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Personal renaissance

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Artist and curator Irene Flanhardt, a Tung Chung resident, reveals why she is dedicated to bringing Tai O to vivid life. Elizabeth Kerr reports.

On a partly rainy, muggy Sunday afternoon in Tai O, Irene Flanhardt looks relaxed and cool, sitting quietly by the balcony of her studio and gallery overlooking stilt houses and an estuary at low tide. The installation artist, painter, photographer, paper cutter and curator opened Flanhardt Galerie und Atelier (FGUA) on Shek Tsai Po Street in December 2011, and she’s living proof that you’re never too old to learn and never too set in your ways for a career change.

Softly spoken and naturally diplomatic, Irene came by her drive and understated fearlessness the hard way: she worked for it. After 14 years with the Hong Kong Police Force, she went on to work for the Hong Kong Jockey Club investigating illegal betting activities on racing premises. A four-year stint in the Enforcement Department at the Securities and Futures Commission followed, then six years as the head of compliance for Nomura bank, a law degree and an MBA. Then came the proverbial 180. 

A work in progress

Irene ‘discovered’ art in her mid-forties when she retired to Australia’s Gold Coast with her husband Willi in 2003. “I took the opportunity to do a three-year art course at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University,” she says, tipping her hand at her seemingly endless capacity for learning.ç

Irene’s own body of work now spans the spectrum. While she is probably best known as a photographer, she enjoys working in pastel, pencil and acrylic. Oil is her favourite medium. “I have made a point of learning the basic techniques, and now I make art as I like it,” she says simply. “I don’t consider myself ‘artistic’; hard work has paid off in my case. It gives me so much pleasure. I know I can grow old with art – a great companion alongside my husband.”

Yuen Long born Irene found she ‘missed Hong Kong terribly’ while living in Australia, and she and Willi returned in 2008, putting down roots in Tung Chung. “We love the peaceful, green environment, and there’s still a real sense of space,” she says.

Looking for somewhere to showcase her work, Irene opted for Tai O. “I’ve loved the village since I was a child and of course it’s close to where I live,” she says. “I asked myself whether I could make art there and run a gallery by the seaside. The view of the stilt houses is spectacular, and I never tire of watching the tides in different light and weather conditions. It’s an ideal place to paint.”

The converted flat is a modest but welcoming, light-filled space. Irene is around to greet browsers on weekends and public holidays, and if you’re nice you’ll probably get a cup of coffee out of her.

Showcasing Tai O

A Tai O devotee, Irene admits it took her a while to gain the locals’ acceptance. “When I first got here I was pushing my art equipment around in a trolley, and I almost crashed into a duck-egg stall run by two ladies,” she recalls with a laugh. “One day it started raining and I asked one of the women if I could borrow an umbrella and she refused. So I waited for a while until she reluctantly capitulated. I realised I needed to do something to narrow the gap. So I painted duck-egg yolks, and when I showed the woman my painting she was all smiles.”

The resulting piece is fittingly titled The Icebreaker, and it’s one of Irene’s personal favourites. It led to other Tai O shop owners allowing her access to kitchens and back rooms to take photos. It’s also a painting she considers truly indicative of her work: observational, vivid and with a strong sense of place.

Of course the burning question for any artist is ‘What are you saying?’, and with Irene every picture tells a story. This is clearly expressed in The Charm of Tai O: a collection of images that Irene is particularly fond of, which came out in April. It’s the first photography and travel book 100% dedicated to Tai O; and the photos depict the villagers’ way of life – their iconic stilt houses, charming fishing boats, ancient temples and culinary treasures, plus of course the glorious local landscape.

Irene has dedicated the book to the Tai O villagers, and what she describes as their ‘indomitable spirit’. “They survived two highly destructive fires in 2000 and 2013,” she explains, “and in June 2008, severe floods and landslides in Tai O isolated it from the rest of Hong Kong. Telecommunications lines were down and the fresh water supply was interrupted for several days.
Most houses were flooded and residents’ personal belongings (including their precious family photos) were destroyed.”

The thought of losing Tai O’s distinct character to development or calamity underpins much of Irene’s work. But on the whole she says she is unbothered by subtext in her art, and simply revels in her status as an observer of the world around her. “The most provocative piece I’ve done is probably the two men in New York,” she says, pointing to a photograph of a pair of cyclists who may or may not be on the verge of a smooch. “What are they doing? It leaves room for the imagination,” she adds with a sly grin.

A not so still life

Unlike many artists, Irene didn’t start small. One of her early projects saw her painting 37 Nepalese portraits, all in different mediums, in order to master as many artistic techniques as possible. By 2011 she was putting on solo exhibitions at the Consulate General of Nepal in Hong Kong, the Landmark Atrium and the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre.

Irene continues to show her work around town and curate exhibitions and collective photography projects. “That’s exciting because I work with10 local photographers,” she explains. “I give them a topic and they come back with their own interpretations.”

As a curator, Irene does what she can to help out young, local artists. And this is clearly appreciated. Halfway through our chat Michelle Chan, a 30-something photographer featured in Irene’s latest Landmark Atrium group show, The Beauty in Objects and Patterns, drops into FGUA. Just because.

Not surprisingly, Irene has a library of over 10,000 photographs from which she’ll continue to draw inspiration for her oil painting, and next up, from October 24 to November 30, she’s showing a selection of her Tai O photographs in the Hong Kong International Airport departure hall (Cabin A, Aisle A). “The Board of Airport Authority, Hong Kong approved my application to exhibit, which was a real compliment,” she says. “Normally they only deal with government departments, NGOs and green groups but they made an exception for me.”

Aside from her art, Irene enjoys reading and travelling, but it’s clear that FGUA, where she holes up with Willi and Teddy (their beloved boxer), and her palette and easel, is her main focus. If there is a message here it’s to drop by, take a look and enjoy. “Everybody has different tastes and enjoys talking to the artist,” Irene concludes philosophically. “I do this for my own interest and the exhibitions make people happy.”

Find it

Flanhardt Galerie und Atelier, 2882 3390, www.fgua.com.hk

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