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The Future of Art – Q&A with Florence Ainsley

Florence Ainsly (formally known as Hayley Steel) is a 19-year-old Canberra based artist who uses various influences, like her religious upbringing, to explore her art and create different works.

While only being 19  years old, Florence has achieved so much at such a young age, receiving several awards and nominations for her art and having her work displayed in multiple galleries across the ACT and NSW.

Florence is only at the start of her career and shows no signs of stopping any time soon. This Q&A will go into how Florence started her career, where she is at now and what she intends to do to for the future.

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Q: How old were you when you started painting and what inspired you to start?

F: My whole life I’ve been creating little worlds and stories on paper, however, I owe my beginning in painting to my first art teacher Jun Pan. He has a deep understanding of colour theory, compositional theory, and European art, and taught me from when I was 12 to 15. Through still life practice, I learnt to portray form in charcoal and water-soluble oil paints (through which I learnt the beginnings of oil technique). He solidified my foundation by focusing on practice and technique rather than completing finished works and is to date the most valuable teacher I have ever had – however to my regret I didn’t realise this at the time. After I left Jun’s studio at 15, I was deeply intrigued by portraiture, as I hadn’t had any training in the subject. Subsequently, I threw myself into anatomy study expecting to move on to the next obsessive phase in a couple of weeks, but I found myself greatly fascinated by the subject and that year I drew every single diagram from my grandmother’s copy of a Gray’s Anatomy textbook into my sketchbook amongst other studies of proportion. I did my first portrait series in 2016 (which were quite bad) but at the time I was impressed with myself so I continued to create portraits.

Image provided by Florence Ainsley
Image provided by Florence Ainsley

Q: At what point did you realise you wanted to take your art to a more professional level?

F: There wasn’t any single point in time when I went from a hobbyist to an aspiring professional, but rather a multitude of small events that in those moments made me think ‘I could be an artist’. One of these first moments was when I was Plein air painting in 2017 and a German tourist bought the painting on the spot unfinished. Another time was when I did a short painting course at the National Art School and found that Jun had already taught me everything in the course, and when I felt that I fit in with the practising artists I was learning beside at the Julian Ashton Art School. I came home from the courses and told my mum with great enthusiasm that ‘I could be an artist’ as if I was thinking it for the first time, and she looked at me as if to say ‘well obviously, we’ve already established this.’ The biggest moment of this for me, however, would be in 2018 when I got a call from my dad while I was at school to let me know that my portrait for the Young Archie’s would be hanging in the Art Gallery of New South Wales for 6 months – something I never thought I could achieve. It was somewhere amidst these moments that I decided to continue studying art into university, and hopefully take it to a professional level – much to the satisfaction of my parents and teachers who I didn’t believe when they told me I could paint. 

Q: You’ve achieved a lot at such a young age with awards and nominations, what’s your next goal? Are there any awards you have your eye on currently?

F: My next goal is to enter the Darling Portrait Prize, however, there are complications with arranging a sitting due to COVID-19 restrictions. If it doesn’t come to fruition I still hope to enter, and perhaps have my subject sit for another prize. I recently saw the exhibition of last year’s finalists in the National Portrait Gallery, and it would be an honour to be displayed among such beautiful works, particularly in such a prestigious setting. This is currently my only goal other than focusing on my studies at university.

 Q: Are there any new art styles you have been experimenting with or wanted to try? And if so what are they?

F: Currently, I’m experimenting with a juxtaposition of baroque and modern styles of oil painting, and I’m hoping to move into more abstraction and surrealism as I improve. As I learn more and expose myself to more art I find myself increasingly captured by modern art in a way I have never before. Indeed, when ‘she’ was younger and uneducated, ‘Hayley’ thought herself quite the elitist and I’d prefer to distance myself from her philosophies and attitudes. This is part of the reason why I changed my name to Florence. I’m also experimenting with various forms of sculpture such as wood, textiles and ceramics to incorporate into my painting, but I’m still very much a beginner in this field. 

Image provided by Florence Ainsley
Image provided by Florence Ainsley

Q: You were going to have your first solo exhibition until it got postponed, what goes on behind the scenes of setting up an exhibition? How long did it take to get close to completion?

F: ‘Jezebel’ is a collection of my favourite paintings from my gap year focused around the theme of religion, as that was the year I formally left the church. The majority of the works are from 2019 and were finished before I applied for the gallery space. From beginning to completion it took about a year and a half to paint, however, I had other projects that I was working on simultaneously. After being given the gallery space I could focus on making a plan for framing and printing. I hired a photographer to shoot promotional shots and printed a zine, however, all of these plans were affected by COVID-19 in some form. Not long after, ‘Jezebel’ was postponed. I’ve had some of these paintings on my wall for what feels like the longest time, and I’d like to see them leave the house. They feel restless. They don’t want to stay here any longer.

Q: Do you plan to continue art as a career? Or is there something else that you want to do?

F: I would love to be a full-time artist. I would love to survive emotionally and financially. I would love to work as a curator and write books about my future speciality. I would love to work in restoration. I will always be painting.

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