Alex McKenzie: Australian artist in London
I caught up with the Hackney-based artist Alex McKenzie in her studio as she worked on her installation for the Australian Women in Wine Awards later this September.
Hailed as the world’s largest gathering of Australian women winemakers and winery owners, an incredible 57 women from 51 wineries will be flying in from Australia to be part of the event. Alex is in the process of creating a 3-metre high centrepiece inspired by the many flavours in wine.
Growing up in Australia
Alex's studio is an artist's delight and filled with objects that are guaranteed to trigger a desire to draw, sketch or build. With Alex's young son Tate curled up on a nearby wicker chair, we chatted about her life in Australia and her move to London.
Her parents worked as overseers on sheep and cattle stations in the very remote areas of South Australia, so it is not surprising Alex is comfortable working on such a grand scale.
There is a freshness in Alex's work that made me wonder if her childhood - rural, cattle stations, governesses, the School of the Air- gave her a perspective that shapes her artwork.
Melbourne art scene
Alex baulked at a traditional fine art school education and decided to hone her art skills through experienced mentors and muses. As a young woman, Alex moved to Melbourne and this marked the beginning of her career. Her willingness to try her hand at anything set her on the path to success.
"I packed a few things into a friend's car in January 1992 and moved to Melbourne. A friend of mine was living in this massive warehouse, not unlike the film 'The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and her Lover'. I lived there for years and that is when I first got a studio and started making a living as an artist. I put an ad in a local art paper saying that 'I can make anything you want'. A big shopping centre rang me and asked me to paint some signs and do some displays which I agreed to do and basically, that got me going."
It seems from early on in her career, Alex had great insight into her own artistic direction and choices. "I met a few fine artists who were exhibiting in Australian galleries and I could see what they were doing but that was too rigid for me," explained Alex.
Alex continued to accept commissions from a range of corporates and institutions and worked in the commercial art field. However, much of her creative nourishment took place when she was working in a variety of artists-in-residence programmes at youth centres, children's hospitals and other community-based settings. "I used to invite my artist friends to come down and spend days working with the young people... they give you all the tools you need to be adventurous," said Alex.
It was through these community-based networks that Alex met a British woman, Iona Paterson, who also worked in Australia. It was this friendship that first drew Alex to London in 2001.
Here in London, Alex maintained her commercial commissions but continued to refine her craft as she worked with young people in detention centres and prisons along with Iona. "I started going into work with her just so I could spend more time with her and I ended up doing that every week for three years" laughed Alex.
Alex also made connections with leading artists and craftspeople in London. "I accepted a job as an assistant to a sculptor, Robert Patterson, who made works for the V&A and leading high street retailers. Both types of work gave me a pretty good view of England and I just liked it here.”
Sadly both Iona and Robert died in recent years.
Women in Wine
With the working title of 'Flourish,' Alex is working on a piece that very much relates to her own life.
"I think there is a kind of flourish that women bring to things. It is all very well to have a table with chairs but if you put a vase with some flowers on it then it changes the room.
It is that extra touch. Women, in all their different workplaces - be that engineering, the civil service whatever - bring a new energy and humanity.
It is the feminisation of places. I find it really interesting the way the wine labels are evolving to reflect this."
Alex and I talked about London and the meaning of having an Australian award based here.
"It is a badge of recognition to have it here in London because it is a special place. London is such a crossroads. It has always been a trading place. People share more here than anywhere and they always have. If you look back at any period it has always been a market.
Australian women are bringing their wares here to the oldest market place which has this establishment background but is also open to the new."
Alex is deeply observant of her world and an active explorer, something that she encourages in her children. As working parents, we exchanged notes on summer activities for our children and hers included gem-stone and rock hunting.
"Living in London is amazing. I could live anywhere I wanted but I like it here. You have got all the museums and tons of resources like the V&A art library and they are all free. There are all sorts of societies where, if I have a free afternoon, I can go and listen to a lecture."
It didn't surprise me at all to learn that Alex finds herself drawing all sorts of hidden treasures of which London is famously full.
"I visited the Natural History Museum and said I want to draw some of the things that are in your fridge. They have this super fridge where they keep the giant squids and big jars that have come off the Beagle. That’s what I love about England if you go about things the right way you find yourself looking at Darwin’s specimens."
You can find more Alex on Instagram:
Finally, I leave you with a story from Alex about the importance of education, friendship and wine.
“I went to boarding school at the Walford Anglican School for Girls in Adelaide. The Headmistress Helen Reid was a real mentor for me. I was the only girl in the state doing Chemistry and Art. She stood up for me when other staff advised against it. I remember this because my Chem' Practice partner, Anna Martens, went on to work in Wine with the Croser Family in the Adelaide Hills. We got a silver medal once for titrations!”