Blue Mountains artist Ellie Sutton has a distinctive style. She layers acrylic or oil paints and inks in multiple colours on a large canvas, followed by a solid colour. Then she uses various tools to cut meandering parallel ribbons that reveal the layers underneath.

“I’ve always been a spiritual person, and I think there’s a lot more to the world than we can comprehend. The lines represent our interconnectedness with each other – our past ancestors, our shared life experiences. It’s like there’s one consciousness.”

Her style is reminiscent of Japanese Zen gardens with sand or gravel meticulously raked in patterns. But where those careful lines disappear at the whim of a breeze, Sutton’s work has permanence. In 2023, the new artist was named overall winner and abstract category winner in the Bluethumb Art Prize. Bluethumb is the biggest online art market in Australia, selling work by 20,000 emerging and established artists.

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“I wasn’t hopeful when I entered, and being chosen was such a wow moment. It was surreal. I think if we have flashbacks at the end of our lives, one of mine would be when I learned I’d made finalist.”

Her Katoomba studio is cosy. Oversized canvases and acrylic sheets are propped on milk crates, each work at a different stage of production. Until recently she’d created her enormous works – some nearly two metres tall – at home.

“Anywhere I could paint, I was painting,” she tells Broadsheet. “I’d have big pieces in the middle of the kitchen – people couldn’t access the bench. It spilled out all over my house. I’d work lying down on the floor, or if a work was too large [for me] to reach the centre, I’d work on it standing up, turning the canvas around as I painted.”

Though Sutton is young she’s recently spent a lot of time thinking about the end of her life. In 2022 she began to have mysterious, debilitating symptoms. “I started getting neuropathy, muscle loss, three or four seizures a day. I lost 25 per cent of my body weight. I now have chronic fatigue, liver disease and one of my legs doesn’t work properly.”

Doctors eventually traced her symptoms back to her Covid vaccination, but it was a long road to get a diagnosis. “I experienced a lot of medical gaslighting, and my quality of life was non-existent. As a mother, it’s profound to ask yourself, ‘Should I go overseas to seek medically assisted euthanasia?’. I felt so out of control.”

When Sutton got sick, she was at the top of her game, working a corporate job, living in Sydney. The pace of city life put pressure on her condition; she needed to slow down, so she and her partner and her two teenage daughters packed up and moved to Katoomba. For the first time since high school she started to paint. Ten months later, she was accepting the Bluethumb prize. It gave Sutton the freedom to immerse herself in her art.

“When I first got sick, things were really bad, but then I started to do my art practice and I realised that was the silver lining. In any other circumstance I never would have taken the risk. It’s difficult, but I’m so grateful for this life. I’m happiest when I have a creative outlet. It fills up my heart.

“I think anyone can be an artist. There’s such a huge spectrum of what art is and each piece is an expression of the individual creator. For me I knew I had to develop a unique style to be recognised. With every new piece I was honing my skills. I’ve heard artists say you should run with one thing and take it absolutely as far as you can.”

@ellie_sutton_artist
bluethumb.com.au

Read more in our Studio Visit series.