Painter and illustrator Billie Justice Thomson cut her teeth in the Melbourne arts scene – and left others drooling. You might have seen her work in murals, shop windows or on enormous fridge magnets – almost always depicting something edible, from Chomp bars to luscious figs to banh mi.

Now the Adelaide-based artist returns for her first Melbourne exhibition in five years: Super Natural. Broadsheet caught up with her to talk painting on Perspex and the magic of oysters.

Tell us a little about Super Natural.
Super Natural has been an intentional departure from my older work. I really wanted to grow up a little bit and make work that was more refined. Last year I moved into a new studio and I now share my space with the chefs from a beautiful wine bar and restaurant downstairs called Loc. I get to see all the incredible produce being delivered [and that] has most definitely influenced this exhibition.

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The oysters as well. I occasionally walk home with one of the dads from my son’s school after drop-off. He’s a marine biologist who studies oysters – hearing him talk about them with so much knowledge is incredible, they’re so mysterious and magical to me.

What’s with the name?
The title came at the very end. People kept asking me, “So what’s the show about?” And I kept saying, “Well it’s pretty natural. Super natural, in fact.”

What mediums and processes did you use?
I paint in a pretty unique way. I use clear Perspex as opposed to canvas and I work in reverse. I start with all my black outlines, and then I fill in the colour in layers to make it completely opaque. This gives me a really flat and illustrative effect with defined lines and vivid colour. It’s sort of like an animation cell.

How long did it take to pull all the works together?
Usually for a show of this size I would want four months to paint. But I didn’t have that this time so I set aside exactly six weeks to get all 17 paintings done. It was an extremely productive time.

What’s a studio day like when you’re working on a project like this?
For the six weeks this was happening I rearranged everything and became very pragmatic about how I was going to get the work done. I would arrive at the studio after dropping my young son off at school and start painting around 9:30. I’d work on three or four paintings at once – because they all involved many layers I could work on a few at time while layers are drying. Then I’d finish about 4 o’clock so I could cook dinner for my family, which is a very important part of winding down and giving my brain a break from painting.

What foods did you paint for this show?
I painted fresh hops, a caper plant, rainbow chard, cabbages and brussels sprouts and half a dozen oysters. I think this is really about putting a little more thought into what goes on your plate and appreciating those who grow and cultivate the things we consume.

Tell us about your theme: the joy of the shared meal.
For me, seeing all this work together is certainly an ode to my great love of cooking for the people around me and how much joy I get from that. Perhaps it’s a little bit indirect, but I think the generosity and thought that goes into preparing a meal for people is imbued in the work. It’s about choosing the best tomatoes, the freshest oysters, and setting the table with flowers as a way of telling your friends and family you love them.

Your work is often food based – what is it about edible stuff you keep coming back to?
A few years ago I tried to steer myself away from painting and drawing food, but it just keeps coming back – and instead of resisting I am now just leaning into it. Growing up, my mum was a chef. Now feeding my own family and friends is a big part of my life and that’s what continues to show up in my work. I have to paint what I know and love.

billiejusticethomson.com
@billiejusticthomson

Super Natural runs April 12 to 26 at North Gallery, Level 1, 55–57 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy.

This article first appeared in Domain Review, in partnership with Broadsheet.

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