Interview with Jillian Ciemitis, by Kamila Waleszkiewicz
Inglewood Arts Hub, November 2023
Traditionally, in our interviews at the Hub, I ask artists about their origins. Where did you come from and where did you grow up, Jill?
I was born and lived in the West Australian gold mining town of Kalgoorlie until I moved to Perth in my late teens. In the late 1980’s I travelled to London for several years to work and explore Europe and the beautiful galleries where my world opened up to Culture and the Arts.
Where did your family come from?
My cultural heritage derives from a Celtic background; both parents came from big families with seven siblings and grew up during the depression in WA regional towns.
What kind of family traditions do you still keep alive?
Nature walks and my love of nature and seeing the beauty in nature. Creating from nature. Looking at the clouds and seeing pictures.
A special time for me was nature walks with my Mum, looking closely at beautiful leaves, bark and found objects that we would bring home and place in the garden.
Similarly, my Dad would take me on bush walks, where he encouraged me to look carefully at rocks and gem stones while searching for gold and meteorites. He would bring home Thorny Devil reptiles for a day and I’d watch them change colour as they’d camouflage to their environment. I’d add different coloured flowers, leaves and red dirt, to see them change, before releasing them back into the bush.
As well as my own family traditions, I adopted new ones from my husband, Peter’s family. Through his Latvian heritage, Easter Egg Painting on Good Friday where we dye and paint eggs, using flowers, leaves and onion peels in our garden. We make Latvian Pirags to share to eat with family and friends whilst painting eggs. These are now one of favourite family traditions as well.
Image: Passing Raindrops. Jillian Ciemitis. 30 cm x 30 cm
I believe that our childhood has a significant influence on our adult lives. It’s not just traumas that shape us; I like to focus on the positive moments and memories. I believe that positive and happy experiences and caring, good people are essential for shaping our characters and attitudes. Can you please share something about your childhood?
Other daily routines revolved around cooking. I used to sit at the kitchen table and shape people and creatures and out of my Mum’s left over pastry. I’d wait patiently in front of the fire for them to come out of the wood stove all golden brown. I learnt to sew on my Grandmother’s old Singer treadle sewing machine and used to sew and make textile works with fabric, wool and other materials.
I became fascinated by the still and moving image. I still have my first Kodak instamatic camera and used to love taking photos of my family and friends. I have happy memories of asking to see all the old ancestorial family photos and hear stories about the people in these beautiful portraits that were part of my family tree.
Film also became a window to the world outside Kalgoorlie. My neighbourhood friends and I would walk together to the Saturday film matinees. On our way home we’d recreate aspects of the film we’d just seen. I used to love watching old black and white films on TV, a window for me to see lives of others different from my own. It was intriguing to notice how they would use light, shadow and textures without colour. In 1977 when we got our first colour TV, another window opened up seeing the outside world through a colour lens.
I had many journeys on the Prospector train between Kal and Perth as a child. I would take my creative textile projects and drawing materials to keep me occupied on the eight hour train ride. I also loved looking out of the windows and watched the colours change in the landscape.
What kind of games, activities, and joys did you have as a child?
I played a lot with the children in my street, riding our bikes for miles exploring the bush. Making our own fun using our imagination, keeping cool under the shade of the Eucalyptus trees, walking along on the huge water pipelines that came all the way from Perth, getting our hands and feet into the natural red clay slabs after the heavy rains.
Who were you surrounded by?
A lot of my childhood friends were multi-cultural and I loved hearing and experiencing their families’ cultures, food and traditions. They gave me respect for people of diverse backgrounds, and a genuine interest to ask about their backgrounds, and learn about their cultures. Most of all, through my Mum, I was always surrounded by our friends, neighbours and community, and were always active in keeping friendships alive.
Image: Jillian Ciemitis. Luminescence. Screen print. 60 cm x 45 cm
What do you consider the starting point of your artistic career?
In 1994, I studied Art and Design at TAFE, which I further built upon through ongoing studies. In 2011 I graduated from Edith Cowan University with a Bachelor of Contemporary Arts in Visual Art and Photomedia.
Was there a specific event or moment in your life that led you to decide to become an artist?
I’ve always had a passion for art and creativity. However, the point where I began to think about art as a career came upon completing my degree at ECU. I had my first solo exhibition and continued my journey of creating and exhibiting.
Tell us about your artistic practice, please. How has it evolved over time, and what are the most significant challenges you’ve faced?
The biggest challenge is having enough time to create and juggling other life commitments, as well as, the effect of dedicating time to volunteering as well. I often find it leaves little time for my own creative practice.
Image: G20 Hangzhou China Global Arts 2016
As an international artist, could you tell us about the works, projects, or exhibitions you took part in?
Over the past decade, I’ve participated in numerous International cultural exchange exhibitions, ranging from China, Japan, India, Bangladesh and Italy. I think one of the standouts was being part of the G20 Summit exhibition in Hangzhou China in 2016, representing Australia in a high profile program of cultural and political events. It was my first time on the world stage, and the connections and friendships I made helped us continue our participation in many subsequent projects. I guess my desire to include, not exclude, artists from projects meant that we were able to introduce fellow artists to these international opportunities; something that Peter and I are continuing this coming year with the next project in Japan.
As well as reaching out to a wider arts community, I naturally appreciated the opportunity to see first hand great artwork, and produce bodies of photography and printmaking from travelling overseas and seeing other cultures and experiences.
One of our wonderful surprises came in Venice during the 2017 Biennale. We were part of a side-exhibition, but didn’t think much of it. That is until we got there, and discovered that Yoko Ono and Jeff Koons were exhibiting in the same Palazzo! It turned out that the show was a much bigger deal than we had imagined.
Image: Fire Escape. Jillian Ciemitis and Linde Caughey. Digital and collage. 42 cm x 30 cm
What you are most proud of as an artist?
"Sister City II Change" was an incredible project to be part of. Working together with 20 women artists from around the world during 2020 to 2022 during Covid lockdowns. Working in a ‘call-and-response’ process, I collaborated remotely with my project-partner Linde Caughey who I introduced to the project from meeting at one of our international exhibitions in Japan. Linde was based in both New York and California depending on the time of year.
We used to have long engaging Zoom meetings with our curator Andrea Przygonski and the other artists and see into windows of each other worlds of what we were experiencing during Covid. It was a positive time we shared and we all felt so inspired and uplifted after our project and exhibition in Adelaide.
An added surprise was being noticed by a New York composer, Alexander Margin, who improvised a composition around ‘Fire Escape’ one of Linde and my collaborative artworks, and then later being approached by Australian/New York jazz singer Chris McNulty to use another one of our artworks ‘Drowning Tree’ on the cover of her CD ‘Eternity’.
You recently exhibited in Japan. Could you share more about that experience and whether Japan holds a special place in your heart?
In June 2023 Peter and I participated (along with my collaborative artist partner Linde Caughey USA) in the 22nd International Art Exchange Exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.
The International Art Exchange is a major annual collective exhibition of over 120-140 artists from around two dozen countries held in Tokyo’s signature Art Museums. We were honoured to be presenting Australia in this particular event, for the 5th time.
I admire the traditions of Japan and Art, Culture and Design is an important aspect of their culture.
Being a printmaker, I enjoy the beautiful Japanese printmaking, fabrics, and papers. I love to do a lot of my photography while I’m in Japan.
Image: Drowing Tree Cover image by Jillian Ciemtis and Linde Caughey. CD Christ McNulty
You are an artist yourself, and you are married to an artist while also being the parent of an artist. Does your home feel like an art-filled environment every day?
Yes, it is easier having a partner and daughter who are both artists as our home is also our art studio and we live around our art. Our old dining room table is full of character and you can see the marks we have made through time. It is often used as a working table for screen printing, lino printing, drawing, painting and framing work. As a family, around our table, we have lots of good discussions and resolve some of our creative ideas together. And there is always good music playing from Peter’s vinyls.
How do you support each other in your creative endeavours?
We have a joint creative art practice and support each other when the other needs it. We are a great creative team, we intuitively know what needs to get done and help each other out.
Are there moments of disagreement? Do you all have enough space at home to explore your creativity?
Artists never have enough space. We have had disagreements over who has the most space for their art studios and we are very quick to grab rooms, like when our daughter moved out. We have both our studios in our home, which is a Tudor townhouse. Never have enough room for storage.
Image: Mount Fuji. Jillian Ciemitis. Photograph. 30 cm x 30 cm
Can you share some funny moments or sacrifices you’ve had to make?
Our top attic studio (third floor) can only be accessed by a ladder, which is too small for moving large works. Consequently, we have a gable wall that opens out (like a dolls house) to move big artworks up and down out of the studio on the outside of the house. Once we open up the wall one of us lowers down the artwork on a rope to the others below. Then we repeat the process with moving the works from the second floor deck to the ground below. And then we used to strap the works to the roof of our car, often flapping down the highway. Is it any wonder many of our works became smaller!
Both of us are actively involved in the Inglewood Arts Hub, dedicating our spare time and energy to building the local art community. It can be challenging to commit to unpaid work in our already busy lives. What motivates you, and what value do you find in this community involvement?
There is a direct connection between my upbringing, and my motivation for volunteering my time to the Inglewood Arts Hub. The value of being part of a community instilled in me by my mother, and the importance of being inclusive of people, not exclusive, finds its way into all I do. I really believe that even if we don’t personally benefit from volunteering, there is still reward in seeing other artists flourish, and helping to extend a greater love of Arts throughout the community. There is a joy in hearing the stories of other artists and seeing what they create from their own experiences and histories. After all, that is what a community is about.
Thank you, Jill for finding time for this conversation. Life comes full circle. It is so wonderful to see how your upbringing benefits your artistic life.
Thank you, Kamila.