Lottie Consalvo and her new work on stage at Heide Museum of Modern Art

WITH her plaster-smeared hands turned white, Lottie Consalvo looks as though she has been touching a ghost. Which, in a way, she has.

The artist is caressing an elongated body of chicken wire, rubbing the plaster over it and masking its innards of scrunched-up newspaper.

Consalvo is creating a sculpture, but in the process, she is giving shape to one moment from her past. The work is to be titled “The Hug”.  

“It’s not a figurative sculpture of a person hugging, it’s the remnants of a hug,” she says.

Consalvo will later hug the sculpture, so that it wears not only its creator’s handprints on its skin but also the shape and imprint of her body. But as it is, the artist and the sculpture look as though they are one. Consalvo is spattered and dotted in white.

One usual recipient of Consalvo’s hugs, James Drinkwater, is less than 10 metres away, also creating art in this former industrial warehouse in Hamilton North. Drinkwater and Consalvo are married and are the parents of two small children.

For years, the couple created in the same space, but recently Drinkwater took this warehouse to create his striking abstract expressionist paintings. Consalvo preferred to literally stay close to home, remaining in the small studio in the backyard of their Mayfield property.

However, to create this two-metre tall sculpture, she is working here, which thrills her husband.

“This is such a treat!,” Drinkwater says. “‘Yes, come and build your sculpture here!’.”

Drinkwater, no stranger to attention because of his eye- and award-grabbing images, is excited not only to be sharing a studio with Consalvo, but also because his wife’s work is about to be seen in one of the most important and influential art spaces in the country: Heide Museum of Modern Art.

SHAPING HISTORY: Newcastle artist Lottie Consalvo working on her sculpture for an exhibition at Melbourne's Heide Museum of Modern Art. Pictures: Jonathan Carroll

SHAPING HISTORY: Newcastle artist Lottie Consalvo working on her sculpture for an exhibition at Melbourne's Heide Museum of Modern Art. Pictures: Jonathan Carroll

LOCATED just outside of Melbourne, Heide began life as a home for wealthy art collectors John and Sunday Reed in the 1930s. Over the coming decades, the former farmhouse grew into a cradle of ideas and creativity.

The Reeds fostered friendships with, and offered a refuge to, some of Australia’s most important artists, including Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker and Joy Hester.

The Reeds developed their home into not just a haven for painters and writers, but a place where Australians could experience modern art. Heide became a museum, attracting and shaping the views of art lovers and artists, including Lottie Consalvo.

The 32-year-old spent the early years of her life in Gippsland, in country Victoria, before moving to Melbourne.

Art had always been a major part of Consalvo’s life, with her father, Dino, being a painter. 

Heide - and what had been produced there - played a role in her art education, and it was an inspiration, demonstrating what was possible.

“It was such an important place to me, growing up in Melbourne, and always knowing about the relationship with Sunday and John Reed, and how they really worked with artists and the stories that came out of the home they created at Heide,” Consalvo says.

“That history has been in my psyche for so many years.”

I'm so overcome with this work, but also with Lottie emerging as a sculptor.

James Drinkwater, husband and artist

So imagine her surprise when she received an email titled “Meeting at Heide”. Actually, at first, there was no surprise; she thought it was just another gallery email.

“I just thought it was the title of a show on at Heide,” Consalvo laughs. “But luckily I actually opened that one.”

The email was inviting Consalvo to speak with the museum about her work. The artist flew to Melbourne, had a meeting, and at the end of the chat, she was invited to have an exhibition at Heide. 

“It’s been a dream to exhibit there,” Consalvo says.

“The gallery space I’ll be in is next to the Albert Tucker Gallery, and he’s one of my favourite Australian artists. His works are going to be in the next room. It’s such a privilege to be placed within that environment.”

HARD WORK: Lottie Consalvo working on the sculpture in the studio.

HARD WORK: Lottie Consalvo working on the sculpture in the studio.

Even before the invitation, Consalvo had been developing an idea that combined her various skills and interests in painting, sculpture and performance. The idea was to explore the process of remembering. What’s more, she will be not just exhibiting but also creating within that space at Heide.   

Leaning against the Hamilton North warehouse studio’s walls are 10 large panels that are to be transported to Victoria and installed in one long U-shape in the gallery. Consalvo will then paint on those panels.

The gallery doors will be shut and, apart from a camera to record the event, Consalvo will be alone in the space. 

Consalvo expects she will paint the work very quickly in one go, as she guides the brush across the panels.    

“It’s about private performance, it’s about the process of remembering rather than memory,” Consalvo explains. “It’s about how we can bring the past into our present, and the way we can manipulate our thoughts.”

“I will be placing myself into a meditative state on one particular memory, and I’ll try to bring it into the present in this gallery space. I’ll paint a very physical gesture that will cross over all the 10 boards in this U shape as a way of documenting that place of remembering.

“I don’t want to be conscious of anyone else, not even a loved one, not even James. I’ve got to be completely alone.”

CREATIVE HAND: Lottie Consalvo sculpting her work, The Hug.

CREATIVE HAND: Lottie Consalvo sculpting her work, The Hug.

Heide Museum of Modern Art’s assistant curator, Brooke Babington, says she is looking forward to seeing Consalvo’s “intensely personal and deeply psychological” work take shape in the gallery.

“It’s usual that new work is created for a project space, but it’s unusual for it it to be a performance in the space,” Babington says. “This is quite exciting for us.”

Consalvo says she could have finished the work in the studio, but she decided to seize “this opportunity to make a work, a performative work, in one of the most important museums in this country, and definitely the most important museum for me personally”.

Brooke Babington believes if John and Sunday Reed were still alive, they would have loved Consalvo’s approach.

“The whole idea of Heide was to support avant-garde art practices –  and often that was contrary to the prevailing tastes of the time – and to champion art that pushed boundaries,” Babington says. “So in that spirit of the avant-garde, they [the Reeds] would have been really pleased with what Lottie is bringing.”   

For the painting, Consalvo is drawing on a particular memory, which she won’t reveal it (“it’s never going to be let out”), for she argues it’s not about her memory but how all of us remember.

Newcastle viewers have already seen part of that journey of remembering, with the exhibition Consalvo held with Drinkwater at the Lock-Up a couple of months ago. 

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Titled “Final Remembering”, Consalvo’s show included paintings, videos and sculptures that were precursors to “The Hug”. So she sees that Newcastle exhibition as an important link to her Heide show, which will be called “In The Remembering”.

JUST like a memory, artworks can sometimes come apart.

“The Hug” was toppling off its base, so Consalvo called her father to help quickly build a new base before the sculpture is sent off to Victoria.

“Generally, whenever I have a disaster in the studio, generally with sculpture, I call my Dad,” Consalvo says. “I think I’ll be doing it forever.

“He’s so busy with his own show coming up, but I was, ‘Please! I need you!’.”

Dino Consalvo grew up in Newcastle. He lived and worked in Melbourne for about 30 years before returning to his hometown, where he has been painting the faces and places of a changing coastal city.

Some of Lottie’s earliest memories are of wandering out to her father’s large studio in country Victoria. The paintings that surrounded her as a child had a major influence on her, as did Dino’s advice and guidance. While she wanted to be an artist, her Dad advised her to first do a business degree.      

“It was good advice,” she says. “I think I probably shouldn’t have done a business degree, I should have just travelled. But it bought me time.”

Consalvo finished the degree, even though she spent a lot of lectures sketching instead of taking notes. The lecturer would be talking about “how to make a business that would make millions” but she thought, “That is so uninspiring”.   

“It really showed me the kind of person I am,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh, hang on! Is this how other people think?! Okay’.”

For a time after graduating in Melbourne, Lottie Consalvo was doing little painting. She was making jewellery and working in an office when she met Drinkwater at a concert. He had also drifted away from painting and was playing in a rock band.

After the concert, they showed each other their artworks. Both encouraged the other to return to painting. They found themselves through each other. If ever there’s a couple who define the term “soulmates”, it’s Consalvo and Drinkwater.

“I always think of that sliding doors moment, if we hadn’t met each other,” she muses. “I could imagine the life I would be living. Maybe I’d have my own business. I think I would have met artists, and I would have gone, ‘I could have been you, but I didn’t’.  

“I think because we took the risks together, it didn’t seem like a risk. We never had a back-up plan. And it wasn’t scary, because we did it together.”

The painting pair quickly became a couple. They lived and worked in Germany for three years, sharing a cramped apartment that they had turned into a studio, before returning to Australia and moving to Newcastle. Drinkwater is a Novocastrian, and Consalvo had visited her grandmother in Newcastle each year. But it wasn’t their past they were returning to; Consalvo saw Newcastle as key to their future as artists. The cost of living was cheaper than in Melbourne or Sydney, and being out of major art centres was good for their own work.

“I think it’s afforded me time and space to think, and to be able to spend time focussing on making good work rather than thinking, ‘I better go to that opening, I better meet that person, I better tick those boxes’.

“Time is very important for us right now, we have a young family, so you’ve got to grab it and use it really, really well. So I like living here.”

Just as they have done since meeting, Consalvo and Drinkwater support each other at home and in the studio. Both say there is no creative competition between them.

“When something great happens for her, that’s great to me,” says Drinkwater, adding he is so proud of what she’s creating for the Heide show.

“I’m so overcome with this work, but also with Lottie emerging as a sculptor. These are some of the most stunning forms I’ve seen.”

The importance of family continues to shape Lottie Consalvo’s life and art. Both she and Drinkwater share the jobs at home, as they raise five-year-old Vincenzo and one-year-old Hester.  

“You just don’t really stop. I sometimes look at our couch and think, ‘It would be nice to sit on you’,” she laughs. 

“But I wouldn’t have it any other way. To have family around, that’s really important. I think it’s actually helpful for your work to have to step back, to keep reassessing, rather than being six days a week in the studio, ten hours a day.”

Family and love will also craft an exhibition planned for Newcastle next year. Consalvo and her father will be holding their first combined show.    

“So looking forward to it,” Lottie enthuses. “I keep thinking about how our works will look side by side. I’d never really imagined that.

“That will be one of the most important things I do in my life. To have a show next to Dad.”

But for now, Lottie Consalvo is embracing her Heide exhibition, which opens on Saturday, and the thought that her work will be seen in such an important place in Australian art history.

“I’ll feel like I’m a part of that history as an artist,” she says. “We all are in Australia, we’re all just adding to what has come before.”