Who got the gig? Julia Holden's double win for suffrage anniversary

Julia Holden: Olympia Performance Performance Painting. Photo supplied.
Julia Holden. Photo by Martin Hunter.
Julia Holden: Caroline (Ruby Cumming, after Leo Bensemann), 2017. Photo supplied.
The provocateur of paint talked about her work with Emanuella de Ruiter.


The 2018-2020 Tylee Cottage residencies, recently advertised on The Big Idea, were recently announced by The Sarjeant Gallery. The residency provides an opportunity for artists to create work while residing in an all-expenses-paid stint at Tylee Cottage in Whanganui. This year’s recipients included: Julia Holden, Annie Mackenzie, Marie Shannon, and Jae Hoon Lee.

"To have five months of unfettered time focused entirely on making new work is my idea of sheer luxury."

I met Christchurch-based painter Julia Holden in a Lyttelton café to discuss her plans for the residency and her love of painting. She told me she was surprised and delighted to be awarded the Tylee Cottage residency, and the additional Lilian Ida Smith Award, which – because this is the 125 year suffrage anniversary – was offered specifically for a female painter of 35+ years working experimentally. “It’s very unusual to have such a high profile art award specifically offered to a woman ‘of a certain age,’ and I am honoured to be the recipient. To have five months of unfettered time focused entirely on making new work is my idea of sheer luxury, so I am really looking forward to it!” she says.

Julia’s practice uses a multi-disciplinary approach: she combines painting with performance, photography and audio elements. Her paintings are often 3-dimensional – like her works that involve painting portraits onto real-life people producing a living, breathing, talking artwork.

Julia Holden. Photo by Martin Hunter.

Ideas and plans

Julia said she had made two proposals, both of which align deeply with the suffrage anniversary, that she plans to carry out during her time in Tylee Cottage. She says, “the first will involve three to five portraits of Whanganui woman who have made significant contributions to the development of the town.” It will be similar to her project, Lyttelton Redux, where locals were transformed (with the use of paint) into historical figures from the town’s past. However, her plans are very open to change and adaptation because it’s only through interacting with the community that her work can find its true direction. She says, “that's the fantastic thing about doing these portraits — it lets me discover and connect with the community and they are an essential part of my artistic process.”

Julia’s second proposal focuses on the genre of still-life – like her recent project, Fanfiction, where she emulated works by Manet and Morandi. Her interest in creating this kind of artwork lies in the idea of bringing historically significant paintings into a three-dimensional space. The resulting photographic works masquerade as the original painting revealing Julia’s admiration for the original work and her impossible desire to possess it. This time, she wants to focus on creating still-life paintings of domestic items that are identified, often stereotypically, for women’s work.

Concept artist / conceptual art

One piece of advice Julia would tell others wanting to succeed in the art world is that is it never too late. She says, “honestly I try not to regret anything. I've had an interesting life, I've done some dumb, risky things, I've made some very bad decisions, but all of that makes me who I am and it makes me think the way that I do.” In high school Julia was not encouraged to pursue an art career – in fact she was actively discouraged – and this led her in many different directions. Looking back, she says she would not change a thing: “all those skills that I learnt by following different paths I've been able to bring into my painting practice and, while I might not be the most skilled painter, I am very flexible in my thinking.”

Julia started out as an architectural drafter before moving on to working as a storyboard artist and set concept drawer in the film industry. She spent 15 years in this career and had the opportunity to work on TV shows such as Xena and Hercules. Eventually the film industry started to evolve in a direction that Julia did not entirely like, so she decided it was finally time to go to art school. She completed her undergraduate degree at Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland before moving across the ditch to undertake postgraduate study at Monash University in Melbourne.

"I really enjoy how the work, once started, tells me what it wants to do; it guides me.”

The freedom to create

It was in Australia that Julia discovered one of her art-idols, Sally Gabori, an Aboriginal painter. Sally started painting at 82 years old and Julia admires the freedom and expression that imbues her paintings, saying “there is often a difference between painting from the get go rather than from later in life — there's confidence some artists have that I will never experience. It’s like learning to ski at five or learning at fifteen. I'll always have that slightly self-conscious aspect but with Sally it’s totally different. She started painting at 82 and, while she is drawing from her deep knowledge of the land and dreamtime, her painting has this incredibly modern, fresh directness that is truly astonishing!”

Julia’s favourite aspect of being an artist is being able to come up with an idea and see it evolve into something tangible and real. She says “taking something that was once just a figment of my imagination and moving it into the physical world is pretty thrilling and somewhat addictive. I really enjoy how the work, once started, tells me what it wants to do; it guides me.”

Julia Holden: Caroline (Ruby Cumming, after Leo Bensemann) (2017). Performance painting, 38cm x 46cm. Photo supplied.

Christchurch’s impact

Julia moved to Christchurch in 2012, not long after the earthquakes — when the red-zone was still in place and much of the city was off-limits. What she experienced during this time ended up having a profound impact on her artistic practice. She recalls being shocked by the scale of the devastation, something the mainstream media struggled to portray, and wanted to find a way to be useful. She was inspired by local artists who had made spontaneous interventions around the ruined city to help distract people from what was around them. She says “it's the little things, like the series of Pac-Man latticed into the fencing, that caught your eye in a humorous way, distracting from what was everywhere.” While in the past she painted with her own interests in mind, her focus now is to use her painting practice as a way to create new connections within communities: a painter’s version of what Julia refers to as relational aesthetics.

Julia Holden’s residency will culminate in an exhibition at the Sarjeant Gallery in 2019.

The other successful applicants were:

Residency 2: Annie Mackenzie (February – June, 2019)
Residency 3: Marie Shannon (August – October, 2019) and Jae Hoon Lee (November, 2019 – January, 2020)



Written by

Emanuella de Ruiter

20 Aug 2018

Emanuella is a documentary photographer and writer based in Ōtautahi Christchurch. She enjoys writing about people and their unique life experiences — especially when those experiences involve the arts!

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