Dayna Wells: Hi John, thank you for meeting with me today, I would just like to ask a few questions on how you made that transition. How did you get that first initial break into the actual art industry, how did you face the transition between those two mediums and what challenges that you faced in that transition period?
John Dahlsen: So that, for me, was not an easy process. I’d like to say it was easy; I came out of art school with lots of expectations that an, A-class gallery would just snap me up like many of us had who come out of Victorian College of the Arts at the time, or at least … I guess, we had expectations and desires and hopes of immediately going into full time exhibitions in top galleries. Maybe one, maybe two artists were snapped up and they actually attained quite stellar careers straight away, however as each year progressed, the average stayed about the same. In each year, there were twenty-three students and each student had their own aspirations. There were around 1500 applicants each year. So it was really tough to get into. But I was fortunate at the time when I applied I was working on a series of works that they liked.
Now when I came out after art school… I just did whatever I could do to survive as an artist. I persevered; I did many, many, many jobs from washing dishes in restaurants, to being a house painter. But I was constantly striving forward, exhibitions were sometimes paintings displayed in restaurants, doctors practices or small local studios. But I slowly built a career as time went on. I began exhibiting in a number of galleries and working on new paintings. By the time I reach the top levels of my career and success as a contemporary painter, I was having sometimes up to three solo exhibitions and a number of group exhibitions each year. I also had a couple of patrons paying retainers who were subsidising me to keep on painting. So I was having a really good time but it was sure a lot of hard work that actually got me into the Australian art scene. In Western Australia, I had a major exhibition at the Lawrence Wilson Gallery at the University of Western Australia. That was last show I ever did before I moved to Byron Bay with my partner who I just met. We moved there in 1992.
Dayna Wells: So it was persistence to continue your own art that really pushed you out there.
John Dahlsen: I think so. In a way, it was also unavoidable because I had to pursue what I was doing, because whenever I got frustrated, whenever I said, “Okay that’s it, I can’t continue this, there’s not enough money to do this” or whatever, I would be up there in the studio, producing my next series of work.
Dayna Wells: So really, the art is in your blood.
John Dahlsen: In my blood. That’s for number of reasons, and it could be, that I have grown up in sensitive family. My issue was just prior to my birth my father committed suicide, so that left a huge impact on my whole family and probably what drove me to be an artist. So that’s been very important. Now the second phase of this question that you asked. In some ways, these two questions may take up the whole interview because they’re really key points. You asked me what about the transition between working as a painter or working in two-dimensional, and then going into three-dimensionality. That was a major transition. It was probably one of the biggest breakthroughs I’ve had as a creator. When it all happened actually.
Dayna Wells: What are the challenges you face when you were trying to transition professionally into that new phase and introduce it in your exhibitions as well as the struggles you had trying to change how you actually perceive and express your artistic visions?
John Dahlsen: I kind of fell into it accidentally. I was looking for driftwood for my new home in Byron Bay and I noticed plastics on the beaches. And one thing led to another, and before I knew it, another whole edgy career opened up in front of me, where I stopped painting almost immediately. I saw something, I envisioned something that was phenomenal, which was making social statements in my work, it really was transformational. It was such a statement to me, about the environment, even in a place like Byron Bay. Really, there was a powerful expression through my creativity. And when I looked at what I had collected I really got a sense of a new direction that I’ve never really looked back on. While I was working with these new found objects, as I put them together to make these large wall works, they began to a look a little bit like oil paintings and that’s where I came from, being an oil painter.. It was interesting because what also happened was that larger pieces of plastics, and foam and plastics cups all sorts of things that had piled up in my studio, and I wanted to make installations and that led into my totemic work. I became well known for my totems, winning the the Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery in New South Wales in 2000 and that was with the five towering totems of thongs all assembled together.
Dayna Wells: That’s such an Australian thing. It’s making such a statement on what is Australiana, but it’s also about the abandonment of all that is Australiana. It’s great that you’re tying in environmental aspects, as well as who we are culturally almost destroying it in the same way.
John Dahlsen: Exactly. For me, as an environmental artist, I say it’s a win-win situation. Because on the one hand, I’m collecting my palate and on the other hand beaches are getting cleaner. It’s also bringing to the fore environmental messages to people. So there are many different things in combination. And I also find beauty in these plastics, which are somehow created in a way that I just appreciate the innate beauty of what nature has done to transform and round off a man made product.. So aesthetics has become a very important part of my creativity and it’s always been like that, and that’s grown, well, into everything that I do as an environmental artist, working with objects that people largely see as rubbish or trash or ugly. And I don’t necessarily see it that way. I see it more as something that is … gone through an alchemical process and become art as I work with it in my studio.
Dayna Wells: That’s fascinating to see how you’re taking it as something, as you said, that people discard. People see it as rubbish, an ugly thing. And you’re turning it into something with a value. It’s such a moulding of your trash into treasure.
Dayna Wells: The public really has latched onto you nationally and internationally. You’ve made such a name for yourself through being that environmental artist, and especially in this day and age where everyone is trying to make the world better. You’re carving that path forward into what is art. People can take this message and actually portray in such a new and innovative way.
John Dahlsen: And hopefully a positive way, unmistakably beautiful way. I just finished a PhD at end of last year. The title of PhD was “Environmental Art: Activism, aesthetics and transformation. During this process of the PhD, I’ve been able to distil the essence of what my work is really all about. These three elements: There is the initial activist element; it is about the environment, and about taking care of the environment. What’s going on in the Pacific Ocean is a scourge and that’s a scourge that everybody is aware of and this work highlights that. The second element is something that hopefully through people viewing these artworks in a positive way, aesthetically beautiful way, in a sense of aesthetics, this sense of aesthetics can give people another angle that they can look in for inspiration on this environmental issue. There is also another element here which is the third part of these elements, which is transformation, where people have some reflection of it rather than the usual thing that’s been shoved down their throats which is ‘it is also horrible and all so terrible’. I believe it’s what we can do creatively that matters here. How we can renew things. How we can reuse, that is my individual stance with this work that is unique.
Dayna Wells: So often the media portrays it as ugly and people stick their heads in the sand. They don’t want to know about it, they don’t want to hear about it so we tend to ignore it. What you’re doing by beautifying it, we can utilise this rubbish, this ugliness, and make people think about it in an entirely new way. Make it the new art. Instead of constantly making something new to be used as art, you’re taking that old stuff, stuff that everyone else want to get rid of and forget about and hide in the sand about, and turning it into something that is really different and unique and beautiful.
John Dahlsen: And I think that this is also one reason why the work has become popular in places like China and Indonesia, for example. Because I spent a lot of time doing lectures and having exhibitions in those places. People love it. They love the positivity that they sense, and also the educational component, which is how to turn something beautiful when it is viewed normally as an ugly thing.
Dayna Wells: It’s lovely to see. Look one of the questions I did have … With all your lecturing now and with teaching, you’re basically influencing and inspiring a whole new generation of artists to go out and make their own nations within the art world. What advice would you give to them? If you had one piece of advice you could give to these new aspiring artists, what would it be?
John Dahlsen: I’ll start by saying one piece of advice which is multi-dimensional. First of all, I’d say, “Be open, be flexible.” Because first of all being flexible keeps you young, it will keep your ideas young. Often it happens in a creative process that things seem like they’re at a dead end, when all it needs is a little bit of flexibility and openness and it can be seen as a breakthrough. One thing which I’m aware of … A lot of students or people that I’m mentoring or other artists have come to me and they tell me that they’re in a standstill stage of their work … Is sometimes I see the direct opposite. They’re showing me their work. They’re showing me what’s going on with their work and they’re going, “I’ve really destroyed this. I don’t know where to go with my career. I think I’m done.” And I’m looking at something where I’m seeing a major breakthrough is happening but they’re not aware of it. Now this is a really important thing that I constantly share with people that I work with is, be open to the accident happening in your work, be open to the unexpected happening in your work. Because that might be, and it usually is, a doorway to some of the best creativity you’ll have.
Dayna Wells: Like your own with the adventure collecting driftwood. It was that happy little accident, that coincidence that just opened up a whole new door, a whole new avenue for you that really jettisoned you out there.
John Dahlsen: It’s been a really interesting journey. And that journey is something that … and this would be one further thought that I would like to say to people in their journey is … The journey can jettison you out there at major highs, and also major lows so when things don’t work for a while, the thing is to actually live out those times when not much has happened and just keep working and keep ploughing through the flat-lining times. Because all energy has ups and downs, it’s a natural flow. And if you can remember that, you’ll find that your ongoing career will just have a beautiful flow, or you won’t tend to doubt yourself when things flat line for a while.
Dayna Wells: That’s lovely. That’s beautiful and I think the perfect note to close on. Thank you very much for your time.
John: It’s been a pleasure Dayna.