Born in Wellington before moving to Melbourne at seven years of age, Bella McGoldrick grew up with a love of New Zealand and Australian cafe culture – which she has since noticed is leading the world.
The photorealist painter travels frequently, drawing new inspiration for her work from each new destination. On a recent stint riding a motorbike round Indonesia, she learnt to love a strong cà phê, or Vietnamese coffee. In the resulting 16-piece collection, Black Water, caffeine hits become a point of connection across the globe – from a Vietnamese cold drip to a Salento espresso.
Now in Puglia, Italy, McGoldrick is thinking like the Italians and looking to make a collection dedicated to their cuisine. Here, she shares notes from her creative journey so far.
What is it that attracts you to realism?
To be honest, it’s what I’m good at. It’s easy to see where I need to improve and when I have improved, and I harbour a lot of satisfaction from that.
Tell us about the inspiration behind your highly caffeinated new collection.
It started when I was riding a motorbike through the countryside of Vietnam in March. The coffee there is an entirely different beast, so strong it induced head spins, and I came to adore it. There was truly not much for food options in sections of the route, but always caffeine. It was the only thing I could correctly pronounce in Vietnamese (cà phê), and it tasted amazing once you got into it. Coffee is kind of like this world-round. It’s easily accessible, it’s a touch of familiarity even when it’s the most foreign, and it’s got so much tied to it – cultures, pride, a common moment. All the different places and all the different versions, that’s what I wanted to play with.
You created this new collection in Lombok. How did this influence you?
The slow island time. It gave more hours in the day than anywhere else. So, I worked more and lay in the sun more. I lived a simpler life, and that uncomplicated my artwork.
What do you love about the cities you grew up in, Wellington and Melbourne?
It wasn’t until around two years ago, when I left New York City, that I realised I was a city kid. It had always been just what life is like. And that comes with cafes being what you did (or what I did) with my days and social life. Both Melbourne and Wellington’s pride is tied to their cafe culture. It’s massive, and what I grew up to expect was a given. The US is catching up, but I still feel like the best cafes there take inspiration from Australia, for sure. I haven’t been back to Wellington for far too long, but I will say I loved a Fluffy as a kid – what a brat! (Fluffy, for those who don’t know, is a Baby Chino for Kiwi kids).
You studied fashion at both RMIT in Melbourne and Parsons Paris. What did you learn about art and life during this time?
I learnt I could sell art, as I was selling fashion-illustration, portrait-style commissioned drawings for the last two years of university. I actually sold my first one in Paris. I also learned Paris would be more fun with money. I was so broke. I don’t remember how much I got for that drawing, but I guess that was the first art I ever sold. I didn’t realise that until just now.
Your passion for art took off when you were living in New York, interning for Rag & Bone, Lowe Roche and Phillip Lim – what were your favourite, or the most influential, pieces of art you saw here?
Again on the broke note, interning in NYC is ludicrous, so I would go to The Met as you could pay by donation. Rather than a $25 entry, we would pay $1. I remember walking into a room, and there was every important artwork I thought I had ever heard of. Insane. It was a random room and Picasso’s next to Van Gogh etc. Something about how casual the whole thing was, or I was, showed me how grand the city was. I just wanted to be part of it.
How did it feel to start pursuing art full-time, being represented by the New York-based gallery Tappan Collective?
I was independent for about two years before I signed with Tappan in 2020. I was between work when I started making art full-time. I didn’t have a job, so I posted on Instagram that I would draw whatever anyone wanted for $100, and it just went from there, fortunately.
You’ve now decided to move away from the traditional gallery representation to have more control over your art and business. How is this new path feeling so far?
The new path is really the way to go. I had huge growth with Tappan over the two years, but I just wanted more control. For artists today, it’s easier than ever to be visible to more people directly, and being able to communicate directly with clients is honestly the perk. I wouldn’t want to hand that away.
Each piece of your art can take up to 200 hours to complete. How do you keep your mind sharp during this time?
I’m always listening to something – mostly audiobooks and podcasts, music when the motivation starts to slip some afternoons. Leonard Cohen, Chelsea Hotel #2. The process is super slow, and it’s a hard game of patience, but I can get into the groove and it feels like I’m working through a problem. I have this weird visual kind of memory. I can look at a part of any drawing I’ve done and tell you what book I was listening to or what part of that book. This is a useless skill that I love to share. Once I have my reference photo and I’m in the drawing part of the process, it’s super methodical, and I’m fortunate it’s the type of work where I can digest audio. There’s not much decision-making or thinking when making photorealistic art – I’m just doing as I’m told from what I see.
What is the coffee that gets you through long days of work?
Two to three large iced americanos that I cold-brew from the day before with oat milk, if I can find it where I’m living, otherwise black.
Describe the best coffee you ever drank.
Ooft! Actually, it’s in the collection – the Nola iced coffee with oat milk from Blue Bottle in NYC. It’s chicory flavoured, or the coffee has chicory in it? Not sure, but I think they put sugar in it, which I only found out recently, and it makes sense why it was so good.
A lot of your work would look great in a modern home. Is this intentional?
Framing is super important, which is leaning a bit into the design and what sort of home they’d look good in, and I do frame or suggest framing them in a minimal, modern way. So that’s probably as far as it goes. I don’t mind where they’re hung though, I’m just stoked that anyone wants to hang them.
You’re in Puglia at the moment. How is it?
I mean, it’s Italy. It’s romantic as hell. I adore it, and I, of course, will have work coming from it.
What is it like moving to a new place each month?
It’s surreal. I know it’s crazy fortunate and this won’t last forever, but it can for now, so we’re riding it. It is travel, though, so it has pretty intense drawbacks – feeling untethered, living out of a bag (bags, many), not having a base, and routines being crashed every four weeks. But we’ve been doing it for a year now, so as with anything it gets better with practice. And, again, I’m in the most beautiful places in the world not by mistake, so I’m loving it.
How will being in Italy influence your subsequent work?
Have you eaten Italian food before?
What is on the horizon for you?
Just, please, more of this! I am moving back to Australia later this year, which I am beyond excited about. I dream of having a studio. I am down to settle down, Down Under.