In a YouTube video from 2015, British author Howard Jacobson (born 1942), who won the 2010 Man Booker prize for The Finkler Question, is seen making an impassioned admission related to the creative life that will resonate with many serious writers, painters, sculptors, photographers, filmmakers, musicians, singers, actors and dancers. He says that he always wanted to be a novelist but could only finish his first novel after the age of 40 (and out of sheer desperation!) because something had slowed him down over the years—the experience of his Literature BA at the University of Cambridge.
This might sound confusing. Isn’t a good education, formal or informal, supposed to activate us? When you read the biographies of acclaimed artists, whatever their medium, you are bound to find descriptions of powerful, almost epiphanic, encounters with great works of art already produced. And it is precisely such encounters that turn them into conduits for more (great) art. Take the Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray—he launched his career soon after discovering Vittorio De Sica’s Italian neorealist masterpiece Bicycle Thieves (1948) along with 99 other movies of his time. Picasso developed his style after being exposed to figures like El Greco and Edvard Munch. J. K. Rowling has a solid canon of mythology and fantasy that includes everybody from Aeschylus to Kenneth Grahame behind her Harry Potter series. The truth is straightforward—a proper act of creativity demands a deep immersion in prior examples of creativity. The more aware you are of what has been tried and accomplished before, the greater the chance that you will produce something reasonable and respectable yourself.
But there is another side to the story, and Jacobson understands and articulates it accurately. Too much knowledge of the arts can also become a veritable impediment to the artistic task. What made the author postpone his childhood dream? The very high standards of writing that he had encountered at 20 in the classroom. Jacobson read, and therefore, wanted to write books like The Golden Bowl by Henry James and Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky but the problem was they had all been written. “I wanted to write at that level and it wasn’t happening.I wasn’t writing novels and submitting them and failing,” he adds. “I just wasn’t getting beyond the page, and then I became an academic, and the years go by and the book’s not appearing.”
This problem is all too common. Very often, well-informed and highly-talented people in the arts can find it hard to execute their ideas, while totally mediocre ones can go on finishing project after project with utmost confidence. Why does this happen? It turns out that many who have had a taste of the heights of human creativity (read the best books, watched the best films, seen the best paintings, listened to the best music) experience a paralysing horror before the blank page or canvas. So conscious are they of all that is possible by members of their own species that whatever they may attempt can seem lazy, incompetent or plain foolish. They want to pursue perfection and so they keep deferring real work and sink quickly into a pit of doubt and despair.
Is there a practical way to get past the resistance? One effective tool is provided by the American entrepreneur Tim Ferriss (born 1977), angel investor in tech brands and the author of bestselling books on personal development and entrepreneurship like Tools of Titans and Tribe of Mentors. His proposal is that creative people who procrastinate in the face of big ambitions break their plans into extremely tiny tasks. His own mantra has been to somehow end up with “two crappy pages a day”, not ten spectacular ones or even five average ones. Stephen King prefers to pump out 2000 words per day but that can be too unrealistic a target for most people. “Two crappy pages”, on the other hand, will compel you to show up before your notebook or screen without pressure or fear, do something—anything—and move forward to the next dawn. Your seemingly insignificant achievements will, over time, add up to a big and important outcome.
Ferriss’ suggestion could be applied to media other than writing. If you are an emerging painter with the lofty visuals of Caravaggio and Dalí in your head and a blank canvas on your easel, try micro goals like the following:
Spend just 10 minutes daydreaming daily. Let your mind wander wherever it wants to. Record three things that you see. Perhaps you will find a pattern a month later and that will lead to inspiration.
Choose a subject–psychology, technology, botany, politics–Google it and read a few sentences on it. Make a note of any one new piece of information that you discover. Create an image out of it in your mind.
Select two colours and meditate on what they mean to you for fifteen minutes. Experiment with them on paper over the next half an hour and notice the relationships that emerge.
Take out a minute to think of a shape and go where it leads you. Say, if you settle upon a triangle, it might change into a pyramid, which might make you think about hierarchies, which might cause you to consider the difference between the rich and the poor, which might then open a whole host of ideas.
Open a dictionary and pick up a single word. Keep sleeping on it for six months. At the end of the period, draw something related to it.
You will not be able to make easy excuses before starting points that are so simple and standards that are so low.
After visiting the MoMA exhibition recently, I was struck by the power and dynamism of the art movements from the 1880s onwards. What also left an impression on me was that I was in the company of incredible male artists and figureheads who drove the direction of modern art. Female artists were definitely in the minority.
Within the exhibition, to the left of Dali’s Persistence of Time (which was so shockingly smaller than anticipated) were two modest drawings, both charcoal on paper (though with their incredible execution, you could have mistaken them for ink or oils). They were drawn by Georgia O’Keefe, America’s “Mother of Modernism”. The drawing in particular that spoke to me was Banana Flowers, pictured below. It hung silently, yet confidently on the wall, and the masterful skill and the sensitivity of the drawing compelled me to examine it up close. It was unlike any other work in the exhibition.
These drawings could have been easily missed amongst the intriguing worlds of Giorgio de Chirico and others in the same space. Hopefully this was not the case, however I wanted to highlight this one incredible drawing in this month’s newsletter.
Georgia O’Keefe (1887 – 1986) studied art formally, however she found that being taught how to draw and paint like other artists was not inspiring. After a hiatus, the work of artist/teacher Arthur Wesley Dow piqued her interest and she begun drawing and painting as she liked. She spent many months of the year in New Mexico, where she fell deeply in love with the landscape. She had an intense response to nature and a need to recreate the equivalent in art.
Her relationship with photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz proved challenging to O’Keefe when he applied Freudian interpretations to her abstract art, which, in turn, influenced art critics’ opinions. She had also posed nude for Stieglitz’ photography, and the link between exploring her sexuality through art was even stronger for it. However, this was not at all the case. She turned to creating works of recognisable objects, still lifes, and her famous close-up, large-scale flowers to try and dislodge this falsely created persona. Flowers, however, did not escape the same interpretation.
To this day there is still discussion around whether O’Keefe’s flower works depict female genitalia; in 2016, Tate Modern curated a Retrospective with 100 or her works offering alternative views on this theory. The exhibition aimed to dispel these myths by presenting works spanning six decades. The large-scale, cropped flowers for which most of the clichés about her work persist, were influenced by modern photography of the 1920s. A love for nature and landscape inarguable flows through her work and the exhibition portrayed this as her most persistent source of inspiration.
A brief perspective from a past student, colleague, and friend.
Pam Hallandal was committed to, and passionate about drawing. She regarded it as an important discipline that informed other mediums such as painting, printmaking, graphics, and sculpture. Pam was devoted to her own art practice which initially consisted of sculpture, then drawing and printmaking. Her teaching career spanned four decades, and her personal focus was always to elevate the status of drawing within the art world.
Pam was appointed Senior Lecturer of Drawing at Prahran College of Technology in the 1970s. Later named the Prahran College of Advanced Education, the institute eventually merged with the VCA in the early 1990s. Uniquely, this course enabled students to exclusively study the discipline of Drawing in a full-time capacity, achieving a Bachelor of Fine Art.
As a brief overview of the nature of the Drawing Department established by Pam, first-year students were required to participate in core subjects including weekly classes in Life Drawing, Structural Drawing and General Drawing. In essence, this meant drawing basically between the hours of 9am to 4pm, four days a week. On Wednesday, Art History, tutorials, and electives such as Painting, Sculpture, Photography or Print Making were taken.
During the second year, the course enabled participants to pursue more personal approaches to drawing and select relevant subject matter. In the third year, students were allocated individual studio spaces, but were still required to participate in weekly Life Drawing classes.
The structure of the course was clearly defined. Pam encouraged students to work from observation in the studio and develop the language of drawing primarily through the use of black and white mediums, such as charcoal, pastel, pencils and ink wash on paper. Alternatively, students would be encouraged to make small studies out on field locations in sketchbooks and in visual diaries. From these initial responses, more sustained drawings were developed back in the Drawing Department studios.
Pam was never interested in teaching set techniques, regimented rules, theories or formulas. She believed in allowing the drawing to develop intuitively in response to the subject matter, and in students developing a personal vision through a visual dialogue expressing one’s own intentions. She presented drawing as an exciting prospect requiring discipline, dedication, understanding, and practice. She intrigued the imagination of her students, encouraging, enlightening and provoking the curiosity of those who came into contact with her.
Periodically, Pam would arrange for visiting artists to teach a “block” of study in addition to the regular course. This provided further insight and stimulation to a specific topic in their area of expertise. For example, Rick Amor would take students for a workshop related to the urban environment, drawing buildings and the Chapel Street area. He would discuss the application of the Golden Mean and other compositional devices. Guy Stuart would accompany students on day trips to the Botanical Gardens, providing the opportunity to work from public statues and exotic plant forms. Other strategies included presenting a series of personal drawings to a prominent artist in a group critique situation. Guests included Brian Dunlop and Michael Shannon.
Regular lecturers within the Drawing Department would take groups out on day trips to draw at the Melbourne Zoo, St Kilda foreshore or perhaps to a local dancing studio. The focus was often on gaining an understanding of the importance of “gesture” within a drawing.
Students participated in annual Drawing camps and would head off to a beachside or river location, for example, to immerse themselves in a rugged and unruly natural environment. This provided a strong contrast to the College Studio located in the heart of busy Prahran, surrounded by people, trams, trains, cement buildings, power lines, and bitumen roads.
Pam orchestrated a rich and fertile learning environment for her students, personally monitoring their progress throughout the course, and afterwards as they forged their own identities, careers and status in the art world and workplace. She led by example – her own hands and fingers were usually embedded with and stained from constant use of black compressed charcoal.
Many have been fortunate to benefit from the rich experience of her teaching practice. Others have simply enjoyed viewing the quality of her drawings, prints and sculpture which now belong in national and state gallery collections, as well as in universities and libraries collections throughout Australia. Pam’s career highlights included winning the Australian Dobell Drawing Prize for excellence in drawing in 1996 and 2009 (the only female to do so). This prize has been held in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Pam has been included in “Backlash” at the NGV in 1986, in many major drawing related exhibitions at Heide, Mornington Peninsula, Gold Coast City Art Prize, The Centre Gallery, S.H. Erwin Gallery, Sydney, Kedumba Invitation Art Award, NSW, Australian Drawing Biennial, ANU and a recent major solo at Ballarat Art Gallery.
Past and current tutors employed at Melbourne Art Class have benefited directly from Pam Hallandal’s teaching, wisdom and expertise. These include Maree Woolley, Michelle Caithness and myself.
Melbourne Art Class student Kate (who is in her teens!) has been selected as a finalist for the Black Swan Prize. The prize invites secondary school children to paint a portrait of a well-known Australian, an Australian they respect/admire, or undertake a self-portrait. Kate painted author, Morris Gleitzman.
“I painted my favourite author, Morris Gleitzman.
He wrote a series of books about children during the Holocaust; this touched me and made me conduct more research on the topic, making me interested in 20th-century history in general. Gleitzman’s books are very kind and teach young adults important life lessons.
When I was deciding what Australian citizen I should create a portrait of, this author was the first thing that came to mind. I made the piece using oils on A3 canvas.”
Congratulations Kate on creating this incredible artwork, and for being recognised for it! We wish you all the best in the prize!
In 2000, Damien Hirst was ordered to pay an undisclosed settlement to the makers of a toy which he had copied, resulting in a massive sculpture with very little change from the original’s appearance. Hirst’s strategy is called appropriation, but what does this mean, and is it stealing or is it innovation?
Appropriation in art is the incorporation of pre-existing images, ideas, or artworks with minor transformations or little adjustments to create a new work. Although appropriation has been used in various ways throughout history, it has now become a common practice for artists to remix and resample images.
Damien Hirst’s Hymn (1999), is an exact replica of Humbrol Limited’s Young Scientist Anatomy Set. The toy sold for only £14.99 while Hirst’s sculpture sold for one million pounds. Hirst has magnified the scale of the toy to a sculpture of about six metres tall and changed the materials from plastic to bronze, gold and silver. Hirst has also altered the art piece’s context from a medical toy to its placement in the contemporary art gallery. His minimal change of the original toy design resulted in a court case accusing him of plagiarising. Hirst was found guilty and was ordered to pay a settlement for his appropriation.
Whilst Hirst’s sculpture appears to merely be a copy, it also operates at a deeper level; referencing religion and art history. The title, Hymn, is a pun on the masculine pronoun and reflects a religious song or poem of praise to God or a god. This sculpture is obviously not a poem or a song, but perhaps could be identified as an image that reflects a representation of an object used in worship. The sculpture’s materials include bronze, silver and gold components just as in idol worship around the world, where it is common practice for statues to be made using the finest and most expensive materials, detail and precision.
Hymn also conveys a modern representation of ancient Greek sculptures. During the Classical Period, Greek sculptures rapidly changed from using various clays to metal elements in order to keep the shape of the figure, regardless of how intricate they were. Bronze became a popular medium to use as it could be steadied inside the hollow of the feet by using lead weights. Typically, Ancient Greek sculptures are nude, have their arms hanging close to the body, and were created in appreciation of the human anatomy, sometimes representing a god. Making the naked form the subject of many art forms showed the great skill and technique of the artist. Not only were these art pieces created using metal elements, but scientists have also discovered artists would sometimes also paint them, like Hymn’s bronze statue that has been painted.
From an aesthetic point of view, the experience of the now-massive toy design, significantly extends our understanding and perception of the original object. It does this by creating an entirely new context of size and location with which to appreciate the original design. The title of the work indicates that there is a conceptual consideration being encouraged in the viewer. Whilst Hirst’s Hymn looks like theft, and in some ways possibly is, it is also the innovative use of appropriation to create a new art piece that has its own scale, context and intelligently references religion and art history.
Australian artist, Gordon Bennett (1955 – 2014), spent most of his life and career struggling against how he was perceived. This struggle went from being an experience of extremely low self-esteem to producing a powerful and highly articulate art practice. Several years after his untimely death, Bennett’s work illuminates our understanding of how identity operates in our society.
Bennett was raised in a cultural climate where, until he was twelve years old, his Aboriginal mother was not a legitimate Australian citizen. For, it was not until a 1967 referendum when ‘Aborigines’ where given the right to be counted in the census as Australian citizens. Until Bennett was in his early teens he believed his father’s Scottish and English origins was his only heritage. He then realised his mother was Aboriginal. This began Bennett’s struggle with his self-identity, for at this point, his identity shifted from identifying with being in the mainstream of Australian society, to being Aboriginal. Overnight, Bennett went from being the ‘cowboy’ to be the ‘indian’, from ‘light’ to being ‘dark’. Of course, the binaries of dark and light are not true or real identities, but their ingrained pervasiveness and how he was perceived by others, created turmoil for Bennett.
Bennett’s 1990 painting, Self portrait (But I always wanted to be one of the good guys) describes this turmoil well. There he is, as a boy in a cowboy uniform, seemingly oblivious to the complexities of social identity operating upon him. But it is Bennett, the man who has chosen to paint this as his Self portrait. A Self portrait that is not attempting to describe his own physical appearance, rather it is describing how he has been represented by others. Bennett appears caught between the words, I AM LIGHT, I AM DARK. A colonial battle is placed in the background of the right panel. Bennett’s own identity has become a colonial war. The title (But I always wanted to be one of the good guys), suggests that this is an expression of desire to be perceived as being on the right side, the light side, the good guys. Bennett seems to be describing himself as torn away from the mainstream identity he thought he enjoyed and cast into the place of being ‘other’, the bad guy, the ‘indian’. But the painting is not a lament and Bennett never comes across as feeling sorry for himself; rather it is about the exposure of the structures of identity operating within Australian society. These structures are primarily based on a binary; if you are not part of the mainstream, you are something else, you are ‘other’.
When Bennett left school, he took on an apprenticeship with Telecom. During the years of working with Telecom, he witnessed considerable racism towards indigenous Australians until he quit to then go on to art school at the age of thirty. After later becoming well known as an artist with a powerful Post-colonial project, Bennett had to struggle against the politics of identity that continually labelled him as the ‘Aboriginal artist’ or ‘urban Aboriginal artist’. During considerable success through the 1990s, Bennett just wanted to be known as an artist, refusing to be labelled by race. It was not until he gained international recognition in the last years of his life, that Bennett began to be considered a ‘contemporary artist’.
The large letters I AM, are appropriated from New Zealand artist, Colin McCahon’s (1919–1987) Victory over death 2, of 1970. McCahon uses ‘I AM’ to question his own Christian faith and subsequent identity. ‘I am that I am’, from Exodus 3:14, is God’s response to Moses who had asked after God’s name. God’s response is actually a refusal to a name, or to be named. With letters towering at over two meters tall, McCahon’s monumental I AM impressed me powerfully when I saw it as a teenager. It seems to embody the sense of God being origin and of being infinity, all without being named.
Bennett’s appropriation of the I AM works on several levels. Firstly, it references a Judeo Christian tradition of spiritual identity based in God as origin and seems to be referencing a similar quest for identity as McCahon has. Except Bennett appears to be locked out from I AM by the experience of being labelled the ‘other’ identity. On another level, Bennett is quoting the words of a God who refuses to be named. Bennett’s painting is all about names and Bennett seems to be indicating that he, as a person, cannot be defined by the names being applied to him. So it seems that, if as in the Judeo Christian tradition, men and woman are made in the image of God, a God who refuses to be named, then Bennett exists beyond the names being placed upon him. With two powerful words Bennett seems to indicate his true identity as existing beyond all that has been placed upon him. Bennett refuses to be named.
Colonisation has been effective in taking hold of land, peoples, and resources by stripping away a true, complex and self-articulated identity expressed through culture, ritual and language. It replaced these identities with an imposed name, which, in many different ways, disempowered the bearer by denying their true nature. Bennett’s work often articulates the oppressive mechanics of identity in Australian society which have their origins in a colonial society. Self portrait (But I always wanted to be one of the good guys) gives us a clearer understanding of how these imposed identities operate, but it also goes deeper by indicating the nature of the human person as being an un-namable I AM.
Michelle Zuccolo presents the class with different materials each week, including still life and examples of famous artwork and gives students the opportunity to try drawing and painting in the same style. The last few week’s classes featured capsicums and the students used charcoal and pencils, creating beautiful tonal drawings. Once exploring the structure of the capsicums, students recreated them with acrylic on canvas. We hope you enjoy them as much as we do!
We are extremely proud to announce that two of our students are exhibiting this month! Be sure to visit and experience their work and support them on their artistic journeys!
Arjun attends our Children’s Art Class with artist Marco Corsini every Monday. His wonderful work, Budgie, will be on display as part of Brunswick Street Gallery’s “Small Works” exhibition. The exhibition is open to the public from 21 July to 16 August. Congratulations Arjun – we are so proud!
Isabel has been attending Marco’s Friday morning Drawing and Painting Class. You can view her recent work at a joint exhibition with Erica Bettles at red gallery. The exhibition explores landscapes and subjectivity – peoples’ associations, their memories, sense of purpose, belonging and emotions.
Her landscapes are an abstract body of work which are dreamscapes. They capture emotions based on experiences in nature. She thanks everyone so much for their support. “And a special mention to Marco – for his encouragement and support in class motivated me to work on paintings, on my skills and to commit to my work.” A huge congratulations, Isabel!
If I was to name the one thing that has had the most effect on how I understand learning and creativity, it would be the shift in how we understand the brain.
The persistent myth that pervaded my school years was that students were naturally inclined towards a given ability. For example, I was good at art, and so I drew and was encouraged to draw. It did not take many affirmations about my ability for me to persist at practicing those skills, enjoying more affirmation as I went. Likewise, by the time I was in secondary school, maths seemed to become more difficult, and as I enjoyed it less, I did less and became relatively worse at it. Despite my best efforts in year 12, I failed maths by 1%.
I have always wondered how much more effort it would have taken to increase my math result by a few percent to have passed. The answer does not lie in the efforts of that last year, rather in how I perceived myself and maths throughout my secondary school years. For, early in my life, I had come to believe that I was not good at maths, but I was good at art, and I behaved accordingly. That behaviour had a direct impact on the amount of time and focus I dedicated each skill. The pervading myth that one’s abilities are set in concrete from the beginning of our lives, dominated my self-image and therefore my learning. In many ways it dominated my education, which isn’t to say that there were not many hard-working teachers in my life, rather that the idea of being able to transform one’s abilities, one’s brain, was not available to us, nor had it been discovered yet.
Brain research of recent years has demonstrated that the brain is malleable and adaptable. I may have been inherently good at art, but I was not inherently bad at maths. I perhaps had not had the right exposure to maths early on, but I then came to believe I was bad at maths. This then influenced my behaviour which restricted the amount of focus and concentration that could have impacted the rewiring of my brain to be better at maths. I do remember trying, but I don’t remember often crossing the border between tedium and the exhilaration of learning maths. Interestingly, many years later, I found myself enjoying teaching maths in secondary schools, especially breaking it down for those that struggled with it. You may think it strange that I have also recently found enjoyment in doing some of my own accounting, when as an art student I used to make accountants the butt of my jokes.
Brain circuitry is made of connections between neurons called synapses. Having experiences, learning a new task or skill, all create new connections between neurons. Specific neuronal activity patterns will drive long-lasting increases or decreases in the strength of these connections. That means that it is exposure to a skill or task that cements one’s ability to do it and become good at it. So, the brain has a plasticity which it retains through our entire lives. The good news is, we can learn a new skill at any point in our lives! It is literally possible to rewire your brain. Which means that provided with the right amount of focus on the right task, you can learn anything.
I’m currently putting this principle of brain malleability to the test in my learning Karate. I have limitations in flexibility and balance, which I have found discouraging. I had started to believe the lie that I had started Karate too late in life and perhaps I would never make it to blackbelt. Being busy and distracted by other responsibilities for a number of years, I would turn up to a class or two a week and would have forgotten a lot of my syllabus. Upon forgetting, I would then mentally shut down during training, which meant I then literally came to a complete stop as my mind would go into a mild state of panic. It seemed I was going to take a very long time to learn these skills and overcome my inclination to suddenly freeze. With the knowledge that the brain is malleable and that therefore it must be possible for me to improve in Karate I recently I decided to focus, and I have now dedicated about 10 to 15 minutes a day to practicing my syllabus. Although I can currently still only attend one training session a week, the result of this new focus is that in three weeks I have begun to retain and recall almost all of my syllabus and I am now ready to move on to new material. I am quite literally rewiring my brain and rebuilding my body which has also improved its stretch and balance in just three weeks. Whereas, I once thought black belt was unattainable for me, I now maintain a clear image and gaol of my attaining it.
Having watched many people start or return to creative practice, I know that the idea that you either can draw or you can’t is just a myth. Yes, occasionally I meet someone who seems to have a surplus of natural ability, but for the other 99% of us, it really is a matter of focus and working away at it. I should add that good training can reduce the take-up time of these new skills, but we can talk about that at the studio sometime.