Whatever your faith, or in fact even if you do not follow one at all, you cannot help but be moved by the majesty of a cathedral. It is what draws so many of us to explore these edifices to experience the vaulted archways, the gothic buttresses and the weeping angels adorning the majestic towers that were built to reach to an all-powerful God. Imagine then what it was like to be a young girl to live in Reims, only a few meters away from a cathedral where the Kings of France were crowned. And imagine you step over the threshold only to find yourself surrounded by a scene rich with stain glass windows, white robed priests and gold ornaments in a cathedral built over centuries with its origins in the 4th century.
As Sofie Dieu tells me, “I didn’t take much of the contents of the Mass to heart, but I did from the visual.”
She is very clear in stating that her work is not about spirituality as that has a religious connotation that she wants to avoid. She uses the term “numeous” to refer to the rights, the cults and the rituals of cultures, each of which are strongly engrained in Sofie’s work.
She starts her days in her studio by meditation. And then she hunts out the pieces that she has collected from her long hikes through the bush. It could be a feather, a plant, or a stone that she brings back to her studio and places on her shelves almost like mini temples.
In some ways similar to the temples that she admired in her four years of living in China. Having grown up in the capital of Champagne, Sofie was to find that it was failing to hold any surprises for her and she yearned to find a different culture altogether. And she found it in the alleyways of Beijing. She had been offered a 12-month contract to teach textiles and design but found that at the conclusion of her contract that she wanted to absorb more of her surroundings. She stayed for another three years, constantly amazed that people with so little went through so much, confounded by their strength and resilience. Where some could only see the poverty, for Sofie it was the richness of their culture that captured her imagination and became her inspiration.
She started using the Chinese inks that the calligraphers used to create images on paper that reflected her feelings. She uses three colours – white to represent her mother’s family Catholic background, black to represent her father’s family relationship to the coal mine industry in Northern France and gold ink to represent the richness of the temples and cathedrals.
She is inspired by the Japanese Ensō which is the art of drawing a circle in a single uninhibited brushstroke to express the present moment when the mind is free to let the body create. This shape would be done standing up and very quickly, and as Sofie describes it, “creating a gate to the sub-conscious.” After the initial form is created she would then sit in front of the shape and almost meditate and start the long process of introducing the fine white and gold details to draw the viewer into the painting.
And while she immersed herself into the Chinese culture she came to a realisation that however much she tried, no matter how well she spoke the language she would always be a foreigner and so she yearned for a place where she could plant her roots. It was at this time that she came to share an apartment with an Australian jazz singer who convinced her that Australia could be that place.
Sofie came to Australia on a working holiday visa, and as her destiny would have it, met her partner and she has called Australia home since. Her partner is a Victorian man from Beechworth who introduced her to the great Australian outdoors.
She started looking around for a residency that would allow her to focus on a new body of work. She was invited to take part in the Artist in Residence program held by the Great Alpine Gallery in Swifts Creek. Being so close to her partner’s birthplace, it seemed ideal as she thought this was somewhere where she felt she knew and loved and felt comfortable with. She laughs as she tells me, “It was nothing like I imagined.” She found a village a lot smaller than she imagined with only 300 residents who were very isolated in their remote location and still grieving silently the devastating fires of 2009. The memories were too confronting and sore to be mentioned. And yet despite this the local people were very open to the arts and wanted to be involved.
Sofie held workshops which gave her the opportunity to find out what it meant to live in remote regional Victoria. She commenced a body of work in nature and seeking inspiration from the Chinese calligraphers who practiced their art before the Cultural Revolution. These gifted people would collect stones. Some stones they hit in order to create a sound that would take their minds away from the everyday. Other times they collected stones that were sliced and would reveal a landscape enabling them to travel away from their everyday boredom to another world.
And so when her host in Swift Creek encouraged her to walk along the river now low with the drought, by saying, “Have a walk along the river and find a nice rock and sit on it,” she seized the opportunity to walk in the mindset of these intellectuals.
Sofie started to hold her workshops and paint the stones that she collected. In each she found micro-elements, night skies and water swirls trapped in them – mirrors of the bigger environment of the Earth. She felt that the rocks had found shapes in the nature around them. And then she started drawing clouds even though there were no clouds in the sky as rain was scarce. One of her workshops involved children who were only just born when the fires roared through and yet they often painted images representing tornadoes and thunder as their way of articulating the hopes of their parents that rain will come and hopefully avert another fire.
It was at this point that she decided that she wanted to do more and is going back to the Tambo Valley in March of this year for a series of workshops, “Calling for Rain”, to help the local people articulate their feelings. Together perhaps they can convince Nature to bring the longed for rain. And for that they don’t need a cathedral.
Sofie is exhibiting alongside Meg Viney’s work at ArtSpace until the 19th of February.