Meet Angie Drinan, scenic artist and the woman behind a lot of the beautiful work that gives the magic mood at various Merivale venues. When we met, Angie was finishing off work that is now gracing the walls of just opened ….Little Felix – see the blog post tomorrow –
We had a chat over coffee and I photographed Angie at her Studio -Angeline Drinan Studio in Marrickville
“I grew up in a small town in rural Ireland. Equally green and suffocating. At the age of seventeen I escaped and went to study art at the National Art School in Dublin.
Growing up as the third youngest of seven children, there wasn’t a lot of time for introspection or developing a sense of identity. ‘Who do you think you are?’ was more of a rhetorical question. But one way to get noticed amongst three brothers and three sisters was to be good at something. I was an introverted child, and could draw… so I found my thing.
When I was seven years old I was knocked over by a car, following which I was awarded some financial compensation which was held in trust for me until I turned eighteen. That’s what made it possible for me to go to Dublin to study Fine Arts.
During my foundation year at art school I was told that I would never be a painter, so I chose to major in sculpture. This was Dublin in the 1990s so Fine Arts was an extremely conceptually based degree. Technical abilities were not high on the curriculum and I honestly can’t remember creating all that much. One important thing I did learn though was to defend my work through harsh and often excruciating critiques.”
After four years of study I thought Crap! What am I going to do with my life now? So I went to London with a few friends and worked in a bar. After a few months of that I thought, Oh screw this! I bought some chalks and a roll of watercolour paper, printed some business cards and went to Covent Garden, where I masking taped my paper to the pavement and started to draw. I did something that I thought would catch the eye of passers by: a Caravaggio reproduction in dark, rich colours, with a simple composition…. relatively easy to do but the effect was striking and I did manage to generate some work for myself. Darcy Bussell, then prima ballerina with the Royal Ballet, walked past during her lunch break, stopped for a look and commissioned me to paint a large canvas for her London apartment. Needless to say I had no idea who she was at that time.
Another commission from that time took me down to Tunbridge Wells in Kent, where I worked for a couple who had just bought a converted abbey in need of some attention. I spent a year working for them just painting murals and paint finishes. So I wouldn’t have to travel to and from London each day they offered to let me stay in one of their many rooms. It was rather special, but also very isolating because I didn’t know anyone and didn’t drive so I was stuck in this huge old manor house in the middle of the countryside. Grand and beautiful though, and in winter it was exquisite… blanketed in snow like a fairy land. One of the few people I saw regularly was the owner of the art shop in the nearby village where I went to stock up on supplies. I think he felt sorry for me being so isolated and offered me a weekend job to keep me sane.
During my time in London, I met a lot of Australians who I connected with and felt were my kind of people – so I decided to come and see what was happening on this side of the world. I got a 12-month working visa and arrived in Melbourne, where my brother (also an artist) was already living. When he was invited by a Sydney company to do a project for the Sultan of Brunei which he couldn’t accept, he put my name forward and I came up to Sydney and started working – painting massive cloudscapes on canvas. The company sponsored me to stay in Sydney for another two years, during which time I obtained Australian residency.
Early on I didn’t have any clear idea about what I wanted to do. So I kind of fell into the scenic art industry, which is quite specialised.
For about four years I worked in the film industry, including on Star Wars and The Matrix. It’s a very male dominated area of work with a strong tradition of of chauvinism and I found that very difficult to deal with. Each scenic art department has four levels: Brush Hand, Painter, Set Finisher and the Head Scenic Artist at the top. At that time there were no women working above the level of Painter in the film industry – no matter how talented you were it just didn’t happen. So after a while I’d had enough of that – plus I was keen to have a baby and decided this was the time.
I was six months pregnant with my beautiful daughter Ruby when I applied for a job at Opera Australia as a Painter. I was happy about the baby but it was a very stressful time because I was thinking, Who’s going to employ me? I felt very fortunate to get the job. After a year or so I applied for the position of Head Scenic Artist and was successful. They took a chance on me: I didn’t know much about managing a team, or budgets, or about opera for that matter! I was very open about all that at the interview but they already knew I could paint, and could remain very calm under pressure.
As Head Scenic Artist I learnt a lot about the business aspect of performance art, and about what it takes to pull different skills together and make them work in harmony within the constraints. I found the role fascinating but it meant I was spending a lot more time in the office managing budgets, costing new shows and organising schedules which all meant less time painting. While I knew I was incredibly lucky to have a full time job in the arts, I realised it wasn’t challenging me in the way I needed. Opera Australia is an amazing company and it was fascinating to see it grow and change over the 13 years I worked there. Its current artistic director has taken the company in a direction I didn’t recognise, since so much of what we used to do as a scenic art department is now done with digital screens. That was a bit heart-breaking. It was time to say goodbye.
Setting up my own studio has been nerve-wracking but I can honestly say I have never felt more alive. It’s so important to make hard choices at certain times in your life. It’s been wonderful to take back control, to do ‘my thing’ again.
So far it’s been really positive. I have a great relationship with Merivale and get to do a lot of really exciting projects. I like the way they are genuinely interested in art, architecture and the community – it’s not just a commercial thing for them.
Working for yourself is challenging and empowering but can also be scary. Taking back some control and being around people who inspire me is what it’s all about. Learning to feel comfortable with uncertainty is more fun than it sounds! The key thing I’ve learned is that what truly matters is gratitude and tenderness.
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