Interview: Emily Wright   |   Photography: Bri Hammond

I’ve long admired Kate and Clare James - Kate and I both studied fine art at RMIT at the same time, and Clare and I became friends through a collaboration on Nancybird products many years ago. I’ve always been inspired by their approach to life and their creative ventures.

Traversing watercolour to sculpture, Clare’s art practice explores her lifelong fascination with nature – a passion that extends to her soul-filled garden in Healesville, which is no stranger to the camera (Gardening Australia had been filming just the day prior!). Meanwhile, the intricacy of Kate’s art explores complex and profound themes through painstaking processes that range from horse-hair hitching to Mexican rope-making. More recently, she’s exploring a love of botanical dyeing with a new yarn label, Valleymaker.

We spent a day at Clare's home in Healesville, speaking with the creative sisters about art, family, and the pleasure of living slowly.

EW: How are you both? How have your mornings been?

CJ: Very good. I got up first, and had my pot of tea in the garden. The children found me gardening, and we had brekky together. And then I went to pick up Kate’s son – we carpool to the same little school, just out of Healesville.

EW: And your little ones, Kate – one’s in school, and one’s in kinder? What’s the plan once they’re both in school next year?

KJ: Getting back into my art practice, which I really miss, and then the juggle of putting the foundations in for a new venture, to see if I can push that a little more.

EW: Is that Valleymaker, your botanical dyeing label?

KJ: Yeah, I’m working towards my own yarn label with locally-sourced fibres from a local farm – milled locally, dyed locally by me – all closed loop. I really love alpaca the most - it’s not as popular as it should be! I’m also growing my own dye garden, and just enjoying my passion, or obsession, with dyeing.

EW: That sounds amazing! Clare, what things have been keeping you busy lately?

CJ: I’ve been busy in the garden, getting excited and making more garden sculptures. Some things are ephemeral – woven things, little nesty things. In the studio, I’ve just finished a commission for a winery, and I’m starting on some watercolour stormwater maps for the local council.

Kate and Clare, in Clare's living room. Kate wears Crew Neck T-Shirt in Russet, Wrap Skirt in Navy Mudflats and Stitch Boots in Sand. Clare wears Tidal Dress in Russet Floral.

L: Kate working with her handloom.     R: Lush indoor greenery at Clare's home.

EW: Both of you are artists – did family life influence your respective paths into an art practice?

CJ: I think it was probably the beautiful bush property we grew up on.

KJ: Our bush block had 10 acres, and we'd entertain ourselves by drawing and making stuff. Cubbies, working with clay – we relied on each other a lot, making things for pleasure and without a lot of materials.

CJ: It was a mud brick house, and our parents had made the mud bricks, so there was a cutting on the property where they’d done that. Lines of pure clay – I’d love to go there now. I don’t think either of us knew that you could be an artist. We weren’t kids that were taken to galleries ever –

KJ: The first show I saw was year twelve, maybe year eleven. Our art class took us to see Bill Henson –

EW: Oh, wow!

KJ: And I thought it was Jim Henson, you know – the Muppets! And I was a good little Catholic schoolgirl, and just thought “What the hell?” So, no art education at all really, but Mum was really crafty, was an avid spinner and knitter.

CJ: I think Mum’s definitely got a love for nature. But also, Dad is a botanist and very much a naturalist –

KJ: A lover of beauty –

CJ: I think from a very young child, looking at nature with wonder hasn’t left. It’s been kind of a combination of mum gathering stuff for their beauty – bird nests, shells and things – and dad always taking the time to work out, “what is that?”

KJ: He always had a cracking vegie patch too.

EW: And how would you describe your respective art practices?

KJ: Mine sits very separately to the rest of what I do – I love how Clare’s integrates more holistically with who she is. I almost think of mine like Persephone, where I go underground or to the underworld. The rest of what I do – my craft, my gardening – is purely pleasurable. But my art – it’s for trying to work through ideas conceptually, looking for my own symbols. 

I keep thinking I’m onto something new, but object-making is still at the heart of my practice. Abstract shapes and forms that I use to stand in for things. A reliance on using slow labour. I think those will always be there for me. Does that make any sense?

EW: Yeah, yeah – it totally does!

CJ: And, it’s good for me to understand what the fuck you’re doing!

[We all laugh.]

CJ: I guess, because Kate has studied many, many more years at uni than I have, she’s delved into that conceptual side –

KJ: Yeah, yeah.

CJ: And I haven’t had that – so there’s been this insecurity I’ve had about not being enough, whatever I’m doing. But I’ve given myself a break from that thinking, and thought – actually – at this stage in my life, my priority is to be a good mum, contribute to our house and our life, and to do it in the truest way. I’ve got a really beautiful support network, and if I can do a little project – like fifty days of painting something smaller than a mouse, where ninety percent of the paintings sold – that’s an enormous help towards me being able to practice as an artist.

And each day in my studio, now my girls are at school, is a huge space of time. I’m very lucky, because my studio is in the garden, and most of my work is really about my connection to nature and with animals and trying to understand that, and I’m surrounded by all of that. So I’ve created a bubble –

EW: Watching that from afar it does feel like your home life, your garden, your world as an artist – every part is together.

CJ: What I’ve realised is that I’ve had a thing in my artwork that’s about shelters, hives, nests, burrows, cubbyhouses – and, I realise that through gardening, what I’ve been doing is trying to create a sanctuary. Because I do worry enormously about the world, but what I can do from here is to try, through my artwork, to remind people to take notice of those small things.

L: Details from Clare's home studio.     R: Kate wears our Pocket Dress in Multi Mudflats.

Clare painting in her studio. Clare wears our Pocket Top in Sky Floral.

EW: Kate, being tactile and using your hands - has that been shaped by anything in particular?

KJ: I like the distraction that using your hands gives you, and repetitive tasks allow your brain to get into a really nice loop. I’m doing an artist talk at the Soul Craft Festival, and I’m breaking down why you choose to go slow, and the conflict it creates in your head. Because knitting is so slow, and why choose to do it when you could just buy something? But what do you get by slowing down … what does it give you, what does it offer? I just like going about things the slow way, which is hard to make a living from. Even my craft is slow!

CJ: I don’t have great business skills, but there’s a compromise between creating a print or speeding things up, and also making art that feels real and for me. It’s so hard to make a liveable income, and I couldn’t do it unless my partner worked full-time. I don’t know how artist couples exist.

KJ: Massive sacrifices!

CJ: And I think that’s really important to acknowledge that this doesn’t exist without a day job, because a lot of the people who’ve interviewed me edit Mark out of it. They just love the idea of the artist with the pets and the garden …

EW: And people are reading that, wondering – how is this happening?!

CJ: Exactly!

[Gloria, Clare’s duck, quacks.]

EW: With both of you being artists, has this shaped your adult relationship as sisters?

KJ: We can support each other through tricky bits that we wouldn’t be able to do otherwise, and we recognise the significance of certain things.

CJ: We definitely encourage each other, and support each other – but it’s definitely not the foundation of our friendship.

KJ: Yeah, we can talk shit about anything!

CJ: I said to Mark the other day, I can’t imagine not having something to talk about in depth every single day. Like when we see each other, even just picking up each others’ kids.

KJ: We’ll get told off in water aerobics – she’s like, “Go and have a coffee!” And I’m like, “We do that! We do see each other – we just have more to talk about!”

EW: That’s so nice!

CJ: It’s strange. Because Kate keeps her few friends who are very dear, and sometimes I feel like I’ve scored – I don’t think Kate would give me the time of day if I wasn’t her sister!

KJ: That’s such rubbish!

[We all laugh.]

CJ: But our personalities are so different! You kind of approach life more like a cat – checking it out, staying back until you really know – and I’m a bit more like a dog …

KJ: A really boisterous puppy!

Kate and Clare, with Hector the golden retriever.

L: Clare wears our Rib Skivvy in Sky Blue, Cropped Pant in Navy Marker, Desert Boot in Storm.     R: Kate wears our Rib Knit Scarf in Maple and Desert Boot in Russet.

EW: Has living so close together impacted your relationship?

CJ: We get to see each other heaps more!

KJ: I’m very concerned about her going away on a road trip for four months soon.

EW: Are you doing an Australia thing?

CJ: Yeah! We’ve just got a trailer, a tent, and some daughters who are tough little chicks that love hiking and climbing and setting fires. We’re going to fang it to Central Australia, tootle up to Darwin, and then right down the west coast. We’re breaking it up a bit into overnight hikes.

Kate and I are going to do a project – I want to paint a postcard to each other every week, with a theme about what our art looks at, or our childhood. I set myself a lot of projects – as soon as you set one, and tell people you’re doing something, it’s an incentive.

EW: Speaking of projects, you grow fruit, vegetables and herbs, and you have backyard chooks for eggs … 

KJ: How productive are your chooks?

CJ: They’re very good-looking – they’re friends, make lovely compost … and we’ve got about three eggs this year in total. They don’t lay regularly – they’re just my friends.

KJ: They just sit around going, “Oooh, I’m a bit tired …”

EW: Why do you think gardening and food are so important to your family?

CJ: There isn’t a novelty – it just feels so normal, as part of living, to have a garden and grow food. We eat food, and the scraps go to the rabbit and guinea pig, or to the chooks, or to the worms. Certain times of the year, we get heaps of eggs or none, but their manure goes into the veggie patch – so this cycle just keeps happening. I run the vegie patch, and Mark does all the preserving, pickling, bottling, and bakes the bread once a week.

KJ: It’s so important to share growing food with your kids. I’ve loved being able to teach them and show them, and they’re so much more likely to eat it.

EW: Taking pride in growing it?

KJ: I was watching my daughter Pearl the other day, chatting away and ripping the beans, and I was about to go, “Can you not eat all the beans?” And then I wondered why I’d stop her from eating all the beans. That’s pretty nice that she’s able to do that.

EW: And tell me about each of your approaches to personal style. Do you have a uniform?

KJ: For the last couple of years, I’ve mostly worn clothes that I’ve handmade. Having to re-do a wardrobe after having kids, and realizing nothing fitted the same or looked as good, I got back into sewing. I also bit the bullet and learnt to knit properly. I love wearing linen – it’s my favourite – and alpaca and wool. What about you, Clare?

CJ: I just love when Kate and a couple of other friends, when they’re like, “Hey, would you like this?”

KJ: You’re a great op shopper!

CJ: I have my good clothes – my Nancybird shirt and dress, and then Kate’s made me a linen dress that Iove. And I wear shorts and tights pretty much all the time, and then usually a bird on my shoulder – with bird poo on my back, I’m not very fussy.

KJ: But you look great, you always look uniquely you!

L: Clare wears our Chunky Knit Jumper in Maple and Eastern Loafer in Russet.     R: Clare wears our Rib Skivvy in Sky Blue, Cropped Pant in Navy Marker, Kate wears our Jacquard Jumper in Cloud, and Wide Leg Pants in Russet.

The view into Clare's glorious garden.

EW: Yeah, totally! I’d say that too. On another note – have your childhoods influenced the way you approach motherhood?

KJ: I think having parents that separated young had a very big impact on both of us. We’re both married with two kids, which is kind of lovely and odd. But we know that we were loved, and it happens to so many kids – that their parents separate or lose a parent.

CJ: I think how often I sound like my parents enjoying themselves – I come out with so many Max and Judy-isms, it’s not funny. I’ll be waving at cows and tooting, and mum did exactly the same things, and singing songs to wake the girls up that are a bit annoying.

KJ: I just empathise with how much our parents did for us.

CJ: It does make me reflect on who I am as a mother. The feeling of knowing that they would have done everything for me. I think my girls have that feeling, that base of knowing how totally loved and adored they are, and that we would move mountains for them.

EW: What are your hopes for your little ones’ futures as they grow up? That’s a huge one, but …

KJ: I worry about the planet that they’re inheriting, and the impact that it will have on their happiness and their life, and I think I have a similar wish to our mum. It’s really simple, but I just want them to be happy. I don’t dream about them being famous, or doctors, but I just want them to be happy and have a strong sense of self-worth and independence and confidence and character.

CJ: I think it’s a really great time to be raising young women – with Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, or the Fierce Girls podcast, which we listen to. Having girls that have always known that they’re as fast as any boy, or as tough, and really brave - I just hope that they retain that knowledge of how strong they are.

It feels like there’s so much danger out there, and they’re going to rebel – they’re going to want to be everything I’m not soon. But I hope I’ve put in enough work that they’ll come through that and land on their own two feet.

I can see them starting to really notice how women portray themselves, and we have really interesting conversations about body image. The moment I had a baby girl, I said to Mark, “I’m never going to talk badly about my body.”

The other night, Lylah came into the bathroom while I was in the bath, and she goes, “You are just beautiful. How are you so beautiful, mum?”

EW: Oh my god.

CJ: And I’m like, I’m just a lady who could probably exercise a bit more. I clearly have breastfed for four years, and have been pregnant twice with really big babies. And I’ve got daughters who see that as beautiful, and that’s in Lylah, so even if she goes through all that teenage stuff, hopefully there’s enough good stuff there.

KJ: There will be. There is.

Clare on her front porch.

L: Wild green goodness in Clare's garden.     R: Kate and Clare enjoy a cuppa.

Learn more about Clare James by visiting her online store. Explore Kate James' folio, and learn more about Valleymaker, her botanical dyeing label.

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