Uniquely Australian: In conversation with Emily Imeson, the winner of the Macquarie Group Emerging Artist Prize

Emily Imeson was awarded the 2019 Macquarie Group Emerging Artist Prize for her painting Alive in the Dead of Night. In this interview Helen Burton, director of the Macquarie Group Collection, sat down with Emily Imeson to learn about her unique perspective on her greatest inspiration – the Australian landscape – and uncover the intimate process of creating an award-winning work.


HB: Who influences you in your work? 

EI: A lot of leading Australian artists who have spent time investigating the landscape are a great inspiration for me - from Brett Whiteley to Albert Tucker and Fred Williams. I particularly admire the fervour and tenacity I see in the contemporary painters expressing their response to the world around them.

In 2015 I took an internship at Lismore Regional Gallery and worked with Hiromi Tango on her installation ‘Art Magic Remnant’. It was Hiromi’s passion and commitment to telling the story of the land and the importance of caring for our natural environment that provided me with confidence to pursue my creative career.

Later, during my final year at university it was artist and mentor Amber Wallis who began my physical journey of painting the land, she took a class painting ‘en plein air’. From this point my influences changed from who to what, the natural environment became the greatest influence on my works.

In March 2016 I entered the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, a retrospective of 50 artworks by Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori was on display. The emotional impact of seeing these large, expressive paintings describing a very personal journey through familiar land still inspires me. This exhibition encouraged a departure from recreating photographic images to generating artworks expressing my experience.


HB: What does a day in your life usually look like?

EI: Until April this year I lived and worked out of a 4 wheel-drive just researching and painting Australia. I reimagine living in symbiosis with the natural world, dissecting the evolutionary relationship humans have with the land.

Some days would begin with yoga or meditation, a cup of tea, observing the immediate landscape and taking notes in my journal. Then painting, exploring, reading, fishing, cooking, swimming, walking and investigating the biota. Other days were spent moving through the land viewing the changing environments from the car. If I wasn’t driving, I would constantly draw in my journal to later cross reference with my memories. Each day could provide extreme differences, depending on the environments I found myself in.

Since COVID-19 I have had to return home to a beautiful refuge in the far north coast of New South Wales. Now my days are spent developing a body of works for an upcoming solo presentation, new creative projects, gardening, landscaping, house painting, and fencing.

HB: The Macquarie Group Collection’s theme is The Land and its Psyche. Can you tell us about your connection to the Australian landscape?

EI: For me Australia represents strength and resilience. A place of fragility, beauty and survival, though I see the land is tired, exhausted from being mismanaged and misused since European settlement. I feel a responsibility to learn about and care for the land.

Growing up in regional areas meant I spent a lot of time outside, it became a place of wonder, imagination, unknown and solace. I spent school holidays on my grandparents’ farm and then later helping my father on the farm. My fondest memories are riding through the trees on horseback, where we would spend hours watching birds or goannas climb trees.

Instilled in me is the knowledge that humans are dependent on nature for survival. My growing understanding of human evolution recognises a continuous symbiotic and ancient relationship with our surrounding environments. A connection to the land is innate, we are part of the landscape and I feel the land is a vast part of me.

The past two years, traversing Australia and living in direct contact with the land in all matters of life has been incredibly fulfilling. My focus has been narrowed to water, food, shade, weather, the surrounding biota, the impact humans have on nature and how to translate it all into paintings.

HB: Tell us about your work, Alive in the Dead of Night, 2019, that saw you win the Emerging Artist Prize.

EI: Alive in the Dead of Night was painted in multiple ‘outdoor studios’ throughout Western Australia. Influenced by continuous evenings spent under the stars watching the land transform around me as dusk turned into the royal purples of night. This painting celebrates trees coming alive with the shadows of night moving to become a fluid dance.

Painted into my memory, this work is painted from memory, allowing the distortion of forgetfulness to enhance my deepest feelings and thoughts. To begin I sketched compositions in my journal, reflecting on the impressionable boabs and snappy gums of north Western Australia. When I started painting, none of it made sense, leaving me confused and a little frustrated. I had so clearly in my mind a delicate ballet of trees dancing with a perfect purple light. During this beginning stage a man at camp asked what I was doing. I replied, “Making a mess”.

I could not stop thinking about the painting. Alive in the Dead of Night became a mental and physical enquiry, a push and pull of dark and light, memories and my immediate environments, expressive gestural marks and slow considered ones. The work became a process of learning.

"This painting celebrates trees coming alive with the shadows of night moving to become a fluid dance."

HB: What did it mean to you to be the Emerging Artist Prize winner?

EI: The honour of receiving the 2019 prize provided me with confidence and a new level of recognition. The acknowledgment of being an emerging Australian painter provided a professional platform for my practice.

Being selected as a finalist in the 2019 exhibition was a pivotal point in my practice, it was proof that as long as I was committed, I could create artworks outside without a traditional studio. The works I entered were the first large canvas pieces painted whilst living ‘on the road’. They were the beginning of a new, confident, method of creating, describing my story and documenting the unique Australia land.

Winning the prize and being included into the prestigious collection felt like an initiation - the Macquarie Group Collection has many artists I admire and respect. This experience has left me with indescribable gratitude, it is opportunities such as this that provides encouragement for emerging artists.

The award meant I was able to continue travelling and painting the great Australian landscapes for another 12 months. Without the prize money I would not have been able sustain my practice or advance my career to the position it is today.