For someone whose working days are filled with colour, the artist Vicki Lee wears surprisingly little of it.
“I love colour, but I take it so seriously that I have to wear everything in the same colour…If I’m wearing a red sweater, I have to wear red pants, red socks and red underwear.
“So, I’m a black and white and cream-colour person, currently,” she laughs.
Best known for large-scale works featuring paint-dripped flowers and ephemeral puffs of colour, which she creates with her partner, the photographer Ted O’Donnell, Vicki also works across perspex, oil and resin, and runs her own gallery in Sydney’s Surry Hills.
Despite her success, Vicki took several years, with stints in law and fashion, to pursue art as a career. Initially, she studied law at university and spent 10 months at a law firm. “I knew I didn’t want to do it by the second year [of university] but my one rule in life is to finish something, so I finished it.”
It was at 20, after the death of her mother, that Vicki realised the pointlessness of persisting with a career she didn’t like. “It prompted a bit of a ‘you only live once’ mentality. I always have a feeling [now] that life’s really short.”
So, for the next six years she turned to fashion, co-founding the brand My Pet Square, with a friend. Eventually, the label went on to be stocked by General Pants and David Jones.
Outwardly, My Pet Square was a success, but something didn’t feel right. “I just realised I was never going to be very good at designing dresses,” says Vicki. “I’ve always thought that everyone’s good at something, and I always felt really mediocre at law, and I felt really mediocre at design. I never felt… magnificent.”
During her time as a designer, Vicki had begun to experiment with art, and it was in painting that she found her passion. “Even if I’m not gelling [as an artist] it still makes me feel really, really good. When I look back, I think I’ve been making art my whole life.”
Still, fashion remains important to her. “It’s not so much about fashion for me, but style. I hope I teach that to my kids as well – you know, that it’s less about what you’re wearing. It’s more about how you wear it.”
Vicki, who has two young daughters, admits that her wardrobe has changed since motherhood. “I’d like to say it’s about comfort, but it’s never about comfort, I quite like impractical things…”
Pre-kids, she admits she’d happily walk around in a one piece or paint naked. And now? “I’m conscious of [my appearance] being a reflection of someone else,” she pauses. “After kids having kids your body changes, too.”
She laughs. “Maybe I just don’t have time to think about [clothes]! There’s definitely less focus on myself and I look at myself less often in the mirrors, which is definitely a positive thing.”
Shirt by Marni at Belinda, Double Bay; jeans Vicki’s own painting jeans; boots by Givenchy.
When she is thinking about clothes, she’s drawn to a tomboy-ish style (“I feel quite comfortable dressing like a man”), the aesthetic of Australian fashion site MyChameleon (“I love [founder] Giselle [Farhart]’s pick of things. I think she’s got great taste”) and local designers Christopher Esber and Albus Lumen.
Internationally, her dream labels are Phoebe Philo-era Celine, Jil Sander and Saint Laurent, adding that their pieces are “so well made you don’t really have to think too much”.
And if in doubt, a hat is always a failsafe fallback. “I like wearing hats, it’s like hiding. I like that feeling, it’s like being a spy. I always have a cap that’s bought from Europe for, like, two Euros. I like sunglasses, hats – they get you into character quickly.”
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Photographer: Simon Upton
Stylist: Jana Pokorny
Hair and make-up: Sarah Tammer
Photographer’s assistant: Lewis Stevenson
Stylist’s assistant: Emily Gittany
Hair and make-up assistant: Tracie Lai