A charming Bali painter welcomes us to her Indonesian art studio in Denpasar.
I’ll admit it — I’m a sucker for well-designed things. Maybe it’s my arts background and my ingrained appreciation for aesthetics. But when I found an issue of Design Anthology, a quarterly magazine with thick, matte-finish pages focused on Asia’s architecture and design world, on the shelves of Barnes & Noble, I didn’t hesitate to purchase it.
With a quick search on their website using the keyword “Indonesia,” a Q&A with the artist Natisa Jones appeared. After reading it, I wanted to know more about her work. I found her Instagram account and hit the follow button.
Shortly before our trip to Bali, I sent an inquiry to see if there might be any galleries displaying her work in or near Ubud, where we would be staying.
Natisa replied to my email and invited my husband and I to visit her at her studio. When we met recently, we were running a bit behind our agreed meeting time. I don’t think either Wally or I realized how intense the traffic can be in Bali.
I’ll admit I was a bit nervous to meet her; I felt a bit like a starstruck fanboy. But once she opened the door to her workspace, her expressive eyes and kind demeanor immediately put me at ease. She was wearing a small silver Barong pendant and apologizing for having paint on her hands (she was working on a few pieces for an upcoming show in Jakarta). Her personality was undeniably contagious, and Wally and I were instantly smitten.
“You’re the first people outside of my immediate family to see what I’m working on for my next show,” she told us. We felt honored.
Q&A With Natisa Jones
The Bali-based artist Natisa Jones’ emotive drawings and paintings are a flurry of bold, expressive strokes and an earthy color palette. Evocative in an almost primitive way, her pieces are a peek into her secret world. They often incorporate text and reveal the shadowy side of the human condition.
What was it like growing up in Indonesia? How has this influenced your work?
Even though Indonesia always was my base, I did spend my time growing up away from it as well. I spent my high school education in Chiang Mai, Thailand and my tertiary studies in Melbourne, Australia. I returned to Indonesia at 22 to start working in graphic design and illustration.
I like to imagine that your parents caught you drawing on the wall of your bedroom when you were a little girl.
Funnily, my parents didn’t catch me drawing on the wall — they encouraged it. When we were still living in Jakarta, my mom would take me up to the rooftop of our house, where we’d dry our clothes. She’d bring chalk and crayons and draw on the walls up there with me. I have fond memories of spending time doodling with her there.
Then when I was about 7 years old, we moved to Bali. My parents let me draw all over my room as well. It was a good way of making new friends think I was cool — because they would be allowed to draw on the walls, too, when they came over.
At what age did you have an interest in art? Do you remember what the subject of your first drawing was?
I picked up the brush and pencil as soon as I was able to. I have pictures of a 2-year-old me painting on the balcony in Jakarta, where my mom had set up an easel.
As soon as I could identify shapes and control lines better, it was more often than not a human figure. Looking back, I realize my drawings were always self-referencing. My mom kept a lot of my drawings from when I was a child up until high school, and I would often draw people I knew, or myself. And if not, it would be a human figure that aimed to express what I felt.
You mentioned that you began as a graphic designer. What was your a-ha moment, when you knew you wanted to make the leap to multidisciplinary artist?
I was making illustrations for fashion magazines, and it was easy. People were satisfied with what I would give, and it didn’t challenge me creatively. I also began to realize that my sense of idealism is stronger than I assumed. I really thought that after art school, the “pure art life” wasn’t for me. I liked the idea of having a desk job and a community to come to, where I get to draw all day and go home, and be done. But I started to feel unsatisfied very quickly with what I was doing. I felt wrong using my skills to push these limiting beauty agendas and shallow trends to 14-year-old kids. So I decided that the best way I can contribute to society in a positive way was to utilize my talent the best way I can. And that was that. I was much happier.
How do the cities you travel to influence your work?
I am very responsive to my environment, so wherever I am and what I go through always makes its way into my work, whether it be directly or indirectly. It can come in color, mood, phrases I hear, events that occur. Absolutely anything.
During our conversation at your studio, you mentioned how you were working on several pieces simultaneously. What does a typical day in the studio look like?
I usually start with going into the studio, reading, writing or sketching for 45 minutes to an hour. And then I will go at it, onto works I have been working on or start a fresh sheet of canvas. Some days I will go into the studio and nothing happens but one stroke on a painting I have been stuck at. Those days I would just read or watch documentaries and stare at all the pieces around me, having conversations with them in my head. But those days are work, too. They are just as important.
I love the layers and colors of your pieces. Are there particular colors you are drawn to, and do they have a symbolic meaning for you?
I think over the years I have subconsciously established my own language with color. I seem to reserve certain colors to denote certain emotions or expressions — but this also depends on the gestural strokes they are accompanied by. But these representations are often layered and never one-dimensional. So the color + stroke + imagery creates a dialogue between each other, and depending on that dialogue, each element exists to serve one another.
Within the process of creating, I am not always conscious of why my colors appear the way they do. I mix and match my colors as I go, and it really relies on my mood that day or moment and what emotions I was trying to express. It's not unlike the feeling of when you wake up and you just know that today you want to wear that green sweater. It’s an impulsive gut feeling.
Sometimes though, I have to admit — it is the art student and graphic designer in me that refers back to the color wheel to see what colors will best solve a creative problem.
One of the canvases we saw in your studio has a large figure with a haunting gaze that reminded me of Michelangelo’s Delphic Sibyl. What artists are you inspired by, and do you find that they shape your personal style?
As a former art student, I am aware and do refer back to art history and at times do engage with it within my work. But often it is not fully my purpose. I think studying them, there are gestures in poses and also influence in color that are imprinted in my mind from many different art movements that indirectly end up on my canvas.
In terms of personal style, I think the most influential movement in the context or art and art history lands more to abstract expressionism and the New York school era. As I get older though, I am starting to go back further and further in time, back to modernism and then even further to the Renaissance. But I think as an artist, that’s your job. To explore all the artists and context of art before you, and move back and forth in time to better understand your own.
“Art goes into the future, while the art lover goes into the past; they meet in the present.” as J.L. Siesling writes in Art Is More.
How do you start a painting?
I kind of go without a plan, and it shapes itself as I go along. It reveals itself to me slowly. Some days I will have an idea and start with that — most likely ending up nowhere near the initial idea! Some days, when the last thing you want to do is be confronted by a massive canvas and talk about feelings, it becomes very technical, and I force myself to start with a stroke, and then I keep responding from stroke to stroke, shape to shape, color to color. And voilà! Might not be genius, but it’s a start.
Do you listen to music while you work?
Yes, music is very important — it helps me channel my creative flow, as it does for many artists, I’m sure. Silence is also good sometimes. It depends on how you woke up that day!
How do you know when a piece is complete?
The age-old question of “when do you know a piece is complete” is a really difficult thing to explain. There is definitely some sort of learning process of letting go. For me, since I’ve done this most of my life, it’s roughly a feeling of satisfaction or exhaustion. Either I’ve exhausted that expression and I don’t need to work on that feeling within myself anymore, and am done; or I have an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction with a piece and I have to pull myself back from fixing things that don’t actually need fixing.
It is difficult to know when it’s done, but I think the difference is: If it feels like it is complete, then it probably is. But when it is not complete, it usually is very obvious only to me and I would not be able to send it out into the world like that.
Have you ever put a piece aside or completely reworked it?
Almost all the time and every piece. Working on multiple pieces all at once allows me the space to bounce from one expression to another. It creates less pressure for me. But eight out of 10 pieces go through 100 stages and images before they reach their conclusion. I have maybe five pieces in my entire life of canvas works that have been completed in under 24 hours and stuck to their initial forms.
Have you ever regretted selling a piece?
When I first started selling work, I have to admit it was difficult to let go, because it was a concept that was so foreign to me. When I was working in graphic design, I understood the dynamics very clearly. I was good at something, and they needed that skill, and I was there to serve their vision first and not mine. Or at least that’s how it was for me at the time. I was thick-skinned with rejection when it came to commercial work and felt I was always good at reading what people wanted from my work.
But painting was different. It was a concept that I had to get my head around as I went along. My painting was my therapy and served me and only me growing up. To come into a profession where your feelings and psychological states were up for sale and judgement was definitely a big pill to swallow. It was quite literally the idea of someone buying what I felt on a Tuesday. So at the beginning this was hard.
Okay, here are a couple of silly questions. Durian: love it or loathe it?
The smell, the texture, the shape — what’s not to love?
Kopi luwak (a coffee made from beans that have been pooped out of the lusaka, or civet cat)?
Like it, but also not, for the way it is made. Not the poop part, but how some of these farms provide horrible living conditions for the lusaka and definitely aren’t animal-friendly.
What are you working on currently?
I am currently working on four shows and one big solo show in Jakarta.
Follow Natisa on Instagram! –Duke