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The Wondrous Watercolourist

Ever since she first learnt to hold a pencil, Michele Retschlag has been creating art capable of attracting a crowd. Now decades later, this renowned artist is showcasing her collection of calming landscape watercolours in a solo exhibition, with a percentage of the sales going to the Maleny Neighbourhood Centre.

by Judy Fredriksen

Growing up in Kingaroy, Michele Retschlag would draw in the dirt in the playground at school with all the other kids standing around, admiring her work. Her artistic talent was instant and obvious.

“As soon as I could hold a pencil, I never wanted to put it down,” she explains.

There were no surprises then when at age 15, she secured a scholarship to the Queensland College of Art in Brisbane, spending four years in the city, facing the usual dilemma of any country kid in the city – how to use public transport without getting lost! All the while, she was developing her artistic techniques.

“It was such an obvious thing that I would be doing art; I had wanted to become an art teacher.”

At the time it was nearly impossible to make a living as an artist, and a large portion of her art training was focused on commercial art – something that would support her in her first job. It wouldn’t be until much later in life that she would discover the delight of watercolours and at long last, accidentally stumble across teaching.

Upon completing her scholarship in 1970, Michele landed a job as an illustrator in the Zoology Department at the University of Queensland, a job nothing remotely like the more exciting world of fashion illustration that she had hoped for. Instead, the requirement for minute detail of fauna exhausted Michele, so she decided to do a shorthand/typing course.

Her newly acquired office skills lead her to a position as an electorate secretary with a Member of the Australian Parliament. Of that position she says she learnt a lot, and jokingly adds – maybe too much!

With the practicalities of earning a living taken care of, her enthusiasm for creativity continued to niggle, demanding an outlet which eventually came vicariously through another of her passions – travelling.

In 1975, Michele and her husband Barry were in Cornwall, England, a place fringed by a rugged coastline and synonymous with tales of treachery, smuggling and pirates from a bygone era of rogue seafarers. Today, its wharves and fishing boats are a popular subject for watercolourists from all over the world.

“I was looking for a way to record our trips. And I actually saw watercolour being done in Cornwall. I saw this man painting on the beach and I said to my husband, ‘I’d love to have a go at that’.”

Although it would be several years before she had the opportunity to master watercolours, there was no turning back.

“I just loved it. I gave my oils away and I think I only did one oil after I started with watercolour – and that was by request from my father for his 70th birthday. So that was it.”

Michele finds the soft and calming effect produced by watercolour conducive for the presentation of her favourite subject matter – landscapes.

“We did a lot of bushwalking, Barry and I. I just loved being in the open air, and I became a bit of an environmentalist and I thought … people don’t realise how beautiful the landscape is. And also, I had three children by this stage, and life was pretty hectic and manic and I just thought … something calming hanging on the wall, that’s what I need. And that’s what landscape did for me.”

With an illustrious career spanning well over 30 years, Michele has won many prizes for her watercolours in Queensland and New South Wales. The integrity, consistency and quality of her work is so well recognised, she has been a judge for the Royal Queensland Art Society and the Watercolour Society.

However, it is through teaching that Michele finds the most gratification. “I love seeing the light go on in a student’s mind, as they realise what watercolour can do; and I love seeing them do it.”

Michele has taught watercolour painting for many groups in South East Queensland, Northern New South Wales and as far as Blackwater, Toowoomba McGregor Winter and Spring Schools and Bellingen’s Camp Creative.

Known equally for her compassion as well as her artistic skills, Michele will be donating a percentage of the proceeds of her art exhibition to the Maleny Neighbourhood Centre.

“It supports the homeless and underprivileged. Initially I wanted to help women over 50 who are on their own, however when I did some research, I discovered that the greatest number of homeless people are in the 18–35 year age range.

“I love what I’m doing. I feel extremely blessed to use my art in a positive way and to give people a feeling for the importance of the environment. I find watercolour is very calming, whether it’s capturing the serpentine qualities of the Diamantina River or the beauty of Lake Eyre in flood.”

With 40 exquisite pieces based on her extensive travels, Michele’s art exhibition, Miles of Moments, will run October 31 – November 8, 10am–4pm, 3 Obi Lane, North Maleny, and entry is free.



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