BY Rashmii Amoah Images courtesy of Nathalie Le Riche
Bold, vibrant colours and varying in style, her artwork showcases the people and culture of Papua New Guinea. Her name, firmly established throughout PNG and internationally. Whether through hanging paintings in hotel lobbies, prints on corkbase placemats on our dining room tables or commissioned pieces, a good number of Papua New Guineans will have come in contact with art by Nathalie Le Riche. I chatted (via email) with the reknowned artist, asking her advice on pursuing a dream, her involvement in recent PNG community events and striking a good work/life balance…
Rashmii Amoah: ‘We spoke a few months ago when I first contacted you about doing an interview. I introduced myself to you as a stay-at-home-mum who was wanting to give the the freelance writing thing a go. Anyway, I was bowled over when you replied my email and you signed off with words ‘cheers to creativity’. I must tell you that was
a huge confidence booster and spurred me on to explore other avenues for writing. Thank you. So when you started out in 1997, what was the general theme of reactions to your aspirations to pursue painting/starting your own business?
Nathalie Le Riche: Looking back there was a wide range of reactions to my aspirations to pursue painting and converting it into a business. There were some who were encouraging and then there were others who would voice every reason why it was not possible to make a living out of art. If I had listened to those who were negative I would never have started.
It was also confronting listening to people voice their dislike to some of my art pieces (i.e. Some face paintings. They thought they were scary looking). As an artist I learnt you cannot take other people’s views personally. Art is an individual thing and everyone is entitled to their opinion. You just have to remember they are not making a personal attack on you. The key is to always be true to you no matter what others think.
Another lesson I learnt when you start fulfilling a dream- you can get totally lost in the excitement of your dream. As a result you start telling everyone you are going to achieve this and that and you tell everyone about all your successes. After a while you start to notice the rolling of the eyes and people start distancing themselves from you. It took me a LONG time to learn to keep my excitement ,goals and achievements to myself. I now understand it can be very annoying listening to someone who is constantly talking about themselves. It is better to be a humble achiever and keep your goals to yourself. Initially I felt my journey was to prove to myself and others that dreams can come true. Hence why I felt I had to be so vocal.
But looking back I now know to keep your goals and achievements to yourself. Just live your journey and enjoy it. We are not here to prove anything to anyone. Each person is on their own journey. Just focus on giving them positive guidance rather than bombarding them with information about me, me, me.
RA: ‘I’m struck by something you’ve consistently said throughout the years about ‘dreaming big’, particularly that ‘whenever you let doubts enter your mind into believing you are a fool for even thinking you can do it, just reinforce that you will find a way – even if you don’t know how’. Your career is nearing twenty years. What strategies have you used, that you would like to share with us, to maintain this mindset?
NLR: Never give up and keep the faith and just let it go! What I have discovered when you hold on too tight to your dream, you start to get frustrated because things aren’t working fast enough. If you have faith, it helps you keep at peace when confronted with challenges because deep down you know there is a way even though you have no idea how you will do it. The crazy part too, when you let go, that is when everything starts working out for you. But an important lesson I have learnt, it is fine to change your goals as life goes on. I found I got to a point where I had achieved a lot of materialistic goals. I could have continued on that path on setting bigger goals but I realised that what is more important than money is family and friends.
You can have all the money in the world, all the great travelling experiences and fancy things in life but it doesn’t bring back the time you didn’t spend with your young children. It doesn’t bring back a loved one that has passed on. It doesn’t replace the friends who have moved on to another town. If I was to do it again, I would find more of a balance between materialistic goals and spending time with family and friends. You will know when it is time to change course when you have achieved your goals and you don’t feel happy. Life is a journey of learning.
RA: Your painting ‘method’ is quite varied. What I mean is that, say in In ‘Frontier Warriors’ it’s colourful and bold then but in ‘Growing Family’ shell-like shapes and dots feature predominantly. ‘What a Catch’ reminds me of a Sepik storyboard but had me in giggles at the same time. I thought it was a cheeky piece. The you have ‘Cathy’ the oil pastes piece which is so different again. Is it a ‘mood’ that inspires the variation or does one mood just feed into another to help you paint a particular style?
NLR: My paintings styles have been influenced by an urge to try different things and as time went by to express inner feelings. Life is more exciting when you have different experiences. It’s about challenging yourself and confronting your fears. Remember it is only a piece of paper yet it can cause so much stress to those who are starting out in art. Let it go. Just paint and let it out. Keep experimenting till you find your place. I know I will never be an artist with one distinct style. That is just not me.
(P.S. – “What A Catch” was a commissioned piece for some friends of mine for their wedding invitation hence why that one is so out of the blue with the style. I stopped doing set commission pieces as I felt in the end it was restricting my artistic flair.)
RA: Tell me about that shell in your paintings – I know that shell it because it’s the common used in our (I’m from Sio, Tewai-Siassi LLG, Morobe Province) bilas and bilums. It’s smooth and quite pretty, with or without sand in it. Do you know the name of that shell and why did you choose that particular one to be the ‘trademark’ feature of some of your paintings?
NLR: The shell I include in my art is the cowrie shell. To me it is a representation of Papua New Guinea and my symbolic image for movement and taking one step after another. In some of my art the way the shells have been placed it almost becomes hypnotic to look at, like you are being taken into another place. Sometimes in life you just need to get away from reality and escape into a peaceful place to find yourself again.
RA: I’ve recently submitted an entry into the Crocodile Prize 2015 (National Literary Awards- PNG). I wrote a satirical piece around an opinion I have about what I see as unfortunately, a general unwillingness amongst Papua New Guineans to collaborate, work together to achieve outcomes. X helping Y purely to facilitate Y getting one step closer to his dream. But that’s something you may not relate to relate to as throughout your time in PNG you’ve been quite active in contributing to a number of causes. If I can quote you ‘when things get stressful, never lose the end picture – to help save lives or help others’. Is there one particular cause/scenario where this outlook has really impacted on you?
NLR: Unfortunately I have been impacted by the attitude of some people who are only out to look after themselves despite being given so much. I still am baffled why an employee who has been given great work conditions, flexible working hours (so they can be there for their children), paid more than others and rewarded for hard work would steal from you.
Yet I have encountered two staff members who stole because they only considered what they would gain for today only. They just didn’t think of the consequences of what would happen tomorrow because of their greed. They have learnt the hard way by losing their job and one having to settle out of court. The negative experience made me confront that desire to spend more time with my children. I then closed my business down in PNG. It was a cross road of emotions at the time as I felt I was quitting but then I had realized that the path I was on wasn’t the path I wanted to be on anymore.
So you see there is always something positive out of a negative situation. I now have more time on my hands which allows me to help a friend to do weekly hospital feeds at Kimbe hospital and be part of other community projects when needed.
RA: You are a featured Artist at the upcoming (6 June, 2015) Art Show which is a partnership between the PNG Women Doctors’ Association and the Cancer Foundation to fundraise for the 51st Medical Symposium taking place later this year. Could you tell us how you’ve gotten involved with PNG WDA/Cancer Foundation (PNG)
NLR: The PNG Women’s Doctors’ Association and the Cancer Foundation came to Kimbe town last month (April 2015) and offered a Cancer testing service. This is a much needed service in Kimbe as many are dying from cancer because of lack of testing and treatment. I received a request from the two organisations to submit my artwork for the Art Show Fundraiser.
(See Facebook pages ‘Women Doctors Association’ and ‘Papua New Guinea Cancer Foundation’ to learn more)
RA: So how and what were the motivating factors for you getting involved with exhibiting your paintings at the Fundraiser?
NLR: We lost a very loyal and hard working employee at the beginning of the year to mouth cancer. His life could have been saved had there been proper testing in Kimbe. I knew when I was approached by WDA/Cancer foundation I really wanted to be part of their fund raiser as their funds could help save the life of another cancer victim.
RA: On the theme of health, in 2009 you were the Illustrator for a Children’s book ‘The Jelani Tree’. Could you describe the story’s topic and its key message? Is there any relevance for it in PNG that children ought to be supported with by books such as these?
NLR: The book is relevant to children and adults in PNG as it all boils down to educating people about dealing with emotional and mental distress and helping people to learn to be less judgmental.
“The Jelani Tree is a book about a magnificent tree that is in danger of dying before it shares its plentiful fruit with the world. Discovering the tree’s peril, a courageous and spirited boy sets out to rally his friends and neighbors to save the tree”. Read more at http://www.jelani.org/jelanitree.html
RA: Juggling motherhood with a career is something that some of the WDA members would have in common with you. You’ve made reference to it being a challenge at times to find that balance between family, motherhood and pursuing your passion. I’m at the beginning of that journey with my own three kids. Any tips for the fastest way to striking the balance?
NLR: I have learnt, you don’t need to give your kids 24 hours of your time but what they do need is at least one hour of your undivided attention each day. It is a challenge finding that one hour but so worth the effort if you do. Can’t find the time? Get rid of the TV. Best thing we ever did for it helped make time for family bonding. Get outdoors, play tiggy, run around like you are a child yourself. They will love it, you will love it and you all will be exercising at the same time. Sadly as we get older, we forget to be a kid inside. Let the inner child come out and be a kid with your kids.
RA: Just on children, I didn’t know until recently that through your artwork, you’ve designed rugs and had your artwork made into puzzles! Are the puzzles still available s and if they are, what’s the difficulty level? My four year old’s a puzzle-fanatic and I think she’d have a great time piecing together the colours of the ‘Tropical Fish’ series.
NLR: The puzzles are still available via http://www.elmspuzzles.com/custom-puzzles/puzzles-by-artist . They are challenging puzzles as they don’t come with the picture when you buy them and the pieces are uniquely cut. I believe pricing starts from US$600.
RA: In recent weeks, you were involved in planning the West New Britain (WNB) leg of the Raunim PNG 2015 Oil Search Pacific Games Relay. Can you describe the atmosphere of your side of WNB when the Baton was passing through? How did people react and what is the general vibe in WNB in the lead up to the South Pacific Games in July?
NLR: It was an honour to be the organiser of the Kimbe Oil Search Pacific Games Relay. It was a lot of hard work but thanks to a great committee that I worked with, the WNB Relay was a huge success. I have never seen atmosphere like that before in WNB. It was exhilarating and chaotic with a great sense of community spirit coming together to showcase the wonderful cultural and natural diversity of WNB. I believe in the end we did get the baton to many and showcased the wonderful attributes our Province has to offer.
RA: Nathalie, thank you so much for your time. It’s now big tick in 2015 Must-Do list. I dreamt big, didn’t know how I was going to make it happen but thanks to your support, things fell into place and I’ve managed to do this. Back in 2006, I bought a set of the ‘Tribal’ coasters from your Giftware range and distributed them to my work colleagues (in Australia) to place on their desks. I remember them saying the artwork was quite unique and nothing like they’d seen before. It’s going to be a real buzz for me to tell that I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a chat with the Artist of those coasters.
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