• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Photographer Billie Culy finds the beauty in dying flowers

Billie Culy.

Beauty is a matter of life and death for art photographer Billie Culy.

Billie Culy sees beauty in elements of nature many fail to notice. Working from a studio overlooking wild and dramatic Haumoana beach in Hawke’s Bay, the 23-year-old artist puts dying flowers into a vase and photographs them, painting an original canvas to use as a backdrop. For other pieces, she gathers flora from a specific place, looking to create an emotion in the way she captures them through her lens.

The floral-art still lifes she creates are a hybrid of photography and painting. Her work has a rare beauty – a romantic, whimsical look reminiscent of the Dutch masters she admires, in particular the works of Ambrosius Bosschaert and the way they are lit.

It was a natural step for Culy to become an artist – she learned through osmosis. Her father, Brian Culy, is a photographer, who bought his younger daughter her first camera when she was 13 and taught her how to use it. Her sister, Jacobina, 27, is also a photographer, and their mother, artist Leanne Culy, is known for her series of handpainted oars. Leanne and Brian run Homebase Collections, a studio space in Napier specialising in handmade art and objects designed in New Zealand; their heritage home, Balquhidder House, high on the hills above Napier, has rooms full of Leanne’s canvases.

When Culy returned to settle in Hawke’s Bay two years ago, her grandfather – a beekeeper on Great Barrier Island – gave her a few hives. She decided to train as a beekeeper and began making honey in the garden at home. “Bees are fascinating, majestic creatures and there’s something so relaxing about working hives,” she says.

Culy creates floral-art still lifes that are a hybrid of photography and painting. Left:Culy’s studio, where she sets flowers against a painted canvas; “Love-Lies-Bleeding”.

There’s a synergy between the bees and the flowers they feed on that Culy is now translating into her artworks. Along with the European masters and floral paintings by Rita Angus that Culy has studied, she’s also been inspired by her mother’s beautiful gardens. “I love the wild, crazy things you find in gardens, the things you don’t see at florists,” she says. “I’m drawn to old rambling gardens, old-fashioned plants you don’t find around much anymore.’’

Each of the works she creates tells a story. “A River Walk” features pieces gathered on a regular walk from her Haumoana studio to the Tukituki River. “Love-Lies-Bleeding” is named after the common name for the flowering plant Amaranthus caudatus, which Cully photographed in a pottery vase she inherited from her great-grandmother, Margaret Herne, who was an art teacher and potter. Asked about “Stolen Roses”, she smiles, admitting she nicked a few blooms for that piece.

Culy shows her work at Parlour Projects, a new gallery in Hastings that held a Shane Cotton exhibition last year. She’s now experimenting with mixed media – painting over the top of her photographs – for her next exhibition later this year. She loves Hawke’s Bay, with its diverse coastline and landscape, and the seasonal changes when plants are on the turn. “I love it here,” she says. “There’s all this incredible space. I feel like I couldn’t do this anywhere else.”  

This was published in the May 2018 issue of North & South.