How it all started

At the tender age of five, I was taught to paint by my mother, painting trees and Australian landscapes — the subject of many precious memories that I cherish. People say do you have training? I studied towards my PhD in physics and have multiple science degrees, but I have never attended a formal art class. My mother was brilliant but never became successful as an artist or writer, of which she excelled in both areas, but she taught me how to paint. I always won art prizes in primary and high school and was accustomed to seeing my works hanging in the school auditoriums. However, at that time, I envisioned my future in the field of science.

‘Bananas’ 1980 by Estelle

I attended Wollongong University, where I studied towards two degrees concurrently, a B.Sc. in theoretical physic and the other a B.Math in Computing Science. It was the 1980s, yep, a while ago. Strangely I found time enough to create art on the side and had my first exhibition entitled the “The 26 Cent Exhibition,” as it cost that much to enter. It would be the only money I would make from my art for many years, yet the enormous takings were donated to the Wollongong Regional Gallery, where my quirky show had opened. Many people who attended the exhibition were high school students who walked past the sign requesting the 26 cents, realising it was a comment on the value of art. By this time, I had left Australian landscapes, religious portraits and realistic painting behind and embraced abstract expressionism with a newfound passion. This highly abstract style had everything and was so subjective that one continually sees new elements in the works over time. It was a profound realisation that abstract was a reflection of our thoughts and desires, not just a pretty picture of a landscape.

I continued to paint through university and afterwards and never sold a single painting, yet I gave away hundreds. I tended to give someone a painting if they liked it, and I figured it would be better off on someone’s wall who appreciated my work than sitting in storage in my house. I wasn’t making a living from art then, nor was I working as a scientist. I wanted to get more degrees. It wasn’t about getting a job but rather understanding the subject proficiently. I worked as a professional dancer. Yes, I know a complete turnaround after leaving university and attending dance classes. I got my first dance job size after leaving dance lessons.

Eventually, I toured in large cabaret dance shows in Asia. Towards the later part of the 1980s, I decided to move to Japan after living in Asia for a few years and seek work there. I moved to Tokyo on a one-way ticket in the winter of 1988 and quickly learnt that cabaret was in its death throws. So I vowed to do whatever was necessary to bring my art to a new level and make money from it for the first time. I decided to try selling my art in the most unlikely place, not some gallery or art fair but the bustling Tokyo subway stations.

Millions of people walked through those cavernous tunnels every day. Looking back now, it was like the internet of the 80s! So many people. It wasn’t easy, not at all. I initially thought the Japanese people were so programmed and disciplined that my abstract would be too far out of their realm to be appreciated. It was because of their restrictive society and the pressure they were under that made my art so attractive to them. It represented a new kind of freedom. To my surprise, many people bought my paintings that weren’t framed or professionally presented but were abstracts on A2, A3, and A4 cardboard sheets. They were too cheap, but that was why people bought them. At that time, Tokyo was the most expensive city in the world, so doubling as a hostess in bars at night helped pay the rent, and it would continue like this for a couple of years.

A painting for sale in Ikebukuro, Tokyo Eki 1989.
Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum

Over the years in Japan, I painted daily, and my art became more proficient in abstract expressionism and more professional. Then I applied for a UNESCO exhibition, which was a long shot; pretty much every foreign artist in Japan and Asia was applying, which was super competitive. I counted the days and expected the usual rejection, for there had been so many in my life. Surprisingly, the official letter arrived by hand-delivered post to my Tokyo apartment. I was selected to exhibit at the 1991 UNESCO Tokyo Friendship Exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. I was ecstatic! It made my 26 cent exhibition seem naïve.

Not only did I exhibit my work ‘ Kami 1-2-3 | Triptych’, but I also received an award for the effort and was asked to speak at the after-party by the UNESCO representative. It marked a turning point in my artistic pursuits and, in a sense, launched me onto a more concentrated pathway to becoming a full-time established artist. Next stop, the world!

Kami 1-2-3 (1991) | Triptych by Estelle Asmodelle 1991.
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