“Thongs” (Digital Print).
Photo: John Dahlsen (2006)
Size: 1.4 m x 2.2 m
Monumental Environmental Art [Installation] Photo: John Dahlsen (2012)
You have the reputation of being one of Australia’s premier contemporary environmental artists – How would you describe yourself?
Thanks Nathan, its nice to be interviewed by you, I’m glad that you selected me, I’m particularly interested in how your going with your work, and I’m seeing some really major breakthroughs happening for you, so that’s exciting for as an environmental artist who has in recent years also embraced being an educator at university.
So, in answer to that question, I would describe myself as being an active, contemporary environmental artist, I explore many themes in the work, one of them being the environmental theme. I’m primarily using recycled materials, plastics that wash up on the beaches around Australia, in fact it’s a global phenomenon, and also sometimes I work with recycled plastic bags and various kinds of mediums, I like to explore different things, installations, painting, wall works, sculpture, a number of different things, prints and things like this as well. So the field that I work in is quite broad and I keep pushing the boundaries of that. That’s how I’d describe myself as a contemporary Australia environmental artist.
If we go all the way back to the beginning, how did you first start making art?
I was always interested in playing around and doing drawing in classes and things, while at school as a youngster, and then, I think it was in year eleven or year twelve, and that was form five and six for HSC, I think that that’s what they called it in those days. I was at a catholic boy’s school in Melbourne, at a boarding school, where I was a boarder there, and it wasn’t the greatest time in my life, I wasn’t overly happy there. I found that I just ended up getting solace working with art and I kind of had my own break throughs at that time, when I was around sixteen years old, where I started to create some really interesting small bodies of work, and they were quite surrealistic I guess, but they were something that interested me.
I think it was in year twelve in my last year of high school at boarding school, I ended up going to the National Gallery of Victoria to have a look at a surrealist exhibition there. It had Salvador Dali and all of these amazing artists from overseas and I was completely blown out by it. I went for a coffee next door at the art gallery coffee shop, and bumped into a young lady there who I had a coffee with, and she ended up saying to me, ‘what are you going to do after you finish at school’? and I said ‘well I’m not too sure, I’m trying to go to an art school, be a teacher or do whatever’, and she said ‘would you be interested in applying here, they’re about to have applications for the Victorian College of the Arts’? I didn’t even know it existed. So I went and got some application forms with her, and three weeks later I was in front of a few of Australia’s top painters and applying for a spot there. I was very fortunate to get in, there were probably 1,400 people applied for it and twenty-four people got in. So, I count my blessings, I received the information I got accepted just before my exams *laughs* which was really great, so I was able to relax with my exams.
How did your family react to that?
Ah they loved it!
Were you supported?
Absolute support. They’ve always been supportive with whatever it is that I’ve wanted to do in my life. The only time there was ever a question was probably three years after I’d finished at the Victorian College of the Arts. My mum said to me, ‘Why don’t you consider doing a Diploma of Education, a ‘Dip. Ed.’, just to support your art career just in case you need a backup?’ And I thought *laughs* at the time, that would be the last thing in the world that I’d want to do, because I just wanted to have solo shows, and that was my life ahead of me that I saw. Anyway I did it, of course, and it was an interesting years study, I studied as a mature age student and actually loved it, then spent about a year teaching in secondary schools, and then I realised at the end of that even though the money was good and reliable, I decided that that wasn’t for me, and so I stopped that.
Well you’ve kind of answered this next question, why do you make art? And what drives you? Do you have anymore to elaborate on that?
Well yeah that’s actually the whole beginning of a wonderful series of questions there, or series of answers that might stem from it. The drive is just something that’s almost impossible to go away from. I had a quick look at your questions earlier on and I think I’m probably going to answer one of them just in what I’m going to say now. It’s almost like you can’t get away from it. For me there’s been certain times in my career where its been really difficult, where things haven’t been working, for a prolonged period of time and no break throughs were coming, and I was doing everything that I could and what I knew as a visual artist to do, and that is to stay healthy, to stay fit, eat good foods and look after yourself even though things may not be going so well. When things still haven’t gone well you do question yourself, you do wonder, is this actually meant to be for me? Even at one point I convinced myself ‘ok that’s it, I’m finished, *laughs* I’m not going to continue as a visual artist’, but… it’s almost impossible. If you’re an artist you’re an artist, you can’t get away from it, and it keeps coming back, and its almost like it haunts you to the point where the next body of work is waiting around the corner, and here it is, and just suddenly you can’t do anything but go back into the studio and continue to make art.
In an earlier interview on your website, you talk about the American abstract expressionist ‘Mark Rothko’ providing you with a defining moment as an artist, being moved profoundly to tears? What was it about Mark’s work that affected you this way?
Well it sort of surprised me, because I knew not much about ‘Mark Rothko’. I just went to the Tate gallery in London when I was, I think in my formative years, twenty-two years old or twenty-one years old. That’s where the Rothko chapel was then, that’s now moved to the Tate modern, and I walked into this room, I don’t really know what happened but after about twenty minutes of absorbing these works, or experiencing these works, I just found myself in the centre of the room just in tears. It was a really interesting experience for me because I didn’t know what was going on, I felt the works were very powerful, I loved the works, I think I was touched by the energetic reality in them, the emotional content in them.
It was all quite inexplicable for me, but it touched such a deep resonance with me, and I realised later, I read later that he committed suicide and that he had a lot of mental illness in his life and that he had a lot of issues of depression and things like this. When he did this particular series, he was going through a really difficult period in his life emotionally, and I have in my own family some suicide that has happened. It probably just hit a resonance with me, that was quite unconscious, but it also left me with the feeling of how powerful art can be, when it gets to its essence, when it gets to its real truth. His layering of hundreds and hundreds of layers of very thin washes of paint, to get that quality that he wanted to come through, for me I was just completely blown out by the quality of work, and it left an impression that I wanted to make work of that sort of quality.
So, was this the pivotal moment when you decided to follow your path as an artist?
No, it happened many years before that, it happened as I was mentioning before, around the age of sixteen or seventeen or so, and then when I got accepted into the Victorian College of the Arts my path was really quite clear for me, I felt absolutely committed to working as a contemporary artist, from that period, and I must have been eighteen years old at that point.
I’ve read a lot about your achievements in environmental art and your use of ‘found objects’ and recycled art. Something fascinated you with the various flotsam and jetsam that washed up on local beaches? Most people would consider that stuff just useless rubbish, but you saw something else. Can you tell me a bit about the thought processes that led to that epiphany?
There weren’t any thought processes, it was purely an accident, I moved into a beautiful home in Byron Bay with my wife, and in that home it had lime wash ceilings and walls and reminded me of a driftwood look, and I said to her I’ve love to go to remote beaches down in the southern part of NSW where it meets Victoria, where the Bass Straight washes in all this flotsam and jetsam, and I’d been there seventeen years beforehand when I was at the Victorian College of the Arts, and I made some furniture for a house that I was living in at the time then. When we got down there and started walking, it was four wheel drive trekking, and it was walking and climbing down cliffs and walking kilometres around rocky beaches and things like that, and then dragging it all up. I noticed that there was a lot of plastics washing up, and that for me was really interesting, because at first I when started I was just putting it into these big jumbo garbage bags and I was going to take it to the local tip and recycle it, but the more I saw it the more I was really intrigued by the colours, by what nature had done to the plastics, it’d rounded it off and I just found that I started to get interested in, to use it as some artform, I’d never seen it been done before, but I could see I was developing a mass of this material, and that possibly I could work with it. So, I didn’t throw it all away at the tip for recycling.
I removed it all by a furniture removalist up to my studio in Byron Bay. Then I made the furniture, and a few months later I tipped all of the garbage bags full of plastics into the centre of my studio floor, and that’s where I had friends dropping over asking me whether I was OK *laughs*, because they were used to seeing me working on a series of artworks for exhibitions and suddenly here I was with this kind of mildly smelly, load of plastics on the floor, but I could see the potential for the pallet, so I just started selecting the red bits in one courner of the studio, the yellow bits over there, the blue bits there, the coke bottles there, etc, etc. until I literally had a gigantic pallet on the floor. Then I started inventing a way to present it, and the first series that I began with was a series of wall works that was a kind of semi abstract landscapes, and they looked a bit like oil paintings from a distance. So, there wasn’t a thought process behind it, it was more like an accidental thing, and I just went with it and I put my brushes down and I actually didn’t paint for another ten years after that, I just got captivated by this whole process.
Having had such great success as an assemblage artist – how do you now feel about traditional painting in regard to your personal career?
Traditional painting? I’ve got huge amount of respect for traditional painting, especially with Delacroix.
No, I mean that you started out mainly as a painter?
Oh, as a painter yes, but it wasn’t really traditional painting, it was more a contemporary kind of abstract painting. In my very early years, I was working with surrealism, that kind of extended into the nineteen eighties I suppose, during the period of art school I went into quite a bit of abstraction, then I went into figuration, but it was very contemporary sort of figuration, a little bit like Patrick Caulfield type of thing. That worked until about 1986, 1987 or 1988, then I started moving more into abstraction, and by 1992 I was very much into abstraction, and the only thing that was really coming into any form of figuration in the work was the introduction of the square, circle and triangle, as ways to edit so much of the information that was on the canvas, just to bring a simplicity back into the works.
Yes but, I love painting, these days I paint. I paint small plastics that I embed in resin onto large canvases, onto Belgian linen, and that’s a really interesting thing, I see myself as being a painter, but I work with plastics it’s a really contemporary unusual way of making art.
You’ve combined the two?
Yes, I’ve totally combined the two.
I love the way you contrast beauty and ugliness in your assemblages. I like the way such artworks provoke the individual to confront the environmental consequences of the society we live in.
Do you feel an obligation as an artist to educate individuals about the environmental impacts of modern human consumption?
I don’t feel any obligation; it naturally just happens in the work because its my favourite choice of material. It has social statements embedded in it and environmental statements, they just run all through the work because of the materials, I love collecting plastics from the beaches, it’s a phenomenon that’s worldwide, and I would love it if it changed, if it stopped happening. Early in the early 2000’s and late 1990’s I was asked what I would do if there stopped being plastics washing up on the beaches, and how would I feel about that, and I said I’d feel great, because then I’d just change to a different medium, but it hasn’t, it’s actually gotten more and more and more, and the garbage patch in the pacific ocean is continuing to double in size ever few years, and it’s getting bigger and bigger out there, and they’re breaking down into smaller bits of plastics, and it’s a real scourge for humanity, what’s going on out there with plastics in the ocean, nine tonnes of plastics gets dumped in the ocean almost every day these days, it’s just unbelievable with what’s going on with the amount of rubbish in the ocean, but I don’t feel an obligation it just naturally happens.
There’s obviously a major problem in Australia with the way we handle our waste, and our waste facilities for that to be happening.
It’s mainly coming from China and from Indonesia as a worldwide phenomenon. It’s mainly coming from there, and quite a bit comes from our waterways and our gutters and things like that, and they’re bringing in things to reduce this, by putting big nettings on the end of some of these concrete pipes that go out into the ocean, and that limits it a bit, but you know there’s a lot of it. There’s just so much ocean litter that washes up on the beaches, and I think it’s probably about ninety percent or eighty percent I believe, that washes up on our beach, comes from the ocean, and comes from other certain countries.
It’s definitely drawn my awareness to what’s been happening, and now when I walk along a beach I’m looking and thinking about stuff that previously I wouldn’t have been conscious of.
As someone who struggles with the balance of life and art, how do you balance the demands of being a professional artist, a husband and a university lecturer?
I do it through enjoying my commitment to meditation and to personal growth, and to exercise. And eating good foods and taking care of myself. This has been a commitment that I’ve had for at least thirty years. Most of my adult professional career, I’ve had this as a commitment to take care of myself, and to actively involve myself in forms of meditation or martial arts, but mainly meditation, and eating good foods, organic where possible and things like that.
No fast foods or anything like that?
Oh no, I can see the pitfalls of eating rubbish. You see it walking along the streets, you see so much obesity in Australia, and everywhere around the world, it’s really quite something, and yeah no I’m not interested. I think that’s why I choose to live in such a beautiful location. Byron Bay is such a beautiful place to live, there are a lot of likeminded individuals who live there, and I’ve got very close friends. Everybody seems to have this kind of intention or deliberateness about the way they live their life, to get up early, to do the lighthouse walk, to stay healthy, and just do things that nourish you rather than anything that does the opposite.
I think you might have answered this one earlier, but have you ever had a moment when you questioned your career entirely?
It’s good that you put in the word entirely, because, you know, I think I question my career all the time, and I think that’s what keeps me going as a visual artist is to have that constant enquiry, and to have a certain amount of doubt about the work that you’re doing. If anything, to bring out the excellence in your work, to make sure that you maintain a certain amount of quality in the work, and you never let anything get out the door that’s substandard. I think there’s been one or two times when things have been really difficult, which I mentioned before, where you can have phases where you go ‘Ok I’ve had enough’. I’ve had an exhibition, nothings sold, I was counting on things selling or whatever it was, and it’s like ‘Ok I’ve had enough’. But then it seems to come back, this need to express, seems to just come back like a vengeance, so, I really wonder.
When I have had a few years off, when I was doing my PHD up in Darwin for example, I bumped into some old friends and they say, ‘ah so you’re not an artist anymore’, and I always find it such a ridiculous question to ask or a statement to make, because I thought well, the fact that you’d go and do a PHD, has got nothing to do with not being an artist, in fact what I was focusing on in my thesis was environmental art and my positioning of my own work within the whole genre of environmental art. Yeah so that was kind of interesting just to hear somebody else question it, rather than myself question, ‘am I actually an artist?’ *laughs*, but these things come up, and it’s part and parcel of being an artist I suppose.
I was particularly impressed by your artwork ‘Thongs’, then I read that in December 2006 you were awarded the runner up prize of $20,000.00 in Australia’s newest, and now the richest art award, The Signature of Sydney Art Prize. ‘Thongs’ has been described as representing ‘The Soul of Sydneysiders’. What an achievement to receive those kinds of accolades. How do you handle success and recognition?
Oh ok, well thankyou for that, that was a really interesting prize that one, and I was pleased to have received that award. What I find with any form of success is, and I teach this to my students, is with any energy, it goes in waves, and it always goes in waves, its just undeniable, as an artist you’ll find in your career you’ll go in waves. There’ll be highs where you might create an amazing body of work and it might all sell, and you’ll just have a fantastic exhibition. You might win a major award and it’s just incredible and you don’t think you can even get any better than that, and then nothing happens, and it flatlines for a while. What I find is the key thing is how you handle those times when things aren’t happening, when it’s flatlining, when everybody’s kind of doubting, and people are wondering, ‘ah ok is it over for him’, or whatever.
How you handle those times is the crucial thing, in your professionalism, if you’re able to cope with the flatliners, stay healthy, stay fit, stay maintaining quality in your life during that time. Naturally, energetically you’ll be taken up on another wave, and it just goes like this, all the way through, and I’ve seen it constantly do this all the way through my life. So, rather than how do you handle it when you’re at the peak, you just do the best you can, you try not to kind of get over confident, and just allow yourself to go energetically to a rest period. A rest period is probably a good way to describe that, flatlining period where not much happens.
Dahlsen (2006). Thongs, (Digital Print).
Is there a danger of being caught up too much in your own success, in your own mind?
Well you can do that, and then you can also, when things aren’t happening, or when you need a certain amount of rest on that energy wave, you could see it as being a negative and that’s where a lot of artists, a lot of actors, a lot of people like this, they start taking drugs or getting into alcohol or getting into not looking after themselves, and then they loose it. If you can maintain that wave and living that wave then that’s a big secret.
Dahlsen (2012). Monumental Environmental Artwork [Installation].
In contrast, as an artist how did you handle the public criticism of your sculpture ‘Monumental Environmental Artwork’ installed in Apex Park at Byron Bay’s Main Beach?
Well it’s interesting, I loved having the sculpture there, the local mayor at the time was very proud to have it installed there, it won the Byron Bay, what was it? the East Coast art award or something, anyways it was a people’s choice award, and people loved that artwork. The mayor wanted it placed there, right there, and I agreed for that to happen, and there was mixed feelings about it, probably ninety percent of the people loved it, and about a ten percent didn’t like it.
There was some controversy about a fence that cost the council $10,000?
There was an issue around the fencing, both myself and the mayor wanted to have it like it was, the public health and safety said it needed to have it, because of their public liability, that it had to have an enclosure around it. So, they just put a stainless-steel fence around it.
There was a lot of support for it, but how do you handle that sort of criticism as an artist?
Oh, you just take it in your stride, you’re never going to make everybody happy. There’s a lot of controversy, I won’t go away from this interview, but there was a lot of controversy around a public artwork that’s just gone up in Byron Bay, which is meant to be a rendition of the lighthouse. It was a kind of positive negative thing with birds flying away from the lighthouse. The initial drawing where it was accepted for its commission, looked as though it was going to be amazing. It looked like it was going to be an incredible engineering feat, and for $55,000, for an artist to be able to do this in stainless steel, you know, I thought at the time, that’s going to be really an amazing gift for Byron Bay. What it ended up being is something that a lot of people have coined it as being Byron Bay’s, what is it?… Sparkling Dildo, or something like that *laughs*, because it looks a little bit like a big dildo. It’s really that, you know, the artist missed the point, he switched materials, from stainless steel to aluminium at the last moment without consultation. The work looks nothing like the original drawing, and this poor guy has gone through so much abuse, and so much public outcry because of it. I never went through anything like this, I had the odd person right a letter to the local paper about it, saying how dare the council spend $10,000 dollars on a fence around the artwork, but there was no choice about that, they had to do it by law. So, I felt quite lucky compared to this fellow.
What artistic accomplishment are you most proud of? And why?
I think the most recent work that I’ve done is probably, and I always do that, whenever I create a new body of work, it’s the latest work and I’m always really proud of it. It’s a breakthrough for me, and so the recent work I’ve been doing around the garbage patch, which are renditions of the actual current mapping of the garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean, I’m using ecofriendly plant resins, with my plastics embedded in it, and I’m painting these onto canvases. I love where this work’s going, and I’m also doing detailed studies of beaches and things like that with plastics, and yes I love this work. There have been some works that I guess are very renowned, and I’d have to bring the ‘Thong Totems’ that won the Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2000, probably one of those as an example.
In hindsight, how was the experience of exhibiting your artworks in channel 10’s 2007’s Big Brother house?
Yes, that was great, that was really good for me because at the time when I was approached to do that they were on a real green theme, and they wanted too, everything was about recycling in that particular series. I saw it as an opportunity to reach a national audience with positive messages about the environment, and about art, and about renewal, and the possibility about being creative with renewal things in your work. It did reach a huge audience and I got a huge amount of positive feedback about it, so for me it was a really good thing to do.
You were also named ‘Official artist of the New Millennium” in 2000 for the environmental organizations Clean up Australia and Clean up the World. It must have been a proud moment for you to be recognised like this outside of purely art circles.
Yes, and that was really good, Ian Kiernan became a mate, and I was introduced to him in I think 1999 after I went to Washington to have an exhibition at the embassy there. Then I went on to have exhibitions in New York and different places there and met the cofounder of Clean Up Australia and Clean Up the World, and that’s Kim McKay, who now runs the Australian Museum in Sydney. Ian and Kim began those campaigns in Sydney, and it was a real success, and then Kim introduced me to Ian, and they announced that I was the artist of the new millennium for their organisations, which was really fantastic
You know, I love taking on these sorts of roles, just recently in Sydney I had an exhibition that was a twenty-year retrospective that just finished a week ago down in Sydney. At the end of that, it was also part of what’s called the Ocean Lovers big festival down there, and that’s an organisation, the Ocean Lovers and they’ve also asked me to be an ambassador for their organisation. So, these things keep happening, it’s all good, I like these things.
You use Totems in your art – traditionally these are seen to be representing family, clan, or tribal symbols. What inspired you use them in relationship with environmental waste, found objects and recycling?
Oh, you’re going to love this answer. At first when I started working with the plastics that washed up, and I sorted them into different piles and things. I sorted them into, do you know this styrofoam broccoli boxes, those white boxes that you see? Anyway, I started going around town to all of these fruit and vegetable companies and they throw them out the back, and it would all go to the tip. I started collecting them, I ended up with thousands of these things, and that’s what I would sort all of my colours in, I’d end up with red small, red large, red mediums and things like that. Thongs, coke bottles, blah, blah, blah, that’s how I sorted them, and I stacked them on top of each other and it became like a very ordered thing, but I had to do it. I was just inventing, what do I do? It’s not paint tubes, and I can’t just put it in the courner, I had to actually sort it all out, so I new at one stage I’d have enough for a big assemblage work just of red pieces, or red small pieces.
At one stage I thought with those really large pieces what do I do with them? so I started researching sculpture, and looked at totemics, and then researched totems and saw that a totem is a symbol of a clan, and I thought well, this is a symbol of a clan, of a multi-levelled view of a clan, of our contemporary society where plastics are washing up on beaches or being left behind. At the same time, the contemporary artists like myself were able to make something new, and have something of beauty in their expression, so then I started looking at the objects and saw that I could actually stack them up together, and then I just invented a new way, a stainless steel rod up the centre, through these I ended up, as best as I could making them aesthetically beautiful, and that’s how it happened, I just started using the bigger bits *laughs*.
Your Thong Totems won the prestigious” Wynne Prize” in 2000 for sculpture and landscape painting at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Was this a highlight of your career? What impact did that have on your career as an artist?
Yes, absolutely it did, it put me into a whole different playing field, because I was already starting to get there. Because I was starting to have shows overseas and things like that and people were beginning to take notice of my work. To win that prize was an acknowledgement from the art world, that they also valued it as a contemporary piece of art, and as a high standard contemporary piece of art to win that particular award. I got to meet a lot of contemporary artists that were also, you know, making a lot of headway, who were winning the Archibald Prize, Adam Cullen won the Archibald that same year, and I got to know all of these guys, and I was part of the whole scene and it was a really interesting thing, and I’ve continued to be part of that whole scene. I’ve been shortlisted as a finalist for many years after that, and in the Sulman Prize as well, and I continue to enter, and it’s a lot of fun, and I’ve got a lot of mates in the art world, and I love it.
What was it like representing Australia as an environmental artist at the 2004 Athens Olympics?
Yes, that was great, it was fantastic, I got sponsorship to go over there, and had a fantastic host over their and just really enjoyed two weeks of being in Athens, and being part of this wonderful contemporary exhibition, I really enjoyed it.
I had no idea they had an actual art exhibition in the Olympics.
Yes, usually with most Olympics there’s an art component to it as well. In fact, something that I wasn’t aware of until I was involved in this, is that back in the early days of the Olympics, Art was one of the key parts of the Olympics. There were prizes for Art, it was the same as athletics, there was no difference, it was like Art was one of those things, like sculpture etc. So that’s interesting how down through the years it’s become more of a sporting thing rather than a cultural thing, even though it’s still part of it.
Many artists are finding it hard to secure a living with their art. What does a successful art career look like in today’s contemporary modern world?
Well, I think in todays contemporary modern world, it’s really important for young artists to be flexible, and to be open to be doing different things to support their career, and to not rely or have an expectation that just having exhibitions of their work is going to be the thing that’s going to give them their bread and butter to survive. Like most careers these days, it’s changing every five years, same in the art world; I think it’s important for people to be prepared to do things to support their career. I know during my career, and I’ve had a career for over 30 years now, I’ve done a number of different things, a large component of it, at least half of it, I’ve been able to work full time in my studio as an artist, and have successful exhibitions and things, where I was selling enough to survive on.
The global financial crisis, around 2009 or so onwards, bought about a big change with that, I think for most visual artists the middle market kind of went out, or disappeared, and the blue-chip market survived, and so did the early entry, just out of art school. There was a lot of interest in students and work coming out of art schools at that time, but a lot of people found it very difficult because gallery’s were closing down, and people stopped buying art. So, it was important to start to do other things, and I’m also really enjoying lecturing at university and having a thriving art career happening at the same time, where I have exhibitions all the time. So, I’ve just added something to my activities. In my early days when I wasn’t working full time as an artist, I was also doing all sorts of things, from house painting, to gardening, to all sorts of different other projects to support my career, a little bit of teaching here and there. I think it’s important for young artists to be open to supporting their career.
How much did you consciously develop your career as it went along? Was there a definite plan that you had, that you stuck too and really believed in? Or was it more intuitive, and you just went along with opportunities as they presented themselves?
Ah, it’s a bit of mixture of both, I’m reasonably pragmatic, I’ve written a book about it called ‘The Artists Guide to a Successful Career’. In there I have very practical guidelines, about having a five-year plan, a six-month plan, a three-month plan, doing proper marketing, how to approach galleries, all of these different things, and being very clear about the ‘do’s and don’ts’, and how to go about your activities as an artist in the art world.
So, it’s very important to make these things happen and not just float along?
Well I think so, it’s vitally important to have a good website for example. If you don’t have that you’re going to miss out on so many opportunities. People contact me constantly through my website because it’s quite prominent and highly optimised, and I’ve put a lot of money into it over the years, ever since about 1999 I’ve had this website out there. It’s one of the earliest in my kind of field of environmental art, that sort of presence, and because of that, it’s bought a lot of attention, and I’ve been given a lot of opportunities, that sometimes I’ve taken up, and sometimes I haven’t.
I read on your website that you’ve met ‘Fred Williams’ during your art school years – can you share any anecdotes?
Yes, Fred passed away way too early, but he was a very energetic guy who took our drawing classes a number of times when I was at the Victorian College of the Arts. He was very good friends with Noel Counihan who was our full-time drawing teach there, and I used too take drawing classes every week spending every Friday drawing all day, and I did that for the whole time I was at Art School. That really helped with my being able to ‘see’, just seeing things for what they are, not for what the mind thinks they are, and that’s really the key about drawing. With Fred, just his energetic response to the creative process was something that really left an imprint on me, as did many different lecturers that I had at the Victorian college of the Arts at the time. Just the way they went about their activities as an artist, and what they saw, how enthusiastic they were and how present they were with the whole creative process, really left a strong imprint on me. It’s interesting because right now I’m creating works, that I don’t mind saying, that remind me very much of some Fred Williams landscapes works, with my plastics on the Belgian linen they look very much like, people have said to me, ‘it looks very much like a Fred Williams’.
What is the experience like of being an ‘Artist in Residence’?
Yes, that’s great, whenever you get an opportunity, I think it’s a really good thing to be an artist in residence. You can have a strong impact on a lot of people, in those circumstances, and I think that for me it’s been really valuable experience to do it. It takes you often to unusual places and to mix with different people in different experiences, and I think as an artist I think it’s a really good thing to do.
What advice would you give me as a mature age art student, taking those first awkward steps towards my dream?
Look I think, you’re taking a real courageous risk in doing what you’re doing, and I think that because of that, be gentle on yourself. I think it’s really important to take care, and trust what you’re doing, you’re doing it for a reason, and I put full trust in the fact that you’re choosing to do it, and why you’re doing it is a very conscious decision. Protect the space, I think it’s so important, to protect your space while you’re actually doing that, and too take the amount of space that you need in order to be able too nurture this new entity into being. Because things can disturb it from really unknown sources, things can disturb it and really put it on edge, and make it very, very fragile, and it’s continued growth. So, the advice I’d give you is put whatever is needed in place to really protect that baby.
Thanks so much for your time, John Dahlsen.