27 Jan 2017

A natural aesthetic

New Zealand-born painter Gabby Malpas had nurture as well as nature on her side when it came to developing a career as a professional artist.

The one marvellous thing I am grateful to my parents for is they pushed me to go to art school," she says, speaking on the phone from her studio in Sydney's inner-city suburbs. "They (my adoptive parents) read that my Chinese birth mother was an artist. As soon as I could hold a pencil there was always a pencil and paper shoved in my hand.

Malpas, 50, was commissioned by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra to create a watercolour painting to promote its Chinese New Year concert Music Under the Moon, held at the Sydney Opera House on Saturday 11 February. Conducted by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon composer Tan Dun, the concert is being held as part of the Sydney Chinese New Year Festival celebrations and will feature Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women, a fascinating work about a secret song language belonging to the women of Hunan province in China.

Christie Brewster, SSO Senior Graphic Designer, says her team always tries to create an accurate visual representation of a concert through its marketing materials, so it made sense to look to an artist with an Asian heritage to create an artwork for the event.

"Art and design can offer audiences a feeling or visual representation of our music or what a concert is about," Brewster says. "We knew that Gabby, as an artist who explores her Chinese background through her watercolour practice, would be well placed to create an artwork around this concert. The prospect of supporting an artist in the Sydney community was also really nice – particularly since this is a very special one-off event."

Peach blossom and red Chinese lanterns sway against celestial clouds in Malpas' beautiful watercolour artwork, which has featured in a plethora of marketing materials – both digital and hardcopy – to promote this concert.

The chance to paint a work for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra immediately excited Malpas, whose "adoptive mother was a gifted pianist and later also played the mandolin – so there was always music in the house". She also sees Chinese New Year as somewhat of a homecoming for not only herself, but all the young Chinese people who return to their families to celebrate the festival.

"It's about family and togetherness," Malpas says. "Chinese New Year is that beautiful one time of the year where the whole family will get together."

Though she delved deeper in to her roots after she met her birth mother for the first time when she was 38, Malpas starting noticing her heritage in her aesthetic much earlier when she was studying ceramics at the Otago school of Fine Art, Dunedin NZ.

"My pottery was coming out as these classic Chinese shapes," she says. "Everyone asked where these ideas came from but I had no idea about Chinese culture because I had grown up in a white Catholic family."

When Malpas graduated from art school she set off travelling around the world and started experimenting with watercolours and inks because they were convenient and portable.

"Over about 30 years my technique has developed in to a detailed watercolour," she says. "With watercolours you can get a very dreamy ethereal other-world feeling."

Buy tickets to Music Under the Moon on 11 February at the Sydney Opera House.

Image: Gabby Malpas at work. James Morgan for Tourism New Zealand.