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Bonnie Lee

Bonnie Lee (they/them) is a multidisciplinary artist based in Naarm (Melbourne), working with ceramics, sculpture, paintings and illustrations to explore complex social and environmental topics. With a surrealist style, Bonnie uses symbolism to create a visual language to communicate and engage with an audience about concepts of sustainability and queerness. Both Bonnies’ art practice and lifestyle is influenced and informed by their keen awareness of environmental crisis and their eagerness to act sustainably.

In a busy little University café, I sat down with Bonnie to discuss their art practice and motives for creating art. We are surrounded by the hustle and bustle of students, busy with the end semester. We ordered two chai lattes and got to talking…

Do you see your art fitting within a certain like art movement?

I would say that my work is closest aligned with Surrealism… Like whenever I'm curated into a group show, I'm always with like the dark art and the queer art; because those are the things that interest me. Like as a child, I only read books that were purely non-fiction; an encyclopaedia of animals or facts about a boat or something. Or I’d learn something about dragons and pure escapism fantasy. I think that my art is mostly escapism and quite metaphysical… like figurative, but abstracted. I think that when people talk about my work, that's usually what it's compared to.

In your practice are there usually main or ongoing themes that you like to work with? Or is it more experimental with finding different themes for each artwork?

I feel like there's usually a common thread, especially I feel like with symbols… For me creating a visual language is just a different way of speaking or writing to convey a message. I like to use hands and eyes because I feel like gesturally there's a lot of diversity in a way to communicate, but also it's quite easy to create a complex imagery with many emotions with those two.

Yeah, they are both such fundamental human communicators. Did you always create work in the aims to communicate something outwardly to an audience?

Most of my work is introspective, but I feel like the pandemic triggered me to think ‘all these things are happening! Black summer bush fires had just happened, we have Black Lives Matter protests, we have this QAnon internal disturbance within our population of paranoia and anti vaxxers and misinformation!’. Just all of these different social tensions, and I realised that things I'm creating, just for my introspection, doesn't really matter in this landscape. So, I was prompted to make work that was representative of the issues that were happening outside of myself and my perspective. And now I think both of the pandemic voices are important, because my personal journey as a person who's living through these experiences matters as much representing the global experiences.

You are so deeply aware and perceptive of global and social issues. Is research and critical analysis of these issues an important part of your artistic practice?

Now more than ever, since doing my Bachelor’s degree, research it is such an important part of my creative process. I think that there was always something that I would be responding to, like a book or a song, it was never just like just born of my imagination completely. But I do think that now if I'm creating an artwork, I want to learn about deeply about the topics I discuss. I can't just be presenting my point alone, so to have a richer depth to the research means that the artwork will be able to answer a lot of more questions as well. Because you've got to live within some sort of logic, and within the work as well as. Yes my work is usually imagined worlds, but where you need to create a baseline of understanding of what you're translating across.

Is there a noticeable movement and a push in the art world, towards being more environmentally aware?

I feel like now everyone's work is concerned about the environment, because it's an unavoidable blead through. Especially with sculpture, because so many of our materials are toxic and they have an ongoing footprint on the environment; like resin and expanding foam and plaster. It important to keep thinking about how we source these materials? Is it ever sustainable to do a ceramic firing? Do I need to be using steel? They're all questions you need to present to yourself. Is it worth using this material for the work, is it valuable enough to use it through this entire process? And I feel like sometimes the answer is yes, but it's just the most subjective question to ask yourself.

Is it quite hard to come to terms with using materials when you know they're unsustainable or not biodegradable?

I think it is… Like for myself, even just as a lifestyle, I like to operate within reduction of my impact. Because, just in every facet of our existence, as a person we are consuming and doing harm in some way. I feel like everyone does their little things.

I think in the way of materiality, the larger journey for myself is moving into an art practise that is satisfying for me to only use materials that don’t make me question if I should be using them. It's just so hard finding materials that still gives you deep satisfaction, and conveys the messages that you desperately need to convey... I don’t want to choose between a material or a message. Because I feel like my art is my strongest communication tool, so I can't lose that tether.

Do you feel as though it’s important having visual artists a part of the conversation about environmental issues? On a similar wavelength to how influential science and politics are in this space.

I was actually considering this on my way over, and I think it's a similar reason I went down the pathway of creating a work about the environment. It is that you're both bringing these ideas to your followers or audience, and you're conveying it in a way that isn't just like presenting a research paper. Trying to tell people that may not be able to understand it or may not be able to relate to it.. But then putting that message through the filter of yourself and creating an artwork which utilises your strength; if that's like starting conversations or making a lasting impact in a positive way.

I think it is so important that these complex ideas are shared using many different avenues for people to understand… Considering those ideas further, I think that’s what artist are able to do effectively within this conversation; is being the bridge between the research, science and also showing the literal ramifications of the planetary crisis to the public and also being able to convey complex ideas in a palatable way; so that people listen, and sometimes just encouraging a person that might not have been available to the conversation other wise.


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