2017 Interview between University student Kloe Rogers and Dr. John Dahlsen May 2017
I chose to interview John because through out this semester his work and message has been inspiring to me. His work is aesthetically pleasing while effortlessly representing a crucial environmental message. Within my networking circles, John is also one of the most successful artists I know personally, and it was an enriching experience hearing about his career and achievements. I also took this opportunity to ask John about his piece ‘Blue Rope’, as I’m using the materials behind that piece and its contemporary significance to justify the presence of selected visual trends. In addition to this, I asked John about the feelings and symbols behind his work, as when researching artists this is the most important information they could convey; how they feel about their work, what they believe it means, and the personal symbolism found within the artwork are all fascinating aspects of another artist’s creative process.
It was a pleasure interviewing John, although in future if I need to interview someone I will try to get in contact with a lot more people, and have alternative people if people end up being sick, busy, or unreachable. This only being because we were asked to try and find someone outside of our academic circles, yet due to unforeseen circumstances, my initial choices were unable to proceed with being interviewed, and John was kind enough to sit-in and be interviewed.
Kloe: “I was wondering if there were any reoccurring symbols in your creative practice, and what those symbols happen to mean to you?”
John Dahlsen: Well Kloe, I think I’m probably most known for the recurring symbols of the square, circle and the triangle. They’ve entered my works approximately, almost 30 years now, which is a long time in a creative practice but its been something that has come back again and again and again; using what are known as universal shapes.
The artist Sengai, the Japanese mystic and painter, he used these words and called his ink painting ‘Universal Forms’ and I first was exposed to that work many many years ago and I was very effected by the work, the simplicity of the work bringing these three shapes together and it was inspiration for a number of works that I did following that.
One in particular was one that I also called “Universal Forms’ and I painted it in 1986 and that painting exists on my website. That led to a number of other paintings in 1989 that I did in India using inks on handmade paper. I did a whole series of works where the square, circle and triangle re-entered my creative practice. It happened again in 1992 in a series I did at the time in paintings and works on paper. Later jumping right up until 2009 when I was working with driftwood sculptures and I made a series of squares circles and triangles, or elongated shapes of squares, circles and triangles to create sculpture pieces. Then again in 2014 and 2015 I did a series of works while I was doing a PHD where I mainly used the shape off the square circle and triangle in my works, in elongated shapes for sculptural pieces using plastics within the sculptures and then using digital prints where I’d painted the elongated shapes with a kind of glowing surface coming from just around the edges.
That was a very interesting process that led into some Japanese wood block prints that I did in Japan while I was on a Churchill fellowship there and then I worked with digital prints and wood block printing, a fusion of ancient and contemporary techniques.
I find the shapes very pleasing, I find them aesthetically beautiful and in a lot of ways I use these shapes as a way of editing the surface because often I have very dense surfaces especially with the reproductions of the assemblages of the plastics that I’ve collected from the beaches. Its very thick, its very dense with information and this is a wonderful way for me to edit back the surface and to create simplicity on the picture plan. I guess I did it a lot with the abstract paintings I was working with. There was a lot of abstract information and introducing these shapes was a way of bringing simplicity back into the picture plan.
K: Thank you for such an in-depth answer. Its cool that you’ve been to so many places internationally and have had experiences of the techniques there.
JD: Thank you, it has been great.
K: “Throughout your creative career what themes have you tried actively exploring or what themes really draw you into them?”
JD: I’ve always been a colourist*, I’m very interested in colour and composition and I’ve had an attraction to a certain amount of simplicity and expressing that simplicity on a razor’s edge complexity at the same time which is probably why my earlier paintings reached such a pitch of, I guess, busyness and abstraction, and then needed to be tempered back with a simplistic shape which is again why I brought in those universal shapes to help with that.
I like an expression of a certain meditativeness in my work and that can also be termed a certain ‘spirituality’. Ways that I have done this is through the use, most recent use in the largest body of work that I’ve created so far, that I’ve created over the last four years of introducing this almost like a halo effect around some of the imagery in which I was using some of these shapes; it really drew the viewer into the work and into themselves at the same time, it was like a simultaneous thing and that was the direct intentional, I guess, method on my side in order to invite that viewer into a spaciousness of meditation.
Its a kind of interesting thing to do, that while at the same time expressing a social message about care for the environment by using plastics that are washed up on the beach and using images of these assemblages of plastics to do it so on the one hand there’s a hook of beauty because of the aesthetics in which they’ve been created, these works, there’s the social statement so there’s a little bit of like a ‘bang!’ this is actually happening and then there’s a further transformative aspect of resting into something which I call ‘the beyond’ the longer you look at these works.
K: That’s amazing. “What do you believe is a crucial aspect of your creative process?”
JD: A crucial aspect of the creative process is for me when things are not going the way that you want them, or you might have expectations about your career path or you might’ve had a lot of success in your career with something and then suddenly you’re finding that it flat lines for a while, not much is happening, and that’s the crucial time where its really important, I’ve discovered, to keep working, keep trusting, to keep staying healthy and fit and just mentally together, so that you meditate a lot, you use your time wisely and I find if you can ride these times out, these flat line times, the down times after some exciting times, then you can just be peaceful with this.
That’s when naturally energy transforms its like a wave and energy has waves of going high and then low and then sometimes not much and if you can ride out those low times, or these times of flat lines, that can be a real opening and like a real door way into the next step, the next positive thing that’s going to happen which can catapult your career into a whole new area of exploration.
You’ve got a question here that says, “What attracted you to the creative life?”
JD: would you like to know about that?
K: Yes, please.
JD: Ok so for me it was very accidental I really had no idea that I would be a creator when I was a young boy I was a sports guy. Life was uneventful; I lived in a small country town in Victoria. I never thought that I would be an artist except I think it was when I moved to Melbourne, I did my studies in Melbourne, I started to get attracted by more sensitive things and I really enjoyed the process of just doing creative things.
I started doing some acting and things like this, I started to do some singing and things and then I found myself being particularly inspired by a particular artwork that a friend’s elder sister did one time and I started paintings and drawing and doing things sometimes. I just felt that I had a real lease on life and I was able to express sensitivity and my own inner-sensitivity that up until then I’d hidden away, that I’d kept to myself, the only people that I actually shared it with were my girlfriends at the time; but then I was able to actually express it out there in a two-dimensional form and before I knew it I was applying to go to the Victorian College of the Arts and I absolutely surprised myself and I think everybody else by being accepted to go there, which was really exciting and it just started a whole chapter in my life that has just continued to change and move into kind of new manifestations of the time.
K: That’s incredible, that’s a really good example of how if you just go with the flow then life kind of happens around you, like what you need to have happens, happens. Opportunities present themselves to those who notice.
JD: Yeah exactly, and that’s a really good point and its probably something that covers one of the questions you’ve written here, “What do you believe is your finest achievement?” and I think I’ll just jump to that one because stumbling across plastics washing up on the beaches is probably one of the biggest ‘aha’ moments I have as a creator because I had come from a history of being a painter, by then I’d been a painter for seventeen years, and I wanted to make driftwood furniture for my new home in Byron Bay and while I was collecting it down on the Victorian coastline where it meets New South Wales I discovered all of these plastics washing up next to where these driftwoods were washing up as well.
I started collecting those just to get them off the beach but the more I collected the more I got interested in them, so I didn’t miss the moment, that artistic moment, where its almost like a mistake but because you’re looking at things with an artistic eye, you’re looking at, “Oh maybe I can actually use these in artworks!” so I was collecting them, first of all I collected about 60 jumbo garbage bags of plastic and I was intending to take them to the tip and just recycle them. Then I got more and more intrigued by what nature had done to these plastic objects. You know, just rounded them off, they lost their sharpness and their colour was made more brilliant by being in the sun, they’d been bashed on the rocks, in the sand and things like this and I just got more and more intrigued by these works which led to me pretty much putting down my brushes as a painter almost immediately because I was so excited about this being a potential possibility for making artwork. Then I started furiously making art out of all of these plastics and inventing new processes of making art.
It was only within a matter of three years or so I was making art and sending them off to exhibitions all over the place and having exhibitions in New York and Washington.
It was really an exciting time and then I exhibited one painting, I entered it into the Wynne prize at the art gallery of New South Wales. It was a sculpture of art totems of thongs, towering totems of thongs just piled on top of each other on a stainless steel rod and this one ended up winning that prize, which was a fairly prestigious prize the Wynne prize and it really put me on the Australian contemporary art landscape and that was, you know that was really I guess, an achievement that I’ll never forget.
K: Fair enough! That sounds really ‘high-flying’ at the time, I don’t know I can kind of feel the joy emanating of you when you talk about it.
JD: Yeah, yeah it was.
K: Next would be, “What do you believe was like, a key inspiration to you?”
JD: A ‘key’ inspiration?
JD: Well I have multiple key inspirations and I’ve been able to, I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve been able to complete a PHD over the last four years and I was able to really focus on the position of my work, where my work actually exists within the greater framework of creativity involving environmental art, what are my key influences, and inspirations.
The environment is certainly one of them, that’s something that probably takes up a third of what are my inspirations and care for the environment, sending messages and creating messages about the environment are all important for me as are aesthetics and beauty, and creating work that is essentially a very challenging medium being plastics and things that people see as rubbish or as being ugly and creating it in a way that has beauty. The third thing is transformation, again providing the viewer, and ultimately myself, with the vehicle to be transformed through the experience of looking at the work and being thrown into a state of potential meditation.
K: That’s fascinating. I can tell where you’re coming form with that because when I look at your work I tend to get lost, not in the amount of colours but in the work itself, the imagery.
JD: You mentioned something about the “Blue Rope’ work that you’re writing about at the moment, was there something in particular about the ‘Blue Rope’ work that you wanted to ask me?
K: “I was going to ask what the image, that specific image, means to you? Like it’s, not the visual language behind it but like what it ‘means’?”
K: Yeah, if that makes sense because in the context I’m using it, I’m looking at the materials and that aspect but I want to add like, the meaningful aspect, like the creative perspective on that and I would prefer your perspective as opposed to putting, you know, my perspective in an essay because it’s not about my creative perspective .
JD: Yeah, no, no that’s a good question. I would tend to come at this question by saying that it would really cover a number of the works I created at that time. The ‘Blue Rope’ has a lot of intensity about it, its got a lot of very dark elements at the bottom and its almost like it grows up into the light and has further darkness at the top of it as well, so it kind of has many different elements.
Its a positive work, I always say there are what I call, at the time I called them ‘Contemporary Landscapes’ because they were a little bit like semi-abstract landscapes using rope and string and things like this, I did two in that series, or three actually, one was called ‘Blue Rope’ and was made primarily of dark blue and light blue, light green, and almost I think black ropes, all sort of joined together in a triptych, so it looked very Japanese. It almost looked like Japanese screens; I believe I’m influenced very much by Japanese art and Japanese things.
‘Red Rope’ is a similar work, also similar sort of elements, mainly using red rope and pink, brown, there was black again, there was many different colours.
So to further any discussion about ‘Blue Rope’ there was a great review by John T Spike who wrote about that particular piece in ‘Art and Antiques’ international magazine and that’s actually on my website. If you haven’t seen it already you might want to have a look and see what John wrote about that. He became a very good friend of mine, he was a director of a biennale that I was in, in Italy once and we became very close during that time, he’s a very generous man. He came to New York and had a look at this work in an exhibition there and wrote a review about it at the time. Yes, but the ‘Blue Rope’ was a work that I am very happy with and yeah it was, again, like I said it was a semi-abstract landscape as part of a collection of works that I called ‘Contemporary Landscapes’.
K: Awesome, thank you for that. My next question would be “What’s the best advice you’ve been given throughout your creative career?”
JD: The best advice I’ve been given is really some of the type of advice that I like to pass on to my students and artists that I mentor and that is what I said before about when you’re going through high times and you’re going through good times as an artist, its good to keep in mind, always there’s going to be the natural flow of energy that’s going to bring it down to the ground again, and it may even be flat lining for a long period of time.
Be aware and be ready to actually work through that time. I have found the best way to do that is a number of things. Three things in particular, be healthy, stay fit, go and do exercise, either walks everyday or ride a bike everyday, for a good three quarters of an hour or so just to keep that fitness up, eat well and healthy, see if you can stay off sugar and you know, for artists see if you can, you know just measure your life a bit so you’re really treating your body good and meditate as much as you can, do yoga, do good things for yourself and you’ll find that it’ll come through in your work and you’ll get through these times when not much is actually happening in life and you’ll be in a really good place to be alert when opportunities do come.
So saying all of those things, I would finish it by saying be a person who says yes. This is something that I live by these days, when opportunities come my way, I say “Yes”. I deal with difficulties of managing those opportunities after, but I always embrace things with positivity and optimism and I constantly say yes. I think its a really good attitude to have because its puts you into so many potential situations where lots of good things can happen.
K: Yeah I have to say I really resonate with that advice, so thank you for being interviewed.
JD: Thank you, Kloe.
*Colourist: an artist or designer who uses colour in a special or skilful way.