En route to one of my favourite cafes in Prospect, I spotted a visual artist on a scissor lift busily attending to a wall outside of Cotto Espresso. Prospect already boasts a few eye-catching murals but this artist’s palette caught my eye because it hearkened to the color graphics adapter (CGA) aesthetic (yes, I may be a retro gamer girl).
I sat near the window in the cafe sipping my soy latte for a few minutes and then spontaneously decided to introduce myself to the woman with the paint-stained jeans.
She had a welcoming aura about her. Her name was Claire Foxton, a Wollongong-based artist, in town for The Big Picture Fest as part of the South Australian Living Arts (SALA) festival. She was commissioned to paint this mural and was kind enough to chat with me about her creative life over a coffee.
What brings you to Adelaide?
First of all I was invited to talk at the Art Gallery of South Australia on Friday to a group of Year 11 and 12 students keen to get into the arts. Then Joel, who runs the Big Picture Fest, caught wind that I was going to be down here and he put me on the festival line-up so I was able to paint a wall at the same time, that’s why I’m painting here at Prospect today. It worked out time-wise and coincided well with the festival, a two-birds-one-stone situation.
Did you know much about South Australia’s festival culture before you arrived?
Well, I’ve painted at the Wonderwalls Festival, Port Adelaide and I met a lot of cool artists in the scene down here. There’s a real active environment for the arts which is really awesome and I still keep in contact with those guys. I also painted at Adelaide Fringe Festival at the start of this year, it was when we had that real heat spike, like 36 – 37 [degrees celsius] everyday. It was so hot!
How does that work with your paint?
It’s challenging. You just have to work faster, you just have to go with the conditions, so that the paint doesn’t dry. It’s super hard. Your body works much slower when it’s so hot so you’ve got to try and keep your energy up and keep having breaks; I pretty much had a break every day from about 11.00 am til 2.00 pm just to get out of the sun. The wall was in the sun the whole day [with] direct sunlight so this is a much more pleasant painting experience here in Prospect. Even though it’s cold I prefer it.
Have you ever had to paint in the rain?
I have, in Cairns. You wouldn’t think it would rain up there, it was beautifully warm and balmy. It was that misty kind of rain pretty much the whole time. That was early in the year too but I ended up working with it and I got these really nice drippy textures where paint was dripping down the wall. So since then I have been taking around a little water bottle and I actually try and emulate that. You can see in my mural I’ve started to get that drippy section and vibe into it so it’s become part of my process (laughs) which is really cool! Yes, sometimes you have to embrace those moments.
When you’re working outdoors with art, do you come across factors that you didn’t plan for?
A hundred per cent. All the time. There’s always something that goes wrong too with a mural like the paint doesn’t turn up or the paint’s the wrong colour so you’ve got to be really agile and just work with what you’ve got. And I worked out pretty quickly going into it that you can’t go in with a really set plan. You have to have a couple of ideas of how it might turn out, like a worst-case scenario and a best-case scenario, and be okay with anything in between. You have to be pretty strong like that and not too much of a perfectionist. You have tendencies to [be perfectionist] in studio work but I guess you have to throw a little of that out.
Tell us a little bit about your training, if any. Where did you study?
I did a degree at uni, a Bachelor of Creative Arts. I majored in graphic design and visual arts. So I’ve had this weird journey through all of it. Basically, I’ve only been painting large-scale murals since 2016. Before that I had a big dry spell, I didn’t really paint at all but I had a letter press business so I did a lot of printing. It was a very different type of creativity.
Then, all the way through I’ve been a freelance graphic designer as well. I worked part-time at the University of Wollongong, in “the Gong” (laughs) in the marketing team. There’s a little bit of a creative scene in the Gong, not a huge one, but I managed to fight my way through it and try and make a living and stay creative [without] having to go to any major big city to make it work for me so I stood by that from a really young age.
That’s really inspiring because a lot of regional artists go to ‘the big smoke’
Most of my friends did that and they’re still there. They’re all competing against each other because it’s a big city and there’s a lot of competition. Originally, I didn’t have the money to [move]. My parents were very supportive and in order to move to a big city I’d have to have a part-time job for a long time to be able to supplement my creative work. I still had a part-time job [in Wollongong] but I was working closer to home. I’m a homebody, I love being around my family. I was determined to make it work. I worked freelance in studios in Sydney every now and then. You know, I’d travel up there on the train.
Have they fixed the Waterfall line yet?
It’s pretty how ya goin’ (laughs). It’s a nice train ride, but it’s long! Everything here [in Adelaide] is really close. I’m staying up the road from the mural. It’s so good down here. The architecture and the food is better here than any city I’ve been to. You can get really nice cheap eats and they’re relatively healthy too. I mean I had the best burger of my life last night – Nordburger – Uber Eats had it delivered to me and I was having the smallest bites because I didn’t want it to end… it’s so good! Sometimes I see a burger joint with really nice branding but the food is s**t but [Nordburger] nailed both so I’m like OMG Adelaide is so good.
Tell us about the challenges of being a freelance artist, what are some of the things you’ve learned?
I’ve been a freelance designer. Art was always on the side, I’d do portrait commissions when I was younger, I did some live art at charity events and things like that when I was much younger but really design was definitely at the heart of it. So I’ve been a freelance designer for a long time.
The challenges are a lot of the time as creatives we don’t have the social skills or the network. We like to hide away and do our own work so the biggest challenge for me was actually getting myself out there originally. I combated that by building my client base when I was at uni in first year, I didn’t even know I was [doing that] really. I loved music so I’d design music posters and things like that and so that linked me up with some really cool work opportunities.
So by the end of uni I was pretty employable; I made a lot of my own opportunities. Uni was a good experience but it was everything I did outside of uni that really helped. The networking side of things is not my forte but I was fortunate because I’d already built a client base while I was at uni doing passion projects early on.
I ended up designing album covers for bands like Blue King Brown and John Butler. I did covers and I did all of John Butler’s merch. I met John through my first ever job that I did at uni [where] I designed a poster for an Amnesty International gig. I did it in the style, look, and feel of a Blue King Brown poster because they were headlining. And then, I got a call two weeks later from the bass player from Blue King Brown saying they really liked my poster and if I could do some design work for them.
What a phone call!
Yeah, so that was pretty sick and that set me up. [Being] a big group in Australia at the time they hooked me up with John Butler and so I started working with him and his wife, Mama Kin.
Yes! I met Mama Kin earlier this year at WOMAD
Yeah she’s a legend. I worked with her for quite a few years. I did a lot of her album covers, and all of her merch. She’s definitely a massive inspiration for me. Just the kind of woman that she is. Meeting her, I just wanted to be like her (laughs) I still do, she’s amazing. I did one of Gurrumul’s album covers as well before he passed away. So I had a really good experience while I was at uni and after uni doing that on the side. So that really helped build my connections and gave me other work.
I have a lot of friends who lack in the talent department but are just really good at networking and they kill it. It doesn’t even matter how good their stuff is they’re just prolific. Really good advice that I [was given but] didn’t take when I was younger was: it is more about being prolific than perfect.
Just get yourself out there and do as much as you can
– Claire Foxton
I did it without realising really I wasn’t doing it because I was trying to set myself up. I loved designing and I would get home from a midnight session working at the cinema part-time and sit at my computer and just draw or design until 3am. It is a really good hour to work. My parents thought I was crazy but I did it. I just loved it. I wasn’t doing it for money or anything like that. I just loved it.
There’s something to be said about the midnight hour and artistic inspiration
There’s no distractions. It’s when you’re at your most emotional. If you’re gonna have a cry, you do it at night. You have more to think about. I think a lot of creatives are the same, they work late.
Would you say solitude is important for creativity?
Yeah, I would say that. Definitely.
On the topic of networking – I love your Instagram page by the way – would you say that social media helps people who aren’t really great at promoting themselves?
A hundred per cent. When I was going through uni we didn’t really have Instagram, I think Myspace was about, so networking in the [digital] sense was harder because you actually had to get out there physically and send emails. Now it is definitely a great help to have that online presence in terms of Instagram because you can literally curate your feed and brand yourself from a very young age. I think a lot of people do it without even realising they’re creating a brand.
I’ve spoken to a lot of young kids, one of them I met through the talk that I did, she’s 15 and she was really inspired by my talk which was lovely and then I met her in Instagram land and looked at her stuff and her stuff is better than any of my stuff has ever been! And she’s got 25,000 followers and she’s 15, wow! She’s just incredible. This girl has got amazing talent.
I never had that when I was that age, the ability to put my stuff out there and try and get a following; I wouldn’t have known what that was. It’s just a different generation but they definitely have a leg up and a way to get yourself out there. Yet, at the same time it is much more saturated now too so there’s a lot more people doing it and showing their work so it’s more competition but then that forces the standard up. Everyone’s getting better at what they’re doing and [they’re] more accountable.
“I never had that linear path. It’s trying lots of different things that has led me to this.”
– Claire Foxton
It’s a good paradigm shift to see how ‘public’ art has become because of social media. Ultimately, I want to know why do you do what you do?
I was actually talking about this yesterday with someone who walked by and was just chatting to me at my wall. I think public art is such a different world to the art world in general. It’s its own sort of hub. I’m drawn to it because I never really felt comfortable calling myself an artist. It feels like a very selfish career like you’re sort of pouring yourself out onto a canvas and you’re putting yourself out into the world whereas public art allows me to give back.
It allows me to create something that’s left behind for someone else to enjoy and it’s almost like a design project where I’m working with a client. A lot of the time there’s a bit of a brief that I have to find a solution for; I like that challenge as well. So the public art is a lot more accessible and I think that’s why I really like what I do. Whereas I’ve never felt comfortable in a gallery or exhibition space, I just felt like a bit of an outsider. Now I feel at home and I’ve found my people.
That is the hard part, finding your audience and your niche within a saturated market and finding what suits your personality. However, I would politely disagree with you in that I think you are very much an artist but I know what you mean by not wanting to call yourself that because it almost sounds self-serving.
It does. But that’s also a stigma that I’m trying to get rid of. I feel like that’s something I’ve always thought about the arts growing up because it’s sort of drummed into you at a young age that it’s an aloof type of career. You’ve kind of got to be a little bit crazy, you know, left-of-centre or you subscribe to the whole struggling artist thing. It doesn’t have to be that way.
I’m glad you said that because artists like you, and I’m going to call you an artist ‘cause you are, they’re aware of the ‘struggling artist’ stereotype. You strike me as somebody who wants to give back and does your work because it sets your soul on fire and if more people did that it would be a very different world.
A hundred per cent. Definitely.
Did you face some adversity in choosing this career path?
Absolutely. [My parents] were supportive but they weren’t creative so they didn’t really understand me in that sense. It was never ‘you shouldn’t do this’ but it was little hints dropped here in there like ‘it’s going to be a much more difficult path’ and that sort of thing.
My mum would hate me talking about this but I remember a moment four or five years ago when I was doing freelance design work. Half of my week was spent doing album covers and things like that for JBT and those sorts of bands, very fulfilling creative work and then the other half of the week I was doing more commercial stuff at a sit-down office job, still design [-related], and I remember my mum explaining it to someone like [the office job] was my real job and I know she didn’t mean anything by it but their mentality is that you leave school, you get a job, and you stay in that job for forty years and that’s just how they were brought up.
So I’ve had to block that out and I’ve had explain that to myself essentially as I go through that it’s just their way of thinking and they obviously want the best for me and want me to be financially stable and all of that but I was also quietly very determined to prove them wrong and I have. I bought my first house this year!
Yeah girl! (we high-five one another) So the struggling artist stereotype has officially been demolished, Claire Foxton has bought herself a house as a freelance artist!
(laughs) It can be done. Yes, it’s a little bit south of ‘the Gong’. It feels really good. It feels nice.
Are you going to deck it out with murals?
OMG, I have plans. I am neck-deep in Pinterest right now. It’s a nice feeling and obviously I don’t know if I would’ve been able to do it if I didn’t have the stability of other jobs pushing me along. I definitely did the smart thing, I don’t like taking massive risks. I’m still very much risk-averse. So I’ve always had one foot in art world and one foot in commercial land. It works for me and keeps me sane.
I’m the kind of person who stresses a lot so I need that stability, and I have struggled with the fact that I need that. I’ve struggled with the fact that I’m not that crazy, happy to live off ten dollars a week sort of person. I’m not that person. It’s taken a long time to come to terms with that. This is who I am and that’s okay.
So to get to the ‘great Aussie dream’ of having a house, you’ve had to juggle one foot in the art world and several commercial jobs. Do you think the portfolio career is important to make a living out of the arts?
I think sometimes maybe I could have dived into the art world full time and really made a good go of it and maybe [arrived] at the same outcome. But it’s more about my sanity and wanting weekends to be weekends and things like that too so. I could have gone down so many paths but I’ve always seemed to make it work too.
I think for me, having a diverse portfolio, and from a very young age trying a lot of different things, essentially my road has been about culling the things that I don’t like and adding things that I like and it’s all led me to the street art thing. I tried the full time work in an office environment and there’s elements that I like about it and there’s elements that I don’t like about it.
My whole life has been about curating my own life and getting to a point where I’m doing a job that fulfils all the aspects that I need to fulfil and that’s what street art is: it’s pulling most of the things I love about design, art, and the things I like most about dealing with clients all together into one neat little package.
I think we all relate to each other’s struggles. We each have a similar struggle. My greatest little nugget of advice if I were to talk to someone young is to try so many different things and see what works. I feel like 99 per cent of us are creative but we just haven’t found the right tools or the right mode and there’s so many modes out there that haven’t even been discovered yet. At uni a career as a mural artist was never a thing. It’s at the height of its trend at the moment. People know about it as a career now whereas when I was at uni it wasn’t really on my radar.
It’s less about having one set goal in the end and more about just trying different things to see where it leads you. I reckon most kids in twenty years time will be in a role that never existed. That’s scary but it’s exciting too.
And in part, they’re creating that
They are. That’s what I meant by curating my life, I made my own career from lots of trial and error. Even that letterpress stuff that I did, there’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that go into creating one print. It can take hours to produce something to the taste and the level that you want to produce it and so I learned a lot through that process as well.
Every single thing that I’ve done I’ve just learned so much [from] and it’s accumulated into what I’m doing now, which is really cool, and I never really reflected on that until I had to do the [schools] talk. I had to write it all out and go back through my career process and my decision making processes and I’m like wow, okay, cool!
Perhaps it’s time to start a blog because people are interested in your story
Totally, it’s interesting because I’ve never really been interested in writing about myself or my experiences but it’s been the last year where all these amazing experiences have come my way and I feel like if I don’t capture them they’re just going to float off and they’ll just be distant memories, whereas I can actually learn something really tangible from them. So if I’m writing about them maybe I’m sort of imprinting my mind with all these little things. Definitely a good point, I should do that.
Also on that point about public art, when you said that you wanted to give back I think that people could learn so much from you
In my talk, every now and then I put up a little ‘wisdom nugget’ on my slides and that’s sort of become my thing.
Maybe it should just be clairesnuggets.com?
I love it. That’s so good! (laughs)
Claire’s finished artwork can be viewed on her Instagram page @claire_foxton. Follow her for regular updates.