Gerringong artist finds haven by sea

Barbara Spence's painting Life Beneath the Grapevines.

Barbara Spence's painting Life Beneath the Grapevines.

Barbara Spence is perched on a stool in her Gerringong studio.

Tucked away off the street, it is her sanctuary, the place where she spends much of her time reading and refining the stories that she will eventually bring to life on canvas.

Now semi-retired, she loves the serenity and lifestyle of the seaside town she and her partner, George, decided to call home in 1995.

Spence has long been one of Australia's finest experimental and contemporary mixed-media artists and her works hang in homes, public buildings and boardrooms throughout Australia and around the world.

Such is her reputation that she would be entitled to shout her achievements from the rooftops.

Yet, the international award winner doesn't crave publicity. In fact, she absolutely abhors it and it is only through her good friend and former student, Carole Johnston, that she has agreed to this interview. I am warned to wear no fragrance, because Spence suffers from a severe perfume allergy.

We are here to talk about her painting Life Beneath the Grapevines 2014, which adorns the brochures and media releases for this year's Shoalhaven Coast Winter Wine Festival over the June long weekend.

Within days of its first public airing, the painting had sold to a South Coast buyer.

Barbara Spence.

Barbara Spence.

Spence is warm, welcoming, articulate and, over a coffee, is happy to talk about her days growing up in north Queensland, where her love for art was spawned spending hours doodling and drawing on great slabs of butcher's paper.

Spence initially worked as a commercial artist and cartoonist, but there was much more in store for the young woman who went back to "school" and earned a bachelor of arts degree (distinction). In 1985 she headed to Canberra, joined the Public Service and stayed on for 10 years while honing her artistic skills and completing her post-graduate studies at Macquarie University. Her final thesis included a series of conceptual paintings centred around a family of magpies that had settled in her Canberra backyard.

The paintings were later purchased by the university and displayed in its Conflict Resolution Centre.

In a way, the magpies helped Spence's career take flight and they continue to be the focal point in many of her works.

Spence's move to Gerringong culminated with her decision to become a professional painter, teacher, tutor and mentor to many budding artists. It was the waves, the rocks and the countryside dotted with historic homes, barns and dairies, many of which she sketched or painted and which have since been demolished and banished to the historical dustbin, that attracted Spence to the South Coast.

Not even a couple of good dunkings in the sea after being swept off the rocks at Gerringong, equipment and all, has dampened her love for the place she now calls home.

■ The Shoalhaven Coast Winter Wine Festival will be held over the weekend of June 7-9 when 11 of the region's best wineries will throw their cellar doors open for a celebration of fine wine, food and entertainment.

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