Growing up in a remote community in the Northern Territory, Gudanji/Wakaja woman Ryhia Dank was surrounded by the process of making art, but it wasn’t until much later that Ryhia realised she could turn her passion into a career. While living in Darwin when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Ryhia found she had more time than usual and began to paint. She was surprised how much interest there was for her art, and, before she knew it, her business was born. Ryhia’s painting is storywork, and she calls her storying Nardurna, which means woman in her language. Here, she talks about the influence of her heritage, her creative process and tips for budding artists.
Career by Coincidence
Starting out as an artist was kind of a spur of the moment decision. I studied graphic design at university, and then I went into the corporate world. When the pandemic hit, I was in Darwin and I couldn't get back to my job in Melbourne. I started painting. I first painted something for a friend who had been asking me for a long time to [create] something for him. Because I had a lot of spare time, I started to paint more and more. Then I started putting it online, and on social media, and I couldn’t believe how quickly it took off.
I've been deeply inspired by my family members, and my home, which is about 10 hours south-east of Darwin, about an hour away from Borroloola. Growing up, we had no electricity, no hot water, but I have so many memories that link me back to my childhood. I’ve got two traditional grandmothers left. I keep creating art to hold onto that.
Heritage as Foundation
My upbringing has had a huge impact on my art. My dad is from the Gold Coast, and my mum is from the Northern Territory, near the Queensland border. When I was little, I would sit around the campfire with my cousins; everyone would be painting. We [also] made coolamons, which are like a rectangular bowl with the ends cut off – like a holding vessel. There are lots of different types within different Aboriginal groups. We used to carve them and we would paint on them; I thought that was just normal. Art has always been right there in my face, I just never understood that it was right there.
The Importance of Creativity
I’m in the studio every day. Even on my days off, I still find myself with my iPad or laptop, doing digital art. Even when I’m relaxing, I feel like I need to create something to relax. Every now and then I get a creative block and I feel blank but it only ever lasts for a day or two and then I’m back at it and I love it again. It doesn’t ever feel like my nine-to-five job that I had previously.
Carving out a Creative Space
I’m currently in Buderim, my family’s home. I converted the sunroom to my studio. It’s got a lovely view overlooking a valley area – it’s amazing. I wake up early, watch the sunrise, have my coffee and I start creating or I structure my day around what I’m going to create. Then I just start painting.
Creative Process in Action
Everything has a position, has a place, when I create. It’s all very straight: my canvases in front, my water bowl, my paint brushes, lined up neatly, and then the paints, with the name of the colours face up. It’s neat and tidy; I feel like it helps me create more. It keeps me calm.
When I’m starting a painting for a client, I talk to them about a colour scheme, and usually get a background approved. From there, I do a sketch just to put my ideas down and then I start painting. I don’t normally give ideas straight to the client because a lot of them do trust my process and they have given me a story of what they want me to paint.
Tools of the Trade
I usually use acrylic paints on cotton-based linen canvas. I also do digital work on Illustrator and digital design on laptops and iPads but I love the texture of canvases. And I love paintbrushes. When I was little, I was obsessed with pens and pencils. I would collect them and had hundreds and hundreds. Now, I feel like that’s what I’m doing with paintbrushes.
Creating a Business During a Crisis
If the pandemic didn’t happen, I would not have been an artist. I’m proud of sticking through the hardest part of starting a business and being successful a year later, even through a pandemic. I have a lot of collaborations that I’m proud of as well, but the business having lasted through all this is very fulfilling.
I’m still coming to terms with the fact that this is my job now. It doesn’t seem real. I’ve always been creative and I have always wanted to be in this industry, but I didn’t really understand how [to pursue it]. I never thought I could make a living and a job out of it.
Advice for Budding Artists
Try not to doubt yourself. I still do it; there are still things that I create that I’m not sure [about]. But just try. And try harder. Go for it and believe in yourself.