West End artist Valerie Fjellstrom has been recreating depictions of spiritual icons and texts with the use of gesso, rich colour pigments and 24ct gold leaf details for the past 17 years.

Situated in a highrise complex at the river’s edge, Fjellstrom’s studio is a vision of tranquility and peacefulness amongst the urban redevelopments. She has pursued the art of iconography thanks to a chance encounter. “I was travelling in Florence and I noticed a nun walking down the street with heavy bags and I offered her a hand,” said Fjellstrom. “They were filled with icons and I was in awe. So I went with her back to the church and eventually made my way to the mother-house in Belgium to learn more.”

Although facing many obstacles including translating the process into English, Fjellstrom has been painting and selling icons ever since. “I’m addicted; I can’t tear myself away from it. It’s a long, big process; it used to take months to make one icon but now it only takes about three weeks,” said Fjellstrom. “I’ve sold some to America and Japan!”

Quite a different process to using acrylic paints, Fjellstrom layers a gelatin and farm egg tempura with powdered pigments to create her vivid designs. She constructs each image through consecutive coats. “I love colour; mine are probably more colourful than most. In its purity, using egg as a medium to glue particles to the board, it’s very unadulterated. The process is more beautiful in tempura, layer by layer and the buildup of colours … the whole icon emerges through the layers,” said Fjellstrom.

It was after coming back to Australia from her travels abroad that Fjellstrom and her family decided to make the move from northern New South Wales to Brisbane city where she set up her studio in 4101. “Lucky we just landed in West End. We didn’t know anything about Brisbane. I got off the bus from the city and someone was playing a guitar on the street and I thought, ‘This is where I want to live’. So we looked at this house in Vulture Street across from the high school,” said Fjellstrom.

Fjellstrom has watched as the 4101 peninsula has blossomed into the bustling cultural hub we know it as today with many of the old structures and sites being refurbished and creating space for newer developments. “I like the differences that you see; it’s that lovely mix of people and location. The diversity of people, income and restaurants. I hope that doesn’t change with the new developments and highrises going up,” said Fjellstrom.

After setting her sights on West End over a decade ago, it looks like Fjellstrom is still able to draw inspiration from busy streets and doesn’t plan to move on any time soon. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else than West End.”

Words by Emerald Garcia-Finnis | Images by Georgina Ashford