TELL ME A LITTLE ABOUT YOU AND WHERE WE ARE RIGHT NOW…
I am an artist and educator at the Byron School of Art. My studio is in Mullumbimby, New South Wales. Though I’m originally from Dublin, Ireland, I emigrated when I was 21, to Sydney, then made my way up the coast. I’ve lived longer in Australia than in Ireland at this point, and I have a lot of both — but my roots are set in Ireland, it’s still part of the work and I’m part of that space.
YOU’VE BEEN TEACHING VISUAL ARTS AND DESIGN FOR OVER 20 YEARS. HOW DID YOU COME TO ESTABLISH THE ART SCHOOL HERE?
I was a teacher at TAFE, and the reason why I moved up to the North Coast is that I got a teaching position at Lismore. But then the government withdrew the funding for TAFE, a number of years ago, and TAFE was knocked on the head. It had been free until that point and then, suddenly, you had to pay $12000, a big jump. The visual arts section shut down and we all lost our jobs. So, it was always a dream of mine to open an art school, and it was a good time to do it!
There’s 5 directors at BSA. Evolving all the time, and getting more notoriety, it runs as a not for profit organisation. We run a project space, a gallery space, and we also have a residency and a 3-year program for students. We don’t have any funding, and we aren’t attached to an educational body. It’s all pretty independent. We don’t have diplomas or degrees, but our students become graduates of the Byron School of Art. All our lecturers are ex-uni teachers, so they get a pretty good swing.
YOU WERE IN PHOTOGRAPHIC PRINTING BEFORE ART SCHOOL. DID YOU ALWAYS WANT TO BE AN ARTIST?
I wanted to be a photographer, and I used to wander the streets of Dublin taking photographs. When I was 16, 17, that was what I was doing — I was very much into the photojournalist type scenario, Bill Brandt, Cartier-Bresson, I kinda saw those as ideals, and I wanted to do that and kinda did that in Dublin a bit. I worked in photo labs to learn the inside out, and I ended seeing so many photographs, because I was doing that day in and day out. I kinda became overstimulated, with the photographic image.
But I was always drawing in my youth. And then, I went to art school later in life, in Newcastle and sort of got lucky after that. I hooked up with a gallery in Sydney early on and went from there. Newcastle was a good place to go to art school, close to Sydney, well connected. Nick Mitzevich was the director — he had his own gallery there, and he’s now the director of the National Gallery of Australia. He had a little private gallery back then, which was a squash court. I had one of my very first shows with him. Nick was very supportive of artists, and there were a few galleries in Newcastle that were very good, and he introduced me to Sydney, to a gallery, and it sort of went from there…
WHAT IS YOUR MOST IMPORTANT ARTIST TOOL?
It’s a difficult one because… It’s sort of the research! It’s the pre-brush, I think. Once you have the brush in your hand, the brush is important. But there’s a lot of heady stuff before. I say that when I’m in bed, I’m a very good painter.
YOUR STUDIO IS AT THE ART SCHOOL. HAS TEACHING INFLUENCED YOUR WORK, OR DO YOU KEEP IT SEPARATE?
It does influence my work, and I kinda make sure it does, — but teaching can also swallow your work. I know many teachers that are practicing artists that are slumped by the time they get out of teaching, because it’s eaten up into their practice. You’ve got to have energy. You’ve got to share, learn… It’s not a conscious decision, it’s organic: how you think about teaching, how do you not let it invade your practice. Because teaching, you give a lot; it’s tiring, and you have to give a lot to it to be any good. It’s never balanced, but our practice isn’t balanced either, so it’s fine. I let it be an influence. And I use my research with my students, in terms of what I’m delivering, and I go further then I need to.
You have to know your field. And that’s what I say to them: whatever you’re practicing, whether it’s photography, or painting, you’ve got to know the field you’re working in.
DO YOU THINK YOUR WORK WOULD BE DIFFERENT IF YOU LIVED IN A DIFFERENT LOCATION?
When I moved up here from Newcastle, my work changed a lot, initially. Because the landscape is so large, there’s a lot of trees. You’re driving through here, you’re driving through this landscape, and whether you like it or not, it’s hard to get that out of your peripheral vision. So, when I came up here, my work changed a lot, and it took a while for things to settle down. The environment changes the work.
HOW DID YOU COME TO FIND YOUR PATH?
I never thought I would be on this path…I had a bit of an idea, like I wanted to be a photographer when I was 16, or earlier than that, growing up in Ireland — or I wanted to be a writer, because that’s what we did in Ireland. It wasn’t such a visual culture as a written culture or musical, so I kinda always thought it would be something creative but not on this path.
But just by going into a space and working and working — “I’m here now and I’ve done this and I’m having an exhibition” — it’s sort of by osmosis that you end up in this spot. It’s hard to believe it’s 20 years later, that I’m still doing it, and I feel like I’ve got another 20 years, and I haven’t even started thinking about doing what I want to do. It’s all open and love it.