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Oscar Wilde said it was useless.  DH Lawrence said it was like having a good sneeze.  Margaret Atwood does it for the man in the sky.  What are they talking about?  Art and writing, of course.  But witty quips aside, why do people become obsessed with artistic endeavours like putting words on paper?  Hell, in this crazy day and age of prime ministers asking us to spy on our neighbours in the name of ‘being alert’, why should we do anything out of the ordinary?  Because it’s better to write twaddle, anything, said Kiwi novelist Katherine Mansfield, than nothing at all.

The great Australian artist Sir Sidney Nolan said that he thought that a successful artist would have no trouble being a successful member of the Mafia.  Lately I’ve been trying to work out whether artists and terrorists have something in common.  You would hope that most artists don’t set out to create terror.  And surely the aim of most terrorists is not to bring beauty into the world.  But artists and terrorists do have one – albeit uncomfortable – commonality: they both want us to see things from new perspectives, think in ways that are foreign to us.  Of course, there’s a rather horrific romanticism to that statement, and I for one would rather live in a world where someone takes a good book into a public place than a bomb.  But sometimes a superbly-crafted sentence, like a bomb, can change us forever, whether we like it or not.

So why do artists religiously obey the alarm clock when it shakes them awake each day?  Is it because they think they can change the world by composing sounds on their computers?  Is it because life is inherently dull without making up stories, as if we should never really grow beyond being that six-year-old child?  Is it because there is glorious logic to the statement, ‘I don’t have a mohawk but I gave up full-time work to make ceramics?’  Possibly.  There is one writer I know who thinks she’d have more to offer if she spent the mornings just walking the dog up Black Mountain, absorbing herself in kangaroos, cockatoos and echidnas rather than sitting in her study, fingers looking for some words to work with.

The thing is most artists simply can’t stop making art.  They’re like drug addicts with no interest in being clean.  Which begs another comparison: like the terrorist and the artist, does the artist and the addict have something in common?  Both are looking for new realities, for adventures, great escapes.  If you take drugs, you take risks.  There is a sense of being more alive than ever when risks are in your veins.  Surely Brett Whitely would agree with that, though it’d be kind of handy to know what he would think about life in April 2012).

Why can’t artists stop?  What really drives them on, especially when the world around continues to turn itself inside out?

Thankfully, there is one major difference between the agendas of the artist, the terrorist and the drug addict.  In his book A Way of Being Free, the African novelist Ben Okri said, ‘Writers have one great responsibility: to write beautifully… But there is a parallel responsibility: and that is to sing a little about the realities of the age, to leave some sort of magical record of what they saw and dreamt… and to bear witness in their unique manner to the beauties, the ordinariness, and the horrors of their times.’  Substitute painters or composers or sculptors in the above and it makes just as much sense.  Substitute terrorists or drug addicts and Okri’s point slips out the window like a daydream on the run.

Yes, Australia did have prime minister who, in his infinite wisdom, recommended to us, the people, ‘the mob’, that we be alert.  But shouldn’t we aim to be fully alive rather than merely alert?  Ants can be alert – the ever-present threat of being squashed by a big fat sneaker makes sure of that – but when was the last time one produced an extraordinary film?  We’re human beings and human beings are creative sorts.  Whether we want to be actually called ‘Artists’ or not, Okri is right: in our own simple, humble ways we should bear witness to the beauties and horrors of our times.  Record and communicate, make and tell.

So as the bombs keep dropping, no matter who’s dropping them and whoever’s land they are being dropped on, let’s not settle for merely being alert: let’s write poems, compose songs, paint pictures, build sculptures.  Because no matter how amateurish the end product, we’ll be alive.  And even if we’re living in a world dominated by a sad-sack coalition of the willing rather than the council of the wise, being properly alive is inherently a good thing.  That’s what art in the everyday sense can do: bring blood-pumping, naturally ecstatic, unadulterated life.  Alert people might be awake, but truly alive people are powerful.

It’s true that Oscar Wilde said all art was useless, but he was just writing twaddle – and changing the world.

*

This is a slightly edited/updated version of a piece that was first published in The Canberra Times on 3 April 2003.  Not much has changed huh?

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If the truth be told there’s nothing I fear more than dancing.  Public speaking might be nerve-wracking but really it’s just a big conversation.  We all hate moving house, at least the sane amongst us do.  And no one looks forward to starting a new job, but it’s always relatively painless in the end.  Dancing, however, well, I hate it, and hate is the word, whether at a backyard party or out in a nightclub (I think I can remember going to one of those) or, God forbid, at a wedding, which is a special kind of hell.  I have no rhythm, no coordination, no style; on the dance-floor I feel like a robot that needs an oil change and a new pair of batteries.

Miraculously, some people make a living from dance, with the word dance pointing to a bigger world than that inferred by dancing I’ve used above.  Canberra’s own Ruth Osborne, the artistic director of QL2 Centre for Youth Dance, which operates out of the Gorman House Arts Centre, is one of these people.  Osborne is passionate, articulate, and disarmingly gentle – hers is a very tender and calm type of company – but her charm and self-deprecatory wit hides an extraordinary drive and steely determination.  It’s this drive and determination that last year saw her win an Australian Dance Award for her “superlative teaching and wide-ranging services to dance over four decades, for an outstanding contribution to dance education, and to the development of youth dance practice in Australia”.

If Ruth Osborne had done all this in swimming or in tennis or any other kind of sport, she’d have her mug-shot printed on cereal packets, she’d have prominent public buildings named after her, she’d be recognised in the streets.  But this is the arts, and contemporary dance of all things, and we’re talking about Canberra, so Osborne just quietly goes about her work, except it may be the most important work we’ve barely heard of.

Born in the New South Wales country town of Musclebrook – her father was a civil engineer, so she moved around regularly – Osborne and her family relocated to Sydney when she was five years old.  At the age of eight, her mother enrolled her in the Bodenweiser Dance Centre, which at the time was the only place for modern dance in Australia.  “I can remember my first day,” says Osborne as if she’s recalling the most important event in her life, and perhaps she is.  “It wasn’t the usual ballet school, with pink tutus and all of that.  It was just so creative.  They were all in bare feet.  I couldn’t wait to get there every Saturday.  Within a year I knew that it was what I wanted to do forever.”

It was, of course, a difficult journey on which to embark.  Says Osborne, “When I started dancing there were no publicly funded contemporary dance companies in Australia.  I was a Bandstand dancer.  That led me to the first opportunities to choreograph for payment, which were for commercials.

“Then I got married and went to Perth, which was way behind Sydney at the time.  There weren’t any choreographers that I could work with over there, so I had to do it for myself.  I ended up developing this passion for choreography and for teaching.”  In the west, Osborne established the Contemporary Dance Centre in 1976, where she was artistic director until 1999, taught at the West Australian Academy of performing arts from its inception, and was a founding board member, choreographer and artistic director of STEPS Youth Dance Company for ten years.

Why this passion for contemporary dance?

“You have to be a contemporary thinker to appreciate contemporary dance,” says Osborne, by no means in a pretentious way, she just calls it the way she sees it.  “You’re not going to like everything all the time, but you can appreciate that there’s a lot of mind in it, and that you actually will go and test yourself a little bit.

“If it doesn’t stimulate any ideas for you, you can appreciate that contemporary dancers of today are strong and powerful.  You’re watching athletes who are not trying to win a ribbon, or a cup, or a million-dollar sponsorship.  But they are dedicated and that kind of precision with their bodies is incredible.  And often you’re not watching them in unison, the type of work you see in ballet companies – in contemporary dance you’re watching them retain their individuality.”

QL2 has its genesis in the Quantum Leap Youth Program, which commenced in 1999 as a strand of the Australian Choreographic Centre, an organisation that also operated out of Gorman House until it lost its the funding from the Australia Council for the Arts in 2006.  The following year QL2 came into being, and since that time hundreds of young people from Canberra and the surrounding region have participated in the various sub-programs, the flagship of which is an annual public performance where young people aged 15 to 26 work with some of the most exciting choreographers in the country.

The lack of competition is of critical importance for Osborne.

“It’s the opposite of competition,” she says.  “At QL2 the competition is with the dancers themselves.  At first, there are trust issues – am I going to look like an idiot, which is particularly so for boys if they haven’t done much dance.  And then they gradually put that trust in each other and they get such a reward.”

Why this unwavering commitment to youth dance?

“It’s about growing the brain,” says Osborne, as if we’re talking about the easiest thing in the world, and maybe, after all these years, it simply makes perfect sense to her.  “I just think that young people are so busy being influenced by peers and needing to fit in that there’s such a danger in narrowing their opportunities and their life.  But at QL2 they come out of their groups and it’s very different.  We’ve had refugees from Cambodia and Burma.  Gay and straight – it’s really hard for boys, especially if they come from one of the private boys schools.  It’s just opening up all of that and saying come and talk to people and listen.  You’ve all got value.

“It’s about taking the threat away.  Creating a safe place – safe to try things, safe to grow, safe to express yourself.”

For decades, Osborne and the organisations she’s cultivated have had a particular focus on boys in dance.  “When we started STEPS Youth Dance Company in Perth,” she explains, “we noticed that there were boys who were performing in events like the Rock Eisteddfod, but they were always in the middle and did the footy thing or the break-dance trick and went off the stage again.  So we decided to run a boys project and it was incredibly successful.  It brought together a motley crew.  We got some boys that other people would call “unco”, because most boys grow up to believe that that’s exactly what they are – “unco”.

Don’t I know all about that.

“And there were the geek boys,” Osborne continues, “and the sporty boys who could do all the tricks, and the poor ballet boys who’d religiously attend class and be the only boy in the girls class and almost having to become a girl to exist with that community.  We gave them some stuff that’s got masculinity to it, and then let them go into areas of subtlety and emotion – I used to cry at every rehearsal, because it was just beautiful.  What I’ve noticed with boys is that they improve incredibly quickly.”

It may sound like something from a Hollywood movie, but Osborne has had her fair share of fathers who have refused to let their sons participate in dance.

Fortunately, Canberra is home for Ruth Osborne and her work, but the small-city location does come with its challenges – and an opportunity.

“You know, there’s that thing of it can’t be good if it happens in Canberra, which drives me nuts, but they haven’t been able to do it in Sydney or Melbourne.  A youth dance company needs to be embraced by the community.  In Canberra people understand the broader picture of the value of youth dance, and people here understand the educative values, so there’s more respect for it.  And it’s a smaller community.  QL2 has been embraced, and that’s important, because it feels like it’s always been here now.”

Anyone eager for an inclusive, creative Australia should be eternally grateful for that.

First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 4 February 2012.  With thanks to Ruth Osborne and Diana Streak.

 

 

The cover of Oz number 23, August 1969

What do a pair of lawyers, a country homestead, an iconic Australia pop artist, a massive merino, a man with a ukulele, an Archibald Prize-winning water-colourist, and a mythical yellow house have in common?

To find the answer we’ll have to go time-travelling.  It’s 1960s Sydney and a young girl opens a copy of Oz, the infamous antiauthoritarian magazine which would put its founders in jail for obscenity.  An advertisement: Wanted, Nude Model for a Martin Sharp collage.  The girl thinks she could give it a go so rings the number; within days she’s standing in a studio, throwing the required shapes with her body.  When the session is over she’s given “twenty quid”, taken out for lunch, and then sent home.  No ramifications.  Except, it seems, one.

*

Fast-forward five decades and we’re sitting in a crumbling early nineteenth-century homestead called South Hill.  The homestead and its various outbuildings, including a sheering shed, a barn, and “heritage” chook-yards, sit high on a hill adjacent the southern free-way exit to Goulburn.  Look one way and there’s a sobering view of the abattoir; look another way it’s the rolling north-eastern edge of the Monaro.  Just there, however, almost touchable, is the bitumen rush of the Hume Highway as it impatiently skirts Australia’s first in-land city, except it’s really just a town, a town that most Canberrans associate with pit-stops at a ubiquitous fast-food restaurant and gawking at the concrete Big Merino.

South Hill, the property, isn’t overly manicured.  It doesn’t smell of money, its soul hasn’t been destroyed by renovation.  Uncut red geraniums sprawl here and there; strummed acoustic music comes from somewhere nearby.  I like being here, especially as I’m talking with Linda Gumbert, an articulate, fiercely intelligent but gregarious sixty-plus-year-old woman.  Gumbert, who appears ridiculously fit for her age, is wearing blue jeans and a tight white T-shirt with ETERNITY across the front; it’s the sort of T-shirt you’d expect to find on a thinking woman from the city, a thinking woman who was once a girl who saw an ad in a magazine.

“You’ll want to ask me about how I know Martin Sharp,” she says, mischievously.

I ask her.  She tells me her story.  But Gumbert’s day with Australia’s most revered pop artist is only part of a much bigger story, one that is just beginning.

More time-travelling.

At the turn of the millennium, Linda Gumbert and her husband Roland, both lawyers based in Sydney, had a hankering that they might like to invest in a country town.  “We chose Goulburn deliberately because it’s accessible and we thought it might take off.’  Gumbert laughs; there’s much knowing in her wide-eyed face, but there’s also something of the teenaged girl that once was, an obvious delight in the world.  “The other thing that’s attractive about Goulburn is it’s not full of teddy-bear shops and an antique store on every corner.  When you swing into the main-street you park beside a sheep truck.  It filled our desire for something real.”

How did South Hill come to being in the Gumberts’ hands?

“Quite by chance,” says Linda, as if she can’t quite believe that she and her husband have ended up with the place, “we picked up the newspaper and saw that this place was for sale.  The auction was in two days.  It was owned by the local Anglican minister – a bit of a bed-and-breakfast thing, some pictures on the walls, a few artsy soirées.  We got some advice that said don’t buy it.  But we bought it anyway, because we knew better!”  Gumbert laughs again, giving a clear signal that when she wants to do something she just bloody well goes and does it.

“The house needs a million dollars which we don’t have, it’s freezing cold in winter and boiling hot in summer.  We don’t know anything about sheep or fencing.  We had to do something – we thought of having a performing arts centre, but we settled on a gallery.”

The couple admit to not having a background in the arts, just an unshakeable belief that healthy societies embrace creativity with open arms.  They set about scoring a patron.  “I reminded Roland that I once took my clothes off for Martin Sharp,” Linda Gumbert explains.  “Maybe we should speak to him about how to open a fine-art gallery?  I was too scared to make a phone call, so I wrote a letter and said, you wouldn’t remember me but we’re starting this gallery in Goulburn and do you want to give me a ring.  He rang me back a few days later and said, I remember you really well and still have the photos – come over.”

Linda and I take a break and, together with Roland (who’s handsome in a way that suggests he might know more about farming than he likes to let on), we do a tour of the three rooms of the gallery part of the main house, and then through the rest of the rooms.  At the heart of the place, above a glassed-in courtyard space, hang two massive banners Martin Sharp produced to celebrate Tiny Tim, the American ukulele player most of us remember as the funny-looking bloke who sung ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’ in an unearthly falsetto.

“When you get Martin Sharp to be your patron,” Roland Gumbert tells me, “you also get his great love of Tiny Tim.”  In fact one room at South Hill is filled with Tiny Tim and other 1960s memorabilia: paintings, books, photographs, odds and ends.  A glass hallway cabinet displays original copies of Oz magazine.  It’s hard not to get the impression that the Gumberts believe that this new, potentially staid decade needs something of a much earlier, more liberal era.

I’m shown around the grounds.  An American-born Sydney artist called Rudy Kistler is currently working on a body of work in a shed; he appears in floppy hat with a handful of raspberries.  Peter Royles, a folk musician and “original Yellow House member” (whatever that is) who happens to live in Goulburn, practices in another shed.  There are plans to hold open-air concerts in a natural bowl high up on a ridge.

“You’ll have to go to Sydney to interview Martin,” Linda Gumbert requires of me.  “He wants to turn South Hill into Yellow House!”  I really have no idea what she’s talking about so I nod politely, hoping that she doesn’t see through me, except Linda and Roland Gumbert are perceptive people, and I’m twenty years younger than them, so they’d know, they’d know.

Linda Gumbert explains that in Sharp they didn’t only get a patron but someone who is inordinately connected to the arts world – through Sharp they were put on to local photographer Jon Lewis and another “original Yellow House member”, who then introduced the Gumberts to Cherry Hood, the Archibald Prize-winning portrait painter who lives nearby.

Back home I Google “Martin Sharp Yellow House”.  Apparently Yellow House was a terrace in Potts Point.  In the sixties it was a hang-out for a wide range of artists including Brett Whitely, Jim Sharman, Peter Weir, and folk-singer Gary Shearston, amongst many others.  The walls were painted in all sorts of colours, something about a train coming out of a fireplace.  It seems that it was one part university grouphouse, one part hippy love den, and one part scary bohemian arts happening; it feels like the ground zero of radical Sydney.

My mind is spinning.  I really do need to interview Martin Sharp.

*

Cherry Hood and her portrait of pianist Simon Tedeschi, which won the 2002 Archibald Prize

First, however, let’s hear from Cherry Hood about her role as South Hill curator.  Cherry Hood’s practice focuses on large painterly portraits, primarily of children and animals.  On top of winning the 2002 Archibald Prize for her study of pianist Simon Tedeschi, Hood’s work is represented in many Australian collections, including the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of NSW, and the BHP Billiton Collection.

What originally interested Hood in the Gumberts’ plans for South Hill?  “When Linda asked me to open an exhibition of paintings I naturally wanted to know more about what they wanted to achieve.  Their idea was wonderful; it was very exciting that a new gallery was to open here.  Our Regional Gallery is excellent but Goulburn needed at least one commercial space to compliment it.  So I wanted to help them fit-out the gallery and with choosing artists who are serious and dedicated.”

What about Martin Sharp’s apparent vision to bring Yellow House to South Hill – how does Hood see that unfolding?

“One of the great periods for art in Australia’s cultural history was when Yellow House was alive and well in Sydney.  Martin was inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s idea of bringing artists “to the South” to join him in his Yellow House, which is what he called his studio.”  (Ah, it’s becoming clearer now!)  “Vincent, like other artists, knew that good things happen when artists get together and brainstorm, artists inspire each other to greater things.  So Martin has seen a very nice synchronicity in this idea of a new Yellow House in Goulburn.  And while the walls may not get painted in bright colours or patterns every few days and the Pop Movement is long gone, South Hill has already become a meeting place and the Gumberts have already established an artist-in-residency program.”

*

A week later, I’m on the early-bird train to Sydney to meet Martin Sharp.  How has this happened?  It feels like South Hill has put a spell on me, one that’s saying follow all leads, never be afraid.  To manage my apprehension I’ve done more research: I’ve learnt that Sharp designed the influential album covers for sixties rock legends Cream, that he even wrote the lyrics for Cream’s most famous song, ‘Tales of Brave Ulysses’, that Eric Clapton likes to visit his old friend (there’s a photograph at South Hill to prove it).

I’ve read how Sharp’s cartoons and illustrations were a central feature of Oz, both in Australia and London.  I know a little more about Martin Sharp’s passion for Tiny Tim – Sharp even produced some of his albums.  I’ve learnt that Sydney is besotted with their pop artist, and I get the impress that this man is Australia’s Andy Warhol and that his Yellow House might have been just like Warhol’s Factory.

The closer my train gets to Central the more my hands feel faint with nerves.  I take comfort in something Linda Gumbert told me: “Martin is a believer in the crossing of paths.  There are no mistakes.”

Martin Sharp...nowish.

Now I’m walking down the steep driveway of what would be a harbourside mansion should the owner be interested.  Martin Sharp, a slim man with longish grey hair that gives a hint to how he would have looked as a young creative provocateur in the sixties, greets me warmly, even tenderly, and welcomes me into his inherited home.  An artist who is doing work on Sharp’s extensive Tiny Tim archive makes us a cup of tea each and then we get down to business in his studio.  The room, as you’d expect, is filled with paintings and books although it’s darker than I’d imagined, a result of the wood panelling that surrounds us.

Sharp is erudite and deeply thoughtful if not a little rambly, though that might be due to a recent spell of ill health more than anything else.  We’re joined by a cat called Imelda, after Imelda Marcos, because the feline had a shoe obsession when she was a kitten.  Later Sharp will tell me why Susan Boyle, who unexpectedly was runner-up on reality TV show Britain’s Got Talent in 2008, is someone who should be admired: “She’s one of my great heroes.  Such courage, she turned the world around.”

So.  Why is Martin Sharp involved with South Hill?

“Because Linda Gumbert asked me and she said that I didn’t have to do anything.”  That’s it, that’s Sharp’s answer.  He doesn’t laugh, just rolls another of what will be an endless series of cigarettes, selecting tobacco from a ceramic bowl.  Perhaps realising that I need a more expansive answer, he mercifully adds, “I like the Gumberts very much.”  Sharp then tells me that when he was asked to be patron of South Hill he had to look up the word in an old dictionary.  “It’s got a different meaning that you’d normally think,” he warns.

I have an old dictionary and have since looked it up.  He’s right.

As patron, does Sharp have a vision for South Hill?  “I’m thoughtful about the place, put it that way.”  Again he pauses.  At last he continues: “South Hill has enormous potential as an ‘Off Broadway’ exhibiting place.  You could start exhibitions there and then they go on to other places.’’

An ‘Off Broadway’ exhibiting place – how’s that for a concept.

“Linda’s a very charismatic person,” Sharp goes on, now without encouragement.  “She’s a power-house.  I love her spirit.  South Hill has charisma.”  A new cigarette is lit.  “I can see the place almost being like a college.”  He would like to see South Hill hold a children’s art competition.  “The great exhibitions that go on at the end of the school year – you know, it’s remarkable work.  I’ve seen some astounding stuff, better than the art gallery shows.”

The artist points to a series of paintings hanging around the top of the walls of his studio which he did when he was sixteen years old.  “They’re not bad,” he says.  “I’m impressed and I get more impressed as time goes by.”

Point made.

*

Martin Sharp, Yellow House, 1970-1971 (photo by Rennie Ellis, courtesy of the National Library of Australia)

What about this whole notion of recreating Yellow House down at South Hill?  “Well, it would be a lovely idea in theory, but…”  Sharp gives out an impish laugh, as if he’s gently telling me that he’s not going to do all the work.  “Yellow House very much came out of the sixties.  The theory was if you make a good environment, if you can create a garden where all sorts of things can grow…”  He trails off as if enjoying the memory.  “It was held together by a high degree of visual tuning and intelligence within its decoration, and then within that all sorts of things like films for show, poetry readings, concerts, cabaret emerged.  There’s great potential down at South Hill to do the same thing.”

But can it happen in good old Goulburn town, a place where, so I’m told, even the hospital’s surgeon has tattoos?

“Vincent Van Gogh, the patron saint of artists, said a good painting does good wherever it is.  I love that.”  Sharp asks me if I’ve read Van Gogh’s letters?  No.  He sucks in his breath through his teeth as if he’s just witnessed a bad car accident.  He says, “You should.  Vincent said, ‘There will be an art of the future and it will be so lovely and beautiful that we’ll give up our youth for it but will surely gain serenity.’  He felt that it would come from the popular side of art.”

I have to ask about Tiny Tim.

Martin Sharp first saw the unique if not eccentric musician at the Albert Hall in London in 1968 and decided that he was in the presence of genius.  “Tiny was a master of the whole language of the popular song, a pioneer post-modernist, if you want to look at it that way.  I think he’s as great as van Gogh, I really do, he’s an artist of the first magnitude.  He was time-travelling all the time.”

Time-travelling: I haven’t heard that term in ages.

Perhaps South Hill is time-travelling, from its original pastoral purpose to countrified bed-and-breakfast establishment, from fine-art gallery and residency complex to – with hard work as well as a good dose of luck, even a little magic – Australia’s new wildly influential Yellow House.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

The best thing is that none of this is happening in an image-obsessed inner-city suburb but right on the edge of our oldest in-land town, which is just up the road from the National Capital.  All because two supremely motivated people believe in the inherent value of the arts and that creativity can and should happen anywhere, and this belief is going to be pursued until the cow’s come home.  Meanwhile, Cherry Hood will skilfully curate, and Martin Sharp – rather dreamily, it must be said – will encourage and protect.

Thank God the young Linda Gumbert liked reading obscene magazines.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, on 5 March 2011.  Thanks to Linda and Roland Gumbert, and Cherry Hood.  Much gratitude to Martin Sharp.  Never have I ever thought that I’d end up meeting such good people and writing a story like the one above.)

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