Minna Leunig’s childhood around the Strathbogie Ranges nurtured a deep connection with Australia’s unique flora and fauna. Her paintings capture the forms and details that make Australia’s wilderness so special.
Words by Andy Summons
Photography by Helga Salwe
“I grew up in Northeast Victoria and was homeschooled for about seven years.” Minna’s in the throes of finalising artwork for a solo show and has taken time out for a call from her Melbourne studio. She grew up without television or internet and subsequently spent a lot of time wandering the bush. “Our property backed onto a state forest and I just remember spending a lot of time getting to know the plants and animals that existed there. Those memories, experiences and energies soaked into me and continue to inform my art today.”
Growing up in a creative family and being home-schooled meant Minna had long stretches of time to explore her own creativity and, naturally, she depicted what was around her.
“I was always sketching and painting and making little comics and sculpting things out of clay. I explored creativity across various different mediums. I was always really interested in animals and would often depict them, probably because I was surrounded by so many of them, both native and non-native. As a kid, I was in love with horses and spent a lot of time around them – my horses and dogs were my best friends. I had so many encounters with wild animals too – koalas, wombats, snakes and echidnas. It was magic, both at the time and looking back. Creativity, space and nature defined my childhood and teenage years.”
Minna finished her last two years of high school in Melbourne and focused on creative subjects. She never saw art as a career, more of a comforting passion, and so pursued her other interests in gender studies and the environment before her dream started to take shape.
“That was never the goal, I never saw it becoming a job or career. I ended up going to university and did a Humanities Arts degree. I had no idea what I wanted to do afterwards but was really interested in sociology and women’s issues and majored in gender studies. I worked at a few not-for-profits in the women’s space and found that really interesting. But ultimately it helped me realise I didn’t want to work in an office, so I ended up getting a job in conservation working in a bush crew.”
“When I eventually quit my job in conservation, it was because art had naturally become the thing in my life that took over everything else.”
Minna hoped there’d be more regeneration work and as the reality of spraying weeds in some pretty unpleasant places started to erode her enjoyment of the conservation work, she started having some little wins with her art.
“I moved towards conservation because I wanted to be outside and in nature more, looking at plants. And although some days were incredible, the reality was quite different to what I was expecting. I stuck with it for a couple of years and finally acknowledged it wasn’t for me. I was painting that whole time – doing it before and after work. I started doing murals on friends’ laneway walls and group exhibitions and little solo shows at cafes, just small things. I started to have a few successes, and over time it got to the point I started thinking that maybe I should just throw myself completely into it, as it was what excited me the most and what I had the most energy for. I also realised that working a day job was taking too much time and energy away from art, and I would never really know what I could do with it unless I gave it my all.”
The transition from art as a passion to art as a career was a natural progression for Minna but still demanded a leap of faith.
“Art has always been an enjoyable thing for me to do, a meditative practice and a way to deal with the stresses of life. A way to tune out, enter my own little world and express myself through mark-making. The realisation that art could also be a way to support myself was a gradual, it was never the plan. When I eventually quit my job in conservation, it was because art had naturally become the thing in my life that took over everything else. Quitting work was really scary and I definitely panicked for a few months afterwards because I didn’t know whether or not I was being crazy. I was pretty stressed, but my goal was to just cover rent and if I could make that work for a while, then I would be happy.”
“There’s something to be said for quieter activism that just puts an idea or an image in front of you and lets you marinate in the feeling of that.“
Minna did cover the rent. Her career grew and she’s been painting full-time ever since. Of course, there were some steep learning curves as Minna learned that art as a passion is quite different to art as a career. New expectations and pressures arise.
“When you’re a full-time artist, like any freelancer really, it can be hard to switch off from what you’re doing. It can start to feel like work because the reality is that it is your job. So there is more stress associated with it in that way. But at the end of the day, it’s a stress I’m happy to sit with, because I enjoy it enough that I don’t want to be doing anything else. I have a tendency to take on too many projects and struggle with saying no to things – I get excited about projects, overwork and exhaust myself. I’ve realised I need to give myself more time to complete projects, and a lot more rest time.”
In the lead-up to her November 2022 solo show at Byron Bay’s Yeah Nice Gallery, Minna is working from morning to late at night – long, challenging days born of necessity, and a practice she doesn’t recommend. She’s still working on carving out more time for herself to recharge and slow down.
“I’ve gone into my paint cave. I don’t do much else. I get up pretty early, and have a coffee – the only regular thing I do that’s not painting is exercise. If I can go for a run, I’m happy. To be honest I haven’t left myself enough time to paint this exhibition. Working these kinds of days isn’t really sustainable. Ideally, I’d start my days a little later and finish earlier so I have time for the things that recharge me – seeing friends or going away and camping. I’ve promised to make more time for myself and maintain a more sustainable balance next year.”
With nature as such an integral part of her work and source of inspiration, Minna takes time to connect with nature as often as she can. Currently splitting her time between Melbourne and Geelong, Minna finds pockets of nature while she dreams of getting back to regular hikes.
“Day to day I love walking and running. At the moment, I’m spending more time in Melbourne so I’ll run along Merri Creek or the Yarra three or four times a week. What I love most is camping and multi-day hikes. Walking slowly through nature is such a beautiful way to feel it and notice all the little things that are so easy to miss. I’m continuously blown away by the shapes, textures and forms I see in nature. Slowing down reveals so many amazing details like the patterns and colours in tree bark and the colours of rocks. It’s mind-blowing. Good painting inspiration.”
Minna hesitates to call herself a full-bore activist but hopes her artwork may act as a gentle form of activism by drawing people’s attention back to animals and the natural world during a time it needs our care and attention the most.
“I’m interested in environmental issues – always have been. I like and want to represent animals and the environment as a way to bring consciousness back to them at a time when that’s an important thing to do. I like the idea of gentle or quiet activism – I think all forms of activism are important and, honestly, the world of activism is like an ecosystem in itself. You need all types working together. But there’s something to be said for quieter activism that just puts an idea or an image in front of you and lets you marinate in the feeling of that.
Between communes with nature, Minna fills her creative tank by referencing her collection of art books depicting animals throughout cultures, history and artistic practices. She seeks new ideas outside her own medium and beyond the natural world.
“I love getting out to exhibitions and looking at what other artists are doing. Even when it’s totally different to what I’m doing, I find there are always so many ideas and inspiration to take away for my own practice.”
You can see more of Minna’s work on her website and check out her Instagram for updates on her latest exhibition and works.
Minna Leunig is a Geelong based artist living and working on the traditional lands of the Wathaurong people. Painting with acrylic on canvas, Minna creates playful images inspired by the unique beauty and feeling across a vast array of native Australian landscapes. Through her paintings, she seeks to spark a sense of appreciation for the natural world as well as an interest in issues relating to environmental conservation, during a time where fragile ecosystems need our care and protection the most. In this way, her work expresses a quiet activism.