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Tamara Armstrong

Updated: Mar 9, 2020

'Artists can express what their deepest, truest selves yearn to say'

Tamara Armstrong works from her studio at Tambourine Mountain, Australia. The stunning surrounds inspire her use of bold colour, natural elements and design, whilst she explores personal concepts of life and cultural heritage. Tamara is concerned with ‘Self’, ‘Place’ and ‘Empowerment’. Her uplifting paintings celebrate strength and diversity.

Photo credit: Samuel Lindsay

Where is your current studio? What would be your dream studio? I currently work from a purpose built studio that is located in the backyard of my Tamborine Mountain property. It is a very dreamy space, taking in amazing valley views and looking out towards Stradbroke island and down to the lights and skyscrapers of the Gold Coast. The only thing that would make this studio even dreamier were if it were at least twice the size. I’m always wanting more space for my canvases to hang, for visitors to hang out and to store my supplies. Describe a moment you had an epiphany concerning your creative life. Late in 2012 I had already decided to take 6 months off from my stable, full time career in teaching in the first half of 2013 - so that I could focus on my practice. I was fortunate enough to be selected as one of 100 female applicants to attend the very first Tedx Brisbane event which was aimed at women and the theme was ‘Empowerment’. It was an incredible day and line up of speakers and I made lasting connections with the other women there and most importantly it helped me realise that creatively I needed to make my art more personal. It started to shape my motivation to paint powerful images that would not only empower myself, but also my viewers in a way that was far more deliberate and very much to do with feminism and representation. It was listening to Michelle Law’s talk titled ‘A bald woman’s guide to survival’ that I had this real epiphany and it not only changed my approach to who I paint and how I paint them, but it also affected my own personal awareness of how I see myself and how I present myself to the world. Much has changed since that day, professionally and personally. 

Melanin Garden

How has your style evolved and what contributed to the changes? My style is constantly evolving and I put this down to my desire to keep searching for new ways of using acrylic paints (my preferred medium), as well as refining my love of bold, bright colour in a way that touches on realism without leaving my trusty stylised aesthetic behind. I love colour and I love to exaggerate it, as well as the tone I use, which ends up creating very bold imagery. This has worked well in my approach to portrait painting as I’, very deliberately wanting to present the women I paint in a way that removes any reference to the ‘male gaze’. I want my subjects to appear strong, independent and empowered therefore a delicate style of painting would not serve me or my subjects well. I’m also not very good at holding back the bright colours and bold shapes, and when I try to I only end up feeling disconnected from the work.

Nature versus nurture- do you believe you have inherited abilities from creative parents, do you have creative siblings? Can you identify environmental factors or influences which led to your choices or directions? I love this question because I have two very strong feelings and beliefs about it. I know that the visual art abilities run strong in my blood line, particularly on my Samoan father’s side of the family. I have so many talented cousins who can paint realistically and representationally and also do this professionally and on top of painting our ancestors were also avid weavers, print makers and also were very musical. Growing up both of my parents were very creative and crafty, with my Mum designing and making most of my childhood clothing, regularly attending craft classes that she would then come home and introduce to my brother and I, it was her love of folk painting that first introduce me to acrylic paints at the age of 10. We’d paint sunflowers on terra cotta pots and vases and any other surfaces she could find, we’d then gift them to friends and relatives at christmas and for birthdays. My Dad used to draw for many hours, usually pictures of cars but occasionally portraits of us from our baby photos. He also started theatre acting when I was still in primary school, and went on to be in a few notable Brisbane productions as well as eventually going for work in TV and film. My brother and I were dragged along to many theatre productions and rehearsals and I definitely remember that I loved seeing adults play and express themselves creatively, just like kids do, it had a positive impact on me for sure. We were fortunate enough to have my Samoan Nanna live with us for most of 1988 and she spent her days weaving baskets, hats and mats from the lomandra longifolia plants in our childhood back yard, as well as threading numerous necklaces from the seed pods and shells she would find when we took her to the nearest beaches. She was also an amazing cook and made many traditional Samoan dishes that she taught my Mum how to make, and soon enough our neighbours were putting in orders for her cooking, especially her panipopo, which are the most incredible coconut buns you’ll ever eat! So yes, I was certainly exposed to creative pursuits as a kids and the natural ability to make runs in my blood, however after becoming a teacher of high school art and seeing so many students over the years develop their skills and creativity I strongly believe it’s inside all of us and can be honed with time and effort. I know my experiences in childhood shaped my desire to be an artist, as it was the thing I received the most praise for as a teenager. I loved drawing and painting more than anything else and knew my future career had to involve making art. There was nothing else I wanted to do.

Detail a moment which was the highlight for you, thus far. There has honestly been so many highlights, I’m stuck when it comes down to detailing just one. But if I had to choose just one, I’d say it was the day after my biggest solo exhibition ‘Women of Colour' opened and my brother and his wife brought my two young nieces to the gallery to see the work. My daughter who was 3 at the time was also there and the three little girls slowly walked around the gallery looking at each and every portrait painting (there were 12 in total) and the whole time they told each other what they loved most about each work. They even had a little debrief on the couch in the gallery. They then chose their individual favourites then came and sweetly told me what it was about each that they loved. It was so precious. I cried tears of joy, it was just so beautiful and completely unexpected that my work would impact them in such a positive and powerful way, I hadn’t really thought it would considering they were all so young. I thought it would speak more to older girls and women, which it also did and was equally rewarding to experience and see those connections made.

How does your work respond to social trends?

Self Portrait with Leaves

My work very much deals with representation, diversity and gender equality. I myself am a woman of colour, that grew up here in Australia seeing very few faces like mine, and especially not in the mainstream media - which strongly shaped my understanding of what it meant to be beautiful, successful or of value. I paint the women I paint to fill that gap that existed when I was a young girl growing up and while diversity and representation is very much a hot topic today, it continues to have an audience that craves more. I’m loving that social media and new platforms exist today that allow us to get our news, art, politics and other communicative content in a more diverse way, because it is certainly bringing more voices, faces and stories to wider audiences, for me that

also means I keep finding out about kickass women who are doing incredible things in their own creative fields that make way for social change in the same arena that I hope to be making change within. So I simply get to spotlight this incredible faces through the portraits I create.

What do you hope to convey through your work? I hope that through my portraiture I get to convey new awareness around what makes up a woman’s beauty, her uniqueness and value. I hope that my portraits add to the growing representation of what Australian women actually look like. We are a multicultural nation and for too long ‘Aussie’ women were only portrayed in the mainstream media as looking anglo-saxon. I personally never connected to this perceived image of what it means to look Australian because physically I couldn’t. I didn’t have straight hair, fair skin, blue eyes or was average in height. I was really tall (and still am), with dark olive skin, dark enough to be told constantly that I had a great tan. I had really thick woolly hair that is completely unruly and dark brown eyes. I felt different and I felt like I didn’t belong. I spent way too much time, energy and emotion wishing I didn’t look like me, wishing instead that I looked more white. Today I couldn’t be more proud of the way I look, because even though I can take no credit for my appearance, I’m aware that I am completely unique, and very much born to stand out. I want to paint more diverse subjects and women of colour in particular, to help other young Australian girls and women and PEOPLE know that this is what beauty also looks like, and it matters to us all that we are seen.

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