How sitting in cavernous churches has changed Kushana Bush's work

When Kushana Bush first heard the Frances Hodgkin studio space was shifting from its location opposite the School of Physical Education on Union Street to a prefabricated building behind the University’s Albany Street studio she was disappointed. She felt she might miss some of the history imbued in the walls of a space that had been home to Frances Hodgkins Fellows for more than 30 years.

But, when she stepped into the unimposing new studio she quickly changed her mind. It is bright and spacious, with windows on both sides. She says it has given her the best year of her life so far.

The 28-year-old has been a full-time painter for the past four years. But this year, on the University’s arts fellowship – one of the country’s foremost residencies – she has experienced a liberating freedom from financial concerns. She has been free to experiment. She has been able to try things that have failed. Her work has grown.

Ms Bush grew up in Dunedin, attending Otago Girls High School before completing a fine arts degree at the Otago Polytechnic School of Art in 2004.

And it is fitting that she now holds the Fellowship, as it was seeing the work of a previous fellow at the Hocken Library that cemented her ambition to pursue art as a career. As a high school student in 1999 she went to an exhibition of work by that year’s fellow Seraphine Pick.

“I couldn’t believe that a woman could be an artist in Dunedin and survive. To then realise Jeffrey Harris had been the fellow in 1977 was enough to convince me that being a painter was my only choice.”

Holding the fellowship herself is coming the full circle and is a huge honour, she says.

As a Dunedin resident, Ms Bush was able to hit the ground running when she began her Fellowship in February. But while many fellows have taken some of their inspiration from being in a new city, she used the three months before she began to travel to London and then Italy to visit churches, museums and galleries.

“I call it my Giotto pilgrimage,” she laughs. “I was taken with Gothic sculpture, particularly German, French and English wooden religion scenes and by the drama and narrative of Gothic Italian painters such as Sassetta, Martini and Lorenzetti. This was my first chance to get a true sense of the scale of art works I had only ever seen in books and to be able to sit and draw from the artworks I had admired my whole life. Sitting for hours in cavernous chuches in the middle of winter drawing from real frescoes by Giotto will remain some of the most exhilarating moments of my life.”

Back in Dunedin she felt filled with ideas. The walls of her studio are covered with photos and postcards of Gothic art, and the work she has completed this year has been heavily influenced by these artists.

“My paintings used to be more expressionless, sort of modular. I used figures to create a knot or a pattern. This year the figurative paintings are much more like short stories where the experience of one event can be felt in a number of different ways.”

Ms Bush’s year on the fellowship will finish at the end of January, with an exhibition of her work scheduled to begin at the Hocken in February.


Article originally appeared in the Otago Bulletin, a fortnightly newsletter for University staff and post-graduates students. Issue 23, 2 December 2011, Page 6.