Style Liaisons: In Conversation With Artist & Photographer Ophelia Mikkelson Jones

By Julia Gessler
Ophelia wears a General Sleep wrap dress and vintage togs. Photo / Ryder Jones

"Atmosphere" is the first word that comes to mind when contemplating the work of artist and photographer Ophelia Mikkelson Jones, as if what she captures in paint and film is frozen in a gentle amber.

And yet "free" follows, too. There's an honesty in whatever she lends her talents to the cover art of Solar Power for her friend Lorde, or the playful and transient assemblage of photos in her book Men Carrying Flowers, a five-year-long project of floral happenstance and a sense of calm borne from her home in Northland.

To dress like the beloved creative, you'll need her signature blend of the effortless and the deliberate  to channel, in her words, "A Midsummer Night's Dream meets a pair of great fitted pants and goes to the beach."

Tell us the story of your favourite piece of clothing.

About seven years ago Penny Sage made the most incredible two-piece burnt orange gingham summer suit. I wore it for years and years until it had holes in the bottom and even then it was hard to stop. I stitched the holes up badly with the wrong colour thread just to legitimise my reasoning to keep them in my wardrobe to this day.

What piece of clothing have you inherited that’s particularly special to you?

Before we were married, my husband Ryder [Jones] made me a T-shirt. It has a photograph of a sunflower on it and says, 'You are the sunshine of my life'. That summer the only CD we had in our car was Stevie Wonder. I walked down the aisle to that song a few years later.

Who are your favourite designers, and why?

In Aotearoa, Kate McGaw of Penny Sage is my number one. Her clothes are timeless. They are both understated and striking, not to mention tailored to absolute perfection. I never owned a pair of pants until I tried hers. Now I have many. All of her clothes are designed and produced locally in Auckland.

Internationally, I have always been drawn to the work of the Antwerp Six in particular, Ann Demeulemeester and Dries Van Noten  and Martin Margiela, who is the unofficial 7th member.

I think, for me, fabric choice is at the heart of my love of clothes. I love the fine cotton Demeulemeester uses (Rick Owens could be mentioned here for his cotton, too), her beading on occasion and her unstructured, falling off-the-shoulder silk silhouettes.

Dries is a master of pattern, which I don’t wear huge amounts of but if I do, he is the one. I feel like I understand his pull toward colour and pairing unlikely combinations together now that I have seen the photographs of his garden and home by Francois Halard. If you haven’t seen them, treat yourself!

A mention here to Marni, Issey Miyake, Comme des Garcons also. Undeniably beautiful clothes to wear forever.

Ophelia in an Anaak wrap top and skirt. Photo / Greta van der Star
Ophelia in an Anaak wrap top and skirt. Photo / Greta van der Star

Is there anything you look for when you shop?

Natural fibres. I have a motto that helps me rule out clothes I’m not 100 per cent sure about and that is 'Only buy clothes that are made from over 90 per cent natural fibres'. For two reasons: First and foremost, for preventing microfibers from our clothing (that our washing machine filters can’t catch) from ending up in our oceans and in sea creatures' bellies; and secondly, so my skin can breathe naturally.

Are there any holy grail fashion pieces that you would trade large amounts of your wardrobe for?

Yohji Yamamoto’s spring/summer hoop skirt wedding dress from the 1999 runway collection. If I owned this dress I would have a party every spring in honour of it and take turns around the garden wearing it.

What influences your fashion sense?

Historically, Japanese grandmothers and The Little Mermaid. I love green and lilac. Recently, the beach scenes from Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

Where do you love to shop?

Penny Sage and Scotties Recycle are the two places I frequent the most.

Were you into fashion growing up?

Yes, very much so. My mother loves clothes and has exclusively worn white for about 40 years. She used to make clothes and had a few stores around New Zealand when I was a teenager so I have a lot of the pieces she made, my favourites being many of her long silk slips. They are so special to me. We still share a lot of our wardrobe. I think a silk slip and bare feet is a perfect outfit.

Ophelia in Babaa pants and a Pansy bra. Photo / Ryder Jones
Ophelia in Babaa pants and a Pansy bra. Photo / Ryder Jones

How has your relationship with fashion changed this year?

This year it has changed quite a bit as I spent the first half of the year heavily pregnant and the latter half breastfeeding. The clothes that I love most grew with my body.

Things I have lived in recently: General Sleep PJ's, Babaa pants, Pansy bras, my lilac tracksuit from Kowtow, Sunna Studios knitted sets, Moonflowers nightgowns and my woollen hat by Companion, which is perfect for spring days.

Also, my friend Matt Nash of MN Uniform made us the most beautiful canvas nappy bag. It is the perfect size with lots of pockets.

I have recently got into looking for outfits to match my baby (google 'Mommy and Me, Laura Ashley' for full effect here). I recently bought us matching quilted jackets from Jiho Store.

What compels your creativity?

Moments of grace.

Why do you paint?

To attempt to capture the moving world both the world we share and the world specific to myself and my family. To capture the evanescence of light. To remember.

Was there a particular moment that led you to understand your own artistic style, as an artist or as a photographer, and the kind of things you wanted to make?

No, I don't think there was a particular moment for me. I think that it is so ingrained for me from my childhood. I was always drawn and encouraged to make a creative life.

What informs your visual work? How much does your environment and your relationship with the outdoors shape it?

The seasons inform my work greatly. I have noticed that I am drawn to paint in the colours of whatever season we are in.

I worked on my last series of paintings, Fields, anew, in autumn while heavily pregnant. I used a lot of burnt oranges, deep purples and grey greens. This series of abstract landscapes was birthed from the magnetic occasion of the turning seasons. A celebration of something that is at once brilliant as it is banal (like autumn leaves swirling in the wind). An intimate account of nature: of dusk and dawn. Of waiting for new birth.

Ophelia wears a Standard Issue top and Ozma dress. Photo / Ryder Jones
Ophelia wears a Standard Issue top and Ozma dress. Photo / Ryder Jones

What have art and photography taught you about yourself?

With painting and making, I love to work in series. [I know] that I work fast, that I can go long spells without making things with physical outcomes and that a lot of time is spent collecting material. That my practice is a practice of seeing and noticing. And that no time is wasted. It is all a part of the research. Gather and sow, gather and sow.

With photography, working predominantly on film is the perfect practice of patience and surprise needed in a world of information and scrolling. I love having to wait for films to come back.

Where are you most at peace when you’re creating?

At the kitchen table. Give me the fanciest studio in the world and you’ll still find me in a pool of sunlight next to a pile of dishes.

The ultimate summer dress: Long, worn-in, delicate, snagged by rocks. Rings of sea salt-forming crystals. This summer either lilac or green but maybe I will branch out and say yellow. Worn with bare feet and a grapefruit Fruju.

A signature scent you accessorise with: I don't often wear perfume but when I do I wear Orpheus Incarnate by Curionior. It is glorious. I have a small pocket bottle I keep in my wallet. It has notes of fig and orris.

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