Mirra Whale is a painter – painter of still lifes. She is also a part-time teacher at the National School of Fine Arts. And, recently, she became a new mom. That alone can be a juggle for any professional performer. However, Whale has another string to his bow. For many years she was the studio assistant of the famous Australian artist Ben Quilty.
ArtsHub caught up with Whale to find out exactly what that entails and how to balance your own practice when you’re assisting another artist.
How would you describe what you do to your parents or a non-artistic person?
I would describe my work as an artist’s assistant as an additional set of hands, skills and labor that allows an artist to accomplish their works. It’s like constructing the skeleton and skin of a work of art ready to be adorned by the artist…that skeleton could be the construction of a paint stretcher or the preparation of an etching plate ready for painting. line and acid incision, or creating a mold to cast multiples for sculptural works… the list could go on and on.
Perhaps best described as using a set of skills to create a physical object according to the artist’s concept and instructions, much like sewing textiles [to a pattern].
What qualifications do you need for this job?
It entirely depends on the artist you are working for. Working with Ben, I can use a variety of skills and knowledge that I learned before working for him. For example, I worked in film in scenic painting and props, and worked for years in the scenic department for Sydney City Events – both of these jobs required a variety of skills; for example, welding, wiring, tailoring, painting, basic construction and carpentry.
I also did a degree in graphic design after graduating from the National School of Art in the early 2000s – those skills came in super handy. I also worked as a framer in Sydney with the brilliant Jim Crofts Studios (Rod Denson).
Ben is always open to exploring different mediums and experimenting, so my role has changed to many mediums over the years. – [that keeps] it’s always interesting and there’s always something new to learn, whether it’s fixing the jammer or stuck v-nailer, or battling the air compressor. In a nutshell, working as an artist’s assistant can not only [broaden] the horizons of the artist you work with, but also in your own practice. I think everything skills are useful and you can never learn or know too much…there is so much to learn!
How did you start in this profession?
I stepped in to help with a deadline as an extra pair of hands and ended up sticking around for years!
How collaborative is this work?
Ben is first and foremost a painter, so a lot of the work involves stretching the sheets – but even that is [rather] sometimes collaborative; i.e. discuss stretcher sizes for new works and gallery spaces. I’ve also had the good fortune to work on many of Ben’s projects, from casting resin frames to editing etching and woodcut suites, sewing large textile works, welding structures and even cooking and designing menus around his work for shows.
There was a (very large) sculptural work that we collaborated on from design to finish, titled Not a creature stirred (2018). It is 3.7 meters high, measures four by four meters and was mostly built using life jackets salvaged from Greek shores. All sewing, soldering, wiring and light sequencing was done from his Southern Highlands studio.
But one of the greatest collaborative feats was bringing together and designing Ben’s monolithic 350-page book and catalog that spans 20 years of his practice, titled Ben Quilty.
What does an average week look like?
I usually work two days a week for Ben. This involves tracking materials and ordering paint, stretcher bars, linens, general hardware, glass, framing moldings, etc. [and] construction stands and travel frames. It also involves keeping up to date with Chris, who is Ben’s studio manager. Sometimes that means looking for a new material to work with; for example, different resins and silicones when we cast frames. Often it will be a homemade lunch.
What is the most common misconception about your job?
My God, I don’t know. We have completely different painting styles, so there is no misconception [me actually] paint his canvases!
How competitive is this job?
It’s a great job. Ben is a legend, one of the most generous and caring friends (and bosses), so not only do you learn and use a wide variety of skills in the role, which makes it always changing and interesting, but it’s It’s also a great place to work and family to be part of. I’m sure there are many artists who would love to work at the studio.
During a job interview, what skills or qualities are you looking for?
I would look for someone who has a wealth of experience in the arts (mainly an artist himself), but also in other areas that can complement each other or bring something else to the table. There’s a lot of trust and respect when working with someone, especially in a small, intimate team of people, and in this role that’s key. Another quality is personal initiative – you are your own boss here.
How do you find the right balance between your own firm and the one you manage?
Always juggle! Working two days a week for Ben is a good balance to juggle my own practice and classes. (I also teach as a part-time lecturer at the National School of Art, so it’s often about finding the balance between all three.)
One of the wonderful things about working with Ben is his feedback on my practice and the inspiration of working with such a prolific artist. He is very supportive of my practice, and if ever I have deadlines for a show, he will adapt and be flexible with the working hours. I am always invited when there is a living model to draw and paint, and I am invited to use his studio when he is not there, not to mention being able to stretch my own sheets and frame my works in the workshop.
Read: Being a studio assistant has ‘opened my mind’
What is the most interesting thing that has happened to you in this job?
I wouldn’t know where to start! All the foregoing. I’ve met many interesting people from all walks of life who have passed through Ben’s studio, from musical icons to Afghan veterans to friendly neighbors. It’s always a surprise.
Learn more about Mirra Whale
Whale graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Printmaking from the National School of Art in 2003 and a Diploma in Graphic Design and Communications in 2010. She studied at Julian Ashton College (2011) and graduated with honors at the National School of Art in 2012.
Whale has also been a finalist for several art prizes including the Archibald Prize, Kedumba Drawing Prize, Hurford Hardwood Portrait Prize, Denied Salon, Portia Geach Memorial Prize, AME Bale Art Prize, Hornsby Prize Art, the Mortimore Prize and the Manning Gallery Prize.
In 2019, Whale won the Eutick Memorial Still Life Award (EMSLA) and won the Royal Art Society of NSW (North Sydney) Drawing Prize in 2011. She exhibits with Mitchell Fine Art.