Having grown up on a remote farm in the bush of Western Australia, Dena Lawrence has a deep affinity with the wilderness and the natural landscape. Her country upbringing filters through her aesthetic sensibility. Appreciation of the wildflowers and unique flora blooming on the edge of the outback is a key part of her artistic language, as are the bright colours prolific in her beloved India.
At boarding school, some 500 km from home, she learnt to channel her feelings of homesickness into creative pursuits, first by playing the piano, later through visual art. The contrast between her youthful experiences – running barefoot, riding motorbikes and handling livestock – and the refined environment of ladies’ college was acute.
“It was really difficult, being sent off to a school run by nuns where there was a lot of discipline and control, but the education was excellent. That’s where I learnt to get in touch with my creative side. I could get lost in playing music. It became an important self-soothing activity as well as being fun. When I went on to study art, I found it too formal. Later when I started working in mental health, I wanted to explore a more spontaneous inner voice, body wisdom and expression, rather than stiff, intellectual figurative work. I felt I needed to be more intuitive.”—Dena Lawrence.
In her twenties Dena reconnected with nature through her travels in India practising yoga and meditation, through time spent on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, and a period living in a tipi in Tasmania. She studied nursing before recognising her calling, to harness the transformative power of creative activity within mental health, through providing art therapy. She continues to use expressionist painting as a tool for her own growth, exploring visual and conceptual elements of darkness and light. Working with acrylic paint on paper, which she favours over canvas for its smooth surface, she produces around 15 paintings a week by layering gestural markings and flinging or flicking paint to create freeform, spontaneous compositions. These abstract, multi-directional paintings are perfectly suited to rugs that are to be viewed from different angles.
“I practise what I teach in the art therapy process. I don’t start with any plan, other than a certain energy and a few colours. The image starts to tell me where to go. Sometimes it can get chaotic, other times it becomes something more pleasing that comes together as a rug design.”—Dena Lawrence.
Creating rugs with weavers in Kashmir pushed her own art practice into new territory. This has, in itself, become a therapeutic activity for Dena. When developing a rug design, repetition of form and framed pockets of abstraction are introduced to the page, to anchor the complex colour combinations in pockets, like gemstones or stained-glass windows, bringing a level of familiarity to the viewing experience. The rug collection names Firesun and Watermoon refer to two opposing but connected energetic states that she has recognised and related to since childhood. Firesun is connected to an expressive, explosive, bold, free-flowing, intuitive state of being, like that she experienced aged 10, when she created a Jackson Pollock-style work on the veranda of her family’s new home, using left-over paint from a stack of old tins. The Watermoon element of her personality is more subdued, calmer, settled and concentrated, which she attributes to her formal training. Both are important, informing her parallel careers in art therapy and as a mental health nurse, and evident in her desire to explore difficult places, such as Kashmir, mid-conflict. The two are complementary and come together as a collision of opposites, to be integrated harmoniously into her spectacular rug designs.