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“How long have you been an artist?”
It’s a question that I often get from my students. When I give them the figure in years they usually give me an incredulous stare commensurate with their tender age or stage of development, coupled with their fleeting number of years on the planet. In truth I sometimes feel like a bit of a fraud given how little work I’ve produced in recent years but since this is the year in which I have chosen to do at least one painting a month I thought it might make for an interesting writing topic.
According to family folklore my first scribbles were not always appreciated, especially when they appeared in expensive books or on freshly hung wallpaper. Mum used to take great delight in recounting the time when at about the age of two she stumbled upon me standing with red crayon in hand before one such masterpiece on Dad’s freshly wallpapered hallway wall. It seems I froze momentarily, utterly mortified before throwing the crayon in one direction and running hell for leather in the opposite one in a vain effort to escape a hiding for what it turns out was a repeat offence.
As I got older I became something of a compulsive drawer. To assist me in this my parents became quite innovative, providing me with a constant supply of unfolded used envelopes, the backs of bills and even a collection of beautifully bound wallpaper sample books, for which the back of each page provided an excellent surface upon which to draw. There were also the many books I owned which I invariably believed would benefit from some additional ornamentation. Looking back at the young boy I was, I can’t help feeling a little envious of his total lack of visual inhibition.
It’s curious how certain things remain embedded in your brain. I can remember Mrs. Holbrooks showing the class how to draw a castle on the blackboard. I was fascinated by the formulaic manner in which it could be copied and redrawn multiple times. It had two towers, a big door in the middle, some slits for windows and a pathway leading up to the entrance. On either side of the castle there was a tree and the wide pathway at the front was drawn with curved lines to suggest cobblestones. For months afterwards I drew this castle at every opportunity.
From a very early age I was obsessed with cars. Most infants learning to talk begin with the words ‘maa’ or ‘daa’. Apparently I began with ‘caa’. Why I was so fixated I don’t really know but not surprisingly, cars were amongst the very first things I ever drew and again I always remember Mum’s delight when telling me how I used to draw cars vertically, as though standing up. Then one day I drew one upside down on its roof. When Mum asked me why I’d done this I apparently answered in a deadpan voice, “Because that one’s dead.”
By the age of six or seven I was becoming concerned about realism. I realised that windows on houses were set within the square of the building rather than tacked onto the corners and that chimneys were not set on a 45 degree angle but vertically. I also began to grapple with the third dimension, drawing cars and buildings which showed the front and the side. I remember this being a revelation to me and one which I believed set me apart from some of my peers who still seemed insistent on drawing what I thought to be baby drawings.
Having got to grips with three dimensions my drawings began to acquire a narrative quality. Being a huge fan of the 60s television series “Thunderbirds” (in which everything ends up being blown to smithereens on a weekly basis) I developed a fascination with disasters. For example, I would spend hours meticulously drawing a building or an ocean liner complete with windows, railings and passengers only to finish it off with smoke pouring out from one window, then another, until the entire drawing was engulfed in flames. I was invariably left feeling elated as only a disaster-wielding nine year old can.
Not all of my graphic exploits were so grimly disposed of. Having sisters who were obsessed with horses, the youngest of whom loved drawing them, combined with the fact that we lived in the house that had once belonged to the Sewell family (of ‘Black Beauty’ fame), I spent many hours practicing how to draw horses. I was especially concerned with how to accurately illustrate the rear calf and shape of the back legs and hoofs. Though undeniably very stylized in nature these drawing marked the beginning of my attempts to realistically copy from life rather than simply invent it.
Curiously, my memories of art at school are vague. Beyond the castle, some felt pictures in kindergarten and a rather wonderful seagull in a blue sky I painted when I was about nine which adorned the classroom wall for a while, I’ve no clear recollection of anything else. I seem to recall spending a few nights attending an evening course at the technical school around the corner when I was about 11. I also did art in Year 8 at high school but what we did clearly didn’t leave much of an impression and has long been lost from memory.
It wasn’t until Year 10 that my interest was reawakened. The mid-seventies in Australia was an interesting time, even in far flung Elizabeth, South Australia. The art department benefitted from an influx of new young teachers brimming with fresh ideas and concepts which transformed what had been a rather ordinary part of the school into the place to be for anyone even remotely being interested in being interesting. Significantly, there was always music playing with Bowie, the Stones and a host of other great 70s musicians providing a soundtrack that made the rest of the school seem dull and boring.
Intrigued, I began dropping by the art rooms at lunchtime on the pretext of visiting my friend Michele who was doing Art. I was fascinated by all of the artwork on display and the easy, relaxed atmosphere in which the students and staff were all on a first name basis with each other. One teacher in particular, Christine, would often take time out to say hello and ask me how I was. Detecting an obvious interest in the subject she suggested I consider doing Art in Year 11 which at first seemed absurd but gradually the idea grew on me.
Over a period of time Christine managed to assuage my concerns regarding the issue, in particular, the fact that I hadn’t done art since Year 8. She assured me that this was no impediment and that if I had the interest and determination then that was all that mattered. Art at Year 11 was very different to Year 10, she said, and not for everyone. It was a preparation for Year 12 and a subject to be reckoned with alongside any other I might consider. The more she spoke, the more I listened until finally, my mind was made up.
I started Art the following year, which was a difficult year for many reasons, most of which revolved around some pretty horrendous family issues. Art became my escape route. I took to it like the proverbial duck. One of my very first efforts was a black and white acrylic painting of a woman wearing a hat. I was intrigued with how it was possible to use this sticky stuff and a paintbrush and create something that looked so realistic. Given that everyone else in the class had a few years up on me experience-wise I was pleased with my efforts.
My first painting was quickly followed by a series of realistic pencil drawings and an acrylic copy of Magritte's 'Mermaid' beached on a shore. Christine was very encouraging and within my class I began to enjoy a degree of camaraderie that until then had eluded me elsewhere. I wasn't just doing art I was one of the Art Crew. We had the coolest teachers in the school. The younger students looked up to us. Our peers respected us. I’d acquired something I had always craved: status, and it was something that would ultimately determined the direction of my adult life.
Without Christine my life would undoubtedly have taken a very different route. I'll never forget wandering into the art room one day and being stopped in my tracks by one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen, a work of exquisite subtlety and beauty made all the more extraordinary by the fact that it was a painting of the rather dull and nondescript view of the fields over the school fence. Where I had seen just a field she had seen an entire world of texture, life and colour. It was a moment of revelation, a complete epiphany.
Another epiphany occurred when we went on a school art camp to the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, a remote area of exquisite, natural beauty. While we were there I spent three days sitting alone on rocky outcrops in the middle of running streams, well away from the rest of my peers drawing nothing more than rocks and water. I felt blissfully happy. I felt as though I had found my vocation in life. It was a the first time I had experienced such immersion in the act of drawing and one which to this day has never been equalled.
Another revelatory moment was when a group of us visited Christine's house. The circumstances of the visit escape me now but what I do recall is another painting she was working on that rested on an easel in her studio depicting someone rowing on water, although that description is too banal. It was in fact a study in reflective texture and colour and utterly captivating. While discussing the piece she explained that she kept a log of how many hours she painted a week to ensure she maintained a regular schedule and this commitment to her work deeply impressed me.
I experimented with a wide variety of materials and techniques in Year 11 but in Year 12 I decided to focus exclusively on drawing. As the year progressed I sometimes doubted whether my choice was a wise one, especially given the often dramatic and large scale work being done by my peers; however, by now I’d decided that art was what I wanted to pursue once I left school and I wanted to ensure I was well grounded in the fundamentals. It was a decision that paid off. The following year I was successful in gaining entry to art college.
I remember one day being unexpectedly called to the deputy head's office. Unsure of what misdemeanour I had committed I was surprised to discover that, having learned of my decision to pursue art beyond Year 12, she really though I ought to reconsider. I was at that time one of the school's brightest stars at English, the kind of annoying nerd who could get an A for a four line poem while others got a C for a four page essay. She was worried that I could be limiting my options but her efforts to dissuade me came to naught.
While art teaching appealed to me it wasn’t my primary choice. Along with others from my year group I applied for art school but missed out by one place. I was instead accepted into secondary art teaching. In retrospect it was a better outcome but at the time I felt miffed, especially given that some of my classmates had lower scores but performed better during interview and were themselves successful. Despite this, I soon left that grievance behind me and immersed myself in what was an incredibly intense and demanding course with a completely new circle of lecturers and peers.
Art college, as it was referred to back then, was an incredible eye opener. Half the people I was studying with were mature aged students. The talent pool was considerable. The lecturers were a very different group of people to the teachers at school. I was introduced to ideas and concepts, both artistic and political, that I'd never encountered before and my lack of worldly experience was often embarrassingly exposed, like the time during an education tutorial session when in all my uninformed innocence I remember asking, "What are middle class standards?" much to the disdainful disbelief of everyone else.
As for the work, I loved it. Painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, fabric work, jewellery, art history, educational theory: we did the lot and much more besides. I was stimulated and challenged as never before, which isn't to suggest it was easy or even comfortable but during that first year I had a sense of being on a journey that I’d chosen for myself and had worked damned hard to achieve. Quite where it was going to lead I didn't know but then that was true of everything back then. All I knew for certain was I was on my way.
There are few things as comical as a group of art students about to have their very first life drawing class. For the more mature members of the group it wasn't such a big deal but for those of us fresh out of school it most certainly was. Eyes averted at our easels, we nervously rearranged our paper dozens of times while the model waited impassively for the lesson to begin. When it did, the robe came off, she struck her pose and we looked up. The irony was that within a few short minutes it all felt so normal.
Compared to the art teachers at school, the lecturers at college were an odd bunch. One in particular, Ron Bell, became the bane of my college life. Apparently a "radical" painter back in 1940s Adelaide, he seemed forever stuck in a 40s time warp. The fact that he was the only painting lecturer on the course was the sole reason I didn't major in painting. He was hypercritical, inarticulate, inflexible, infuriating and as inspiring as a wet mop. After two years he'd managed to completely stifle my passion for painting and it took me years thereafter to regain it again.
Ivan Pederson on the other hand was an inspiration, a quietly focused man whose passion for drawing was contagious. It was Ivan who opened my eyes to the world around me. He once told us, "People wander through life blind, never seeing or noticing the world around them: the colours, patterns, textures and shapes. It's all there for the seeing but you have to know how to look." Having Ivan teach drawing was fortuitous, building as it did upon my focus on drawing at school. Over time I became someone who drew - people, places, things - and Ivan helped reinforce that.
I finished my first year at college with flying colours, never guessing it would take me another six years to complete my degree. The following year marked the death of my father and a period in which I withdrew from study to explore other aspects of life. During this time I continued to paint and draw but after a year away from college I realised I needed the structure of academic life to move me forward in any meaningful way. I was also beginning to seriously come to grips with the fact that gaining a degree meant better employment prospects.
I used to spend a lot of time drawing outdoors. Sometimes I'd drive down to the port area to draw the boats; sometimes I'd go into the hills and draw trees and landscapes; sometimes I'd go to the zoo or the market, and very often I'd take my sketchbook around the city and find a quiet corner to sit and draw the world passing by me. There is a meditative quality to be found in just sitting somewhere and quietly drawing what you see in front of you that for some reason I don't seem to allow myself these days.
In the winter of 1981 I moved into a share cottage with an eccentric artist who was away for weeks at a time. Towards the end of the first semester it dawned on me my heavy partying had been at significant cost to my productivity. In short, I risked failing. So for a two week period I didn't leave the house, slept between 6am and 10am, took copious quantities of caffeine tablets and port to keep me going through the nights, wore out my Joni Mitchell records, had the most sublimely productive time of my life and passed surprisingly well.
Seven years is a long period over which to do a degree course and yet I believe the experience was well worth it. The extra years meant that my work matured in a way it might not have done otherwise. It also allowed me to grow up in ways I could not have foreseen at the outset. I twice took time out, once to work and the other time to travel overseas. During this time the course itself underwent a number of changes which obliged me to take on extra subjects. It was 1983 by the time I finally graduated.
In 1984 I secured my first full-time teaching position at a typical inner city secondary school and from the moment I walked through the gate I knew that teaching was in my blood. I was teaching both art and drama and loving it. To my surprise I had a real knack for inspiring young people and turning them on to both subjects. From my first tentative steps towards doing art in Year 11 on the encouragement and support of my teacher Christine I now found myself in an environment where I was the one providing encouragement and support to others.
Perhaps the biggest vindication about my choice of career came the following year when our newly appointed deputy turned out to be none other than a woman called Marilyn, the very same person who ten years earlier had tried to talk me out of pursuing a career in art. Did I remind her about the conversation? You bet I did! Of course by then we were both able to have a good laugh about it.
And that, in a very abridged nutshell, is how I came to be an artist and art educator. Do I have any regrets?
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