Biripi artist Raechel Saunders sits at her desk, canvas and paints in front of her, and prepares to start work.
“This one is going to be a fire painting,” she explains.
As is her usual process, Raechel has thought about the story she wants to tell and has mapped it out on canvas with some chalk.
“This one will be about how the fire moves over the land. I’ll do some campsites to show how people need the fire and are using the fire.”
She adds colour to her black canvas with a paint-dipped bamboo skewer, starting from the middle and moving out while using dots to create a circular pattern.
“I tend to start from the middle, because with paints you’re going to smudge all over if you start out (on the edge).”
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Some people have referred to her style as a “stamping technique”.
“I’ll dip into the paint and do two or three dots and then I’ll dip in again and just build the picture that way.”
The circular design is common in Raechel’s work, as it is in the work of other indigenous artists in Australia.
“Aboriginal people use circles to represent a special place, or family, or meeting place.
“It tends to be a big part of our artworks and that’s what you’ll see in mine. You’ll also see different dot patterns that represent mountains and valleys.”
Raechel said dot painting can be traced back to the Papunya people in the 1970s.
“I guess that modern movement swept across the country where Aboriginal people can use canvas and dot work to connect with culture and tell story.
“Dots have always been used in paint on the body and line work in the sand, so I guess it is something that connects Aboriginal people to.”
At her home-based studio space in Tinonee, Raechel is surrounded by inspiration with her own artworks, as well as those as her father Russell, on display.
Her desk is set up not far from Russell’s, in the open plan living and kitchen area of the home Raechel and her husband share with her parents.
The arrangement allows the family to be around each other while they work, plus the tables are portable, meaning they can move them to sit near a window or on the deck.
“We get paint on everything and everywhere,” she said.
Her work extends further than dot painting and also includes still-life art and clay work.
When it comes to her paintings she said she tries to keep traditional with the line work traditional to this area.
“I do like to do realistic art sometimes but I also like to include traditional earthy colours and lines.”
She splits her creative time between her home and the Deep Water Shark Gallery in Centrepoint Arcade in Taree, which is open five and a half days a week.
“While I’m home here I work on my large paintings and clay work. I often work late into the night and used to stay up until 3am or 4am and then have a sleep in, but since opening our gallery in town I find I can’t stay up as late as I used to.”
The gallery is a place where Raechel and Russell, along with other family members, showcase and sell their work. Raechel and her mother take turns working there.
“It’s good to have a place where you can come home alone and do your work in private and spend that time, but it’s also good to be in the public and talk to people and share what the art’s about.”
Raechel’s tools travel with her wherever she goes, whether it’s between her studios or overseas.
As well as her bamboo sticks, she has little cups filled with acrylic paint in various colours.
“When I carry the paints to work I’ll store them like this so I can keep them for months at a time. You’ll see me paint with this little cup here and add water. It can get messy and it can spill but it’s good having those colours ready to go whenever you’re ready.”
Raechel’s art education started as a child.
“Dad’s been an artist for around 30 to 40 years, so I grew up with paint and clay in the house. My grandmother was an artist, my great grandfather was an artist, so it’s something that’s always been with us.”
Raechel said her main learning came from watching her dad work.
“And I had a great high school teacher at Chatham High and they just let me explore and encouraged me with art and clay work. That’s about the only training I’ve had.”
She has been a professional artist for the past 16 to 17 years and her parents have always been big supporters.
“If I get stuck I’ll show them and be like ‘what do you think of this?’ and ‘do you think I should do that?’. Sometimes it’s just bouncing ideas.
“I don’t always use their suggestions but it’s good to have that extra thought to go back to.”
Raechel said she tends to focus more on colour with her artwork as a way to tell her stories.
“I work with reds and yellows to tell my story of fire and earth and am probably more graphic and modern in my designs too.
“I like to incorporate a drawing illustration style into my artwork. It’s also just very inspired by dad so sometimes it’s just a bit of a twist on his work because I’ve learnt from him.”
She said the thought process behind her works can sometimes take longer than the painting and that her inspiration comes from a variety of places.
“I’m a real mood person, so whether that’s through music or what’s happened, something might have happened in the family or I might see a beautiful sunset, that’s how I get inspired.
“Once I get that idea worked out, and depending on the size of the artwork, it can take from a week to three or four weeks to finish.
“I tend to work quite quickly. I can concentrate for a long time, where some people only do little bits here and there, I can sit for a long time.”
As well as the gallery shop in town, she has had an Etsy store for about five years, which continues to build, as well as Instagram.
“One of the main things I paint are necklaces. I like to do them in different colours to tell stories of sunset, the water, earth, the stars in the sky and it’s just a really good way to have wearable art.”
She is known for the double dot layering in her art, a style she started practising in the 1990s.
“I saw Dad had done it and my grandmother had done it and then Gina Varagnola and her sister Sonia, they had a beautiful dot on dot style and so that was sort of on my mind and then I took it on myself and now it’s become my main style.”
Not far from where Raechel paints is another little area where clay masks are drying.
“We do clay work everywhere,” she laughs. “These clay faces are some of the new ones I’ve done.
"I’ll start off with a blank and I’ll cover it in plastic and then start building the layers of clay over the top.
“I work with a clay that’s got a lot of grain in it and it’s really easy to build with, so I’ll slowly build my layers and when it dries a little bit, I dig out the back.”
She uses various tools for shaping, others to gouge out clay and even a toothbrush to scratch, join and smooth out.
“After the clay work’s dried out, we take them and put them in the kiln. My dad fires them here at out home and after a day or so you take them out and they’re ready to paint.”