Interview series with Gem Leslie
We first came across Gemma through the incredible work she has done for Foodbank Australia through Food For Everyone. With one of her posters hanging in the kitchen I delved deeper to find her fun, colourful paintings adorning her tropical queensland home.
Feeling inspired by her work and story I reached out to Gemma who was generous enough to share her work, inspiration and home. We are so excited to share this story with you.
Painting, drawing and creativity has always come naturally to me. As a kid you (and like most kids!) could find me on the floor with 100’s of pencils making little funny works of art, and sticking them up on my walls. I have always gravitated towards the creative tasks - I get so much energy out of it!
I’ve studied a few things, PR, Photo Journalism, and finally I found the course for me, Communications, majoring in Design. I have always had a big interest in the Fashion Industry, but never wanted to be a fashion designer. I soon found that fashion houses need graphic designers to do all sorts of jobs, such as print design, web design, textile design. So I spent about 7 years in a handful of fashion brands (such as FAT Stores, bul, Modern Times (mid century furniture and art store), and Lucy Folk).That led me to becoming the Marketing Manager for Lucy Folk, while continuing to oversee the development of the brand and online store.
Unfortunately, due to COVID, my role (like many) was made redundant. So it was March 2019, I was jobless, and a bit exhausted and my partner, Mike, said to me that I should take the time and just rest for a little while … so I did. Between April and June I painted every day.I find painting so therapeutic. I had a few people enquire about my work, then commission after commission came and I just decided then, that “this is what I love, I want to paint”, and I’ve not stopped since then. I think that down time actually led to the headspace for Food For Everyone, my Social Enterprise, which I now own and operate.
Gemma outside her home in the Mari Dress in Khaki
What inspired you to start Food for Everyone?
In July 2019 when a number of Melbourne social housing towers we placed into lockdown, I was alarmed that the people were provided decent, culturally appropriate food quickly. Food banks, such as FareShare (we now support OzHarvest, Secondbite, and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) too) jumped in by preparing and delivering meals to residents at the towers. At the time, we couldn’t volunteer due to restrictions, and that sparked an idea to raise funds for food banks as a way of showing our support for people who needed it most. I was painting at the time and thought I could partner with some friends who are local cooks and design posters with their recipes to raise funds.
Anyway, I painted and designed the posters of some amazing recipes, and a good friend photographed them beautifully in her home. I put them out there and ended up raising $33,000 for Melbourne based food bank FareShare in just 14 days.
Eating a healthy meal each day should be a right, not a privilege. Knowing that there are thousands of people who don’t have access to food (let alone healthy food) breaks my heart. It makes me want to help and there are a range of food banks out there doing incredible work to support people and families who really need it
Your life is oscillating between many different hats from being an artist, designing, cooking, and being a mother. How do you balance it all? What does a balanced week feel like for you right now?
This life is all so new to me, I’m still learning how to do that. Back in June 2021 we went up to Brisbane to visit Mike’s family and we got stuck here because of border closures. It worked out well given the lockdowns that followed in Melbourne. We are still here, and Mike’s work were progressive enough to let him work from here for the time being!
There are some balanced moments and some unbalanced. I always put Francis (my son) first. I soon realised that motherhood requires a village - so we asked for help from Mike’s family and found a nanny to help a day or two a week. On the days where I have help, I paint - it’s what I love and it makes me a better mum. It’s kind of like fitting your own oxygen mask first. And as for cooking, I try to make something new and really delicious each fortnight, and the rest of the recipes are old faithful’s that always are always delicious and mostly nutritious. I am lucky that Mike cooks a lot as a way to relax, so between us, we have a decent repertoire of recipes that make for delicious meals day in day out.
How did you make the leap to being a freelancer/full time artist?
Having my role made redundant forced the change. I really had no choice when I became jobless. Strangely, a shock to the system like that can actually be the bolt of energy you needed. It was the perfect time for me to make the change. I feel like my first career has given me the skills and tools to make my second career successful.
How would you describe your work?
It’s happy, joyful, colourful and not too serious. Some friends have called it naive, I don’t mind that. I paint what I love. If other’s love it, that’s a bonus.
Your paintings derive so much joy from their colour palettes and subject matter. Can you tell me more about what inspires your paintings?
My surrounds inspire me. Right now, I am lucky enough to be staying at Tallebudgera Creek. The landscape, the colour of the water, the marine life, the colours of the kayaks, the fresh seafood - they all inspire the work I am currently doing. I like collecting little pieces that I am drawn too. I don’t buy objects for object’s sake - if something appeals to me and it will add to our home then that inspires me too. Whether it’s another artist’s painting or sculpture, there’s a story behind it and I like that.
When you feel overwhelmed, unfocused, or uncreative what do you do to get out of your head?
I’m a very introverted person. So being by myself at home helps. I am also extremely inspired by my surroundings, this includes music and scent and all my things. My go to music is jazz or blues. I love Matthew Halsall, H Hunt, Bill Evans & John Carroll Kirby. I also love a bit of Hiss golden Messenger if I was a kick. I find a scent can also transcend me - anything earthy, like sandalwood incense allows me to just take a step back and get out of my head. I am also like a lot of other people, I will do a quick spruce of the house - a sweep of the the kitchen and a tidy of studio in particular, to help get some headspace. Clean house, clean mind - there’s merit in how Buddhists live their lives!
What is a surprising thing about the current stage of life you are in?
I have never been so inspired and creatively energetic in my life. It’s surprising to me that it happened during the pandemic and after giving birth. I’m just grateful that things are working out. There are some really tough days (in fact weeks and once, an entire month), but I am lucky.
Gemma wears the Mari Dress in Khaki
What are you working on right now
I’m working on a couple of things. My personal art practice, I am working on an exhibition for late April, it will include 30 smaller works. I’m really excited about that.
And for my business, Food For Everyone, I am really trying to grow that business and work with some food idols of mine and to raise for funds for food banks around Australia.
We’ve also expanded beyond posters into other kitchen products. Our plates our my favourite!
What are you looking forward to most this year?
Having freedom in the work I create, and I want to continue to drive change in our community through my work with Food For Everyone to support people in need through food banks, and other related For Purpose organisations like the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), around Australia.
Where can we see your work?