‘Breath’ by Louise Marson | Artist Interview

Louise Marson is a Melbourne-based emerging artist working in the ancient traditions of the Ravenna method of mosaic making, a 1500-year-old art form from the Roman Byzantine era. In her first solo exhibition titled ‘Breath’, Louise presents three extraordinary series of works at The Dax Centre in Melbourne and online, until 18 December.

Louise assembles small pieces of smalti glass, natural stone, travertine and marble tesserae into works that are at once aesthetically beautiful in design, materiality and colour, but which are deeply bound in her experiences of living with mental illness and disability and her path towards wellness and positivity.

Made between 2020 and 2021, ‘The Dialogue of the O.K’, ‘Passages’ and ‘Forging Ahead’, not only visualise Louise’s personal journey, but markedly chart the course of her flourishing artistic practice over a few short years.

Louise Marson in her studio at Collingwood Yards. Photograph: Pamela Kleemann-Passi

To make these works, Louise individually hand-cuts each stone piece with skill and precision then places each piece in direct relation to the next allowing the veins and colours of the stones to connect that story, on the surface, in the patterning and between the pathways that meander through the valleys of the work.

They are works made for the outdoors they are robust in material and structural form and in the artists words “they will last as long as the Taj Mahal. They are very much wanting to be touched, you are allowed to touch them.”

Louise lives with her two assistant dogs Penny and Bella who go everywhere with her. We caught up over Zoom ahead of the ‘unofficial’ online opening of ‘Breath’. Louise talked about becoming an artist, her arts practice, the joys of having a studio at Collingwood Yards, living with mental illness and disability, breaking down stigma, the value of working with an art mentor and the importance of taking an wholistic approach to wellness. Louise is also making a short-film documentary in collaboration with Carolyn Bowditch, CEO of Arts Access Victoria, and Louise’s art mentor Helen Bodycomb, also a mosaic artist.

How did you become an artist?
My journey has been relatively quick. I’ve been an emerging artist for just over four years. I’ve suffered from mental illness for ten years and part of that was regularly becoming a patient, during that time they would often do ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). That actually caused a brain injury, so my brain isn’t as functional as I’d like it to be. Over those ten years it was really difficult to manage work and I became quite unwell, immobilised, a recluse. Through mental health there’s this sort of art that is presented to you and I started with that and got really absorbed in it. I couldn’t fill my day enough with art. In the early 90s, I was in Barcelona, and I was mesmerised by the work of Gaudi. I was always quite consumed by my work, I never had any down time. So, when I wasn’t working, I thought ‘well… I’ve got time now.’

When you do mosaics you need time, it’s not a quick process. From then I focused on my practice of working with stone. I developed a great alliance with Arts Access Victoria. They had a program at Brunswick Uniting Church and I went along to that and that’s where I heard about NDIS and the work they do to support disability artists. I went there to focus on my art. Arts Access Victoria have an NDIS worker, they wrote my plan and came along to a couple of my NDIS meetings. Without Arts Access Victoria I wouldn’t have the focus of my NDIS plan or my focus of moving forward into wellness.

Talking about the three series of works ‘Dialogue of the O.K!’, ‘Passages’ and ‘Forging Ahead’ that form ‘Breath’, Marson explains:
In the initial development I felt it was important to document or resolve, to move forward from that unwell model and how I saw myself. That’s where the first series of my work for this exhibition was developed. ‘The Dialogue of the O.K’ is a bit of a take on Are You O.K? Day.

If you look on my website you can see the journey of unwellness, the first work is Alone. Most of the time I am alone except for my beautiful dogs. I suppose that’s why I’ve managed Covid quite well because I’m used to that. My days are very much about my dogs, my art practice and yoga. Alone is one of my most favourite works. In another piece Shock Therapy, I’m talking about the damage of ECT. Skin Deep is about what you present to the world isn’t necessarily what’s going on. I had this need to express that to have a voice about my journey. I wanted to share it with other people to create a dialogue to see if they could relate to anything I was talking about.

The pieces were quite emotional, there were a lot of tears and tissues. It was where I was, how stuck I was in a world where I saw no hope. When you see a world with no hope you’re really stagnant, you can’t move forward and you can’t see the light. There’s nothing to get up for. I was really stuck in that unwell model. With my art I feel like I am contributing something. One of the really important things was an art mentor. My mentor, Helen Bodycomb, has been instrumental to moving forward and saying “Louise, that’s fine that work, but let’s move on to some abstract work.”

Alone, 2020, ‘Dialogue of the O.K’ series, marble, smalti, chinca and copper with patination from the artist’s urine, 30 x 30cm

With this new work, ‘Passages’ and ‘Forging Ahead’, a lot of it is made on mesh so the mosaic moves, it’s like a big piece of paper that you can keep adding to, it’s not confined by the square, it’s confined by how I see the materials talking to me. My work developed to another level, far more professional and more interesting. The work has very simple messages. ‘Passages’ is about the passages out of unwellness. And what’s really quite beautiful about the work is there’s these little secret passages, little gaps between the tesserae and the stone, that’s what makes the work. This was in some ways medicalised because it’s focusing on the breath, so there’s pieces in that where it is more sculptural. It’s based on the lungs and on the stone moving in and out in the way that the artworks are created. That was when the works changed and was about abstraction in a way, really seeing the material and letting the material sing.

The final series ‘Forging A Head’ is about moving forward very much in a positive manner. It’s about wellness and hope and really paying respect to recycled material and having respect for this method of mosaic, which is hundreds of years old.

How has your studio at Collingwood Yards impacted on you and your practice?
My art mentor saw the grant to apply for a space, nearly 80 people applied and there’s only 17 spaces. I was really grateful to be selected, to move from my kitchen and garden table and house consumed by stones. I would generally work eight hours a day so that would take me through to the evening. I would sit outside with my coat and my hat, my miners light and my dogs, its freezing cold and I’d still be chipping away, still very much absorbed in what I was doing.

It’s a beautiful purpose-built space. It was really significant for me to say, “this is my studio”. The mission of Collingwood Yards is about supporting marginalised and diverse groups that can’t access other facilities. It’s been really good to be involved in developing that community. Moving to Collingwood Yards was saying “this is my work, my practice and this is a professional space.”

How do you develop a work is there a lot of planning or is it an intuitive process?
That’s a good question it’s about 50/50. Sometimes there is an incredible amount of planning, lots of drawing and painting. The signature piece, I draw each little stone and the placement of those. Sometimes it’s about following and being in tune with the material. When there’s a plan of how you’re going to get from A to B you can progress quite quickly through the material and there’s not as much thought going in to how you place each piece. It really comes back to thinking about what type of material I want to use for my next piece and seeing how I can position that stone to pay respect to it, and how I make each stone and its cut come together. An example of that is in the work Substance, you can see the veins connecting from one piece to the next. I might have a piece with the veins going across one way, so I’ve chopped it and laid it out because of which angle of the stones side or edge I want to connect. One work generally takes about 4-6 weeks.

Crossing Over the Line, 2021, ‘Forging A Head’ series, Carrara marble and broken coil ceramic pot, 62 x 58cm

Is your process somewhat meditative or is it laborious at times?
No, no, no it’s never laborious. It’s very much a mindfulness practice. I walk in in the morning with my two dogs, put my bag down, put my apron on and stir the glue, that stands for five minutes and I’m looking at the work from yesterday and the stone. I use the Ravenna method with a big hammer and a hardy and there’s this clicking sound, which is very beautiful. So, I’m quite absorbed once I start working. The sound of the cutting and the smell of the stone, it is very sensory work. There’s something about the art of making, the chipping and the cutting, it’s quite a beautiful place to be and pays respect to a traditional method.

What are the implications for you working with such hardened materials and the tools you use?
The act of cutting, you have to be relaxed there’s a breathing process of long slow breaths. If you tense up, you can cause an RSI injury and you’re not going to cut the stone in the right place. It’s really hard on your hands. It’s like working with cement and it is quite porous. When you cut it, it flicks from one side of the room to the other. It’s dusty and dirty. I often wear overalls depending on the stone I’m working with, and I wear a leather apron and glasses.

What are you hoping to convey through your work?

I think this is quite important. With the Dax collection, I’m passionate about decreasing stigma about mental illness and providing more insight because people say, ‘can’t you just take a pill for that?’ or ‘you just need to get up and get on with it.’ These statements aren’t helpful. One of the works Light at the end of the tunnel is about trying to explain the challenges. It is quite traumatic mental illness and I’ve already spent weeks in hospital this year. There’s a work in the ‘Dialogue of the O.K’ series called Treading Water. At times you’re just treading water. It takes an incredible amount of energy and persistence and drive and some days you just think I’ve had enough. So many people just don’t get it.

The documentary
Louise approached both The Dax Centre and the CEO of Art Access Victoria, Carolyn Bowditch with the idea to run a series of seminars about mental illness during Mental Health Month in October. The conversation between Bowditch and Louise turned towards the making of a documentary to highlight the development of her artistic practice and share her journey of living with illness, while impressing upon the importance of a solid multidisciplinary team, NDIS, artistic practice, the value of art mentorship, and breaking down stigma.

“I’m really excited to be able to develop a documentary short film. It should be ready by the end of October. We are going to have a party at The Dax Centre sometime between now and December 18. I’ve put a lot of work into it. I’ve got an entourage of people that put me together to be functional. I’ve got two care workers from ABLE Australia, they’ve been really supportive to help me get my work together. Arts Access Victoria are moving into Collingwood yards as well, so we are going to launch the documentary there as well.”

Louise’s documentary will be featured on the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) platform and St Vincent’s Health Australia through the GP Division, and Co Health where Marson’s multidisciplinary team are located.


Visit the artist’s website louisemarson.com to find out more about her work.

If you or a loved one need support you can reach out to Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 or Lifeline Australia 13 11 14.