Beci Orpin’s home studio is abuzz with quietly industrious activity. Her assistant Leah works busily at her computer; a second helper, Sarah, sits cross-legged on the floor, immersed in a sea of colourful paper shapes and collage scraps. Desks overflow with piles of notebooks, half-finished ideas, watercolours and precarious jumbles of materials. Miso, the cat, makes the occasional blithe entrance, sniffs at a teacup, inspects proceedings.
It’s a week out from the opening of The Infinite Shape of Rainbows, Orpin’s new show at Lamington Drive, and Melbourne’s favourite creative multitasker is hectic, even by her own mildly chaotic standards.
“I’m someone who has a lot of ideas,” she offers, smiles, pauses for a moment, launches back in. “I get bored easily, you know? The more things I do, the better my work is and the more ideas I have.”
A phone rings, there’s a quick conversation, a confirmation of this, that or the other. The phone is put back on the hook. Orpin swings around, smiles again, apologises. “If I’m not busy I get depressed and I don’t work very well,” she continues. “But this?” she sighs, shakes her head. “This is just a bit too busy!”
It’s little wonder. Orpin’s creative pursuits have never been so proliferous. The front room of her home – a former milk bar in Brunswick West, where she lives with her husband and business partner Raph Rashid and their young sons Tyke and Ari – is the epicentre for a graphic design and illustration business, the Beci Orpin accessories and homewares imprint, the Tiny Mammoth kids clothing label, and the office for she and Rashid’s latest endeavour, Beatbox Kitchen, a hip-hop-influenced, gourmet mobile diner.
“I’ve always just liked to work in different mediums,” she says. “Three dimensions kind of really baffle me and I like setting myself those challenges.”
“In many ways it’s all quite selfish,” she continues, promptly spinning around to shoo Miso away from fragile, half-complete paper collage. “It’s really just about me doing the work and getting enjoyment out of doing all these different things instead of worrying about the outcome so much. That’s really how good work happens.”
In a career that has stretched a decade and a half, Orpin hasn’t only exhibited her playful, eclectic artworks objects and dolls internationally (in Japan, Toronto, Barcelona and New York) – not to mention stocking her now retired fashion line Princess Tina in countless Australian and US boutiques and securing design and illustration commissions from a host of high profile international clients – but built a name for herself as something of a self-made, micro-entrepreneur.
Though she chuckles at the suggestion, it definitely carries a resonance in relation to her practice. “Looking at my dad’s family, they’re all self-employed – five out of six siblings – I’ve always kind of been the same,” she says. “I literally got my first freelance job the day of my graduate show, so it was just like ‘Oh, I’ll give this a go’ and I literally just fell into it.”
“I would never consider myself an artist in the purest sense of the word,” she continues. “I’m a designer who has exhibitions.”
“I think that because everything I do is still based around design, it’s not cerebral enough for me to consider it art, but it still has a freeness so that it still has that sense of something else. There’s a French term, ‘graphiste’, which means ‘graphic artist’ and I wish there was a genre like that.”
Orpin always felt a strong connection to the visual. As a child growing up in an inner-city commune in Kew East, she remembers drawing as an instinct rather than a choice. “It’s all I would ever do,” she smiles. “I never felt that question of ‘What am I going to do?’. Drawing was what I was going to do.”
In high school, she briefly flirted with the idea of becoming an architect (until the realities of Year 11 maths and physics kicked in), eventually enrolling in textile design at RMIT in the mid 90s. That said, she still understands her childhood experience as a particularly formative one.
“The children’s books that my parents gave me were amazing,” she urges. “They really thought hard about the books they gave me and I think that really effected me and the way I still draw today. Childhood is just amazing like that. Like, the way that my kids interpret things and analyse dreams is really interesting and really surprising.
“Tyke is actually the one who came up with the name Tiny Mammoth for the label. He was like ‘I had this dream and I could walk through walls and I could breathe under water and I had this tiny pet mammoth’,” she laughs. “It was just perfect and really kind of amazing.”
It’s a sensibility that clearly informs The Infinite Shape of Rainbows, which comprises several limited prints, stunning one-off collages and impossibly adorable hand-painted mushroom dolls. Based on the theme of opposites, the show sees vivid colour pieces offset more stark monochromatic works.
“There’re matching prints, where one is life and the other is death, and one is war and the other peace, one’s imagined and the other is real, one’s good luck and the other’s bad luck,” she smiles.
It’s evocative to say the least, with tiny details and minutiae giving the works a loose, a narrative quality. “One thing that I do think about is the potential for a story,” she muses, “and that someone could make up their own story within the work. I really love that idea, that someone might conjure a completely different set of stories from my work than I do.”
That’s not to say that The Infinite Shape of Rainbows was part of some grand conceptual plan. Orpin is a little busy for such an indulgence.
“I usually only come up with the title and theme for a show when it’s got to such a late stage that the gallery is harassing me, saying ‘We really need to print the flyers for the show! We need a title!’” she laughs.
“In a way that gives me a brief and a set of parameters and that’s what I need. Otherwise it’s endless and I’d just keeping going forever.”
Beci Orpin’s The Infinite Shape of Rainbows runs at Lamington Drive until May 8.