When Maria La Grue was a child, her older sister came home from school one day and showed little Maria how to draw stick figures on the footpath, using the only thing she could find that would actually draw – a piece of plaster from a nearby building site. From that moment La Grue was entranced by the process of drawing.
Growing up in an Italian immigrant family in western Melbourne, where they had a shop to run, she didn’t get much chance to draw until she went to school herself. School opened up a whole new set of possibilities beyond bits of plaster: chalk, pencils, wax crayons and paint. She loved all of it.
On the easel behind me, as I sit in her studio in Whitemark, Flinders Island, is a work in progress – a painting of North East River. La Grue and her partner came to Flinders island central Victoria in 2010. As soon as she stepped off the plane, she knew she could live here. It felt right. As she ventured further into the island, it was the colours that grabbed her attention. “I love being locked in a world of colour,” she said. La Grue associates everything with colour, including language and reading words. When she was young, she assumed everyone did.
This time she is using oils, but she also works in water colours and acrylics. Her decision about what to create and what medium to use is to some extent made by the fact that she lives on a small island in the Bass Strait where the costs of freighting things in can be expensive. “I hanker to do oils just to smell them. Living on the island makes it a bit difficult because even though oils are safe to send by air, they won’t because they assume oil paint has solvent in it, which it doesn’t. I have to buy them in Tasmania and have them sent by the boat.
“I’d like to get into etching but, again, buying the chemicals and freighting it in is difficult so I do drypoint etching. I choose to use acrylics because they’re easier to buy.” Even the size of her paintings can reflect the problems of living on a small island, especially if she knows the finished artwork will be going to the mainland.
Like most artists, the journey from enjoying art at school to becoming an artist wasn’t straightforward. The practicalities of earning a living and being a single parent had to come first. In addition, “My parents didn’t encourage us to do anything with school. With ten children, the important thing was to get a job rather than go onto more education. I loved learning but I got a job as a typist first.”
It wasn’t until she was 30 that she was able to pursue her desire to study some form of art and engage in her love of learning. La Grue started with an Associate Diploma in Applied Art Screen Printing at the Gordon Institute in Geelong – she could earn money screen printing t-shirts. She then enrolled at Deacon University and completed a Bachelor of Arts. A few years later she studied fashion design at Gordon Institute. During this time she worked at a number of jobs including as a youth worker, a case manager with homeless people, working with people with disabilities in an art studio, and as a postie – something which gave her time in the afternoon/evenings to study fine arts at Geelong Fine Art School.
Maria’s lovely paintings are stylised. “I don’t have binocular vision. Because I see the world as flat, I think that’s why I’m really drawn to that flat separation, to flat planes. I also give significance to the ordinary things, the overlooked things. I think it comes back to growing up in a large family and being overlooked, so I want to give significance to every little thing in the painting.”
She is inspired by the raw, pristine nature of Flinders Island. She says, “We had to get used to the wind but now we welcome it when we come back from Melbourne, where it’s stuffy and polluted. You step off that plane and the breeze just blows the cobwebs away. It’s all crispy edges here.”
Her engaging art reflects those crispy edges, as well as her knowledge of the island. “I’m really attracted to the palette on this island. Visually, every area has its colour. All the beaches have their own tone of water based on what they are lying on. Trousers Point has a turquoise colour, Sawyers Bay has more of a green in it, Palana is different again.”
In 2017 La Grue was commissioned to paint a mural for The Flinders Wharf development. To get a feeling for the oyster catchers she included in the mural, she spent time observing them on the beach, near the shed in which she was painting, as well as an injured one recovering at the local vet. “I wanted the painting to blend with the island’s colour palette. I felt free and comfortable being in a big space and creating something bigger than fits in my own studio. I loved doing it.” It’s an evocative, fresh painting which immediately captures the viewer with the colours of Flinders Island. You can almost hear the oyster catchers calling.
If you visit Flinders Island, you can see the mural at The Flinders Wharf. And don’t forget to visit beautiful Trousers Point at the bottom of the island, Sawyers Bay in the middle and Palana right at the top of the island. Take note of the different colours.
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You can read and see more about Maria La Grue’s work at marialagrue.com