2018 Steiner Watertank Tess Cullen for Creative New England

Interview with local Artist and UNE Staff Member Tess Cullen

All images have been provided by Tess Cullen

Tess Cullen, Artist, and UNE Oorala Staff member has always lived a busy life, full of culture and adventure…

As a child, I had barely moved further than Melbourne before, we (my family and I) sailed to Canada. We went through a typhoon, visited China, Japan, Hawaii, and Disneyland. My horizons were broadened as I met people from all over the world and had experiences far beyond the scope of a country town girl.

Since then Tess lived in many places around Australia, but quickly worked out that she much prefers the life that can be led in smaller country towns to cities. That being said she moved to Armidale in 2016, from the NSW Far North Coast to be closer to her children and grandchildren. Since then she has immersed herself in UNE and the wider community.

Creativity has always been a big part of your life, can you tell us about this?

My mother was an art teacher who loved the history of art and I became fascinated by the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans or whatever aspect of history she was teaching at the time. So once we started travelling our journeys were full of galleries, ancient ruins, castles, temples, Aztec pyramids, sculptures, architecturally important churches, amazing natural wonders, all the works by masters my mother had only seen in books – a never-ending tour of the wonders of how art featured in all cultures. I was very lucky to travel through 16 countries over 3 years, it opened my eyes and I am sure this shaped the person I am today.

Art and nature were just part of growing up. The kitchen table, wherever we happened to be, was the place of exploring new ideas and artistic techniques. It was only later I realised what an extreme education in Art I had had. I always thought I never read anything besides comics growing up but it dawned on me one day that I had poured over art books, looking at the pictures and reading the captions my entire upbringing.

Tell us about the role you play in the Armidale Art Gallery?

I enjoy being active in the community! The artist in me quickly found the Armidale Art Gallery, a not-for-profit community organisation made up of local artists and in need of volunteers.

Armidale is home to so many artists. I love the Armidale Art Gallery because of its focus on showcasing local artists, supporting the creatives within our community. It’s a place where visitors are able to see what the artists of this region have to offer.

To become a member all you need to do is come through the door and join up. You can then have work hung as part of our general collection, enter work in the various shows, and get to know a bunch of other creatives.

After a year of being involved, I took on the role of President. This was just before I started working at the Oorala Aboriginal Centre, UNE where I was employed to facilitate the Oorala 30th celebrations in 2017.

What can one expect when visiting the Armidale Art Gallery?

Usually, our Calendar is filled with around 17 private exhibitions annually, two Art Prizes, a Members Summer Show, a donated artworks raffle, artist talks, art workshops, and an artist style garage sale – the Bits and Pieces sale. Every month there is a new exhibition. So besides the events and keeping the Gallery open there is plenty to get involved with.

Unfortunately, COVID has changed a few of your regular activities, how has the Gallery adapted and how can the community support?

The Gallery closed for three months during the pandemic restrictions and as it is run only by volunteers it is not eligible for any government support. It’s been very tough on a small enterprise like ours to cover costs with no income. Times were already showing an economic downturn due to the drought and fires affecting the region.

Whilst closed we created online galleries for members’ works and exhibitions and will continue this into the future.

In July the Armidale Art Gallery re-opened with an exhibition called ‘Life in the Time of Lockdown’. On exhibition until August 15th it features over 60 artworks with accompanying statements about how these unusual times have influenced the artist’s chosen subject matter and their life experience. Artists know how to be productive when the world around them closes down.

How to help an artist is simple – buy their work. The gallery has small and large, paintings, watercolours, drawings, photographs, cards, ceramics, sculpture and jewellery at affordable prices. Take the time to look and appreciate what’s available.

What should we look out for?

Opening on 21st August we have ‘Hot Cakes- the $100 Art Sale’, an opportunity just too good to resist where you can purchase works by local artists at an affordable price.

AAG Hotcakes Poster

Over 45 artworks with a reduced price tag of $100 each will be on sale for this exhibition only. All the works have been donated to the Gallery to assist our fundraising efforts and recoup the ongoing costs the Gallery space continued to incur during these times of restrictions and closure.

Contributing artists include; Susan Griffin, Roger Speaight, Judy Wilford, Julia Hardman, Ros Brady, Lizzie Horne, Liz Fulloon, Jim Walmsley, Eve Kennedy, Lilian Wissink, Jane O’Sullivan, Stewart MacDonald, Shirley Cooke, Lorraine Kelleher, Cherry Stewart, Nicola Schutte, Suresh Kumar, Linda Lockyer, Maria Hitchcock, Laura Stodart, and Terry Cooke so far.

Armidale Art Gallery also has strong ties with Renew Armidale, can you tell us a little about this?

Situated upstairs in the Central Mall, the Gallery strongly supports the Renew Armidale campaign to bring life back to the heart of the town. Currently, we partner with Deb Page and her a-arts precinct, and set up a shop window of saleable local art in her premises. We also hope to have a ground-level space ourselves before the end of the year either by sharing Debs a-arts precinct or finding a suitable space through Renew Armidale for ourselves.

Do you have a particular style?

As an artist, with a busy working and family life, I often see my art practice as occupational therapy – the balance to a world full of people. Painting landscapes in oils was my first love yet I have learned to paint with acrylics which is the medium I use today.  Along the way, I have branched into ceramics and pastels but it was when I found the art of mosaics where I could combine a love of recycling, conservation, and creativity I knew, I had found a medium I could always revel in. You can only imagine my huge collection of broken crockery, old tiles, and coloured glass in my reasonably large shed and my never really wanting to move again.

Bits And Pieces Exhibition, Tess Cullen for Creative New England

Where do you find your inspiration?

Inspiration comes from a love of nature – our amazing landscape, national parks, gardens, and flowers. Inspiration follows a feeling, a colour, a pathway, a sense of balance, a lifetime of looking at art. Watching what my mind’s eye focuses on, what catches my attention, what moves to the top of the pile, is the beginning of every piece. A mosaic design is often found in the object itself – look at any object long enough and one can see what will flow across its surface. I’ve always been changeable, moving on easily as an individual and my art follows this aspect of me with themes and threads running through different periods of my life. A joyous playing with colour and texture.

What is one message you would give to any aspiring artists?

Just have a go.  Find a teacher, a class, an online tutorial – follow the thread, and step by step you’ll end up having a marvellous time.

And finally, what’s your favourite thing about being a part of the New England community?

Living close to family with a job I enjoy I feel settled in New England and it has brought my art practice back into the centre of my life once again.

Thank you so much for your time, Tess! All the best with the art show ‘Hot Cakes- the $100 Art Sale’ this evening – we will be following along on Instagram and FacebookIt’s awesome to have community members like you organising great public events! 


If you’re looking for something to keep you inspired why not check out Creative New England or join their Facebook group to keep in the loop with up and coming competitions!

There’s something for everyone! #CreativeNewEngland