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Painted ladies

Updated: Nov 29, 2022

The female form has always been the focus for painter Natasha Wright. She talks to Francesca Emms about her life-long interest and how her education has helped consolidate her process.

Install view of Natasha Wright's 2021 solo show at Sanderson Contemporary Art

Natasha Wright has only ever drawn females. “There are so many links between the work that I’m making now and the work that I made when I was a five-year-old,” says the painter. “Things that you are drawn to in your childhood, that you may just dismiss, often appear at a later stage. I used to draw rows and rows of women.”

At Diocesan School for Girls in Auckland, Natasha took all the art subjects she could. Then, thinking she’d do “something more commercial”, she completed a Bachelor of Design (Honours) at Massey University. She hated the computer design component and much preferred the hand-drawn elements of her classes. Fashion interested her particularly. “With fashion, I was always observing the female form. So I think in some way I was always tied to this. I’ve never been interested for one second in drawing the male form.”

A particular course of study brought Natasha to New York City. She chose to do her Masters in Fine Art at the New York Studio School because it was specific to her interests. “It just aligned with me perfectly,” she explains. “It was a very hands-on art school. They only had painting or sculpture, and drawing was very much at the foundation of it.”

The studio school has a big focus on figurative work and working from models, something Natasha thinks is very important. Each semester they’d start with a “drawing marathon”, drawing from life every day from 9am to 9pm for two weeks. “It was long. But at the end of it you’d have these amazing drawings and you would’ve got so much out of it and really improved your observation skills.”

Drawing remains integral to her process. “When I start a new series of paintings I collect images and sources and pin them on my wall. Then I make a tonne of ink drawings. Sometimes I find them interesting and they'll stick, and sometimes I don’t. Out of a hundred I might have 10 that I’m really interested in making a work out of. Drawing is super important and where I get all my ideas from. Sometimes it’s in ink, sometimes I make oil transfers, sometimes it’s in pencil. I use different mediums. Then I'll gather together all the ideas to make a large-scale work.”

Natasha Wright in her New York studio. Photo by Andrea Bednarek

The women who inspire her work come from paintings, sculptures, history, fashion advertising, and contemporary culture. Everything from fertility goddesses to Matryoshka dolls weave their way into her work. “I don't want my paintings to be a representation of the source. I want them to move away and just be.” Sometimes she tells visitors to the studio what inspired a particular painting “and they’ll have absolutely no idea how the two are linked.”

Natasha arrived in New York almost 10 years ago. “From the minute I came to New York I felt the energy here. It’s a really exciting place to be, and to work as an artist. There's just so much going on.” She says that even though New York seems like a big place, the art community is quite small. “Once you start going to openings every week and you’ve been here for a while you do start to recognise people and really feel part of the community.”

Natasha’s on an 01 Visa, a special skill visa often dubbed the “Einstein” visa, which allows people who can “demonstrate extraordinary ability” in their field to work in America. Applying for this visa involves compiling a profile of your work. Natasha values the skill set she developed working in PR in Auckland and in Melbourne, if only for a few years. “Those PR skills enabled me to have some press on my work and get the subject out there. I think a lot of those skills actually made it possible for me to get a visa in the first place.”

Natasha Wright, The Three Graces, oil on canvas, 2021

Natasha Wright, The Waiting Women, oil on canvas, 2021

Natasha’s studio is in an industrial area in Bushwick, a 20-minute subway ride from her home. She’s working on a group of paintings for a solo exhibition in August at M Contemporary in Sydney, which has represented her since 2021.

So Natasha is a Kiwi artist, living and working in America, represented by an Australian gallery. Are the art markets different? She observes a “huge trend” towards identity politics in American art at present. Is her work political? “I did identify as a feminist all along, but I began making more political work around the time Trump was elected. I felt the need to. My work is still in some ways political but I don't necessarily think it has to be the first thing you think of. It’s more of an undertone.”

Install view of Natasha Wright's 2019 show Angels and Icons, at Parlour Projects

When it comes to the business side of art Natasha does nearly everything herself. “The admin side is huge. Everything from the expenses to the taxes (and taxes in the US are so difficult to wrap your head around), having a database, having mailchimp, keeping in touch, hosting small events, having people to your studio. There are all these different things that aren’t really part of a studio practice.”

It’s a myth that creative people aren’t practical, says Natasha. She connects it with the old model of the starving artist. “Which I really don’t want to buy into.” She thinks that ideally business skills should be included in arts education.“I don’t think programmes really focus on that at all. I think we spent maybe four hours talking about the actual running of a business. Which is crazy! I had an amazing time doing my Masters and it was all studio practice which was great. But there are so many things you need to learn.” Her own grasp of these skills she puts down to having worked elsewhere.

She also thinks it’s really important for creatives to have mentors with whom they have a genuine connection, not just networking. Most of the mentors in Natasha’s life have popped up in a very organic way. One of her teachers from the studio school, John Newman, has really helped her and now she can help him too, for example giving him tips about social media. “So it’s a two way street.” She believes that “If you’re genuine” you’ll find like-minded artists who are equally passionate about their art and willing to share experience and insights.

First published in Art Zone #91


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