Written by Robyn Fortune
Petra Meikle de Vlas is an exciting, mixed media, 3 dimensional, realism to abstract artist. Drawing on her unique life experiences and her passion for the diversity of nature, she is inspired by the natural world around her.
Her art is enriched by a journey that has been punctuated by life-altering experiences and places where many others fear to tread.
Curious to learn more about Petra’s fierce determination to defy convention, the methods to her creative madness and to get a glimpse of her emerging work, I spent time with her in her studio.
Crowded with materials, tools, and multiple works in progress, her studio is alive with motion, texture and experimentation. Spending time with Petra gives you a clear sense of her visionary force and dedication to authenticity. I discovered a multi-faceted story and a surprising boldness that has shaped her work.
Born and raised in rural Victoria, with direct ancestral links to Australia’s European pioneers,
Petra began working at Meikle Cottage, her family’s art gallery café on the country Victoria tourist trail, in her childhood. She quickly realised her creative drive, along with her ability to work hard. Petra could be found serving tables, preparing food and selling art and craft.
Her first solo enterprise was collecting grasses and native plants, shaping them into artistic arrangements and selling them to Meikle Cottage visitors.
In high school, it was her year 10 art teacher who saw potential in Petra’s art and encouraged her to continue to explore her talents. This unleashed faith in her unique insight and confidence in her translation of the world around her. “She was the first person to tell me I was really good at something”, recalls Petra. This encouragement, and the inspiration gleaned from Petra’s creative arts mentor during her senior high school art studies, was enough to ignite a new level of passion for her art.
By 17 Petra was running her own gallery café, Petra’s, working hard, both on the canvas and in the kitchen. In time, success in her business provided funds for her to follow her dream to travel to distant lands and cultures.
Fuelled by a desire to discover a new world and throw herself in at the deep end, Petra soon went to India, travelling overland from Delhi to Mumbai. She was confronted by a culture far removed from all she had known and describes the experience as a mind-blowing slap in the face.
She experienced all the sensory overload the country had to offer and delighted in exploring and absorbing as much of this exotic land and culture as her time there would allow, before returning to her business back home in Australia.
By her early 20s Petra was on her way to Africa, responding to an inner calling to continue to discover the world, experience a culture far removed from her own, study nature close up and willingly accept all the associated risks. Boldly she set off on her own and was soon welcomed by local people, some of who hosted her in their homes. This forced her to be brave, depend on her own resources and gave her an authentic experience she would not have encountered as a “tourist”. She says she saw the best and worst of humanity, from the very privileged to those struggling to survive poverty and prejudice
Whist in Africa Petra worked on a nature reserve, Zulu Nyala Game Lodge in South Africa and would spend her afternoons on the reserve seeking out animals. She counts the birth of a baby rhino on the reserve during her time there as one of the highlights.
Petra travelled overland extensively throughout the continent. During her travel she was constantly photographing the world around her and built up a lifetime of reference material that continues to speak through her art.
This was an exciting time and exposed Petra to the beauty and brutality of life in the wild. She had the opportunity to closely observe and interact with the native wildlife and experience the joys and risks of living in their domain.
She passionately recalls travelling into dangerous, remote places driven by her insatiable need for first-hand experience and discovery. She travelled for weeks into the Kunene Region at the Namibia-Angola border in order to find the ancient Himba tribe.
These were the years that left some of the most significant impressions in her life, and in her art, that can still be seen and felt today. Time spent in rugged and mesmerising landscapes, referencing first hand the biodiversity within which she was immersed.
After contracting malaria and at risk of death, Petra returned to Australia where she spent several months rehabilitating.
Once recovered, she continued to travel and backpacked extensively throughout South America, and later to Tibet and Nepal, challenging herself in every sense by exploring remote, natural landscapes and pursuing the road less travelled. She describes these landscapes as mind-boggling and unimaginable and hiking to reach them was the challenge of her life and a series of experiences that left her feeling she could conquer anything.
Upon again settling into life in Australia, Petra soon realised that she had returned from her years in Africa a changed person and she craved a life in the wild. She could not settle into a mainstream life in the city and needed to be in the outback. She travelled to Kakadu in the Northern Territory and lived and worked at a remote wildlife sanctuary resort located beside Yellow Water Billabong.
This was a life so much more in tune with her desire to be surrounded by nature and the rugged beauty of a more challenging landscape and lifestyle.
From Kakadu, Petra moved to Cairns, in Tropical Far North Queensland, to further explore her curiosity for the ocean, the reef and the rainforest.
Her art took a back seat for a number of years whilst she explored the adventure wonderland of the Great Barrier Reef and surrounds, threw herself into sport, playing competition AFL, rugby, tennis and netball and was being swept along by the current of family life.
Petra lives and works on her rainforest property and is the mother of two young, active children. She balances her family and work life by rarely separating the two. Her mind is always open and working, whether she is doing laundry, enjoying a coffee by her creek or working at a frenetic pace in her studio. She has a gift in the way she sees nature, not just in how she recreates it. She is a true artist who lives and breathes her craft. She thrives on breaking the rules, taking risks, constantly perfecting techniques and exploring new ideas.
Petra is driven by her ability to make people feel something unique and resounding. High energy levels, incredible work ethic and her strive for perfection are what power this highly productive and ever-evolving artist. She continues to immerse herself in the natural world in order to authentically capture the essence of her work, whether it be swimming with whales in Tonga or diving amongst the turtles and coral reefs of the Great Barrier Reef.
Petra has always known, even in the years when she wasn’t actively painting, that her creative ideas were simmering away, waiting to see daylight. She knew that once she surrendered herself to the intensity of her creative vision, she could become lost in her passion and her calling to commit to her art would be realised.
Petra explains her need to consciously manage her compulsion to create and to work around the clock and the feverish feeling that she has so many more ideas than she has time to bring them all to life. She has spent the last few years, in both her fine art and her decorative work, on ocean themes and is excited and driven to creatively explore new themes in the coming years.
Petra Meikle de Vlas is an exciting artist to watch as she continues to evolve and push boundaries in her life and her work for the sake of her art.
“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” Pablo Picasso
My art is my therapy. It is an outlet that allows me to feel a sense of accomplishment, productivity and satisfaction. The endorphin rush – “feel good” chemicals – that comes with doing what I love builds my confidence and commitment to my art.
Each piece l start provides a challenge to dedicate myself to. Patiently I persist and then, slowly but surely, I see it coming together, sometimes with a life of its own. Finally, with the finished product I feel a sense of proud achievement.
Every new piece made is a collaboration of many experiments, techniques learnt and effects stumbled upon, through many years of experience. I harness and manipulate the mediums to create my art.
Having self doubt as my best friend, I am very critical of my work and paint over completed work regularly on a quest for my own version of perfection. I carry a fear of putting myself and my work on display, but I believe that pushing through personal boundaries is a must in life to grow.
“Expose yourself to your deepest fear. After that, you are free…..” Jim Morrison