2024 Studio 7 Residency - Melissa Clements

Melissa Clements is a British-born, 25-year-old fine artist from Perth, Western Australia. Specialising in classical painting, Melissa’s work is informed by her experience as a migrant, using art to interpret memory and identity while making sense of being human in the contemporary world.

Melissa has been a finalist The Archibald (2023), Darling (2022) and Lester Prize (2021). At the age of 23, she was commissioned by the Supreme Court of Western Australia to paint the official portrait of the Chief Justice, Peter Quinlan.

During her residency at PS Art Space, Melissa will build on phenomenological ideas of the psychological relationship between subjects and the places they occupy, assessed in her recent solo exhibition at Koort Gallery, To Rest on Far Sands. Working with diverse subjects from a range of backgrounds, punctuated by antithetical notions of the sublime and eternal, mundane and transitory, Melissa invites audiences to step into and engage with the sensitive worlds of her subjects.

RESIDENCY BLOG - January 2024

I’ve always strongly sensed how the environment we’re in shapes the art we produce. A small studio might constitute small works, a big studio would allow for expansive paintings and sculpture. A bright an airy space might inform a desire for whimsical watercolour, and a dark, moody lit space might call for dramatic tableaus. Whatever the nature of the environment, if I can’t cultivate a sanctuary of creation, I find it difficult to fully surrender myself to the vulnerability of making art. This month, my primary goal has been to transform studio 7 into the place that I crave to come to work in. While I was sad to say goodbye to my old warehouse studio in Northbridge, I’ve taken pleasure in boxing up my things, and rearranging them in their new home; coloured pencils and cartridge paper, boxes and jars and notepads and polaroid photographs, standing easels and table easels and tiles glued together with paint. It’s tiring moving spaces, but once the paintings are hung, books shelved, jars stacked, paint arranged, fairy lights strung, it all becomes worth it, and the creation flows effortlessly.

I can’t stress enough how grateful I feel for the opportunity to make studio 7 my own over the next year. Now that it’s feeling like home, the work is already flowing abundantly. January concluded with the completion of my first major painting of 2024, titled Sampling Stylydium dichotomum near Whistlepipe Gully. It’s a portrait of my friend Diana, a freelance Field Botanist and Conservationist, working across regional Western Australia and Southeast Asia. I met Diana over ten years ago, she was a year late starting high school after her family’s yacht became shipwrecked in Micronesia, where they lived with the local people while her father rebuilt their boat. The lessons of sustainability, curiosity and respect for the natural world she learned in childhood have informed Diana’s advocacy for botanical conservation. Her work in Western Australia involves projects that waypoint and map rare flora around the state to ensure that development doesn’t encroach on populations of threatened plants. I was honoured to join Di on a seed collecting trip in the Perth Hills, where she identified endless plant species by name, carefully explaining their phytotomy, relationship with the larger ecosystem and the importance of botanical diversity. The snake at Di’s heart is Bart, her Python, who is also a good friend of mine, “For me, the gentleness of snakes is a reminder not to be afraid of nature; animals and plants are not scary and it’s our job to protect them.” In 2023, Diana began working on a seed collection program in Nam Kan National Park in northern Laos, researching the propagation of fruiting tree species crucial to the foraging of the critically endangered Crested gibbon.

Compositionally, the portrait echoes the same concepts I was exploring in my 2023 solo exhibition To Rest on Far Sands. I’ve included a mirrored cut-out at the centre of the painting, where Bart features. These mirrored fragments are metaphors and they aid the story. The colour palette is very different though, since the landscape is Australian, I’ve chosen warm, Earthy hues and pared back and erased areas with black. I find it easier to paint arctic, icy landscapes in realism, rather than the Australian outback, because the outback is so uncanny, wild and untamed. It’s easier for me to evoke this through painterly shapes and marks rather than as perfect likeness. Perhaps that’s because the outback still feels so alien to me, something that none of us as outsiders can really pin down and fully feel at home in - but then again surely the arctic sublime should be the same. Regardless, this process of rendering figures in realism, and the landscape in abstracted forms seems to be working, and I’m pleased with the outcome.

Diana’s portrait is an interesting start to the studio 7 residency, because I’m not sure how much I’ll continue working with external figures outside of my immediate circle (Myself, and my family) when building an exhibition concept for January 2025. The problem with major portraits like Diana’s, is that the story told is so huge and so singular, that is almost deserves an exhibition of its own, or at the very least to be in an exhibition of other, equally as profound portraits. I’m not sure how Diana would fit in alongside a body of work that tells a unified message. I keep coming back to the notion of psychological landscapes and figures in the landscape, perhaps that’d work, but this idea doesn’t feel pinned down enough. On the other hand when I do try to pin it down further, thinking specifically about my personal relationship with Australia and the UK, where I grew up, I’m worried that including paintings like Diana’s would make the exhibition feel like a jumble of separate ideas.

I don’t know what to do about this yet. My solution for now is to just keep making work – work that I love, work that moves me – and I am trusting that in the process an exhibition concept will float to the surface. Some things I do know – I’m going to Svalbard and the UK in April and May for a painting trip. I’ll spend a week in Longyearbyen, the worlds’ northernmost town, during which I’ll be capturing content and sketching, then I’ll take what I gather to a cabin in the south of Hampshire, where I’ll begin making some paintings. The intention is to produce at least something – 10 paintings, 4 paintings, 1 painting – that will make it into the final body of work. Until then, I have a few months to keep producing work and reflecting on my vision. I still want to do major portraits of people I love and admire, but I’m also surrendering to the idea that not every painting needs to tell the full story, that it’s actually essential for room to be left for the viewer to interpret the story in their own minds as they journey through the exhibition. That’s why the quality of a show sometimes is seen in the quantity of the paintings, however paradoxical that feels to say.

In the end, I want a beautiful show that says something profound, and I want there to be at least 3 major paintings that grab the viewers’ attention and barely lets them go. They viewer will complete the story through the fragments of remaining paintings throughout the exhibition. It’ll be an exhibition about existence, beauty and life (3 very interwoven ideas), and I trust that it’ll come together because of the sanctuary it’s being created in.


February was a month of rest and preparation, necessary, I think, before indulging in a year
of art making that I hope will see me create my most ambitious work yet.

The month started with taking Sampling Stylidium dichotomum near Whistlepipe Gully to the framer, which has totally finished off the piece, before jetting off to Thailand for two weeks of exploration and self-reflection. It came at a good time, though I must admit it was hard to pull myself away from the studio so soon after moving in. The reason it came at a good time, though, was because it forced me to pause and reflect on how I was going to spend this year at PSAS.

Previously, I’ve had a terrible habit of getting so excited and fixated on an idea for a painting, that I began making it without pausing at all. My trip to Thailand brought a lot of benefits and wonderful experiences, but in terms of my art practice, it made me step away from the studio at a point when my ideas were so fertile that I was ready to execute them instantly. What I learnt was if these ideas were still hanging around while I’m snorkelling with reef sharks or eating Khao Soi or on a scooter in Chinatown, then they’re probably worth painting. If they don’t, then life has done a great job of editing down my ideas to the ones that don’t matter and the ones that really do.

In particular, I find that the time on an airplane, after altitude has been reached and everyone has settled in and finished their evening meal, attempting to sleep, is when my ideas are most potent. It’s the isolation of being in a metal tube in the middle of oblivion, totally unreachable and totally surrendered to a lack of control, that I feel wholly free to let my mind wander and race and explore and dream up all the wildest painting concepts. While some ideas hung around, new ideas sprung up, and when we landed at our destinations, it was fascinating to watch which ideas remained.

So, what has stuck around? The first is an idea that’s not just dominated my thoughts for two weeks across Thailand, but for the last two years. It’s inspired by a famous image from the Old Testament, and the subject of many paintings throughout art history. It’s a gruesome beheading, at the hands of woman enlivened by the holy spirit. It’s a scene that is so violent, and so bound up in history and legend, that is feels merely a story in the psyche of the people who see it. But these stories remain relevant, they cut through history and continue as messages of injustice, freedom, truth and power that demand to be felt. These stories, whether Biblical, mythological or legendary are stories about humanity, in all its gut-wrenching destruction and beauty.

I feel called to make this particular painting for several reasons. My work is often philosophical and quiet, but for a while I’ve been having this recurring dream where I’m pulling stuff outside of myself – gunk and rope and oil – and I know that it’s because I need to make my art scream and shout, like Judith with the head of Holofernes.

The truth is I’m enraged about how our society is systematically set up to keep people enslaved, whether literally or psychologically. Our freedoms and liberties, culture and communities are held between the thumb and forefingers of powerful people who could crush them whenever they wish. And us, with our Netflix and our beaches and our BBQ’s and beer, are quite happy to maintain that dynamic so long as, like fattened battery hens, we have the things that keep up fed and rested and entertained.

The paradox of being on pristine tropical beaches in Thailand, while sensing this so deeply, is not lost on me, and I’m battling how to feel about it all. The best way I know how is to paint it, so that’s what I’m going to do.


Things have been taking off this month, maybe not as quickly as I’d have liked, but the wheels are off the ground and I’m making a steady ascent. Shortly after I wrote my February blog, Studio 7 transformed into the set of something you might see in Game of Thrones. Red velvet, rooster feathers, a shining blade, blood (costume), warm light. With the help of the most talented Kate from Lovely One Photography, and Xavier and Stef from PS, I watched as the visual of a scene I’d imagined for several years was acted out on my workbench.

The next day the photos came through: Gorgeous golden light, the glint of silver, a blur of copper feathers, faces of rage, determination, urgency, terror, focus. The images told a centuries old story of revenge and justice, interlaced with new associations I’ve imprinted from my contemporary experience. It was Judith beheading Holofernes, but it was also a woman extinguishing her demons, a prisoner breaking free, a civilian executing a tyrant. The story is violent and universal, but it’s also quiet and philosophical.

These are the stories I love to tell in my art. They’re stories that make people think and reflect, but only after they’ve been confronted with immediate and powerful feeling.

A painting like this calls for a large canvas – 140x100cm to be exact – which should fill a big gap on the walls of PS quite nicely for my show next year. But I’ve also been enjoying working on my miniatures this month (including one not much larger than a passport photo). Think of the miniatures as journaling, it’s a ritual of mental hygiene that I need to complete before I can focus on bigger and more complex storytelling. Alongside studio work this month, I’ve also completed a residency at Perth College, commenced a painting course with 11 students, all while confronting real grief and loss for the first time. It’s taken a lot of mental hygiene to make it through March.

Everything in life has an opposite and equal force, the dark and the light, the good and the evil, the micro and the macro, the sublime and the mundane. I value both in equal measure and the complex, wild scene of my next major painting tells a story of humanity just as valid as the mundane, daily realities of modern living. The mundane is the hidden, disguised, stored away emotion that we aren’t used to seeing on gallery walls, but it’s this that we feel most often, it’s the troughs experienced in-between the menacing peaks depicted in my major work.

Stories, not just paintings. The semantics are important. In March I’ve learnt that I’m not just a painter, I’m a storyteller, and maybe that’s the key for me to make sense of my own practice. I’m far more interested in saying something about existence, reflecting on my own, making the viewer consider theirs, than I am in merely throwing paint on the canvas. Realising the significance of this in my practice has made me understand how valuable it is to carve out time like this to write. It’s just as important as actually painting, because it’s how I figure out what I need to paint, and why I paint what I do. I realise it all sounds very ritualistic and maybe I need to loosen up a bit, but if I’ve learnt anything else over the last few years of taking this craft seriously enough to make it my job, it’s that when it comes to creativity, literally the best thing you can do is just be yourself. You have to create however you create, whether that’s loosely or structured, freely or ritualistically, with thought or with feeling. There is no wrong or right way. So, for now, this is what seems to be working – painting and writing, together, to tell stories, individual and whole. In a few months, I’ll curate it the pieces into a narrative, but for now I get to indulge in the beautiful, heartbreaking, wonderfully raw truth of being alive.


On April 19th the sun set for the last time in Longyearbyen, commencing their season of midnight sun. For the next 4 months this little village at 78° north will be bathed in sunlight for 24 hours of the day as the arctic tundra, almost indistinguishable from the white sky when cloaked in snow, slowly reveals itself in scars of blue-grey. By August 23rd the valley will be moss-covered, the white-coated reindeer fattening for polar night.

Living under constant daylight is obviously an unusual experience. I haven’t been here for nearly long enough to make any meaningful judgement about how it affects the psyche, but the village shows clues of what life is like. Many homes have the odd window masked with aluminium foil, and 24hr time is a must – a local told me they’ve arrived at work 12 hours early on at least one occasion. Constant light makes it difficult to switch off - it’s a mentally taxing environment to live in.

I don’t have the answer to crisis. Like many people, I feel snowed (right now, quite literally) under the weight of wars funded by our tax dollars, pandemics mismanaged by leaders who work for us, violence waged on innocent people fuelled by a system that is totally broken. Perhaps that’s why I find myself so drawn to the ends of the earth – on the individual level, our everyday complaints feel so petty atop a mountain peak, but it also makes me even more enraged because I’m certain we wouldn’t be in this mess if our leaders came face to face with glaciers, were forced to climb them, feeling weak and miniscule and fragile while navigating exhaustion and windchill and the terrifying reality that one slip and that’s it.

Nature feels like such an antidote, and yet once again, it and our spiritual connection to it is being destroyed. If humanity is doomed to repeat itself, so be it, but surely this crisis feels so massive because we’ve forgotten how cycles happen so when this crisis has come about we were not prepared, not tuned into the stories of our ancestors and maybe, the people who led us into the crisis knew that the perfect way to wage war and control is to make us forget the cycles and lessons that prevent tyrants from ruling for too long.

I realise this blog is a bit dark considering I’m in one of the most mesmerising places on the planet, but honestly it doesn’t feel that way. We know this is happening, let’s talk about it. Firstly, forget the notion that the ordinary person is responsible for the crises the world is facing, we mustn’t succumb to that unfair burden, it only makes us weak and less able to act. What we can do is take responsibility for our free will, protect the people we love, build strong families and meaningful connections with friends and neighbours, practice the virtues of grace, kindness and generosity, remember that our essence is not physical, let go of fear but not of passion where passion is due. Don’t let them make us battery hens, the night will come again and that’s when dreams come alive.


On one of my last nights in Svalbard, I lay awake, the light of the midnight sun still bathing the room of my hostel in a grey cast of light, my neighbouring bunks a melancholy kind of empty. I felt struck by the overpowering feeling that anguish is the one emotion that undercuts all life. When we are born, anguish pierces the shrill of our cry. In the playground, the anguish of abandonment. In autumn, the anguish of a falling leaf. At graduation, there is anguish. At a funeral, there is anguish. On a mountain top, anguish is there. Wherever there is love – for a person, a place, a state of being – there is the anguish in saying goodbye, in letting go, in surrendering to the transience of life. Perhaps anguish is too harsh, too sad to describe the feeling that is far more nuanced in my head and my heart, but it’s the best vocabulary I have to describe so much of how I am and the art I want to make. Anguish is as beautiful as it is painful, it tells us what we care about, what we long for, what we adore. And when anguish is felt deeply and comprehended fully through painting or music or poetry, the art that results is some of the most profound and moving that one can experience. I’ve never ceased my affinity with the devastatingly beautiful painting by August Schenck showing a ewe mourning over her dead lamb, while ravens encircle them, awaiting their feed.

Anguish by August Schenck

Where there is love for a place, there is the anguish in letting it go. And, let me tell you, did I fall in love with Svalbard. I loved the remoteness and the extremeness, the adventure, the simplicity, the colours and the light. And I adored the community, the diversity of stories, spontaneity and curiosity. I fell in love with polar bears and sleeping reindeers and eagle cries, with blackcurrant juice and brown cheese and camping food. The groan of an icebreaker. The beat of a fulmar.

By delaying my writing of my time in Svalbard, I have allowed myself to selfishly indulge in the fantasy that I never left. To daydream of glaciers and fog, to let thoughts wander and meander through memory, to play and pretend, to lay in an endless blue sea, arms and legs outstretched, while life washes over wave, upon wave, upon wave, upon wave. Not writing has meant I haven’t had to acknowledge how time has stretched out like rubber, pulling my present self from the frostnipped, sunkissed me in the Arctic. That as each day passes, I turn back behind myself to look at that precious time, reaching further out than the day before to pluck the precious jewel of memory, delicate and small and beautiful in the crease of my palm. I want to stretch back, like a cat with long arms pawing sunlight, grasp that time and snap the rubber forward so that I blink and I am back in the grey, melancholy gloom of my hostel room. It feels so close and yet so impossible to grasp, like sunlight through fingers.
But it is now June, and recently the rain has returned, the sky has darkened, and I while the rest of the city retreats into the shadow of their houses, I can feel myself unfurling.

Detail of my latest painting, a contemporary reimagining of Judith and Holofernes

Svalbard, the Arctic, the anguish of saying goodbye, England, family, my Grandfather’s grave, my Grandmother’s anguish, the anguish of saying goodbye again, will all feature in the new body of work I am creating as part of my residency at PS Art Space. Many people have asked “Will you paint the Arctic landscape… what about a polar bear?” and the answer is no, not quite, but the energy and feeling of all these places will permeate across the entire collection. Svalbard will not feature as literally in this body of work as Iceland did in my show for Koort Gallery last year, but my time there has been essential to the development of ideas and meanings behind my work. For example, once I let go of the expectation within myself to paint the Arctic landscape, I began to see how the feelings I associate with it (the sublime, passion, transformation, love, anguish) are all still present in my portraits. For example, my work frequently references mythical and Biblical stories, like the Brazen Serpent or St. Jerome at his writing desk, most recently as a reimagining of Judith beheading Holofernes. I’m drawn to these ancient stories for the same reason that I’m drawn to places like the Arctic, because they unite people across centuries in how they evoke eternal truths about our nature as human beings. Whether you follow the Bible or align with a particular mythology or not, the lessons their stories tell us are ones that have remained as relevant now as when they were written, reminding us that we are not more than our nature, and that we are just as capable, and guilty, of destroying ourselves now as we were centuries ago. We may like to think we have evolved and progressed, but our frailties stay with us for eternity. Likewise, when faced with the sublime in places like the High Arctic, we learn the same truths taught in Biblical and Mythological stories through an experiential means. It is one thing to read about the ineffability of the Earth in a story, it is another to experience it. Through experience, the lessons are known rather than merely known. Knowing this, the best thing I feel I can contribute to the world is to remind ourselves of these lessons by moving people through painting. Thus, while my reimagining of Judith and Holofernes doesn’t literally depict the Arctic tundra, it does speak to the urgency of survival and the passion of the sublime.

The other major component to this new body of work is the motif of the battery hen. There are, of course, no chickens on Svalbard (and no, the ptarmigan does not count), but there are plenty of people, and one thing that struck me was that if people are battery hens, many of the people on Svalbard are battery hens that have taken flight. Without knowing too much about the community, one thing that was clear was the shared sense of resilience, adventure and freedom that permeate the people who live on or consistently visit the island. One of the most obvious reasons for this is the harsh nature of the place. Polar night shrouds Svalbard in the gloom of eternal darkness for four months of the year, while the midnight sun illuminates it in a single 4-month long day in the opposite season. There is limited healthcare and housing, no bank, no agriculture and all supplies must be shipped into the island. And yet Svalbard is a visa-free zone, so anyone could hypothetically live there provided they have a place to stay and funds to support themselves. But in every other way, it’s a difficult place to live. You must have a special kind of determination if you want to stay. For some people that determination is fuelled by a desperate affinity with the wilderness, a curiosity for adventure, or a commitment to research, for others, it’s escape from war. The people I met ranged from artists to PhD students, mushers and skippers, miners to chefs and mechanics. Most poignantly, a Ukrainian soldier at war on his 2-weeks rest and relaxation. His life’s wish was to see polar bears in the Arctic, so when a bear appeared dancing and running along the edge of the sea ice, we photographed it together from the starboard of Henningsen’s icebreaker until it finally disappeared into the white haze like a ghost. When I got back, two Russian nationals welcomed me into my accommodation, kind and timid and gentle. They had fled the war and all they wished for was safety and to share the beauty of their beloved Arctic with their guests. That night I couldn’t sleep, kept awake by the devastating knowing that anguish permeates all life.