, and the effects this has on us. I think in a society where often women feel unsafe and objectified, feeling calm and having safe space to spread and grow is essential. And I like that this is applicable to the plants around us too; that often they are looked at as delicate, pretty objects but really they are strong, slowly staking out their territory and growing upwards despite their surroundings. There is a shared underestimation of both, and simultaneously a shared robustness.

From what I can gather, a lot of your prior series’ draw quite heavily on a specific sentiment or experience; like your affinity for Japan or exploring feelings of safety and solitude. Was there a similar inspiration behind this show?

I think the ideas behind ‘REST/ FLORA’ started to form just after finishing ‘sentō’ with Bec Smith earlier this year – a show which looked at the aspects of Japanese culture, particularly the public bathing culture, which gave us a sense of safety, strength, and community with other women. My pieces in that show explored scenes of women performing small acts of self care: bathing, resting, calming themselves. Once they were finished I started to think of self care in more of a community sense – women caring for themselves and each other, creating pockets of safety, places that they could grow. I was also interested in how this can be applied to plant life too, and the ways in which femininity and flora can be compared, both robust and powerful organisms with a desire to flourish.

You paint primarily with gouache. Were you always drawn to that particular mode? And what is it about working with gouache that you enjoy?

I started using gouache about four years ago, and just became obsessed with it’s lustre. I think what I love about it most is it’s versatility: it can be watered down to the lightest wash and still hold such richness, or used as a thick, bold paste. I recently started to dabble with markers and pencils but I always come back to gouache and I think I always will. Also it is so easy to clean!

Courtesy of Seth Searle. All Rights Reserved.

The pieces in this show, from what I’ve seen, have quite a raw, organic look to them. How did you know when a work was finished?

More than anything it’s just a feeling. There were definitely times that I would go back to one piece over and over, never feeling like it was done, or others that I wish I’d stopped earlier and in the end those pieces were discarded. I suppose it’s as much about trial and error as it is about a feeling. But I work slowly, and in stages, so I think the thing that most helped me know if a piece was done was leaving it and going to work on another, coming back to it later. If it felt done, it was, and if it didn’t, I’d come back to it.

There’s always a strange line with nudes—how to approach the work with respect whilst maintaining your artistic right to explore and say what it is you’re interested in sharing with your audience. How do you come at that? Are you ever concerned about miscommunication or misrepresentation?

Miscommunication is something that I have thought about a lot when painting women, and nudes especially. It’s a subject that I have always been drawn to and that I find so beautiful, and my relationship with that aesthetic has definitely developed a lot in recent years along with my sense of self as a woman and a feminist.

I paint from photographs of myself and my friends, and while taking these photos we have spoken a lot about being physically comfortable: there are so many ways that we hold ourselves unconsciously to appear more lithe, taller, rounder – I obsessively hold in my stomach without realising it and have to remind myself to breathe deeply for this reason. I wanted to shake this learnt self editing out while taking the photos, so that the images we got were of a purely relaxed form, no part of it altered for the sake of an outside gaze. In doing this I hope to represent poses which are strong, confident and challenging – entirely at ease – and nudes which are unsexualised, allowing their nakedness to be a source of strength rather than objectification.

In looking back at some of your previous works, it’s plain to see that womanhood and botanicals are somewhat of a reoccurring theme for you. Why is that?

I think I’m always exploring my experience in the world through my work, and the experiences of the women around me, my mother and relatives and friends.

I love the feeling of creating and nurturing something, planting seeds and watching how they grow and move, the way their limbs change and develop over time. They move with such strength and purpose, their presence making a space feel warm, and I see those same characteristics in the women around me. I think those are the things that have always interested me artistically, and fundamentally as a person too.

Courtesy of Seth Searle. All Rights Reserved.

You paint a lot of really darling pet portraits, as well. On a basic level, how different a process is it to capture the character of a pet, as opposed to the essence of a human? Because the eyes on some of those sweet dogs have a real twinkle to them.

Thank you! It’s funny, what I’m trying to capture in the pet portraits is a sense of the relationship to their owner, that look of devotion and love. I’m trying to portray a very different thing when painting women, almost the opposite: a sense of strength and ownership of themselves. But fundamentally the process is also very different: when I paint a pet portrait I have a precise method, a series of steps that I go through. When I’m painting a woman it’s a bit like trying to uncover something that’s already there, and I’m not really sure where to start.

While the process is so different, pets do have an element of the warmth I mentioned earlier, a sort of benevolent love that changes the spaces they’re in, which is interesting!

What’s next for you?

I’m really keen to go and work overseas for a while, do a residency and focus full time on making art for a bit. I’d love to go back to Japan, every time I do I feel so creatively charged, and I just love the snacks!

I also have some little plans for more joint shows with some of my friends, and I’m really looking forward to getting back into the process of working alongside somebody and maybe doing some collaborations too.

Courtesy of Seth Searle. All Rights Reserved.

Many thanks to Seth for taking the time to chat with us!

You can catch Seth Searle’s show REST / FLORA at Off the Kerb gallery from July 28 – August 11. The show opens on Friday July 29, from 6 ‘till 9pm.

Off the Kerb is located at 66B Johnston Street in Collingwood, and is open from 12:30pm to 6pm Thursday – Friday, and 12pm to 5pm on Saturday + Sunday.

You can find more information about the gallery at their website: offthekerb.com.

You can find out more about Seth Searle at her webpage sethsearle.com, and follow her on instagram @sethsearle. You can also drop her a line at [email protected]

Courtesy of Seth Searle. All Rights Reserved.