WHATEVER your faith, or even if you don’t have one, you cannot help but be moved by the majesty of a cathedral. It is what draws so many of us to explore these edifices to experience the vaulted archways, the gothic buttresses and the weeping angels adorning the majestic towers that were built to reach an all-powerful God. Imagine, then, what it was like to be a young girl living in Reims, only a few metres away from a cathedral where the kings of France were crowned. Imagine you step over the threshold only to find yourself surrounded by a scene rich with stained glass windows, white robed priests and gold ornaments in a cathedral built over centuries with its origins in the fourth century.
As Sofie Dieu tells me, “I didn’t take much of the contents of the Mass to heart, but I did from the visual.”
She is very clear in stating that her work is not about spirituality as that has a religious connotation that she wants to avoid. She uses the term “numinous” to refer to the rites, the cults and the rituals of cultures, each of which are strongly engrained in her work. Numinous is derived from the Latin numen, meaning "arousing spiritual or religious emotion; mysterious".
She begins her days in her studio by meditating. And then she hunts out the pieces that she has collected from her long hikes through the bush. It could be a feather, a plant, or a stone that she brings back to her studio and places on her shelves almost like mini temples.
In some ways similar to the temples she admired in her four years of living in China.
Having grown up in the capital of Champagne, in France, Sofie yearned to find a different culture altogether. She found it in the alleyways of Beijing. She had been offered a 12-month contract to teach textiles and design but stayed for another three years, constantly amazed that people with so little went through so much, confounded by their strength and resilience. Where some could only see the poverty, Sofie saw the richness of a culture that captured her imagination and became her inspiration.
When she returned home she started using the Chinese inks the calligraphers used to create images on paper that reflected her feelings. She used three colours – white to represent her mother's family Catholic background, black to represent her father's family relationship to the coal mine industry in Northern France and gold ink to represent the richness of the temples and cathedrals.
She is inspired by Japanese Ensō, the art of drawing a circle in a single uninhibited brushstroke to express the present moment when the mind is free to let the body create. This shape would be done standing up and very quickly, and as Sofie describes it, “creating a gate to the sub-conscious”. After the initial form is created she would then sit in front of the shape and almost meditate and start the long process of introducing the fine white and gold details to draw the viewer into the painting.
And while she immersed herself in the Chinese culture she realised that however much she tried, no matter how well she spoke the language, she would always be a foreigner. She yearned for a place where she could plant her roots. It was at this time that she came to share an apartment with an Australian jazz singer who convinced her that Australia could be that place.
On a working holiday visa, she met her partner, a Victorian man from Beechworth who introduced her to the great Australian outdoors. She has lived here ever since.
She started looking around for a residency that would allow her to focus on a new body of work. She was invited to take part in the artist in residence program at the Great Alpine Gallery in Swifts Creek. She found a village a lot smaller than she imagined with only 300 residents who were very isolated in their remote location and still grieving silently after the devastating fires of 2009. The memories were too confronting and sore to be mentioned. Despite this the local people were very open to the arts and wanted to be involved.
Sofie held workshops which gave her the opportunity to find out what it meant to live in remote regional Victoria. She commenced a body of work in nature and seeking inspiration from the Chinese calligraphers who practised their art before the Cultural Revolution. These gifted people would collect stones. Some stones they hit in order to create a sound that would take their minds away from the everyday. Other times they collected stones that were sliced and would reveal a landscape enabling them to travel away from their everyday boredom to another world.
When her host in Swift Creek suggested she walk along the river and “find a nice rock to sit on”, she seized the opportunity to walk in the mindset of these intellectuals.
Sofie started to hold her workshops and paint the stones that she collected. In each she found micro-elements, night skies and water swirls trapped in them – mirrors of the bigger environment of the Earth. She felt the rocks had found shapes in the nature around them. And then she started drawing clouds even though there were no clouds in the sky as rain was scarce.
One of her workshops involved children who were only just born when the fires roared through and yet they often painted images representing tornadoes and thunder as their way of articulating the hopes of their parents that rain will come and hopefully avert another fire.
Sofie is now in Wonthaggi, holding an exhibition of her works and running a series of demonstration and workshops over the next week. Details at www.artspacewonthaggi.com.au.
Sunday May 5, 1pm-2pm. Wonthaggi ArtSpace, Sofie will demonstrate her techniques.
May 6 to June 17. Exhibition Intangible Island at Wonthaggi ArtSpace from. Includes paintings and linoprints.
Friday, May 10, Archies Creek Hall, full day workshop
Saturday May 11, Archies Creek Hall, half day workshop
Saturday May 11, 2-4pm, exhibition opening, ArtSpace