Tales of artists scraping together a living to follow their dreams is an oft told and well-known story, however, one ex-shire resident, Bridgette McNabb, has not only proven the adage fallible, but against longer odds than most.
It’s been a stellar year for the 29-year-old London based painter.
A portrait exhibition veteran, Bridgette’s work was selected for the 2014 Doug Moran National Portrait Prize with her painting of her friend Tessa. She was also a finalist in this year's Archibald Prize for Portraiture with her impression of UNSW lecturer Grace Hellyer and a finalist in last year's Moran Portrait Prize for a self-portrait with flowers.
In 2010 she was a finalist in the Portia Geach Memorial Art Award for women painters, and her works have twice been included in the Archibald Prize (her 2014 Archibald entry will be exhibited at the Coffs Harbour City Art Gallery from April 18 to May 31).
It’s an incredible achievement, from a rural girl raised in a single parent family, who has taken the art world by storm through passion, dedication and sheer hard-work.
Bridgette’s early years were spent on a farm block out the back of Bellingen, before moving to Repton and later Urunga when she was 13. She describes this period as being a happy, gypsy-style experience.
“Growing up in a single parent family meant that we moved around quite a bit,” she said.
“Being a young child on a huge property was wonderful, especially as I am an only child. We had a lot of animals and I was forever exploring our acreage (and the neighbours) which always kept me entertained. Moving to Urunga as a teenager was the period when I began making art.”
Bridgette attributes her transition from farm to a small town as being the catalyst to her burgeoning creativity: “to keep myself entertained”.
“If I had grown up in the city I highly doubt I would have spent my time at home painting and drawing … growing up in the country you are forced to entertain yourself which I think is a really positive skill to possess as a young person,” she said.
Yet it’s still a far cry from country girl to a successful London based artist and Bridgette is careful not to romanticise the difficulties faced by rural kids.
“The lack of exposure to art was definitely a hindrance, as was the fact that I had never met a practising artist, she said.
“It seemed like a very unrealistic career path to take, one that I never took seriously until I moved to London.”
Schooled at Bellingen High from 1997-2000 and then completing Years 11 and 12 at Coffs Harbour Senior College, Bridgette left home when she was 18.
She moved from place to place - Brisbane, Mooloolaba, Cairns, Perth and then by age 21 found herself in London.
“I worked a myriad of different jobs, trying to find a career path and failing, as nothing held my interest very long,” she said.
“Moving to London when I was 21 was the best thing I could have done. There are so many young people doing interesting things, it gave me the confidence and ambition I needed to believe that I could do anything I put my mind to. It was the first time I was exposed to major galleries and an expanse of creative projects, it was such an eye-opener. That was definitely the moment when I thought, hey, I could do this.”
After a 10-week portfolio course one night a week at Central Saint Martins, London’s best art/fashion/design school, Bridgette was accepted into their Fine Art Degree course, but couldn’t afford to attend as an international student.
Undeterred, she quit her job, moved to Sydney, and enrolled at The National Art School, where she completed a BFA honours degree in 2011.
A trained florist as well as a painter, Bridgette said portraiture had been the focus of her attention since 2002.
“Every work I create fills with me a sense of joy and accomplishment, knowing that I am learning and improving on my own merit, as both teacher and student,” Bridgette said.
“In saying that, it is a very challenging career path to navigate. Finishing art school was a difficult time for me and many of my peers as we were facing the harsh reality that making art rarely pays the bills.
“Once again I faced the obstacle of finding a job that was creative and sustained my interest whilst maintaining my art practice. This is when I decided to become a florist. I find floristry overlaps with my painting practice in so many ways; it really was my saving grace. I get to work with my hands, think about colour, structure, form and work with beautiful materials.”
Bridgette’s mother, Dianne Rees still lives in Urunga and said her daughter has worked hard for every achievement.
“We're a single family and she put herself through the National Art School," Ms Rees said.
“It's all she's ever wanted to do and it's so good she has been able to follow her dream and been good enough to get somewhere with it.”
For her part, Bridgette attributes much of her success to her mother’s influence:
“My mum is my biggest fan, my best friend and my rock. She has never forced me to do anything I didn’t want to do, or asked me the dreaded question – what are you doing with your life?”
“She has always had confidence that I would figure it out my own way in my own time. She was not overly encouraging or discouraging of me becoming an artist, which I think, ironically, was a great thing as there was no pressure.
“We never had a lot of money but she always supplied me with art materials. I can’t recall ever asking for them, however they became my most treasured things – I actually have the watercolour pencil set she bought me when I was 12 here in London! She taught me to approach art in an ‘art for art sake’ manner- to make art simply because it was something I enjoyed doing.
“Whenever I am struggling with ideas or creative blocks I revert back to this simple approach, which funnily enough is usually when I make my best work.”