South west artist keeps it real with an emotional connection to her work

Robyn Lees
Robyn Lees. Pic by Serena Kirby

You could describe Robyn Lees as a traveller and a teacher and while she’s been both these things, she is more importantly a well-respected artist whose personality is reflected in her work.

Robyn’s sculptures and paintings are vibrant, slightly left of centre and generously uplifting. And, like many artists, she felt the pull towards a creative career from an early age. 

“I was in Grade one when the teacher asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said, ‘an artist’. I don’t think I really knew what an artist was but it felt so natural to say it.” Robyn says.

After leaving school Robyn trained as an art teacher before hitting the Hippy Trail in the 1970s, backpacking and hitchhiking through Asia, North Africa and Europe. It’s something she says you certainly wouldn’t do today.

“Travelling exposed me to an amazing array of art and people. I actually met my husband when I was travelling through Greece. He was living in a cave; bit of a hippy commune actually. That may sound strange but back then it wasn’t that unusual. The next big life event was having children.”

Robyn says she became highly aware of the female identity when she became a mother and even more so when she started making ocarinas, an ancient wind instrument made from clay, which she sold at local markets.

“I really enjoyed working with a potter’s wheel. It’s very meditative and quite seductive. But I certainly didn’t want to make bowls so I decided to do a visual arts degree with a major in ceramics. That led me to explore the female identity and the expectations society puts on women. This exploration still continues to underpin everything I create.”

Robyn says most of her artwork is autobiographical and as the years passed she began to focus on playing with female stereotypes; the concept of women being either non-conforming bad girls or virtuous mothers.

All Robyn’s paintings, sculptures and teapots, and even the bowls she said she didn’t want to make, are inspired by female shapes and stories. Voluptuous and brightly coloured, Robyn’s figurative sculptures are unique in every sense of the word.

“I’ve seen a shift in my work in recent years as I’ve become more conscious of the Australian bush. Nature is so seductive and you can play on the edges of it.”

With scores of WA retail art galleries closing down over the last decade, Robyn has been fortunate to still have pieces in a handful of galleries. Currently, her largest selection of work is at the Butter Factory Studios in her hometown of Denmark. 

Tea Tree, one of Robyn's pieces
Tea Tree, one of Robyn’s pieces

Unlike many artists Robyn doesn’t take commissions nor does she sell online. This may sound counterintuitive for a regionally based artist but Robyn has good reasons for this. 

“Commissions are risky as you can never really know what’s in someone’s mind and you only want your work to go to people who are going to love it. Selling work online can also end in tears as there’s always the risk of breakage during postage.”

But more importantly than the practicalities, Robyn says a relationship is created when you buy a piece of art in person. She says it’s an emotional connection that’s worth far more than any monetary price.

“When you buy from a gallery, especially a regional gallery, it places the artwork in context with where in it was created. A locally produced piece has been influenced by the local environment so, in essence, you’re buying a piece with a sense of place.”