Studio Visit: Danelle Bergstrom’s New Exhibition, Whisper

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Having recently returned from a 12-month residency in Sweden, Sydney landscape artist Danelle Bergstrom has created an exhibition that captures a mood that stretches far beyond the figuration of water and reeds in oil. Dijana Kumurdian visited the artist’s studio to gain insight into her process and to find out more about Bergstrom’s time spent discovering her family’s way of life overseas.

“You want some sort of consistency,” says landscape artist Danelle Bergstrom of the usual approach to beginning a series. “If you were to do an exhibition, you would tend to choose something and really work with it.” But the experience of a year spent in Sweden that would inspire her latest series of paintings, Whisper, would not concede to stringent conceptual boundaries. “I was so highly excitable that I had to keep trying new things,” she says. “The seasons changed faster than I could actually work, and the 12 months disappeared like an evening or a night.”

Bergstom – who is also a gifted portrait artist and eight-time Archibald finalist – has been exhibiting since the late 1980s, taking high-profile commissions as well as working on her own evocative landscapes of the Australian bush and coast. In 2011 she began a residency at Konstepidemin in Göteborg, a not-for-profit institution that provides 105 studios, but only five coveted places for international artists.

“It was an opportunity I had to live and work there and really see how I would fit in and what could happen,” says Bergstrom. “I had no expectations whatsoever, and no idea what I was going to do – but what precipitated that was an offer to have an exhibition there.”
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What drove Bergstrom, who has lived for the past 16 years in Hill End, New South Wales, to accept the invitation was a connection made with relatives of her father, with whom she hasn’t had contact with since she was 5 years old. “I was always quite interested [in Swedish culture] as a child, I’d even taught it as a subject at university at one point. My mother never stopped that, she always was encouraging, but every now and then when I’d try to get too close thinking I’d like to get to know who he is, I could just feel a little bit of sadness in her and I didn’t want to hurt her, so I left it.”

Discovering two half sisters after her mother’s passing, Bergstrom maintained contact with the Swedish side of her family, but only really got to know them during her extended stay in the country – a time in which she would also have experiences of nature that she never could have imagined. “I saw the four seasons come and go and really lived in Sweden. It was a challenge; you put yourself right outside your comfort zone. You’re there on your own. Although I was lucky to have some family members there – two half sisters and an uncle who I got to know quite well – I would still journey the country on my own. I became very independent.”

Bergstrom does not work en plein air, but rather, capturing a scene’s initial mood in a sketch, introduces nuance and instills her own emotional presence later in the studio. Her sketchbook is bursting with impressions from her tours through Sweden: moments alone in the forest after listening to wolves are captured alongside a sketch of the primitive mud-hut accommodation arrived at by dog sled and slept in alone amongst the snow.
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“While these are made in Sweden, they don’t actually have to be about location. It comes down to what draws me to that sort of image: there are many things more typical in Sweden that you could say are ‘Swedish’, but I’m not trying to do a travelogue. So, location is very much secondary.

“Some of [the works] have come from memories. I did a study of the boat, and the idea of using that boat was that symbolism of travel, the journey – I’m attached to it. This is called ‘Valhalla’, it’s a dream within a dream. I remember distinctly waking up in summertime at three in the morning; I’d often just stay up all night to watch the sunset and sunrise within hours of each other. But to watch that sunrise over that water, that stillness, the glassness of that water – there’s no wind, there’s no breeze, there’s no sound. This vessel just floats there. This particular painting for me evokes those feelings of that particular time of day, but I’ve used that image, I’ve used that time, I’ve used everything about, it to say something else.”
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Danelle Bergstrom’s Whisper is showing at Arthouse Gallery until 27 October.

Words and photography: Dijana Kumurdian
Artwork images courtesy Arthouse Gallery

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