Zoe Young's Rustic Bowral Cottage Is an Artist's Paradise
Welcome to The Makers. Each week, we’re celebrating innovators, artisans and crafters of all types, taking you on a private tour of their creative spaces. For this instalment, we head to Bowral in New South Wales, where artist Zoe Young has transformed a cottage into a creative hub for herself and her family.
Tucked away in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales is the airy, light-filled cottage that artist Zoe Young calls home. It’s ideally situated: isolated enough that the painter has both the physical and mental space to create her incredible, emotive artworks, but close enough to the nearby woods that she can duck out on a sunny day to pick some fresh apples, before returning to her studio – where she’s often been since dawn – to continue her work.
It’s idyllic here, in this magical place Young and her family have lived for the last five years. When they first moved in, they painted everything white – inspired by Wendy Whiteley’s stark, blank canvas house – and did quite a bit of renovation work. They opened up the kitchen so that the space really flowed and removed “a lot of faux finishes and bad lino”.
The end result is a lived-in and organic space, perfect for a horticulturist (Young’s husband Reg), an artist and their two children, who love to skateboard through the house or indulge in a game of handball. “With young children and animals we’ve never wanted anything precious,” Young explains. “The garden is cascading and rambling so the house is just simple and bright, to honour the things we’ve collected over the years.”
Among Young's prized possessions is the heirloom drinks trolley inherited from her grandmother and her collection of exquisite coffee cups by ceramicist Kate McKay. “To me, that’s luxury,” Young enthuses. “To have handmade everyday objects.” There are even specialty hooks by architect Willea Ferris on the walls, and artworks by Young’s grandfather and, of course, Young herself, hanging around the space.
Everything in the cottage is curated according to Young's interior design creed of simplicity, efficiency and light. This is especially evident in her bedroom, where the high ceilings, huge windows, and white panelled walls are given the chance to shine with minimal styling. It's a tranquil space Young comes to rest after long days in the studio, enveloped in Mineral and Sage linen that perfectly matches the large-scale artwork hanging overhead.
“Keep it simple,” Young advises when decorating a space. “Have everyday rituals to keep it bright and clean, only have what you love around you.” But her best tip for maintaining an inviting home? “Don’t go to the gym and get a cleaner. Clean your own home and buy champagne instead.”
Hi Zoe! This series is called The Makers. What is it that you make?
I make things about what interests me most in life. I generally use paint to do this, however my degree from The National Art School in Sydney is in sculpture and so I do venture out into the third dimension from time to time. I love to make portraits from life as it’s the greatest challenge to capture the nuances of character amidst a moment in time. Often I don’t pull it off, but when I do, it is a wonderful feeling.
How does the act of “making” relate to your personality and who you are?
I grew up in a big family and we lived in a hotel, so making things happen was part of my childhood. I did a lot of drawing and my parents would print them on the menus and frame them on the wall.
My mum’s a phenomenal cook and I find painting and cooking are so intuitively alike. We lived in the mountains and made cubby houses, filmed our own movies, sewed costumes. The hotel had a giant wooden maze and animal farm and so there were always kids around and things to do. It was a very creative childhood and subsequently it’s the only way I know how to live.
In winter that hotel was closed down and we’d move to the beach. I remember the contrast of culture, landscape, colour and architecture distinctly and I always feel my art is about the distinction between the elements of warm and cool, mountains and surf, interiors and exteriors, winter food and summer food.
Tell us about your career journey to date. Did you always know you wanted to pursue this line of work?
I was always drawing as a kid. At school I was the go-to girl for bubble writing and cartoons or the cover of the year book. I went to The National Art School when I was 17, but I dropped out after two months.
I eventually graduated in sculpture when I was 32. My trajectory to becoming the painter that I am today has been a real dance between design, fashion, art, cooking and travelling – it’s been anything but straight. There was no instagram when I was in my 20s, so it was really tricky to get your work out there and find your audience. There was a lot of confusion, rejection and isolation. I see so many young artists being rather self-congratulatory on their swift success today and I think how lucky they are to live in an era that facilitates self promotion and creative connectivity.
Talk us through your creative process. Where do you start?
It’s all very intuitive. If it’s a glorious day in summer it’s hard not to go for a walk to the nearby woods, pick some apples and paint them. That’s a perfect day’s work. A lot of work is just about home and living day to day. However, I often get obsessive about telling a story and that tends to be more complicated and involves a lot of research, especially if it’s a portrait. For instance, I spent most of this year reading all of David Williamson’s plays and flying to Noosa for sittings. Some paintings are the treasure at the end of the hunt, others are just a straight observation of that which is in front of me, be it a person, mountain or pickle.
What’s been the single most crucial tool or strategy you’ve used to further your career?
Admitting when something doesn’t work. If you can be honest, you can do better. There are no shortcuts.
What’s been the most challenging lesson learnt so far in your career?
Prioritising what matters and letting go of the distractions. It’s a constant battle. It’s hard to create something that doesn’t exist, so there’s a tendency to procrastinate on painting and do something that exists and needs to be done i.e the washing. But fuck the washing, I’ve got an important job to do. The painting must be painted.
What’s been the best thing that’s happened to you since you started your career?
Having children, nothing teaches you time management like a baby. Wilbur was three months old when I started painting Torah Bright for the Archibald Prize. I said to myself, just commit to a few hours each day whilst he is sleeping and just do it, don’t overthink it, just get it done. Being hung that year was a game changer in my career.
Now, the home stuff. Did you do any renovations or make any big changes after moving in?
My husband Reg is a horticulturalist, so he did the Edna Walling-inspired garden of nooks here and a kitchen garden there. In the spirit of Wendy Whiteley I painted everything white. We opened up the kitchen and put a deck in and ripped out a lot of faux finishes and bad lino. It’s been quite a lot of work really, but renovations are a bit like childbirth, you forget what you did and just fall in love with what you have.
What was the thought process behind the way you’ve styled the interior?
I work with colour and pattern and ideas all day in the studio so I find comfort in the banal at the end of the day. I often bring works in to live with them if I feel there's something lacking, so often things are resolved when you least expect it, during a game of eye spy over dinner, or seeing a colour combination in the laundry basket.
Shop Zoe's look with Sage and White in our Build Your Own Bundle.
What are your favourite pieces in the home?
The heirloom drinks trolley from my grandmother. My grandfather’s sketch of the chapel he did whilst studying architecture at Cambridge. The pianola is loads of fun for the kids and I love having antiques in the home, for them to have a respect and love for History. Ceramicist Kate Mckay made all of our coffee cups. Architect Willea Ferris made the hooks which are super handy to hang things on, but I prefer not to as they make for such interesting sculptures too.
Do you have any special décor pieces you’re looking to add?
I’ve just commissioned sculptor Lisa Lapointe to do a gigantic oil burner. I’m right into my rituals and love her work as it entwines with the cosmic side. One day we’ll all grow up and get a coffee table, but the kids go skateboarding and play handball all through the house and so we’ll have to wait.
Which is your favourite room in the house?
My studio, I love the Aga in it. I often come in at dawn in winter and it’s warm and so easy to just put on some music and get to work.
Do you have any projects coming up you want to talk about?
I’m working towards a very big show at Olsen Gallery in Sydney in 2021 that is about the surf, the snow and the orchard in between. When I’m not doing that I’m collaborating with my family on a cookbook. My sister lives in San Francisco, my brothers are in Bangkok and Prague and my parents are in Thredbo, so cooking is our way to feel connected during this twilight zone year that we haven’t been able to see each other.