La source

After Ingres, La Source

After Ingres, La Source

I have been thinking about how important it is to uncover one’s source. My dear friend Jacques has been in town, and his simultaneous lightness and solidity has been energizing. But it is not enough to rely on the buoyancy of others. I think of Ingres’ La Source, and of how she sustains herself: an endless spring, an infinite well needing no support.

Delacroix journal

Delacroix (p. 32) struggles, early in his journals, with a restlessness—‘This restlessness that comes over me almost every evening! Oh sweet contentment of the philosophers, why can I not capture you?’ He concludes, ‘I must never put off for a better day something that I could enjoy doing now. What I have done cannot be taken from me.’ Knowing that you have invested your energies and your time into something meaningful allows you to sustain yourself—independent of others, independent of circumstances—able to carry yourself, and pick yourself up, and nourish yourself. Delacroix (p. 29) muses, ‘Even one task fulfilled at regular intervals in a man’s life can bring order into his life as a whole; everything else hinges upon it.’


And so, I begin to look for the things that cut through everything else, the things I can return to, the things that I can build on day after day and thus build myself up. While Jacques is employed in a field of theoretical physics that keeps him wholly engaged and focused, thus finding a source in his work, I must fill the crevices left in my days with the things that energize me. Drawing stands out like a beacon. When I’m not drawing, it seems hard and important and worthy of time, too big and significant for snatches of moments. But once it slips into those snatches, it penetrates everything—bad moods, sadness, fatigue. I must depend upon my drawing. Philosophy, too—I remember the consolation it has given me, far deeper than any escapism offered by fiction. My quiet time over coffee, studying German, and practicing grammar, and gaining a mastery over something new and challenging. These things are solitary and unshakeable, and with them I can prop myself up, and build myself up. I must draw, and study, and think deeply, and I will be refreshed and strong enough to face the world.


Delacroix (p. 20) happened upon the same realisation: ‘Poor fellow!’ he chided himself. ‘How can you do great work when you are always having to rub shoulders with everything that is vulgar. Think of the great Michelangelo. Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul. You are always being lured away by foolish distractions. Seek solitude. If your life is well ordered your health will not suffer.’


I am amazed that my sketchbook languishes when I know what it gives me! So few tools, and yet they give me the power to invert everything. It is like holding up a pitcher that never runs dry—what sorcery!


Later in life, Delacroix (p. 133) reflects on the source of his strength and peace, probing himself thus: ‘Why was it that I lived so fully on that particular day? Because I had a great many ideas that are miles away from me now. The secret of having no worries—at least where I am concerned—is to have plenty of ideas. Therefore I cannot afford to let slip any means of encouraging them. Good books have this effect, and especially certain books. Health is the first consideration, but even when one is feeling dull and tired these particular books can renew the source from which my imagination flows.’ Endlessly refreshed by Dante, and perpetually inspired by Rubens, Delacroix persevered with his work in spite of feeling ill, or tired, or distracted by companions. He struggled, but he knew himself well enough to bring himself through those struggles and focus on what was most meaningful to him—and, as we all hope to, to produce something enduring, the true offspring of that drive.


My friend and philosopher Mark muses, ‘I begin to suppose that life will never feel more real or more lively than it does right now, and if we ever want to do something great, we must do it feeling like this.’ I think he is correct in concluding that it won’t strike us like a bolt from the heavens, this energy that will propel us to greatness. He is right to feel we must push on through apathy. But if we can nurture that part of ourselves in secret, and find that quiet spring inside us, perhaps we can pull ourselves out of that foggy place by our own bootstraps.


James Dickey, to conclude:

You?    I?    What difference is there?    We can all be saved
By a secret blooming. Now as I walk
The night    and you walk with me    we know simplicity
Is close to the source that sleeping men
Search for in their home-deep beds.
We know that the sun is away    we know that the sun can be conquered
By moths, in blue home-town air.

(James L Dickey, The strength of fields)

Delacroix, Eugene. 2010 [1822-1863] The journal of Eugene Delacroix. Trans. Lucy Norton. Phaidon: London.


Reckless solitude


The world we live in is constructed to support the social creature. Above all others it celebrates the confident, outspoken, public person. It trains us all from our youth to operate in this way, forcing us to be ‘socialised’ in the school, teaching us to perform in front of an audience, preparing us to interact confidently with strangers for the daily transactions our work will demand when we are of age. The reserved, meditative soul is shaken out of its reverie and compelled also to work in this way, despite convincing evidence that such a being might produce more work, and qualitatively better work, in secret, in the privacy of their own room.

The wish for an unthinking, reckless solitude. To be face to face only with myself. Perhaps I shall have it in Riva.

(Kafka, p. 222).

I have been thinking about the solitary life of the painter, and how that faceless entity of ‘society’ warns us against the gruelling hours spent alone in a studio, cut off from human contact. The more time I spend drawing and painting, the more I relish this solitude and the more I crave it. To have autonomy in one’s work is not the only appealing thing. To be so completely immersed in one’s work and undistracted by others is a real gift to the quiet creature, who finds the time alone more attuned to her natural state. Having learned to shed her shyness, she finds it infinitely more conducive to her most fulfilling work to shrink back into it. The painter-animal in the painter-cave, not forcibly shut off from society, but willingly retreating from the inanity of it:

I will write again, but how many doubts have I meanwhile had about my writing? At bottom I am an incapable, ignorant person who, if he had not been compelled—without any effort on his own part and scarcely aware of the compulsion—to go to school, would be fit only to crouch in a kennel, to leap out when food is offered him, and to leap back when he has swallowed it.

(Kafka, p. 237).

Where Kafka considers himself some kind of brute for recognising this trait in himself, I am beginning to believe that this reserve is something to be respected and valued. As one pursues a solitary career and finds oneself submerged in this kennel for days at a time, one achieves a remarkable clarity, a peaceful mental state and a depth of thought not to be found in short snatches of time salvaged here and there around a busy schedule. Creatures like us need time to mull, to ponder, to gestate. Where others intrude, they become a distraction and an imposition:

Everything that is not literature bores me and I hate it, for it disturbs me or delays me, if only because I think it does. I lack all aptitude for family life except, at best, as an observer. I have no family feeling and visitors make me almost feel as though I were maliciously being attacked.

(Kafka, p. 231).

Let me elaborate: I have been out landscape painting. I am currently without the ‘room of one’s own’ of Virginia Woolf’s persuasion, though my suitcase contains a few clothes, many books, and my easel and paints, so I am spending my painterly time out in the world. This has the unexpected consequence of transforming me from the humble painter-animal, a shy and single-minded creature by nature, to the performance artist. It is a harrowing demand on someone living so much in her own head. I am grappling with the selection of convincing tones, attempting to create a harmony in the colours I lay down, searching for the contrasts that work towards the hazy vision in my head. I am battling the wind that rattles my canvas about, intermittent rain, and not a little fatigued by the early afternoon sun. I feel an immense uncertainty in my progress: I am not rehearsing a little routine that I perform swiftly and with ease. I am engaged in a mental struggle, trying to enact that mysterious alchemy of transforming my deep and changing three-dimensional surroundings into a small, flat illusion.

And, worse than bugs, prickly grass and sunburn—I am swarmed by spectators, who, unlike bugs, prickly grass and sunburn, are full of questions, observations and opinions. And carrying cameras.

Here are some suggestions, should you ever encounter a painter at her easel in the wild, open world: Don’t ask her how long the thing will take. Time passes her without fanfare: she doesn’t measure her success by such quantitative units. Time ceases to be calculated in minutes and hours and becomes recorded in brushstrokes and layers of paint. It took me pink and green long to make this. I don’t know what you are talking about. Don’t tell her about your painting relatives. Blood-relations don’t afford you any special painting knowledge. And she is trying to work.

On the whole, spectators are a well-meaning bunch; I truly think this. Only I am so involved in the task to hand, that I am extremely irritated to be taken away from it, and extremely stressed to be aware that I am on a stage, under a spotlight. Because my medium is visual, I am somehow obliged to share it. I envy the writer who can hide behind his laptop, or shrink quietly into his notebook.

Surfacing from our private thoughts and rising to these social demands is perhaps a necessary task, but by no means an easy one, once one has rediscovered the comfort of the painter-cave one has been banished from since childhood. Perhaps we do well to avoid them, recognising the destructive power of these demands. Kafka sounds, to ordinary ears, like he is being melodramatic, but something resonates fiercely with me in his uncompromising words:

My job is unbearable to me because it conflicts with my only desire and my only calling, which is literature. Since I am nothing but literature and can and want to be nothing else, my job will never take possession of me, it may, however, shatter me completely, and this is by no means a remote possibility.

(Kafka, p. 230).

And his feelings are more poetically, though no less forcefully, expressed by Virginia Woolf:

But what still remains with me as a worse infliction than either [the hardness of the work or the difficulty of living on the money when it was earned] was the poison of fear and bitterness which those days bred in me. To begin with, always to be doing work that one did not wish to do, and to do it like a slave, flattering and fawning, not always necessarily perhaps, but it seemed necessary and the stakes were too great to run risks; and then the thought of that one gift which it was death to hide—a small one but dear to the possessor—perishing and with it my self, my soul—all this became like a rust eating away the bloom of the spring, destroying the tree at its heart.

(Woolf, p. 39).

All this ‘flattering and fawning,’ this performing for an audience, stands between us and serious work. We painters and writers are not nasty creatures, or unable to empathise, or careless of others. Our shyness might rather belie a more sympathetic and sensitive nature. We are simply concentrated on the task to hand, and only ask for the time and space to attend to it.

The tremendous world I have in my head. But how to free myself and free it without being torn to pieces. And a thousand times rather be torn to pieces than retain it in me or bury it. That, indeed, is why I am here, that is quite clear to me.

(Kafka, p. 222).

Kafka, Franz. 2009 [1959]. Diaries of Franz Kafka. Schocken.
Woolf, Virginia. [1928] 1963. A room of one’s own. Penguin: Mitcham, Victoria.


The swamp and the little animals

Swamp © Brian Deagon

Swamp © Brian Deagon

Brian Deagon graciously hosted Ryan and me at his home and studio a few weekends ago, putting on a fabulous spread for lunch, giving us a tour of his sprawling bungalow and extensive shed studio and—most generous of all—a preview of his upcoming show in July. Both house and studio are set amongst gum trees through which the low light slings, projecting dramatic colours in the sky—oranges and lilacs—as the sun goes down. The shed studio is positively stuffed with paintings and flickering with moths and wasps. The maze-like house is lined with paintings like wallpaper. The dining room where we sat down to a huge crisp salad, a fresh baguette and some haloumi and cured meats has walls lined in gold-framed paintings—this is Brian’s personal joke about ‘art,’ and how one can tell whether the piece in question is art. His beautiful Swamp painting, a large piece, hangs outside on the wall by the front door, mostly sheltered from the weather, and apparently impervious to it. An old cane couch stands opposite it, and lounging about in it one can gaze at Swamp infinitely, wondering why it is that anyone spends their time in front of a television.

Brian has had a fascinating career thus far, and there’s something truly admirable in his approach to art, and plenty to be learned from it. He started out as an abstract painter, layering shapes and filling his paint with grit and sticking things to the canvas. One such painting stands on an easel in the shed, in two parts. Brian can’t remember how it goes together, and spends a few minutes rearranging it. He looks at it solemnly and says, ‘One night I stepped back and looked at this painting and said, “Brian, what are you doing? You’re only painting like this because you can’t draw.”’ So he gave up painting. He retired from his teaching job and took his daughter across the country and onwards to the US to pursue her promising ballet career. He stopped painting and he stopped drawing, because he recognised a crucial gap in his knowledge and could find no way to fill it. It was twenty years later when he heard of Lance Bressow that he returned to it, picking up right where he left off. There’s amazing courage in first giving up the thing that drives you, and then in returning to it and getting on with it. Yet Brian describes it as a straightforward enough thing, and one must simply do what one must do.

The works for Brian’s upcoming show at the RQAS are lush rainforest and swamp scenes, and I think to call them landscapes would be to neglect something important about them. These are not lovely false windows to hang on your wall, decorative pieces to remind one of the natural world beyond. One senses that these large paintings—at least a couple of metres across—are real portraits of real places, capturing the spirit of the places and recording the features. He alters things, certainly, for compositional harmony, but the places are recognisable, especially to his Aboriginal friends who know the places intimately. Brian’s work powerfully respects that sense of place, and it comes across so strongly that he has a profound sense of what it is to be in a place.

His paintings got me thinking about the idea of reverence and awe and a sort of secular experience of the sacred. It’s strange to me that the Western response to an expanse of landscape is that it’s a nice chunk of scenery, and that we can only experience the sacred through our own constructs. A forest is just a forest, possibly good for logging and mining, but a cathedral is the holiest of holies, and you’d better not bare your sinful shoulders that the Good Lord gave you. We worship ourselves rather than things bigger than us, and have no time for the so-called primitivism of the Aboriginal sense of sacred places.

Tackle © Brian Deagon

Tackle © Brian Deagon

‘Little animals’ are beginning to make an appearance in Brian’s work, sprouting amongst the lush riots of greenery—tiny unclothed people wrestling. ‘We’re only little animals!’ he explains, chuckling a little. ‘We fight over food, territory or mates. Nothing else.’ When I return to the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna just a few weeks later I’m struck that Brian’s project echoes a beautiful painting by Paolo Veronese and his workshop, Adam and Eve after the expulsion from Paradise. Veronese’s forest is deep and shadowy, his trees falling to the edges of the painting as if they are at the edge of the earth. The canopy feels impenetrable, and hides all the animals—including some little human ones—in its darkness. There is a real wildness to this painting, a sense of having to tame something so untameable. Brian’s paintings tap into this same sort of wildness. Rather than cloaking his little human animals in the shadow of evil, he grows them out of the frenzy of vital colour. There is nothing shameful or sinful in Brian’s paintings, just a matter-of-fact appreciation of life.

Adam and Eve after the expulsion from paradise © Paolo Veronese

Adam and Eve after the expulsion from paradise © Paolo Veronese

Some paintings Brian begins tonally, laying down a grisaille and introducing the electric colour later—phthaelo greens winning the day. One large canvas (and most of them are a couple of metres across) remains a grisaille, a dramatic, near nocturnal variation. Some of the smaller ones are painted without green paint at all, relying on yellow and black, and even red in places. Brian chuckles about the ability of the human eye to see red as green. He is immensely interested in what sort of trickery the painter can achieve.

Besides this, he is thoroughly playful in following his thought progressions. Another painting he has chopped into squares no bigger than a hand and framed each individually (in gold frames of course) to abstract them. He then repainted them, larger, on canvases that can be rearranged infinitely; an ultimate abstraction. He and Ryan discuss this idea of abstraction emerging from something representational, and of being excited by the abstract design inherent in found things.

Waterhole at Kundulomdulom © Brian Deagon

Waterhole at Kundulomdulom © Brian Deagon

The most profound lesson is perhaps in Brian’s character: he is a man of immense humility, who has never stopped learning. He gladly takes classes with people much his junior, because he wants to learn from them. His extensive website—boasting a beautifully written collection of thoughtful essays—describes this best. He writes admiringly of Ryan, teacher at the Atelier Art Classes, after taking a class with him:

We really need to say more about what I see as Daffurn’s idealism. It’s not the kind where everyone has a “Greek” nose and all female breasts defy gravity in their perfect cones. It goes much deeper philosophically in a Kantian or Heideggerian sense. It comes from a reverence for the constructed body, and a profound understanding of its structure in three dimensions, and the fourth dimension being potential movement in time, and all within a space of light and colour, revealing and concealing the body at the same moment.

Nothing really needs to be invented, just deeply understood.

It’s a proud stance, underpinned by humility. Incidentally, the controlled art studio lighting is not mandatory, it’s just a help to the student. This is all based on a reverence for nature and the body we inhabit. More than that, it presupposes a profound belief in the intelligence of artist and audience, and the visual language they use. We intend to edify our viewer, not shock them. This might not be fashionable, but it’s not “dead” as some post-structuralists might claim. To invoke beauty, hope, intelligence, diligence, persistence, structure, design etc may be idealistic and even naïve, but its not wrong. Drawing of this kind is much more than a skill set or an arcane knowledge. It implies a moral relationship between artist and model.

I keep using the word “profound”. Because it is.

One could reflect this sentiment back on Brian, who, though for many years denied the technical education, is bold and audacious, but a humble student. There is a profound lesson in this.

See Brian’s show at the Royal Queensland Art Society, Petrie Terrace, Brisbane, 20 July to 3 August 2013. Don’t miss the ones in gold frames.


Dangerous liaisons

Les liaisons dangereuses c Samantha Groenestyn

Les liaisons dangereuses © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on canvas)

The winds of change bring not just cooling Autumn rain, but also new adventures: within a month I will be leaving warm, sleepy Australia for sparkling Vienna. I’ll be trading rough and ready Brisbane for a (the?) global cultural capital, whiling away my hours swooning over paintings at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, spending my evenings at the opera, and doing some Very Serious Painting over gold-leaf-flecked cakes and creamy coffee.

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Having recently finished an ambitious book that links together art, neuroscience, psychology and Vienna, I am filled with confidence at a new aspect to my direction in life. Eric R Kandel’s The Age of Insight: The quest to understand the unconscious in art, mind and brain, from Vienna 1900 to the present talks intelligently to the reader, delving into current brain research and treating Freud’s brazenly novel ideas with honest admiration for what they set in motion. Plus, it is illustrated, with Klimt’s dreamy paintings and Kokoschka’s and Shiele’s charged paintings an optically pleasing counterbalance to brain diagrams and psychology flow-charts in the quest for the unconscious. The most striking thing about the book is that Kandel does not have to draw tenuous threads through these diverse fields: He simply situates them, historically, in one small city of two million people at the turn of the twentieth century, and unfolds a narrative of minds fertilising one another in an intellectually electric environment.

Austrian Parliament

Austrian Parliament

That environment was cultivated in a very specific way. Vienna in 1900, argues Kandel (p. 499), ‘provided a social context—the university, coffeehouses, and salons—in which scientists and artists could readily exchange ideas.’ He cites Berta Zuckerkandl’s salon several times, and the luminaries she drew together, such as Klimt and Rodin. He writes extensively of the influence of Rokitansky in the Vienna Medical School, and the social connections struck up through the university between faculties. Vienna was a small place, something like Brisbane, and one can imagine the intimacy—in Brisbane there is a joke that there are only two degrees of separation between all of its inhabitants. Importantly, Kandel (p. 499) points out, scholars of the sciences and arts alike were united by a common interest: that of ‘unconscious mental processes,’ enabling a true dialogue of benefit to all parties.


The dialogue between art and brain science, Kandel (p. xvi) explains in his opening comments, is of mutual benefit because these two fields ‘represent two distinct perspectives on mind. Through science we know that all of our mental life arises from the activity of our brain. … Art, on the other hand, provides insight into the more fleeting, experiential qualities of mind, what a certain experience feels like.’ Where Freud could envision an idea of the unconscious that appeared to fit with his experience with his patients, and where brain science could seek to explain why these mysterious patterns exist, Kokoschka could, through his expressionist brushwork and symbolism, explain these concepts visually. Klimt’s art in particular drew on his knowledge of emerging science, and symbols of fertility permeate his paintings while visually describing sensuality in a very moving way. Kandel (p. 507) traces right back to da Vinci, who ‘used his newly gained knowledge of the human anatomy to depict the human form in a more compelling and accurate manner.



All of this work chips away at the same problem from different angles, giving us different ways in, providing different insights, recording different aspects of our experience of our own minds. In a context where the work of these various fields can influence each other, new questions can arise; the cumulative body of work can grow in ways that each strain could not achieve independently. ‘It is quite likely,’ Kandel (p. 506) argues, ‘that finding new interactions between aspects of art and aspects of the science of perception and emotion will continue to enlighten both fields, and that in time those interactions may well have cumulative effects.’

Wiener Rathaus

Wiener Rathaus

Kandel (p. 501) asserts the need for a ‘third way, a set of explanatory bridges across the chasm between art and science.’ He envisions this third, conciliatory way as enabling discussion between heretofore restricted intellectual fields—a modern salon, centred around the universities (p. 505). It is at this point that I realise the immense value of the position I inhabit. A philosophy graduate, still tied up in the university, romantically partnered with a quantum physicist and able to move freely in these academic circles, I am also a painter, spending much of my time in the company of artists of an especially intellectual breed. While the Atelier exists outside of the university, it seeks to fulfil aspects of artistic study that I would venture that the fine arts in the university context in Australia cannot: pursuing excellence in practice and rigorous analytical thinking wholly tied up in that practice, not in conceptualising about social commentary or confusing the viewer through impenetrable artist statements and other trickery. Bringing these minds together—painters, philosophers and physicists—is about the noblest cause I can think of.


This work is already underway, in the coffee shops of Brisbane, in parties in old Queenslander houses, and in the old bomb factory warehouse that houses the Atelier. Ryan recently instituted a public lecture series at the Atelier, where intellectuals of all fields are invited to talk to artists in the spirit of collaboration. Jacques enthusiastically gave the first talk a couple of weeks ago, introducing current ideas in physics that might meld with ideas in art (you’ll be able to see his talk here soon). Ian Neill followed with a presentation on academicism in art. Rumour has it that Kari Sullivan will be sharing some linguistic observations pertaining to art, and that others have thoughts on the haphazard modern art education contrasted with the rigorous and ordered education of music, and the critical value of the peer review system sorely lacking in the visual arts where any amateur can demand respect. The topics are endless, the speakers willing, and the growing audience is stimulated.

Streets of Vienna

Streets of Vienna

Most of all, I intend to continue to open my home—be it in Brisbane, Vienna, or anywhere else in this intellectually vibrant world—and share tasty food, abundant wine and fierce discussion with passionate thinkers in all fields. Consider this your invitation.


* Kandel, Eric R. 2012. The Age of Insight: The quest to understand the unconscious in art, mind and brain, from Vienna 1900 to the present. Random House: New York.


Full time

I’ve almost forgotten I have a home, because I’ve been bunkered down at the Atelier which I pretty much never want to leave. You may recall I’m taking a three-month intensive, having thrown in all steady employment in favour of a full-blown art frenzy, and I’m happy to report that it’s everything I hoped and dreamed.

My glorious new routine involves getting up at the same time every day (what luxury!), and this time is not remotely near 5am, taking some brain food such as Bammes or Scott’s ‘book’ to a pleasant, sunny café, and cruising down to the studio by 9.30 to work intently until late afternoon (tea breaks allowed).

Scott’s book

I then potter around a while, working on some illustration and such before the evening class, and head home after about twelve hours of making art. Some days there are models, some days there are casts, some days there are cylinder horses. I’ve investigated the properties of cylinders, discovered three-point perspective, faceted David’s eye, explored turning points through colour, carved masses out of charcoal smudges and rendered some velvety legs. It’s extremely satisfying to work hard all day and to feel like all the knowledge one has gained barely scratches the surface. A lifetime of challenge and intellectual stimulation awaits—art is inexhaustible.

So much of what we do is learning to see, and we learn to see by doing. There’s no fixed curriculum, no exams, no term times, no lectures. The teachers attend to us one at a time, demonstrating their own distinct methods and directing us through exercises that correspond to what we already know and what we hope to gain. I don’t note down anything, I only listen and question and try for myself, and listen again and try again. The teachers bring new explanations, new examples, deftly trailing their pencils across my page to unpack things, connect things, describe things. A new language is penetrating my vocabulary as anatomical words drift along assured pencil strokes. Hearing a piece of information doesn’t cement it, but there is always a day when the new knowledge leaps from the page and everything becomes clear.

Tools are always to hand—skulls, flayed figure casts, iPads, books. Books on bones and muscles, books on artists, historical books, philosophy books. Discussion trips from brushstrokes to politics to sugar-free diets. Cake is shared. Those who find scant time for art feel something when they come—they feel compelled to justify their life choices, assure us of their artistic capabilities, make us understand how big they are in the outside world. But at the atelier, life is art. Nothing else is as pure or simple or profound, and those who seek refuge elsewhere are but making weak excuses for themselves.

Also, we are having a summer show. It’s soon! It’s in Paddington, Brisbane! If you want to hear us wax lyrical about art and see a bunch of drawings of Nicolo (and some other things), you should drop by the RQAS gallery on Petrie Terrace on Saturday 8 December. I’m going to be showing Rufus (‘a painting worthy of its name’—‘well I’d best name it, then’):

Rufus © Samantha Groenestyn


‘This willingness to continually revise one’s own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education. One submits oneself to other minds (teachers) in order to increase the chance that one will be looking in the right direction when a comet makes its sweep through a certain patch of sky.’ (Scarry*, p. 7).

Time to go make some more art. x

*Scarry, Elaine, 1999. On beauty and being just. Princeton University Press: New Jersey.


Taste, beauty and Australia

Westminster © Samantha Groenestyn

I have been heartily enjoying an Australian literary classic penned in 1960: Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness*. Though I have no architectural ambitions, buildings hold some lingering fascination for me, and Boyd’s speculations on and criticisms of Australian architecture half a century ago are razor-sharp when applied to the Australian aesthetic (or lack thereof) in whichever field it raises its beastly head. Our ‘youth’ as a nation is not responsible for our dire aesthetic sensibilities—rather, we have willfully cultivated a population proud of its poor taste, and seized on this revulsion to beauty as a defining national characteristic. Boyd calls it, rather cleverly, Featurism.

Featurism, according to Boyd, is a sort of decorative approach to design, and in turn a sort of enshrining approach to decoration. It is about appearances rather than function or utility, and as such it allows no room for subtlety, or the beauty to be found in elegant simplicity. It is one hundred percent veneer: false surfaces applied to questionable (and most likely poorly imitated) structures. The Australian rarely designs, argues Boyd. He defines design as fundamentally a problem-solving exercise involving ‘find[ing] order in a confusion of functional requirements and conflicting economic demands,’ requiring the designer ‘to blend separate parts into a whole, single, unified concept’ (p. 22). The Featurist fails to step up to such a challenge: ‘The Featurist, on the contrary, deliberately and proudly destroys any unified entity which comes into his hands by isolating parts, breaking up simple planes, interrupting straight lines, and applying gratuitous extra items wherever he fears the eye may be tempted to rest’ (p. 23). The architect, artist or designer faces an uphill battle trying to get through to a public that can only appreciate the surface. Glazed eyes slide over the visual landscape until they lock momentarily onto a flashy surface trick, and this is the extent of the audience’s engagement.

Featurism is exactly what it sounds like: One builds a house that stands out on one’s street, with a nice peaked gable with little wooden scrolls on it, and a lattice gate with a bell next to it. The veranda is covered in all manner of wind chimes, exotic plants and antique chairs. The living room has a feature wall, perhaps plum purple, painted in the granulated paint that must be swished on in multiple directions so that its rough surface picks up the light in different ways, mimicking some ancient Italian stucco. The feature wall has an antique telephone table in front of it, accompanied by a statue and a large, colourful painting in a flashy gilt frame. Fake flowers (these are Boyd’s pet hate) are a downright necessity. The car is of American make, but painted in suitably Australian primary colours, with leather seats, or sheepskin seat covers, with a smaller wooden steering wheel, billiard ball gear stick knob, checkerplate floor mats, custom pedals, neon-lit dash, chrome trimmings and stickers of your family on the rear window.

‘This is the nature of the prosperity,’ argues Boyd. ‘There is no attraction to the idea of upsetting the comfortable status quo by fundamental re-thinking on appearances, while loose coins in every pocket jingle eagerly to be spent on novel, exciting surface effects’ (p. 116). Australia has reached a level of prosperity on par with Scandinavia—our standard of living is incredibly high, we work hard, we’re well-educated. None of this is enough. The respect that Sweden or Denmark affords its creatives is entrenched in a culture that values design as ingenious solutions. Australia offers its creatives no such respect; Autralians only want to be wowed. ‘In this busy age ordinary taste has become so dulled and calloused that anything which can startle a response on jaded retinas is deemed successful: it draws attention to the fact that paint has been used and progress is afoot’ (p. 109).

As an artist, then, I face a choice. Australia may be receptive to my art, but at what cost? If perhaps the most shallow of my paintings are the most appealing to people, will I give up on trying to give meaning to my work? If producing decorative pieces is enough, I won’t be able to explore and grow as an artist. If my intellect is removed from my work, forcefully or out of sheer apathy, my growth as a human being is stunted. This is no way to live one’s life when the world is rich with experiences and knowledge and ideas to work through. Such a choice has dogged Australians with a spark of life in them for generations: ‘Most Australians … do not wish to be reminded of the facts that their country is still known abroad as an artistic and intellectual desert, and that they themselves would never be taken seriously without their denying to some extent their Australian upbringing and background, and that highly talented Australians in any of the non-useful fields of art or science have to face a dramatic decision early in their careers. They can stay here in easy-going comfort with their talent and their frustrations both working at half-pressure, or they may wrench themselves from their own country in order to develop themselves’ (p. 76).

I, of course, am a true blue Featurist. Raised on a gluttonous diet of ornament, colour and pattern, my house is a veritable goldmine of Persian rugs, tapestry-upholstered couches, tacky French prints, Dutch crockery, fake flowers, moustache cushions and ugly lamps. (Boyd considers lamps to have always ‘brought out the worst in designers’ (p. 117) ). ‘Voluntarily or involuntarily,’ he laments, ‘Featurism dogs Australia even when she sets out with good intentions of avoiding it’ (p. 22). My lavish poor taste infects everything I touch, because I can’t communicate through subtlety, and my eyes delight in being assaulted. I’m determined to grow out of this and to learn to appreciate quality beneath the surface. As for my country—our lack of respect for beauty and real engagement with design is most likely far too entrenched.


* Boyd, Robin. 2010 [1960]. The Australian Ugliness. Text: Melbourne.


Action and preparation

Princess © Samantha Groenestyn

How does one go about pursuing a career in art? My educational background puts me at something of a disadvantage in terms of knowing anything at all really about the accepted career progression of professional artists, and this has forced me to be somewhat resourceful and unorthodox in my approach. I dream up things, try them, and see if they work. My rather brash method is to act—quickly—and then to stop and evaluate the response to my efforts before taking another brazen step. I’m learning by doing—arranging shows, talking to strangers, and most of all, sharing. I can’t afford to keep anything under wraps; I have to be open about my work, have it ready to show anyone who is interested, and ready to react to their response. I’m learning on the job: learning both how to establish myself as an illustrator and how to go about my craft. I’m trying to grow both at once.

Sketches from the Prado exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery

I’ve been fortunate enough to learn more about the big, bad art world through my artist friends, big-deal gallery openings and talking to the types of people who buy (or don’t buy, as the case may be) art. I’m discovering that one might approach a career in art in a deliberate and measured way. One might take a lengthy period of time to think and to ready oneself, to prepare. Being sure of your work and intentions can enable you to present something solid when the time is right.

I’ve always been in a hurry to do all the things I want to do, and far more inclined to dive right in without adequate forethought, be it moving to Edinburgh to study having done zero research on Edinburgh, or buying lovely musical instruments on a whim, or signing up for a graphic design course three days before the beginning of term. I think of it as engineering luck by pushing myself into situations that might become opportunities. I suppose it’s a bit like playing those old computer games, like Street Fighter, and just pushing that one button really fast so you get the most kicks in and you more or less have to win because something has to connect. But now that I think about it, look at all the energy I have to expend in so many directions! What if I had the focus to work at the one thing I knew mattered to me most of all?

But while I may be over-stimulated, I certainly don’t have a limited attention span. I work most satisfyingly when I work intently on one thing for hours at a time. I like not having to rush; I like labouring over my task and doing it well. Perhaps I’ve reached a point where I’ve tried enough things and need to consider which things are really worth my attention.

Coffee date with Bammes

In fact, I am culling a few things from my hectic schedule just now and am quietly thrilled to be adjusting to probably the best phase of my life so far. As of this coming week, I will no longer be working part time at a café to pay my bills, and I will no longer be spending several evenings a week wrestling with Photoshop and InDesign. It’s hopes and dreams from here on in, baby, and I won’t be pouring away a minute of my time on anything that isn’t art. I’m starting with a three-month intensive at the atelier, peppered with a week at Julian Ashton’s in Sydney, and making a lot of hot dates with Bammes.

Wish me luck!

If you make it down to Vulture Street, West End in Brisbane, you can see some more of my paintings in The Happy Cabin and SOL Breads, as well as some brand new works and my blog banner at The Box.


The creek

Nest © Samantha Groenestyn

I was fortunate enough to attend an artist floor talk in Noosa the other week, given by one David Paulson at his retrospective exhibition. The guys at the atelier spoke of him—their former teacher—with starry eyes, and I had to tag along to see their idol in the flesh. His fleshy self is every bit as sparkling, witty and intimidating as his self-portrait, and the man had a lot of irreverent and insightful things to say.

David talked about hiring a model every day for an hour. Thirty dollars a day, five days a week, amounts to a significant sum for a financially precarious artist, but David filled sketchbook after sketchbook this way, refining his understanding of the human form. ‘Some people put a deposit on a house,’ he explained, ‘I invested in my skill.’

Now, I have no grand aspirations to own any sort of property or dwelling, and not only because my financial situation is also on the precarious end of the continuum, but mostly because such things don’t interest me. You are going to work all of your life, and you are possibly going to achieve something. I’ve known people who have proudly announced to me that since the age of twenty-six they’ve been locked into a thirty-year mortgage which they, a sole parent, must spend the majority of their part-time income on, but that it’s the best thing ever and in their fifties they’re finally going to own their somewhat average house in some backwater of Australia. While that’s no mean feat, it’s not exactly a very clever sacrifice in my estimation. No, what I’m interested in is my own skills and abilities, and working at them to achieve the most productive life possible. I’ll always find somewhere to live, and while I cherish the idea of ‘home,’ I won’t make it the driving motivation of my life.

David’s work over his lifetime is varied, but always strong and bold. His angrier stuff from his youth is confronting and bitter, and his student work—realistic portraits and such—is tight and confident. David took awkward questions from the floor and responded with an intensity and honesty that was as unsettling as much of his work. This is a man who says it like it is, and doesn’t accept people applying concepts like ‘metaphysical’ to his painting method. ‘I like the creek, so I paint the creek. There’s so much to discover in the creek. I wish I’d found the creek when I was thirty.’

Said creek is at the back of David’s property in Maleny (it’s also reassuring to know that one can preference skills over house deposits and still wind up with property, creek and all), and his explorations of it are crisp, brash and full of depth. Light shimmers knowledgeably over rocks, sticks and leaves, but those debris hold their own. These are no impressionist paintings playing with ethereal light: these paintings drag you to the bottom of the creek with their heaviness. And you want to be there: this creek is a veritable Barrier Reef of thoroughly delightful underwater plumage.

David spoke of limiting his palette in more recent times to eight colours. Each painting draws on this palette in different ratios: while the creek bed paintings burst with vivid reds, yellows and blues, saving the darks for striking tonal effects, a series of smaller paintings of girls on the creek bank are predominantly dark, saving tiny flecks of pure colour for eerie glances of light off skin and water. J has often spoken of style being a matter of limiting yourself in a particular way—of making a choice about what to leave out—and in David’s case, his palette has forced him to explore other things about the works, though I suspect it has also given him a virtuoso grasp on the limits that his colours can be pushed to.

We spent some time admiring David’s life drawings, and he took great delight in telling us that a drawing must capture the person. Being correct and accurate is not the same as understanding a person through their physical presence and describing that in lines on paper. I’m reminded of Bammes* (p. 10), who says of this ‘sensitivity’ toward the model: ‘we are building up the body’s physiognomy—expressing character through a physical description.’

Meeting David Paulson was a real honour, and hearing his straight-up thoughts on art and life has given me plenty of hope for the unconventional career that is being an artist.

* Bammes, Gottfried. 2010. Complete guide to life drawing [Menschen zeichnen Grundlagen zum Aktzeichnen]. Trans. Cicero Translations. Search: Kent.
Nest is a picture of my house, nestled in her leafy jungle of a garden. It’s pretty much the best house ever. We’ve made it a cosy little haven, productive workspace, and buzzing party hive. We call her The Duchess because she’s so regally dilapidated with her sprawling verandas and high ornate ceilings, and this blog is named after her, a tribute to the importance of place in my life.


Heavy with history

Reading Nozick © Samantha Groenestyn

Sometimes it feels good to clear out a bunch of old things—it’s refreshing to remove the weight of things that hang on you, and which you must carry around with you. I’ve been culling my collection of earthly possessions which, while not especially extravagant, seems to consist in a lot of things I don’t want (old paperwork, anyone?). Sometimes, though, those things are imbued with so much history that it’s hard to let them go.

Winter sunrise, Brisbane–biking to work at 6am

I sometimes speculate whether this is a function of having little money. The value of each item, when finally attained, is vastly inflated. Old, stretching clothes don’t seem like they are at the end of their useful lives. Dresses from the markets that I lusted over for weeks and finally bought though they never quite fit. Old, broken jewellery of my mum’s from the eighties. Then there are the cherished things that I have made. The first skirt I sewed, and the many dresses since, faded from ceaseless wear, or in an impossibly beautiful shade of green.

J hates missing out on a good sunrise, especially from the bridge.

I’m going to part with them, because they are old and heavy with history, and in spite of that. When I visited the national museum in Denmark, I spent a whole day tracing the chronology of Danish history, and at the end I sat down, exhausted at the heaviness we human beings create and leave behind us. The world is riddled with our artefacts, and they collect dust and smell musty and leave historic dirt on our hands. Yes, they mean something, but they also mean nothing. And when I remember the things already parted with—impossibly green knit shirts stretched out of shape, and carefully constructed homemade skirts with diamond panels in retro fabric—I feel a fondness but not a sadness. Those things had their day, and I loved them dearly while I used them, and I used them until they were beyond use.

Playing in the fog

It’s good to remember that even the most precious things are still things, and whether they live on in someone else’s possession, like my treasured old rustbucket car, or meet their end, our lives are still rich and our histories remain in our memories.

I was reading Reading Nozick in Edinburgh, and am now reading my own secondhand copy of Anarchy, State and Utopia. In the painting I’m wearing a treasured $5 skirt which flounced over woollen tights in Edinburgh winter, and brushed my bare legs in Italian summer, and visited Einstein’s birthplace of Ulm, and never came home. Which is to say nothing of my green army seconds satchel that saw me through my entire university career before meeting its demise!


Home and away

Un regal pour les yeux © Samantha Groenestyn

I frequently itch to travel. Leaving behind all those weights we tie around ourselves, stretching our legs, exercising our brains and our tongues, memorising new maps and trying out new words. Seeing the limitless unseen things, tasting the untasted, pouring all the raw sensations into hurried drawings and writings. Meeting new faces and learning new philosophies, talking it out by rivers or over campfires or over beers in smoky bars.

It’s hard to feel content at home when so much is waiting, like a word on the tip of a tongue. But then I remember that opposite pull that I feel when I travel—that desire, not to be at (my) home, but to be stationed, based, established. When one is established, one can work. No longer limited to dog-eared sketchbooks and simple pens, one can drag out an easel, spread out paints and turps, plug in the sewing machine and invest in detailed projects, and best of all, read fifteen books at once. Books on philosophy, books on French intellectuals, books on language and books on graphic design. Books on artists, books on colour theory and the science of light, books on history. One can study, and, better, one can apply that new knowledge and create endlessly, on any scale. One can load up one’s car with materials, go to classes on a regular basis. Travel often provides that spark, suggests new avenues to explore, prompts the acquisition of new languages or provides new material for paintings. But home is the place where you can get down and work day after day and really produce something.

As Maira Kalman, renowned illustrator and writer, concludes of life: there is love and there is work. ‘How do you spend this time without perpetually being so brokenhearted about saying the eventual goodbye? I usually say in the end, okay, it’s love and it’s work. What else could there possibly be? What do I want to do?  What is the most wonderful thing I could be doing, and who are the most wonderful people I could be with?’ It’s hard for me to shake the idea that there is also place, and I think place is fundamental to my being—to my work and to my love. Travel lets us explore new places in which to be—perhaps for the long term—and we need to find our physical place as well as what to do and who to do it with.

What overwhelms me most of all is that I consider there to be so many things crucial to living that I cannot find the time for them all. I can’t get by only speaking English! That limits me to particular places. I can’t rely on my untrained artistic ability—I need to learn to use new materials, and to understand the particulars of light and tone. I need to understand people, and ideas. Then I start to feel like Henri Perron in Simone de Beauvoir’s novel The Mandarins, who feels that he can’t continue to edit his newspaper L’Espoir (‘Hope’) unless he has a complete grasp on the world(p. 153-4):

‘Well, I’ll just have to start working at it,’ he said to himself. But if he really wanted to extend his knowledge, it would require years of study. Economics, history, philosophy—he would never be done with it! What a job! And all just to come to terms with Marxism! Writing would be completely out of the question, and he wanted to write. Well? … ‘What I need is time!’

When travelling, we have all the time in the world. Time to wander along the Seine, in and out of bookshops and ice creameries, time to contemplate passers by from benches. But we lack resources. When we have resources, we are battling schedules and weekly events.

I think that all there is to do is to keep on working. Keep pushing ourselves to learn, keep pushing ourselves to produce. Jack White muses that ‘inspiration and work ethic ride right next to each other. … Sometimes, you just get in there and just force yourself to work, and maybe something good will come out.’ And if you go beyond just showing up and really make things a little hard on yourself, the tension that you build can produce that spark and make something happen.

Brain Pickings pointed me in the direction of these interviews with Maira Kalman and Jack White.
‘Un regal pour les yeux’–a feast for the eyes. A Parisian sent me off to explore the labyrinthine flea markets of St Ouen in the north of Paris, and they did not disappoint. I wanted to convey the alluring decayed splendour of the markets. Europe could almost survive solely on selling its old junk to the rest of us!


News: I’ve cobbled together a sweet collection of drawings I did in Europe, many of which you may have seen on my website, into the Tour of Europe non-sketcher’s sketchbook. The covers are hand-stitched in three different fabrics and there’s room for your own musings. Grab one from my Etsy shop.