My first introduction to Febe Zylstra was by accident, when a friend and I stumbled across the Mental Illness Fellowship Queensland (MIFQ) annual art exhibition just over a year ago. I was only recently recovered from my own encounter with depression, and was immediately drawn to see what this show was all about.
Outsider Art is a peculiar thing. It’s not always visually appealing, but that’s not really the point. Art as therapy doesn’t create art that’s pretty, it creates art that’s necessary. And relief from mental illness is attractive in whatever form it takes. It requires a lot of courage to lay your soul bare for the world to critique. We are all at our most vulnerable at that point, let alone when opening yourself up from a place of vulnerability anyway. I didn’t like most of what was in the MIFQ Art Exhibition, but I loved that it was being done.
And then I came across this work:
A delicate wisp of a girl, her skinny arms holding a chicken as body armour to protect her heart, and a tentative smile on her face. True to the name of the artwork, it was the best thing in the show.
The name Febe Zylstra meant nothing to me, and I spent the best part of a year trying to give it some context – to no avail. Then about a month ago a friend shared information on facebook about a forthcoming art show and there was that name again – Febe Zylstra. Serendipity. It’s a word I use a lot in my life.
Febe Zylstra, as it turns out, is lovely. She is warm and unassuming, someone you feel like you’ve known forever. Diagnosed only three years ago with Bipolar Disorder, she uses painting as a way of quietening the noise in her head. As with many self-taught artists I’ve met, she has the eagerness and fragile self-confidence of someone finding her place in the art scene among the established crowd – a daunting job for the most confident of us anyway. A step in the right direction is a solo exhibition, a chance to see the works outside the context of the MIFQ.
Fight or Flight is the name of Febe’s new show at C Gallery, and I’m happy to say the work is no less impressive in a different environment. An instinctive, organic production method has created a show that covers figurative, abstract and expressionist styles, where wide-eyed girls with balloons and birds on their shoulders hang alongside canvases of circles and texture and truly beautiful colour palettes.
The guys at C Gallery are lovely and very supportive, but I would love to see Febe Zylstra’s work in one of the larger established galleries, away from the distractions of gift lines and other pieces. These are works that require space and contemplation, and the chance to get up close and engage with them. It is easy to miss the detail in the layers of paint, the unexpected inclusion of materials like bitumen and sand, and the words often scrawled ghost-like in the background. Febe’s work covers such a wide breadth of artistic styles that it already takes a fair amount of concentration to see the works cohesively. There’s a lot to be said for the big white box, you know? And I suspect Febe herself would benefit from the experience of a guiding force to nurture her the way the Johnstone Gallery, Win Schubert and Philip Bacon did for so many of the artists we now consider legends.
One work in particular jumped out at me, and it did so from the floor. Included as an afterthought, The Messenger is one of Febe’s older works that was leaning dejectedly against something else in the gallery. When I asked about it, she was almost apologetic until she realised I genuinely liked it. The lack of confidence in her work is endearing, but she’s got the talent to move beyond it and embrace her intuition.
When you’re producing work that brings to mind names like Brett Whiteley, Charles Blackman and Russell Drysdale, you can afford to be a little cocky!
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