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Skinny Dipping With Martine Emdur

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Lorna Jane Smith goes skinny dipping with underwater artist Martine Emdur. Portrait: Lucky 8. Interview Lorna Jane Smith @bestinbali

You can take the girl out of Bondi but not Bondi out of the girl – as proven with acclaimed Sydney artist Martine Emdur, who classifies herself as a “true local” to Australia’s iconic beach. She grew up with Bondi at the end of her street and it’s the most “dominant vision” of her childhood. Martine started painting immense scale underwater scenes with people in different states of submersion. Nowadays her body of work is testament to the power of fluidity between humans and the ocean. All because of Bondi.

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Martine’s primary goal for her artistic content is that the viewer is able to transport themself to that place under the sea. “I want the surrounding environment, the light, the floating, the depth of the water, the temperature, the patterns in the surface and the feelings all this evokes to be first and foremost.”

Then there’s the people gracing these epic canvases, mostly nude, faceless and sensually engulfed by dappled lights, perspectives and watery hues. The viewer can’t help but dive into her works’ oily aesthetic depths.

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“I love the idea of people being able to place themselves within the scene, and that’s why I paint large scale so the viewer can feel immersed when standing in front of the painting. To feel the sensation of floating, to feel the contrast of the warm sun rays on their faces and the cool water on their bodies, and to feel a sense of mystery of things emerging from the depths. In some of my works, I simply want to elicit a fun and liberating feeling. I feel there’s a strong sense of freedom and weightlessness to being underwater and baring all, and I hope that sense of liberty comes across in my work.”

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Her work is an extensive process that starts with a photo shoot. Martine has worked with an impressive yet varied array of underwater photographers whose individual styles have conjured the initial composition of each canvas. She spends hundreds of hours sifting through images looking for details that spark those first brush strokes. “Once I start marking the canvas and painting, the shapes and tones and contours become stamped in my mind. I’ll think about it 24/7. I can’t say I remember every brush stroke necessarily but the forms stay with me.”

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Presuming “forms” means bodies one wonders how she accumulated her models. When Martine first embarked on her successful career she used Facebook, advising the time, date and place for a shoot and then simply hoping people who enjoyed a quick skinny dip would turn up. And they did. She then recently put the word out at her favourite yoga studio and discovered the closest likeness to a mermaid. “Yogis are amazing underwater, and one in particular was spectacularly graceful. I love her. She was ever mindful of every transition from one position to another; every movement of hers was hypnotically fluid and totally mesmerising.”

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The picture Martine’s currently painting (1.85mx3m . . . huge!) includes the nude forms of a PR girlfriend, a corporate suit, a champion pole dancer and an advertising photographer. “As usual everyone’s a little reluctant to get their gear off in the beginning but the minute they surrender it’s mermaid central. You can see them come alive. Skinny dipping is so liberating.”

Martine is a self-declared wimp when it comes to the water, especially cold water. She actually forces herself to dive in and be a willing participant of every shoot and of course the choreographer of her watery waltzes. Occasionally she has to be the backup nudist. Martine’s desire for all things ocean is actually voyeuristic, accompanied by an eternal guilt of cheating by not readily taking the plunge herself.

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At the end of the day she is a true Siren of Ocean art. Her focal point is usually from the bottom of the sea and then she works relentlessly back and forth between sea and bodies, forever trying to get fluidity of form, colour and light. Martine’s passion for turquoise, sapphire and glass green define her work. These lush, rich and deep hues are her steadfast connection to nature.

Recently Martine started experimenting with different locations and Bali made her underwater bucket list. She described Bali as the home of a “thousand beautiful visions”, a  destination that is a visual treat for anyone. Martine took thousands of photographs during her Bali stint, enabling her relentless search for aquatic inspiration. She was in awe of Bali’s spectacular sunsets, the rivers running through forests while being constantly caressed by a “divine dappled light”, a prevalent feature that adorns her works.

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Martine’s an artistic water nymph who I feel would drown in sorrow if separated from the sea. She never tires of driving home down Bondi Road towards her home and seeing the ocean come into view. “I constantly feel challenged and have a long way to go before I have mastered this subject. I imagine I’ll be continuing down this path for a long time to come as both the ocean and the human form are a never-ending inspiration for me.“