I have taken a trip back to my native Tasmania for a few weeks and have been with my old art school mate. He has unearthed some ancient stuff… all done around 1964/5. A mixture of painting, linocuts and chalk sketches. Some of it’s not bad, if I do say so myself!
Somewhat reminiscent of our old chum Bacon? Who was a huge influence on me can you tell?!!
The above sketch was a study for a painting which was acquired by the Dunedin art gallery. (A few years ago!)
Life in the theatre took a new turn. I was approached by the stage manager who sounded me out about working the follow spotlights during the next series of evening productions.
Why not? the dosh would come in handy.
These lights were based on a simple principle. They consisted of two carbon rods (about 2cm diameter) which were aligned at an angle of about 45 degrees. The high voltage electrical current flowing between them produced a crater in the lower carbon,
which in turn was the source of a brilliant light. This light could go from a ‘pin spot’ to a full flood, depending on the lens control. The carbons had to be ‘fed’ as the burning continued , one praying all the while that the top carbon did not come loose and land in the bottom of the lamp holder. All of this was conducted under ferocious temperatures, you could fry an egg on the lamp case, or roast a finger or two.
The whole caboodle was mounted on gimbals, so the beam could be directed wherever one wished, at whatever size. So far, so good . Two ‘operators’ were needed to cover the whole stage. This background info. makes sense of the following proceedings.
The opening evening of Swan Lake was upon us. I already had
several shows under my belt, so to speak, so I was ready for this. My colleague for the evening was Roland. This dear fellow was a ‘chocoholic’ an addiction to this confection going back for years. At any point during the day his Mae West boiler suit contained up to 10kg of assorted chocolates. This soporific substance, I discovered, has no equal.
He was an electrician and his colleagues feared for his life when he seemed to be drifting off atop a 10 metre ladder re-wiring the spot bars.
Finally, we we both had headphones to get our orders.
Swan lake proceedings got underway with a total blackout. The orchestra concluded the overture and I got my first instruction from the director.
‘With the smallest of pin-spots, pick up the male dancer emerging from the wings on the prompt side of the stage’ Fine. Done. Ditto to Roland to pick up the female lead on the other side. NOT SO FINE. At this precise point Roland fell asleep. In so doing, he relaxed his grip on the lamp. The pin-spot, getting bigger, then drifted up to the proscenium arch, up and up until it came to rest on the theatre ceiling.
By now the stage director was apoplectic. His screams could be heard in the back rows of the gods. Roland came to. Desperately, he tried to put things right. The band played on…..Until the conductors desk and those of the first violins were illuminated by a thousand watt spotlight as Roland valiantly tried to find the stage.
As is (or was) the case in music based theatre, the actors or dancers will sometimes follow the music to gauge their arrival. In this case the entrance of the corps de ballet took place in total darkness, as they spilled, literally, on to the stage. One wonders what the collective noun is for a tangled heap of swans. I still had the male lead in a pin-spot, his facial incredulity was the only thing to be seen in the whole theatre.
The stage managers voice rose equally in volume and pitch. Then, a top C and a deafening silence.
I got home early that night.
This post contains mature content in the form of life drawing and nudity.
Chapter 5: The Journey to Thinking Big
At the end of secondary school it was time to go back to Melbourne and stay with my Aunt. Why? It meant that I could study art at the grandly named Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. This activity was not so much a learning curve, rather more a vertical axis.
The tuition was very good, three years illustration was followed by 2 years painting. I was , and still am, deeply devoted to both. Customer satisfaction. Life drawing, a splendid discipline, was included in all of this.
In my final year I was employed as a lecturer to teach the first years and part-timers this noble art…. a valuable experience. The students did not seem to be troubled by the age of their tutor. His love of the subject seemed to preclude this. I got my diploma and learnt how to do many things.
THEN! Overtaken by events. A major theatre in the city had approached the college to see if they had a student who could paint theatre scenery. I could imagine how the conversation went… ‘We need somebody who can draw and represent the physical world…for God’s sake don’t send us some abstract expressionist or cubist clown or a mystic Meg. We want technical skill. Give him, or her, anything, and they can do it. They will have to work on a huge scale. More than that, they will have to produce results before the pubs open’!
I got the nod. My meeting with the head honcho was salutary. He was short, golden bristled in a Scottish sort of way, and had the eye colouring of a Norwegian fjord.
He gave me a ‘O God, here’s another one’ sort of look and then pronounced in a voice flat with indifference, ‘Look,sunshine, if you can’t do this, I will bloody soon find somebody who can. I can’t frig around, let’s go’. I have heard similar sentiments expressed many times over the years. You either drop your bundle or it puts iron in the soul. As if to under- score this, he produced a cartoon ( in the original sense, a preparatory study). This was about A2 landscape in format and had to be scaled up to a massive 10×5 metre back cloth. Suddenly, a jaw dropping moment.
Our leader folded the cartoon twice, and tore it from top to bottom in order to make 3 identical panels. He took one, his long time assistant another, and he gave the third to me.
‘OK,’ he commanded, gesturing at the prepared canvas, ‘you guys start at either end, I’ll do the middle. Don’t screw it up’
I am as dry as a dead dingo’s….. ‘You have an hour to get the first stage knocked in’.
I looked at the cartoon. It was a kind of Baroque hell. Greek columns, acanthus leaves, Brunelleschian architecture, figures in alcoves, tracery, decorative stone and woodwork, and on and on. It was to accompany a Strauss type Viennese Operetta. I am sure the blue Danube must appear sooner or later. That would be a doddle.
Enter the real world…
Two legacies of all this… 1. Only ever using thin paint as the cloths had to be rolled for transport; and 2. An undying love for working on a very big scale.
The big game of the day was marbles. About a 2 metre ring, inscribed in the grass or gravel was surrounded by players who simply had to knock the opponents marbles out of the circle with a well aimed shot. Every now and then bigger kids would appear with soft clay on their boots and proceed to walk through a well stocked ring. Bastards.
Never mind that. The joy of these things were the rainbow hued cats eyes red, green blue, and all the rest… Colour again. I would hold them up to the light and watch the colours refract and glow, sometimes one to each eye. I would miss my turn doing this.
At school I had a two-tier swivel pencil case, a ruler which doubled as a spirit level and a range of soft to hard pencils. They all had a wonderful smell, even the eraser.
All art paraphernalia had a heavenly scent (like that!) which remains with me to this day.
The walls of our house were bedecked, or spotted with the usual range of ‘furniture pictures’ a phenomenon which has remained largely unchanged in contemporary dwellings. It was mostly agreeable or anodyne stuff that contributed to domestic serenity but was wholly unconnected with the visceral power of painting. Pictures again. Bits of French confectionery (street scenes) rubbed shoulders with exotic scarf/earring portraits which exhibited a certain leaden charm. A blast of the chilly wind of C17 Dutch Protestantism made an appearance, so at least we had, in these cathedral prints, moved off the picturesque.
But, I wondered, as I gazed across the unique splendour of the Tasmanian landscape, why hasn’t somebody not done something with this? By that I meant not knocking out cosy European models, but establishing the spirit of the place in a new language.
The answer to that came many years later when I was a student in Melbourne.
His name was Fred Williams , an uncharismatic moniker, but boy, did he do what I wished for. Stunning. Met him in the print studios at the college. Lovely man, an inspiration. Still.
The aged Dakota DC3 trundled towards a rather basic building at the Hobart airport. It’s piston engines set up a splendid racket and the heat haze smelt pretty good too. This was not wasted upon a wide-eyed 4 year old child bursting with excitement within the confines of the ranch style terminal.
A trip to Melbourne! This prospect opened the door to another world, a much bigger one. One with loads of trains and trams, big buildings, clouds of people and… some of the houses even had stained-glass windows… even the sky was a better shade of blue. But more than that, if this was one door, how many more were there in this world? The child flirted with this open ended concept. The other huge driver in his short life was his greatest wish that he could learn the skills in order to draw these aircraft. The magic was spun further with the plane ride. Who remembers the sloping aisle to the cockpit? You sat in chairs rather than seats. And those boiled sweets! The hostess gave loads to the kids. AND… being able to visit the cockpit and sit with the pilots as they left the Bass Strait and began their approaches to Melbourne. Magic. Try that now.
And yet, greater excitement awaited. His aunts serried ranks of multi-coloured biscuit barrels were stuffed with a cornucopia of goodies. Viewed from today’s healthy diet platform they would be biscotta non-grata. Never mind, the teddy bears, the stars of the show, were little treasures and will forever remain so. The trip from Tassie was a harbinger of things to come. Even at the ripe old age of four it was clear that there is another world outside this insular community.
I started life in a mill town, a good chunk of the economy was predicated on that paper producer. It also established a kind of local real estate hierarchy which mirrored that found in the mill. The town was bisected by a fast flowing river, good for swimming but could be dangerous. My mother did not know how close I came to never writing this stuff when I slipped off a greasy submerged plank. A flailing arm grabbed a mooring rope. The arrival home was tricky… how to get into some dry clothes and look relaxed and happy whilst re-living the suffocating horror of the water closing over my head. I attended a funeral service for a child at about that time. Maybe that WAS me and I have entered a parallel universe. I mentioned this concept to my cat Trevor but he looked at me as though I was a chop short of a barbie.