Creative local Carmel Debreuil invites you to let your imagination run free. Her whimsical artworks take us inside the minds of children – their imaginary worlds interrupted. FOCUS went to Carmel’s studio to find out more about her art practice and the children who feature in her work.
What is your connection to the Coffs Coast?
My husband and I moved to Red Rock about fifteen years ago. We had been living in Byron Bay, which was really busy and getting very expensive. We were on a road trip and came upon the town and fell in love. It’s timeless perfection.
You have worked and exhibited all over the world. What is special to you about this particular part of it?
I love being surrounded by so much nature – national and state parks, the ocean, the river. It’s all very pristine. I feel like I’m on holiday all the time. It’s a great place for me to focus, without too many distractions.
When did you start out as an artist?
I have drawings that I did when I was three years old, so I would say I’ve been doing it all my life.
I worked as a portrait artist in Paris for a couple of years in the big square in front of Le Centre Pompidou with my sister and my dad, which was a really neat experience. I feel really lucky that I had such a great art teacher in my dad. He taught everything from the skeleton to perspective to the colour wheel and portraiture. When you have the fundamental basics, the classic skills, then you can do whatever you want.
How do you describe your work?
I always think of it as mash potatoes for the eyes. It’s bright and colourful and easy to digest. There are always stories behind the pieces that are deeper and sometimes darker, but I love that little kids can look at my work and enjoy it as much as anyone.
I have studied enough that I know I’m painting what I want to paint. I want my work to make people feel good, to show the strength and possibility of children and to let your imagination run free.
Children are the feature of your current work; what do they mean to you?
My dad passed away about five years ago, and it was really devastating. He came to me in a dream just after he died and talked to me about being an artist and what I should do. It was really full on and very, very real.
When I returned to Australia from Canada (where my parents live), I really thought a lot about that dream. So I started painting. I was reflecting on my childhood and my loss and painting lots of really beautiful sad portraits of kids.
I was looking at a lot of family photos too. I came across one of my brothers when he was a kid wearing a striped shirt, horn-rimmed glasses and cowboy boots. It made me laugh because he was such a character. I wished I had more photos of him, but then I realised if I put the same glasses on my youngest son, I had the perfect model.
I love the idea of kids deep in thought in their imagination, that we have just interrupted them in their playing and they are still in that other world playing with a giant chicken or facing off to a lion.
All my models are kids that I know, and each has their own personality. I have the tiny fiery red head, the typical boy, the ballerina girl, the transgender girl, the stubborn brat girl – I love them all!
Can you tell us a bit about your creative process?
I paint on wood, so the first part of the story involves me going to Bunnings and pulling down a stack of ply and going through the sheets one by one to try to find ones that have great knots and patterns in the wood. Then I go home, cut them, sand them, and put the back frame on. I seal them, and then they are primed and ready to go.
I find inspiration for the stories through the kids’ personalities, stories, animals, and colours. I love pulling from cultures around the world too. Kids don’t tend to have all these hang ups that we pick up as we get older. They love a kimono, a Viking helmet and cowboy boots because they are open to the beauty of all these lands and cultures. They can be anything they want to be. Life is like a fairy tale.
How have you developed such an individual style?
That is a really important thing for me. It’s important for me to have my own point of view. I am definitely inspired by other artists and photographers, but I interpret my imagination my own way.
I used to have a much different style that really suited my age and where I was at in my head at the time. It was really swirly and fun – lots of dancing women with big feet, big hands and boobies. That was a really clear style for me, but I kinda grew out of it. Or maybe I just didn’t feel that way after having two kids and my dad’s death. I remember doing my first painting of a
little bespectacled boy riding a giant squirrel, and I felt like I had come home. It just felt right.
I love that people can look at a piece of my art and know who created it. I’m the only person in the world doing this type of thing, and that feels really good. I have my little signatures in the cowboy boots, the glasses and the fact that I can name each kid in my paintings.
How do you stay inspired; what keeps you creating?
I don’t really find it that hard to be inspired. I used to be a bit more cautious I think, but now I just barrel on ahead. I just do whatever comes into my head and think, well, if it sucks, I can just burn it. Some paintings just really work, and I can feel it.
I think another thing that works for me is being very prolific. The more I create, the more ideas I get. It’s when you only do one or two paintings a month that you get stuck. I like doing about five a week, although I’ve slowed that down a bit.
What does the future hold for your art practice?
I am doing several commissions at the moment, which is always great fun. I get a lot of people who get portraits of themselves as kids or paintings of their own children.
Everyone has a story, and I love the idea of creating heirlooms that will be passed down for generations. It’s really special to think that the painting you do of someone will be loved and cherished by their grandkids and further. It’s so much more significant to get personalised art than just buying a print from Ikea or something.
I can’t imagine not painting.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I’m super social, so mostly I like to hang out with my friends. I have been getting into female drag lately, which is probably an extension of the creative side. I like to dress up and do karaoke.
Painting is really solitary, and I usually listen to the same song list over and over. I’m a bit OCD and ADHD. The art time puts me into this really calm, meditative zone, which balances great with my social side, which is a bit loud and wild.
How are you involved in the local community?
I’ve been involved in fundraising for a charity called Red Goes Faster that works with Wheelchairs for Kids, providing wheelchairs for disabled children in third world countries.
I enjoy doing talks at schools and inspiring other artistic people to see their talents as something that can be incorporated into their adult working life. I am going to speak to some artistic kids for Careers Day at Woolgoolga High School. There is so much talent in the area.
I have also painted a mural with chalkboard paint at the Red Rock Bowling Club that’s interactive. I’d like to do more community art.
Where can we see your artwork?
At the moment I have my work at the Manyung Galleries in Victoria. I love doing shows. It makes me feel like a kid in a candy store to see sixty pieces of all these bright colours all displayed on white walls.
It’s a tough time for galleries, I think because the internet is giving artists access to clients all around the world. When people can access artists via the net, they get a very personal experience. I think part of the joy of having an art piece is knowing who painted it and having some sort of connection to them as well.
Where can people find out more about your art?
The best way to find out more about my art is via my website www.carmeldebreuil.com or on my Facebook page: Carmel Debreuil Artist.
People can also make appointments to come to my studio to see completed work or to discuss commissions. I’m also on Instagram, and from time to time I do live streaming off me working.