Veronica O'Leary moved to Tanja from Darwin with her husband more 30 years ago after being inspired to join the Far South Coast community she said had a flair for sustainability and alternative lifestyles.
Ms O'Leary said Tanja was a "real hub" for artists who had gravitated towards the area from places like Canberra, where people had often studied or worked in the arts sector.
"I think people were drawn to the beauty of the place, the National Parks and the coast were a big attraction- I mean that's why we came here," she said.
"We left Darwin because it was getting a bit hot for us after ten years and we had some friends in this area.
"We were all building mud brick houses and that was just what you did, it was an ideal place because it was out of the way, it was beautiful, you could set up a studio and be with likeminded people.
"We all had that dream, it certainly started in the 70s when people wanted to be sustainable, and I think it's coming around for a lot of people again, just trying to survive because things are so expensive."
When she moved to the area, Ms O'Leary got a job at Bega TAFE teaching English before she headed a newly established art department. However she said the department was eventually dismantled when TAFE was restructured about a decade ago.
"The arts were considered non-vocational so there wasn't the funding for it, so then they virtually sold up everything," she said.
"We had a huge ceramics department with lots of kilns and gear, and you can't get it back once you've de-structured it.
"It was a real tragedy for the Bega Valley because we had 90 students doing diploma courses, and it just stopped over night virtually and so we just lost all of that, and we've never got it back."
Ms O'Leary said she has been offering classes at her own studio because there weren't many options around for students in the region, and has continued teaching some of her old TAFE students.
Ms O'Leary moved from Tanja to Tathra around 12 years ago. She and her husband built three mudbrick cottages on their property in Tanja that they rented out as bed and breakfast accommodation, but eventually they had to make the decision to downscale.
The decision allowed Ms O'Leary more freedom to focus on her artwork, rather than trying to maintain such a large property.
She said she has always gone through phases in her art. In more recent years she has focused on big landscapes and skyscapes, then moving onto drawing and painting Australian botanicals, and then onto painting table scapes and still life.
"I tend to work in streams, but it's sometimes dictated by what exhibitions you're working for, so I did a few residencies on King Island and they resulted in big sky scape paintings used for sky and landscape exhibitions."
The Tathra bushfires of 2018 resulted in Ms O'Leary painting a lot of skyscapes using the "pulsating orange" she saw and the dark skies full of smoke.
"That's what started the banksias really, because they were fantastic after the fires because they came alive, which translated into painting a lot of banksias on these big gnarly burnt orange backgrounds.
"It was a real savage beauty," she said.
During the COVID pandemic and subsequent lockdowns Ms O'Leary shifted her focus right back onto still life and the domestic.
"You were inside, you couldn't do anything, so what was immediately around you became your inspiration, so the domestic landscape became my focus and so I started the see the tablescapes as a landscape."
She also created journal-like entries in foldout concertina books that she called 'The Lockdown Diaries', where she drew and painted still life.
Ms O'Leary said she ended up creating a lot of self portraits "because you spent a lot of time looking at yourself or things through COVID".
"I loved making those because I love drawing, I try and draw everyday. From these the table scapes evolved because I was now looking at the long landscape of a table."
During the pandemic, her sons often came home to Tathra and "got stuck or worked here", they would go fishing and bring back a diverse range of fish species, "so I had to draw them before we ate them," she said.
The food in her COVID series was also inspired by the cooking that was done while a lot of people switched from eating out to eating in.
"You cooked a lot because you couldn't go out and my husband's a fabulous cook, so a lot of the creative energy went into meals," she said.
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