Staying Home with Carla McRae March 10 2021

Photography by Tatanja Ross.

Carla McRae is a Melbourne-based artist who makes bright and cheerful illustrations with a vibrant colour palette. Her work is all about satisfying combinations of colour and form, exploring the beauty that exists in the everyday, and positivity—always.

Interview by Viet-My Bui. Photos below supplied by Carla McRae.

Tell us about your creative journey: what brought you to this moment in your art practice and how has it evolved over time?

I grew up on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland and spent most of my childhood either running around outside with no shoes on or drawing. I jumped into a graphic design degree straight after high school, without knowing exactly what design was - just hoping that I would get to be 'creative' in some way. I drew my way through it and started sharing my work online, picking up odd commission jobs here and there.

After graduating, I moved to Melbourne in 2012, failed to find a design job and worked in hospo for a couple of years. I was also doing some work for a friend's sock start-up, Odd Pears, running the creative side of things - designing socks, branding, organising collaborations and shoots, online content, etc. In retrospect, I can see that this time was really important because I had taken the pressure off myself to be a 'designer', and when I wasn't working my hospo job I was energised to be drawing, working on illustration and Odd Pears projects, trying new things, making new friends and going to exhibitions. I was really into using fine liners and copic markers, making zines, being in group shows and working on commissions at the time.

In 2014, after a really inspiring two weeks in Japan with a best friend, I came home and quit my hospo job and things really changed gears after that. There was more pressure on drawing to support myself but I also had more time to play with different mediums and push forward new ways of making my work. I had my first solo show at Lamington Drive in 2016, and was invited to be represented commercially by The Jacky Winter Group - that's a big milestone. I feel really lucky to have an agent, and JW's support has been life-changing.

Over the last few years, I've continued to experiment with different mediums and ways of making work, with a balance of commercial projects that pay my bills and personal projects that attend to my interests and really keep the whole thing rolling. It's all a bit of a juggling act, but I still can't quite believe that I get to draw for a living.

Your upcoming show at Outré Gallery is called Home Use Only. What is the concept behind the name and body of work for the show?

The works in this show are portraits of the various domestic objects that I used most days throughout the extended lockdowns of 2020. Through the highs and lows, I got to know these objects intimately and they ended up being an anchor to each day. By integrating them into routine and ritual, they were grounding in their familiarity amongst the unpredictability of the weeks that warped onwards.

'Home Use Only' is a phrase that I recall from childhood, a textual warning that would flash up on VHS tapes indicating the film/programme was not licensed to be shown in public, and should only be watched in the privacy of one's home. I kept thinking about this phrase as I was drawing these portraits. I found it humorous and somewhat fitting - the routines and rituals that I now associate with these objects could only exist within my home space.

Which object from your show is your favourite?

The two coffee cups are my favourite. They are the cups that my boyfriend and I use each morning, and are made by our mates Daniel & Emma. I think about starting each day with a black coffee and an egg on toast, sitting in the sunny window and listening to music, talking about the day ahead or doing a crossword from The Smudge on a weekend. Mornings to look forward to :)

Your work focuses on feelings of peace, hope, and joy. How do you channel these feelings of positivity when faced with challenges? Do you have a ritual to calm the mind & warm the heart?

Any of these things: Take a walk. Have a reset shower. Green tea. Lay down with eyes closed and count breaths with a hand on chest. Talk to a friend. :)

I also listen to ambient mixes – lots of nice long mixes on Soundcloud. At the moment, Hiroshi Yoshimura and Satoshi & Makoto are on high rotation. Also in Melbourne, Analogue Attic Recordings put on great ambient / gentle electronic gigs from time to time. Also a worthy mention, Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works 85-92 is a classic and I can swiftly enter a drawing or writing wormhole when the track 'Xtal' plays.

You have expressed a love of walking and the outdoors. Where is your favourite place to go & let your mind wander?

My favourite spot just outside of Melbourne is the Dandenong Ranges. They are a really peaceful place for me - I feel myself exhale deeply whenever I visit. I highly recommend the R.J. Hamer Arboretum on a sunny day for good green exploring and lyre bird spotting! Also, walking along Mudjimba beach back home is special for me.

What draws you to abstraction, geometry and minimalism? Has your work always been about simplification?

My work has definitely shifted and changed over the years as my interests and practice grows. I find the process of abstraction and simplifying really satisfying. Refinement and redrawing has always been a part of my drawing process, and pushing it further is a fun way of practicing a different way to see and think, and create new types of images.

You've travelled quite a bit for your art practice, including residencies in the forest and explorations in Tokyo. Where would you like to go next?

Yes, so lucky to have been able to travel a bit in the last few years! A lot of my own personal daily experiences form the content and foundation for my work, so naturally seeing and doing new things in new places has been really important for inspiration. I'd love to explore Australia more - hope to be able to visit Uluru someday soon!

Dick Bruna is a major inspiration for you, and you recently created an artwork paying homage to the artist. What were your favourite cartoons and storybooks growing up?

Growing up, we only had one Miffy book - the one where she is born - but I remember spending a lot of time with that one. The beauty in the way Bruna drew something as simple as a green bean or a pear was so captivating and delicious to me. I also loved Spot, and had similar feelings about the shapes and forms in those books! Lots of TV: Wallace & Gromit, Gumby, Madeline, Saturday morning cartoons, Cheez TV, anime and Hayao Miyazaki. I was also obsessed with A Goofy Movie when I was 7, and drew many fan-art comics and portraits of Max Goof. Clocked a lot of drawing practice hours with that one.


Personal work is very important to you. How do you allocate time for play and experimentation amongst client work?

The balance is always wavering, but I try to allocate at least one solo exhibition every year to work towards. Amongst the commercial work, I'll also create little projects using new techniques or materials - like make a new zine or book, or organise a collaborative project. Carving out the time is the most essential thing, otherwise, it just doesn't happen.

As an artist, how do you find the balance between making work for fun and work that supports causes you feel passionate about?

It's important for me to balance out my commercial and personal work with projects that are for the community. This might mean donating work to fundraisers, working with organisations and using my illustration skills to share or amplify a message, or working with schools, hospitals and the like on projects that speak to and benefit their community. Like the personal projects, this means carving out the time to allocate to these causes!

What advice do you have for someone wanting to take the (scary!) plunge and pursue making art full time? How did you juggle finding time to build your portfolio, finding jobs to pay the bills and on top of that, avoid burnout?

Have some savings and create a kind of financial safety blanket for yourself. Save up before you quit any day jobs, and try to keep that back-up money there for peace of mind. Also, find a good accountant who specialises in creative business. Freelancing is a juggling act! Being your own boss and having flexibility is really great but it can also often feel like the To Do list is never-ending. It comes down to time management and scheduling in proper time off and future rewards for yourself to avoid burnout. The inner boss is always there, but you have to hold yourself accountable to the time off in the same way you hold yourself to a deadline. 

Thanks so much for chatting to us, Carla. We can't wait to see your show!