Australian Fine Artist

Art Chat by John Wolseley

Venue: McClelland Gallery and Sculpture Park

Topic: Works Including those in the Current birds inspired Exhibition

I am borrowing from his biography on the web to introduce John:

Artist John Wolseley was born in Somerset, England. He studied at St Martins School of Art between 1957 and 1958, the Byam Shaw School of Art, London, in printmaking from 1958 to 1963 and later in Paris between 1961 and 1963. He lived and worked throughout Europe before relocating to Australia in 1976, where he travelled extensively through the outback. He has been artist in residence at studios at Deakin University, Bendigo, the Joye Art Foundation, the Art Gallery of Western Australia and George Cottage Launceston, and has taught painting in Northern Territory Communities since 1978.

John has held solo exhibitions in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra and survey exhibitions of his work have been held at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, the University of Melbourne and the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Tasmania. His work has been included in group exhibitions at the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney and the Australian Centre of Contemporary Art, Melbourne.

He is the previous recipient of the Geelong Gallery Capital Permanent Acquisition Award in1979, the Art Gallery of New South Wales Trustees watercolour prize in 1982, 1985, 1988, 1995 and 2004; and the Alice Prize in 1982, 1985, 1988, 1996, 2004. He received a bicentennial commission from the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1988, and Australia Council Grant in 1998 and an Honorary PhD in Science from Macquarie University in 2005. His work is represented by the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; most state galleries, Parliament House, Canberra; several regional and tertiary collections and internationally in collections in England and Yugoslavia. A monograph of his work was published in 1998, and a collection of artworks accompanied by poetry ‘Lines for birds’ was published in 2011.

As you may imagine, after reading this I was more than impressed and eager to hear what John had to say as well as hopefully seeing some more of his work and what motivates his subjects.

So, on with the chat!

We had an amazing turnout today for John’s chat. Not only general public but two teachers from TAFE and a lot of art students as well, which was wonderful to see!

With his large water colour of wetlands behind him, John gave an entertaining and insightful talk not only about his art but also his travels and the people he has met. He quoted poems from his collaborative book with poet Barry Hill which nearly had me in tears (again) because as he read  I was looking at his painting, the words flowing over me and transporting me to that quiet place in your mind that you go to when you paint.

Within the space of just over an hour John told us about travels in northern Australia, travels in Europe and his love of nature and the animals and particularly the birds that inhabit wetlands in many countries. Australia, in particular, he said, has been painted in the arid desert and the coastlines but not so much in the beautiful wetlands that attract so many varieties of birds. He likes to get them painted before they are taken away by development or change due to other human interferance.

In amongst other things today John also touched on the philosophy behind his work. I heard names that were new to me and have had me running to Google whilst writing this piece. The first is Jakob von Uexküll born in the Keblas estate Estonia. Needing to support himself after his family lost their fortune, Uexküll took a job as professor at the University of Hamburg where he founded the Institut für Umweltforschung.

Uexküll was interested in how living beings subjectively interacted in their environments. Uexküll called these subjective spatio-temporal worlds umwelt (German for environment). These umwelten are distinctive from what Uexküll termed the “umgebung” which would be objective reality should such a reality exist. That is a bit to take in on the fly. I think what he was ultimately aiming at was the artist and the environment becoming in harmony with each other. You go out and not only observe but interact and become a part of what you are painting. Another name quoted was Emerson. “The mind and the world are inseparable.” WOW I just looked him up and have book marked his quotes as they are amazing and I feel like I should read one regularly, especially on those days when I get a bit down or discouraged.

“Art doesn’t impose – it exposes”

John’s Methods of creating his paintings, apart from his philosophical leanings, are very in tune with what he finally produces. I picked up a copy of his book today, which he kindly signed. In it is a photo of his 300gsm paper rolled out on the ground. I don’t think there is another artist of western heritage that works quite like him. The materials are in touch with the earth, he lays down washes freely and in tune with everything around him. There are lots of greys in his paintings – warm greys, cool greys, neutral greys, so often overlooked but so important for linking other colours together. Even  with modern tools such as masking fluid and even a dremmel to sand back to the bare paper, the immediacy of the experience of painting still comes through. The birds which are intertwined with the reeds and flowers, wind their way in and around the composition. Everything is related, everything belongs. The muted colours are highlighted by the clever and limited use of higher key colours, the whole painting looks alive.

The very important message to art students from John, I thought, was to keep experimenting. Take a day every now and then or even regularly and experiment with all your materials. Put fear aside and try anything that pops to mind so that you really do understand your tools and materials and how far you can push them. Learn your subjects and topics so that you can concentrate on creatively portraying them once you get started with the brush.

John is such a great speaker, I could have listened to him for hours! His smooth accent and amount of knowledge as well as endearing sense of humour were very enjoyable. I am looking forward to taking time each day at TAFE to read a few pages from his book and soak in his paintings.


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