Petra Leary’s Aerial View
Chances are that, while you have seen the world from an aerial perspective, you have never seen them quite the way New Zealander Petra Leary does. She introduces us to dronescapes that blow the mind, that recall the classic, sharp, graphic, eye-catching art of the past, that define brand new boundaries and then push and pull at them, and she does it all with a spellbinding beauty, as if she were weaving a web to trap her viewers in. The tennis court was always going to attract her interest.
It’s no wonder she has already won multiple awards in her career. Petra is down to earth and will make no mention of the awards, only informing me of those she has collected – a substantial list for someone so young – after I have enquired about them.
I meet Petra via the wondrous window of a video chat connecting us from our distant continents (she is at home in New Zealand, I am in Germany). For the night-time, she is in a sugary, yellow, and energetic mood, as she tells me upon asking for a colour and a flavour to describe her feelings. She is itching to go out, the (freshly reinstated New Zealand) lockdown blocking her, curbing our instincts as ever.
She got into the world of drones when one of her drone operator friends gave her a turn on one, and she became instantly hooked. When we discuss inspiration, she mentions the Daily Overview on Instagram, an account which has satellite images from around the world, aerial photography, and drone imagery, “where everything looks so abstract”. “It’s very inspiring”, she offers. Her passion for the whole subject immediately stands to attention.
Petra loves being productive, has many creative friends, and draws inspiration from hip-hop – naming Kendrick Lamar and Drake as present figures of interest – and her own graphic design background. She also loves basketball courts as they combine well with hip-hop. A love of all things visual becomes apparent very quickly, filtering into every corner of her own creations.
The tennis court, along with other well-known sporting environments, is one of the remarkable optical shapes that fascinate Petra. In fact, no sporting court, pitch, or structure is safe from her overhead gaze.
The shadow play snatches the breath away as her aerial world comes to life – the object or character (if there is one), the shadow, the setting. It all combines to birth a world that is both fascinating and bold.
Petra sees everything in an extremely vivid way and expresses the desire to communicate her graphic world through photography, regardless of the subject she is capturing. She uses several different drones, at times in pre-planned shoots and at others in the spur of the moment. Her drone images fall into the territory somewhere between photography, the cyber world of graphic design she hails from, and sharp paintings and abstract art of the past – such is her ability to depict what is in her mind. There is both the pure and familiar as well as the alien in her work, ensuring that she takes it far beyond mere photography. As she herself states, “I like to take photos. I like that my idea of work is photography, but it’s more art, it’s never just a photo.” She establishes her work thoroughly within the terrain of art, and looking at the stunning photographs on her own website, as well as the Courts one, it verifies the theory that it is far more than mere photography – it creates its very own reality, seen from above, by the one down here on earth, her parallel dimension.
Tennis courts are one of the unique sporting shapes that, if caught by the best eyes and their lenses, create a stunning visual, and therefore figure quite prominently in Petra’s work. She sees the role of art in tennis as one that can only build its profile and take it to a larger audience. She gives the example of a clothing brand, started by a skateboarder in his forties she knows, that explores tennis fashion by expanding its own reach and paying tribute to a classic past era of iconic clothing within the sport. This takes the sport beyond its typical parameters, and opens new doors for tennis as it modernises and finds itself in the new ground, with new, young fans taking an interest – art as a window of opportunity for a new tennis audience.
“I played tennis when I was quite young. I like playing for fun, but I don’t really know the rules very well,” Petra informs me regarding her own experiences of tennis as a sport. She doesn’t have a favourite player though she does have an entertaining story that sticks out for her about a big name player. She remembers the name of Lleyton Hewitt, from neighbouring Australia, as her grandpa would not let her wear a baseball cap back to front in his presence because it reminded him of Hewitt – a player he didn’t like. As she shares this anecdote, a fondness for both her grandfather and the essence of the story light up her features (in part framed by a baseball cap worn in her favoured reverse position).
Petra loves the geometry and line work of the tennis court, and all sports courts – structures representing endless possibilities despite their definite shape. Speaking of courts, she says: “The graphic aspect means it almost resembles an illustration. They look great with or without players. Different coloured surfaces, different materials.” Bringing a sport that historically resided within the arms of a more elite society to the masses can only be good for tennis, as its arms reach out, branch-like, into other avenues of society. She hits the nail on the head when she acknowledges the potential of a tennis court, with or without players thereupon, to be far more than a mere sporting structure upon which a match takes place. The shape and lines already make it a work of art, before the action has even commenced, before a photo has even captured its staggering majesty. Far more than a blank page, even at their most inactive point, stories are being told by courts, tales of unspoken poetry – and Petra is surely leading the way in the aerial tennis court stakes – as our attention is being demanded.
Therefore, familiar shapes take on a newness, deliver a fresh zing to the eyes, dazzle and enhance one’s surroundings as well as the views they capture in Petra’s images. They send us to new places, invite us into our delicious dreams, and open our minds to what is possible through photography as it spills out as the ultimate creative voice. It is no stretch for the imagination to picture tennis played out, with all our favourite faces, in these sublime otherworldly settings.
When I ask how her native land affects her work, she tells of how the ruthlessness of sunlight, unique to New Zealand, pervades her work, bringing a startling quality to her bird’s eye perspective. Nothing is safe from Petra’s roving drone eyes, and we are invited to look at familiar land, happenings, daily events, and courts as never before. “New Zealand is a small place, and you get to know everyone, which is handy to access clubs and courts. It’s easy to make connections. “The environment of New Zealand has some of the harshest sunlight,” she says, before she goes on to describe it as incredibly bright, adding that it delivers harsh and proportionate shadows. That, in turn, enables her to take a good picture of what people are doing. Her images capture an exact moment in time, fixed, forever recorded, and yet they also seem like fluid scenes playing out before the eyes, non-stop motion, bigger than the cages of mere still life photography.
Of course, during these challenging times, the pandemic has had its impact on her creative progress. However, she has been “motivated to do 3D art and make these worlds that I have had in my head. Inception tennis courts. Balls floating everywhere. Inspired by not being able to go outside. Now, I’m going through old images and playing around with those. Discovering new techniques and software.”
Petra also tells me of a big shoot planned with an Auckland tennis club. It will see 1,000 tennis balls, all moving simultaneously across the court in a lively and exciting project. Her ambition to explore the realms of tennis shows no signs of waning. The event has sadly been affected by Covid, but will hopefully be able to happen soon, making it something for the artist in us all to look forward to.
At present, she is working on a project in which she has been asked to design a basketball court – she sees it as an illustration with extremely graphic elements. She had completed a separate basketball shoot before the first lockdown, further verifying her ability to capture courts in all their appealing glory.
When I ask how she would like to be remembered post-career, she considers this question for longer than others before responding, “I’d like to be remembered by an augmented reality gallery that was immersive and interactive, where people could walk through the thousands of photos as interactive scenes, and was in, a sort of, inception layout like on all surfaces (floor, roof, walls).” When I ask for her to expand on the ‘inception’ concept, she explains, “… what I mean is that sort of 5D world where things are not constrained to one ‘ground’ and are able to come off all walls.” Petra’s ‘inception’ can be characterised as the fabrication and cultivation of a fantasy dreamscape, her own world, an immersive installation.
When I ask if she sets limitations for her creations, she tells me, “Anything is really possible, if you want. A matter of figuring out how to do it. It can be harder, but you can find a way, be it alone or with help.” Even before posing this question, this had become quietly apparent to me through both her words and online portfolio of work.
As we wind down the conversation, I ask for some information about Petra that might surprise people. I learn that she loves to play video games, that her Instagram account reveals her love of Lego, how she enjoys making scale size courts from the well-known bricks, and that she is an ambassador for ADHD in New Zealand. Earlier, she informed me that she has lately been watching Bob’s Burgers and The Wire. It appears that the visual, the tactile, and the stunning is a distinctive part of Petra’s everyday life, something she absorbs, infiltrating her consciousness from all around, and subsequently emerging from her own capable artistic hands in new shapes and forms, as if golden eggs laid by a hen.
Petra’s career is one to follow, ever worth tracing her steps – and where she goes next – as her work entertains, challenges, and thrills. In a world over-saturated with cyber content, it is such artists and creators of admirable and far-reaching projects that make it all worthwhile. You cannot fail to be impressed by what she is doing, as someone within as well as beyond the tennis spectrum.
If we are going to be watched from above, Petra is the one we would want to be controlling the drone, for she is an expert at capturing us and our surroundings in all their dramatic glory.
Story published in Courts no. 2, autumn 2021.