Forget photographs; Jessica Fitzgerald can trace her travels via fineliner. When the local artist was backpacking in her early 20s, she began doodling in pen to pass the time on her slow journey through Spain and Latin America. “It was mostly patterns and mandalas to begin with – I was in a lot of hippy towns,” Jessica laughs.
Those early intuitive artworks ignited an old love, and so Jessica returned home to Bendigo to take her first tentative steps to becoming an artist.
Jessica was one of those kids who constantly drew, but her creativity took a back step during VCE and her years spent studying speech pathology at university. She went on to work as a speechie at both Bendigo and Castlemaine Health, but once she rediscovered her passion for drawing, there was no turning back.
Jessica began researching drawing tutorials online when she came across the Urban Sketchers community; a movement of people around the world who love to draw on location and then share their artwork online. The interest led her to attend an Urban Sketchers Symposium in Singapore, where she did workshops with Australian artists Jane Blundell and Liz Steel. “After that, I took a solo trip to India and did a lot of sketching on location – capturing the urban landscape and stopping in cafés to draw people, teacups and other items that sparked my interest.”
She enrolled in a visual arts course at a Melbourne TAFE and split her time between classes in the city and working as a barista at Get Naked Espresso in Bendigo – it was a job that would prove advantageous for her art career. Jessica’s first commission was from a customer who’d seen her whimsical works of houses posted online. That piece became the first of many much-loved Bendigo homes she’s committed to ink and watercolour. She says she particularly loves painting the city’s Victorian and Edwardian homes. “Older houses often come up really nice because of the details and the beautiful gardens.”
The piece Jessica is holding here is her latest local work. It’s also the home of keen coffee drinkers. The commission was an engagement present for a couple of coffee shop customers who’d recently bought their first home, a cute mid-century weatherboard in Kennington just crying out for Jessica’s creative touch.
“I start by doing an ink drawing and then I fill it in with watercolour. At some point I let go of the technical side of things, and of perfectionism, and with curiosity I allow the house’s character to develop. And I love to add sneaky touches of turquoise.” In the Kennington home the blue-green tinge is in tiny paint splatters in the trees. “It’s minimal but it’s there,” Jessica says. “I’m definitely influenced by Liz Steel’s style. Initially, you choose your colour palette and inspiration, and your style will evolve from there. I do think my drawing and painting skills are getting better over time. It’s true that people are born with natural talent, but it’s something that can be built on through keen observation and practice.”
Jessica says the significance of drawing people’s homes is something she holds dear. “For me, a home is a personal retreat, somewhere to treasure, form memories in and enjoy returning to every day,” she says. “To be able to capture the character of someone’s home and give them a personal and creative reminder of it is an absolute joy. Particularly for those who are downsizing and leaving family homes after many years.”
Jessica has also built a whole new career thanks to art. After the TAFE course, she went back to La Trobe University in Bundoora to study a Master of Art Therapy. “I thought I’d go on to study fine art, but I didn’t think the lifestyle would suit me, so I went into art therapy instead as a way to combine my passion for creative practice with my therapeutic background. It was hard going back to uni as a mature-age student, but it was worth it.”
Jessica now combines her own practice with a job as an art therapist at a private Melbourne hospital, working with patients undergoing mental health care. “Art therapy offers a non-verbal means of exploring emotions and inner experiences,” she says. “We place equal, if not more, importance on the art process than the final product. Some individuals will discover key personal insights, while others are simply looking for a relaxed, creative escape.”
Jessica says she’d love to see art therapy offered more widely, as so far it’s more prevalent in the private system. “It doesn’t have a large research base, which is why it’s not funded well, and the benefits are often difficult to quantify.” But for Jessica, those benefits are clear. Her own life is the perfect example of the transformative influence of art.
She says drawing, and particularly drawing on location, promotes mindfulness. “It gives you a greater appreciation of your surroundings, I think. It really gets you to notice a place and its character. The more you draw, the more you notice things in your everyday life. I carry a little book around with me so I can do quick sketches and portraits. It’s all practice for me. And to be away from your phone and lost in something for an hour or so is really lovely.
“Getting back in touch with my creative identity has opened up all sorts of possibilities for me. Having work that is meaningful to me is something I really value and I feel fortunate for having the opportunity to be able to follow and share my passion.”