Sarah Kelk’s paintings are about layers. Behind the controlled surface of her artworks lies a storm of rough brushstrokes, built lash by lash to construct serene vistas of colour and light.
Growing up on the South Island of New Zealand/Aotearoa, Kelk always gravitated toward the paintbrush. “As a kid and right through school I always enjoyed painting,” she says. “But when I went to university I made a conscious decision not to do fine art. I loved other stuff. I nearly did math. So I've got a double degree in art history and design.”
Working for years as an interior designer, as well as running a gallery space in Scotland, the urge to paint ebbed. But when Kelk and her husband moved to Melbourne she picked up a brush again with purpose.
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“After moving to Melbourne I found someone's big student paintings on the hard rubbish pile,” she says. “I was like, I'll take those canvasses. That was my starting point to getting back and focused. And it just snowballed from there.”
Kelk’s return to painting struck a chord. She’s become well-known for her poised, abstract landscapes – made with a mixture of house-paint, oil and acrylic – built on layers to create a unifying whole.
“I always start with a quick and very rough underlayer that hardly takes any time,” she says. “That's usually my favourite layer because it informs how the painting goes from there. Every layer informs the next and I keep going from there. I feel like it's a really intuitive process. I let the painting guide me.”
It’s these signature layers that caught the attention of Thankyou. A name familiar to anyone who’s browsed for handwash, the brand is no typical business: it’s a social enterprise. 100 per cent of its profits are committed to eradicating global poverty. Beginning with a water bottle, Thankyou now has more than 55 products and has given over $5.8 million to fund safe water, toilets, and child and maternal health programs for hundreds and thousands of people in need.
When the brand approached Kelk with an idea for a label collaboration on one of its bottles of handwash, she didn’t need convincing. “I've been a long-time supporter of them and their mission,” she says. “I've sort of been brought up with that whole idea of if you have that ability to help someone, then you help someone. So when they got in touch with me and asked if I knew Thankyou, I was like, of course.”
Thankyou gave her one prompt: “empowerment” and imagery from their projects to draw inspiration from. The theme is a unifying concept behind the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) project Thankyou funds – a project in rural Bangladesh which helps females in the community set up wells, toilets, wash stations and form WASH groups to run training and maintenance of the hardware. The idea is the project is owned and operated by women, which empowers their standing in local communities.
“I loved that [element of the collaboration],” says Kelk. “If, let's say, a 15 year old can be inspired or empowered because she's been given an opportunity to run something, other members of her community will see her doing it. So it’s not just, here we're giving you some water. We're going to build a well, train you to maintain the well, then help you train the other people in your community to keep it going. So those layers are constantly there. It's not superficial – it's really engaging and creating. Helping anyone feel empowered and proud of what they do is huge.”
Sarah Kelk’s unique label-design collaboration appears on the new Botanical Earl Grey and Clary Sage handwash, available in Coles nationally and online at thankyou.co
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Thankyou.