An ancient vessel covered in barnacles, all knobbly and layered in chalky hues, sits in a corner of artist Gabriella Lewenz’s Waiheke studio. A Greek fisherman found this 2000-year-old treasure twisted in his nets, and gifted the amphora to her father, an American diplomat in Greece, where Gabriella spent a large portion of her childhood.
“The vessel has become my muse,” says Gabriella, who references the surfaces, textures and layers of the mighty pot in her paintings.
“The Greeks used amphoras like this to carry oil, water and wine,” she says. The pot was handed down to her by her father and then in 1997, travelled once more across the sea with Gabriella, husband Claude and their 6-year-old daughter when they emigrated to New Zealand 20 years ago.
Their adventure began with desire to find land overlooking the sea, and culminated in building a large Italianate country house from earth bricks in Waiheke’s Church Bay, complete with a large, airy studio for the painter to create and sell her works on site.
Her often large-scale paintings are created with overlayed oil paints, thinly applied and mixed with turpentine, resulting in works veiled in layers of colour, drips and sometimes textures that add to their dreamlike quality.
Her abstract paintings contemplate colour and have a meditative quality that invite the viewer to look deep into the layers for clues of what motivated the artist to paint these colourscapes. Of course the inspiration is right here; the force of the surrounding water, the endless sky, the piercing, clear light and the crackling fire she enjoys in her Greek-inspired fireplace.
In various corners of the studio, memories are immortalised in little shrines. Shells and other found objects are displayed with an artistic touch. It’s easy to see why buyers would be captivated in this space infused with the scent of oil pigments, overlooking the sea, pastures and beach beyond.
The pure pigments used in Gabriella’s works are key to the luminosity of colour in her work. She still imports the handmade pigments from New York. Williamsburg Oils are made from pure pigment and linseed and contain no other oils or waxes and each colour is handmade in a five gallon pot. “They don’t fade like other paints,” she says, which is especially important for her Australian clients.
More than 90 per cent of Gabriella’s customers are based abroad, and many visit her studio while on holiday to New Zealand. She emphasises the importance of working with visitor industry groups on the island, such as walking tour operators, high-end restaurants and boutique hotels to get the right buyers to her door. “I’m selling far more work to art collectors travelling through New Zealand, which is fantastic,” she says.
Gabriella also offers the ultimate luxury for art lovers the opportunity to stay with her for free for a few days, giving the artist and the guests a chance to get to know each other and then, once they have left, Gabriella will create a work especially for them, which can be shipped anywhere in the world. It’s an amazing way to share her creative process.
“It’s a real experience for travellers, they see first-hand where the work is made, and often they have visited the places I have been inspired by.” She points to a tranquil abstraction in greens and yellows inspired by the lake at the inland island restaurant, Poderi Crisci.
Another bonus: Gabriella doesn’t have to market to local galleries allowing the buyer to pay the wholesale gallery price without the gallery 40 per cent markup.
Her artmaking process is intuitive and rarely planned. She might have doodled marks in a notebook that may give inspiration for the charcoal marks she makes under layers of paint, but mostly the paintings evolve without overthinking. She says the works are rooted in landscapes and inspired by the elements. She talks about the essence of the painting bringing joy to the viewer. “I’d like to think my paintings carry an essence or spirit, long after I finish the work.”
Often Gabriella works on multiple panels on the floor. “It’s a dance between panels, I’m looking for colour harmony, but mostly I work instinctively from my emotions.” She might start by pouring a can of paint directly over a panel, or layering texture from an old palette, “I don’t ever want to waste paint,” she adds.
She saves her mineral turpentine, lets it sit for 12 months and then uses it as a medium to gives the oil paint added lustre. Not overly concerned with brushes, she’ll employ palette knives, rubber scrapers, sponges and squeegees, and sometimes she’ll add wax for texture. She uses gestural random brushstrokes and often uses charcoal marks or oil sticks.
While her artmaking is mostly joyous, she admits there are times when the work doesn’t flow. “All my paintings are at one point destroyed, I have learned over the years to let it go and give it time.” Old, unresolved paintings can be later used as a textural layer for a new one over the top.
She’s known for her triptychs, three-panel, hinged works which sit on a surface, rather than the wall and were inspired by her childhood visits to the Greek Orthodox churches in Thessaloniki.
Rather than religiously based, her works are icons to nature. The blue triptych currently on display in her studio sits amid other found objects and is a tribute to the energy of the ocean.
Her art heroes include American abstractionists Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell and South Australian artist Fiona Hall, known for sculptures that look at the nexus between nature and culture.
While Gabriella no longer requires a gallery to sell her work, after graduating with a BFA from Boston Museum School of Fine Arts at Tufts University she sold her work through galleries in New York, New England, Boston and Italy and in several Auckland galleries.
Today her paintings are found in private collections all over the world. She’s observing Waiheke is fast becoming an island of artists and a place for art collectors to visit, which 20 years ago, when she first arrived in Church Bay, wasn’t the case. “I like being based on Waiheke, I like the isolation, and I like the fact I’m not particularly influenced by others.”
Her life with husband Claude appears a happy and full one. Their home has a definite Greek Italian twist the terracotta exterior is bold and unforgettable; inside, tiling and white painted plaster and dainty lace curtains lend a distinct Greek feel. The vegetable gardens are abundant and her kitchen is like a picture book with hanging copper pans and views over the ocean.
If the vessel is a metaphor for a full life, then the amphora given to her by her father has achieved its purpose.