John Dahlsen - Australian Environmental Artist Creating a Sense of ‘Oneness’ By Louise Buyo and Kim Hall.
Few could have predicted that Australian artist John Dahlsen would have transitioned from representational painting to abstract painting and finally, for the last decade, to found object work — not even the artist himself. Yet today, the mixed-media/assemblage sculpturist is one of the most recognized and awarded environmental artists in the world.
In the mid-nineties, Dahlsen was gathering driftwood on the Victorian Coastline for a furniture project when he found huge amounts of plastic litter washed up along the shore. The artist accumulated 80 bags of the garbage and dragged them to his studio to begin his shift to a new medium. For the last 10 years, Dahlsen has continued to take walks along Australian beaches, collecting the debris he encounters. He then sorts through it and separates it by color to create new compositions that produce a narrative.
In his artist statement, Dahlsen acknowledges, “My challenge as an artist was to take these found objects, which might on first meeting have no apparent dialogue, and to work with them until they spoke and told their story, which included those underlying environmental messages inherent to the use of this kind of medium.” The work is photographed using a number of large format transparencies, which are drum-scanned and then stitched together to form a super high-resolution print of each image. Editions are small in print run, ranging from nine to 14 per each of the four sizes offered. Dahlsen sells his limited-edition, large-scale, high-resolution digital prints on canvas and paper for $15,000 or more each, with smaller prints between $2,500 and $7,000.
Throughout the years, his work has garnered a lot of praise. Dahlsen exhibited at the Florence Biennale of Contemporary Art in 2003, where he won an award for mixed-media/new media; won the prestigious Wynne Prize (the most recognized annual Australian art prize, in existence for more than a century) at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2000, was selected by an international jury to be a cultural ambassador and represent Australia at the Athens Olympics of the Visual Arts “Artiade” Exhibition 2004.
Not only has Dahlsen’s work been exhibited worldwide, including at the Australian embassy in Washington D.C., but he has lectured about his art form in front of hundreds of audiences ranging from 30 to 3,000 attendees, and has curated environmental art shows everywhere from Australia to New York. All this, and much more, because Dahlsen had the courage to pursue a form of art that forced him to let go of many of the predispositions he had about success in the art world and instead believe wholly in his art and its mission.
Art Calendar: I read that a fire destroyed your studio in 1983, taking seven years worth of work with it. Did this event influence your transition from painting to found objects?
Dahlsen: The fire incident, although a major occurrence at the time in 1983, didn’t directly affect my transition to working with found objects, as that period began in my work in the mid-nineties. It did, though, rock my very foundations as a person and brought me face to face with my mortality, which explained, for me, my immediate openness to the spiritual path, which had been hindered up until that point. I suppose it made the transition to be easier, though, as I became less rigid as a person in hindsight. It was this point also which triggered me to begin to work with my own issues revolving around my fathers’ suicide, which took place three weeks before I was born. Looking at these issues helped to transform me significantly as a person, and I’m sure helped me to become more open and able to make the required jumps when necessary throughout my life.
Art Calendar: Were you concerned about how your collectors or critics would react to the new work, or whether you would be able to make a living at all with your newfound medium?
Dahlsen: I found that, although I saw this as completely new work at the time, as I hadn’t seen this kind of work before, I had no doubt that it would find it’s place with both the art world and my collector base. I was simply so excited with discovering this new visual language completely by accident and with no influence by other artists before me. In fact, I was surprised how quickly collectors embraced the work. I think that most of my collector base sees clearly that I’m sharing a positive message about beauty that can be gained from the aesthetic experience of appreciating these artworks, in the use of color and composition, etc., as well as at the same time appreciating highlighting a present dramatic plight of our planet and also through the work giving examples of how we can recycle and reuse in creative ways.
Art Calendar: Did you market your work as “environmental” in the beginning?
Dahlsen: I never really marketed it as any particular style at first. The term “Environmental” simply grew the longer I worked with it and had its obvious commentary on environmental issues. At first, I called these works “assemblages” and “Contemporary Landscapes.” By now, my work has naturally grown over the years into this stronger concern for the environment. As such, I’m happy to be termed an “Environmental Artist.”
Art Calendar: You spend a significant amount of time giving lectures about your work. Tell us about that.
Dahlsen: Public speaking has occurred for me as a natural development with my work. I love to address audiences and feel I have a gift with delivering them. My many years in the past as an educator have aided this, with my lecturing at both the university level as well as in the secondary school level. Invitations to speak publicly keep coming these days, which I enjoy. I love to travel, and I’m paid well for it, which is a good acknowledgment. Plus, I believe the effect I have on my audience far outreaches the carbon footprint I’m making with the travel component of giving these lectures. I’m very fortunate to connect with people on such an intimate way in these lectures, as evidenced by how I regularly receive e-mails for weeks afterward from around the globe by people who have been touched by one of my lectures.
Art Calendar: How do you structure your lectures?
Dahlsen: My lectures begin with my giving the audience a blessing for “Oneness,” as this is something I believe the world needs the most at the moment. This is followed basically by a talk on my environmental art. I deliver these talks in speaking engagements all over the world. My target audiences range from participants in seminars and environmental symposium events and at corporate functions, to universities, exhibition openings and embassy events. I lecture about my knowledge and concern about environmental issues, particularly in relation to the power and effectiveness of art transmitting important messages about our environment. I deliver these seminars for various timeframes, from 20 minutes to one to two hours, depending on the target audience. The speaking engagements are delivered with both PowerPoint and DVD presentations, and involve an introduction about myself and some basics about my history as an artist, leading on to discussion about the importance of art, emphasizing environmental and ecological awareness. This leads into the PowerPoint presentation, where I project various images. Depending on the length and nature of the presentation, this can amount to anywhere between 70 and 200 images, followed by a question and answer discussion. In this time of image projections, I focus on the visuals around eight main aspects of this environmental artwork.
Art Calendar: You have chosen to be self-represented. How do you maintain such a strong focus on creating new work, while balancing it with the art of selling, booking speaking engagements, etc.?
Dahlsen: Being predominantly self-represented has also just happened gradually, toward the end of the nineties, and has continued to this day. I did market myself quite aggressively at one point, as I really wanted to make no mistake as to how I positioned myself. In many ways, this has worked, as I tend to rely more on my reputation these days. I’ve found that responding relatively early to the need for an Internet presence has worked wonders for me with international exposure and demand, and has made the decision of when to need to have dealers or galleries work for me a much easier decision to make. Some of the challenges I experience as a self-represented artist are based around the uncertainty of future projects, as I am not in a usual cycle of X number of exhibitions per year, depending on the number of galleries representing a particular artist. But that said, I have found it usually has a way of working itself out, and I quite like the randomness of it all. I could never become a production line, which probably explains, in part, the variety of work that I make as the years go by. I maintain a strong focus on creating new work, while balancing it with the art of selling and booking speaking engagements by attending to my personal life equally, with the same amount of vigor and enthusiasm as I have for my art, so that I have the inner strength to not let the business side of things weigh me down in my career. I think this is important, to have a good balance. To get plenty of exercise, have lots of harmony with nature and meditation to help with it all. I also live in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Try Googling “Byron Bay” in Australia, and you’ll see what I mean! Although it, like all places on our planet, is facing potential unheard of climate changes, unless we humans change our ways now.
Art Calendar: What next in your career?
Dahlsen: I am open to surprises, and they just keep coming. Teaching others about the importance of the environment through delivering more lectures about my art in public speaking engagements does interest me, particularly as you can see from my Web site that I have been a hugely prolific artist over the years, and I have lots to lecture about with heaps of visuals. I think this will go hand in hand with creating new work, as I’m also really enjoying the possibilities I see in my re-entry into painting. This excites me to no end at the moment.
Art Calendar: Ultimately, what do you hope viewers get from the work you’re producing?
Dahlsen: A sense of Oneness with everything.
For a list of current worldwide exhibitions, information on his public speaking or to view more of John Dahlsen’s work, visit www.JohnDahlsen.com. Louise Buyo is the editorial intern at Art Calendar. She works as an art consultant at Hoypoloi Gallery in Orlando, Florida. She can be reached at LBuyo@ArtCalendar.com. Kim Hall is a Florida artist who serves as Art Calendar’s Editor. She can be reached at khall@ArtCalendar.com.
Australian Environmental Artist: By Surinder Moore of www.aDistinctiveStyle.com
Australian Environmental Artist
John Dahlsen's journey from contemporary to abstract painting and drawing to environmental artist has taken him to new heights. Born in Sydney, John studied at the Victorian College of the Arts, and for the last decade the Australian Artist has become on of the most recognised and awarded artist of our time.
In the early 80's a fire destroyed John' art studio including most of his artwork and supplies. While this incident wasn't the reason for John's transition to environmental artist, it did have profound impact on him. John told us although it was a devastating time for him, it caused him to turn inwards and re-evaluate his life and rethink his life's priorities.
Dahlsen's shift from abstract painting to environmental artist actually occurred in the 90s when a trip to the Victorian coastline to collect driftwood for furniture making, turned into a clean-up project that would provide John with an endless supply of items to create his art. Each trip to beaches around Byron Bay, turned out vast amounts of ocean debris for John to take home and create new works of art.
Among the debris, John finds plastics, styrofoam, rope, thongs (flip-flops) and driftwood. To other beach folk these objects may have been worthless discard, but to John it was an opportunity to use his creative vision to recycle the objects he found into art. John recycles plastic bags and transforms them into contemporary landscapes and abstract assemblages, thongs become wall art and other works are made from driftwood colleted from Australian beaches.
Some of John's recent works include seascapes and landscapes, images that he encounters on a daily basis. He paints, he tells us, with a sense of urgency... as if to capture these images before they become yet another victim of global warming.
Another one of Dahlsen's genius sculptures, took form with his creation of environmental purges made from by products of everything plastic. They represent everything and nothing - John tells us. The plastic in its petroleum state has survived years of evolution to get to this point and then regarded as something worthless ... societies throwaway. But like all of his works, John breathes new life into the objects giving them a second chance to be something.
John Dahlsen is internationally known and has been recognized many times over for his artistic vision, including winning the prestigious Wynne prize at the Art Gallery of NSW (New South Wales) in 2000, and he also was selected as a finalist in 2003 and again 2004. More recently John was a finalist in the Sulman Award at the Art Gallery of NSW.
John Dahlsen has also given many lectures in his environmental art. His audiences are worldwide and include participants in seminars and environmental symposiums. He also speaks at many corporate events and universities. John's concern about environmental issues in relation to the effectiveness of art relaying an important and urgent message about our planet and global warming, are the main topic of his lectures.
John's work has been exhibited at many galleries and museums around the globe. To learn more about his work or about the lectures and exhibits, please visit www.johndahlsen.com
National Association of the Visual Arts (Australia)
Interview between Cassandra Parkinson (Artist Career Project Manager) and John Dahlsen
Artist profile John Dahlsen
NAVA: You’ve gone through several distinct phases in your career, creating a diverse body of work. What led you to change your approach?
JD: A fire destroyed my studio in 1983, taking seven years work with it. It shook my foundations as a person and brought me face to face with my mortality. It influenced my transition through a fairly diverse range of art practice and made the later transition to found objects easier, because I became less rigid as a person. That was also the point when I began to work with my own issues revolving around my fathers’ suicide, which took place three weeks before I was born. After many years of painting, I became more open to exploring new materials and technology, and to stretching myself beyond the realm of paintbrush and canvas. Being open to the benefit of ‘accidents’ in the art-making process has led to some of the most profound breakthroughs in my work. My creative medium changed to found object art after one such ‘accident’ in 1997. I was collecting driftwood on a remote Victorian coastline, planning to make furniture, when I stumbled on vast amounts of plastic ocean debris. A whole new palette of colour and shape revealed itself.
NAVA: To what degree does a commitment to the environment inform your process as an artist?
JD: In the mid 1990s, my visual language developed across broad areas through the found object work, which encompassed such disciplines as sculpture, assemblage wall works, public art, digital prints, installation art, painting and drawing. During that time my work took on strong environmental themes, offering a vast field of exploration. I see the term “environmental artist” as being very flexible. Because I live with the environment, I have no choice but to tackle environmental issues and represent my commitment to contemporary social and environmental concerns in my work. This approach has grown naturally for me through my work with found object visual language.
NAVA: What came first – the decision to live in a seaside area or the decision to focus on environmental art?
JD: I live in a seaside town called Byron Bay and the decision to live here came before the decision to focus on environmental art. As a result of living here, my creative medium shifted. The landscapes in my latest paintings are the same places where I have roamed and collected detritus and materials for my assemblages and other works. In the past I used recycled materials to convey the history and memory of a place and to comment on the human experience of place, beauty and environmental degradation. I have executed my new paintings with a certain sense of urgency, because I have become increasingly concerned about global warming. But with these works the environmental message is more subtle.
NAVA: How difficult has it been to strike a balance between your “local” life in a small town and that which engages with the rest of the world?
JD: I’ve found an easy balance with my local and broader commitments, which have unfolded naturally over the years. I began to represent myself from the late 1990s, coinciding with the growth of the internet and more convenient travel, so it was easier to maintain contacts from a distance. Living in a regional area has helped me reach out to the international market and creating an early internet presence worked wonders in gaining international exposure and demand. That made it easier to decide when to work with dealers and galleries and it had unexpected results, such as having my work become part of the syllabus in parts of Australia, the US and the UK. It’s also important to have a good balance in your life, to get plenty of exercise, have lots of harmony with nature, meditation and a quiet place to work. I live in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. These things all benefit me as an artist living outside a major metropolitan centre.
NAVA: Ultimately, what do you hope viewers get from the work you're producing?
JD: I hope viewers get a sense of oneness with everything from the work I’m producing. Making this art is a way of sharing my messages about the need to care for our environment and about the aesthetic experience of appreciating artworks. I believe humanity is at a critical point, with the planet in a fragile ecological state and global warming hastening major changes. I hope people enjoy my work at many levels and can identify with each piece in various ways. I also hope the viewing public can embrace messages in other artists’ work, particularly when they express strong environmental and social statements intelligently and with a high degree of aesthetic complexity.
Educated at the Victorian College of the Arts and the Melbourne College of Advanced Education, John Dahlsen is a contemporary environmental artist. He exhibits regularly in Australian capital cities, regional Australia, and internationally. He has won many grants and art prizes including the Wynne Prize (2000), second prize winner in "The Signature Of Sydney Prize" (2006) and a prestigious award for mixed media/newmedia at the Florence Biennale of Contemporary Art in 2003. In 2004 he represented Australia at the Athens Olympics of Visual Arts 'Artiade' Exhibition. John is represented by major public and private collections in Australia, Europe, the US, China and Japan.