Flights of fancy blooming

Anna Stichbury works in her small but convenient Wellington home studio. Photos: supplied
Anna Stichbury works in her small but convenient Wellington home studio. Photos: supplied
Wellington artist Anna Stichbury likens her colour choices to trying to decide what lollies she wanted in her pick’n’mix as a child — she just has to go back for one more, she tells Rebecca Fox.

Given Anna Stichbury is obsessed with butterflies, she feels it is fitting to have her first solo South Island show in Dunedin, the home to Australasia’s only three-tier live butterfly experience.

"I’m so excited. It’s so special. Butterflies are the best thing ever. I love them."

She admits her childhood obsession has lasted longer than many would expect.

"I’ve always loved that thrill of when you’re walking along the path or in the forest or just on the way to school and you find dead dried bumblebees or a cicada wing or one day it was a monarch. And I’ve just always loved them since then."

The grown-up Stichbury in her early days as an artist channelled that love into creating a kaleidoscope of butterflies for an installation in a gallery in Wellington.

"It was completely ignored, but I loved it."

Stichbury’s hand-painted, paper butterflies have taken flight all over the country.
Stichbury’s hand-painted, paper butterflies have taken flight all over the country.
So she put them away, concentrating on her painting until 10 years ago a friend, seeing the original on her studio ceiling, asked her if she would make one for her daughter.

"It sparked me off again."

Thankfully, technology has advanced since those early days and she no longer has to cut them out painstakingly by hand with embroidery scissors and the help of friends. But it still takes time to create the detailed effects on their wings, hand-painting and sometimes gold leafing them individually.

"They are really fiddly and I get a terribly sore neck and hands doing them."

The butterflies are recognisable in the shape of monarchs or red admirals, or more recently, native butterflies and moths, but not true to colour.

These days her colourful monochrome butterfly kaleidoscopes feature on private home and business walls and ceilings around the country.

"Honestly, my butterflies have the best lives. They live in some pretty cool places, so they’ve sort of flown all over the place."

Tickled Pink
Tickled Pink
They are also a nice balance to her main painting practice which these days is centred on big blooms. In the past it has been seascapes, many inspired by her time in Wairarapa.

"Everything seems to be bloom crazy these days. People want flowers in their home, are wearing florals, are dahlia obsessed — it’s like the 1980s again."

A love of flowers is second only to butterflies for Stichbury. As a child she would press and dry flowers she found on her walks, making bookmarks and fragrant bags.

Her first original paintings in the early 1990s were florals and every Christmas she has created a series of small floral paintings for galleries.

Then last year she painted a handful of large-scale bloom pieces for an Auckland gallery.

"I thought, they’re delicious, I’ll do some more. The problem is now I’m completely obsessed. So all I think about now are blooming blooms."

For Stichbury, a mother of three daughters aged 14 to 20, they are a way to show joy and positivity in a world full of turmoil.

The Blues
The Blues
"So I’ve always sort of had florals in my repertoire. But it was the scaling up of them during the whole Covid time when I wasn’t so busy and on my own in my studio, and I just felt the pull to be joyful. My paintings are for me, but they’re also for you. So I’m creating pieces that I’m really happy with and that bring me joy. I just love the process of painting. I love paint. And then I also want to put pieces out into the world that are positive and joyful for others. That is my mission."

The flowers in her works are not recognisably specific flowers. She gets inspiration from visiting gardens and following a lot of florists and gardens on social media.

"I’m always drooling, with my cup of tea, over a meadow or a bouquet of flowers."

She gathers all the visual information up and lets it percolate before she lets it flow out on to the canvas, as she paints from memory.

"It’s an emotional response to the subject."

Colour has always been a strong component of her work, but usually in a monochromatic sense, using lots of dashes of colour.

"I sometimes have a really strong relationship with a colour, or a couple of colours, that can last years. I went through a red phase, and then my black and gold phase and I was in a blue phase, and now I’m in my floral phase."

Joy Bomb
Joy Bomb
The difference in her new floral works is it is the first time she has used a range of colours on a large scale.

"I have a really lovely box of acrylics and inks. And I kind of put that out in front of me. I’ll gather up a posy of colours that I think will work and that I want to use. And I’ll always go back for another one, just one more. And so it’s really just a kind of emotional and intuitive choice.

"And then sometimes I’ll work with those same colours for several paintings, and I’ll have to physically put them away, otherwise all my paintings will look the same."

Whatever she is painting, she is not afraid to experiment or try something new.

"I’m certainly not afraid to make mistakes, either. I make a lot of mistakes. And there’s often a lot of overpainting and changing of my mind. You know, if you don’t experiment, you don’t grow. So it really is about the ones that make it and they are just serendipitous, like a fortuitous accident rather than an unacceptable mistake."

Her discovery of gold leaf is one of those experiments. Sometimes she uses it traditionally, other times she mixes it with paints or resin turning it in a "three-dimensional sort of putty of joy".

"I’m a bit of a magpie, I suppose. It’s also really tricky and annoying and I will never conquer it, so it keeps me keen. But it’s just that it changes with the light. And so I love that it changes and reflects what’s happening in the day."

Hey Sweet Thing
Hey Sweet Thing
That approach has always suited her well. Ever since she was a child, Stichbury has been obsessively crafting, trying out each new craze as it came out.

"So everything in my room, including the wall, clothes would be stencilled and then puff paint would come in and I’d puff paint everything. And then I would discover tie dyeing and then that would be my obsession."

She has fond memories of sitting at the kitchen table with her creative grandmothers as they arranged flowers, did watercolours or crafted.

For pocket money or to save for something she would sell pet rocks she had painted to family friends and neighbours.

"I believed them when they said that they were wonderful and they were really excited to have them in their homes, but I realise now they were just loving, kind people. But it gave me the confidence."

During high school she did after-school art classes for fun and then chose to go to design school in Wellington, completing a bachelor’s degree in textile design.

She funded her way through university having exhibitions in cafes and painting florals to commission. However, she never actually worked in textile design, as she sent some work to an Auckland gallery who liked it.

Gilded Garden
Gilded Garden
"So I sent some more and then it just went from there. Really it’s a real mixture of smart work and really lucky opportunities. Not every artist is able to have like a full-time art practice. It’s a real privilege."

She believes her textile study has influenced her art practice in the way she uses colour and texture and her confidence in putting her work out there.

"I learned a lot of the skills that I use today through my time working with different materials and that’s probably one of the reasons I have such a wide art practice."

In her floral works she applies paint with brush and palette knife.

"I have a variety of current knives ranging from teeny weeny to actually tradesman trowels to get them big enough and I work with paints and mediums that enable me to build up textures. It’s like it’s kind of like icing a cake, it’s that thick."

For a long time she has also used resin in some pieces. She started with her seascapes, as it allowed her to create gloss and reflection.

"What resin will do is cause reflection, which can sometimes reflect the light but it also deepens the colour and gives it a really syrupy glossy glow which can make ... a nice enjoyable fuchsia right up to ... just a spicy hot delicious pink that you just want to lick.

Wellington artist Anna Stichbury is having her first South Island solo show at Gallery De Novo in...
Wellington artist Anna Stichbury is having her first South Island solo show at Gallery De Novo in May.
"It can just really intensify and deepen hues."

Stichbury is also for the first time exhibiting her new leaf series — done in a similar vein to her butterflies on heavy cotton paper and hand-painted — in Dunedin.

"I’ve actually been working on them for five or six years. Sometimes things take time to percolate. I have had pieces in the studio for 15 years that I’ve been working on and then put away — it’s time to let them out of box."

And, like the butterflies, the colours of the leaves are inspired by nature but not true to it.

"I’m very happy to ignore that and use creative licence to work with colours that sit nicely together but are not necessarily true to the variety, ’cause I can, I’m a painter, not a photographer."


Anna Stichbury, SWOON, Gallery De Novo, May 3-16