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Interviewee: Patrick Shirvington, born 1952
Date of Interview: 3 Nov 2009
Transcription: Glenys Murray, Nov 2009
Which other artists are there in the Shire that you know of?
There’ve been a number of artists over the years. I go back to one I’ve got to mention immediately was Frank Hodgkinson who lived in the Shire. He bought out here at Kenthurst probably twenty years ago no it would go back longer. Anyway it doesn’t matter how long. He came back from overseas. He’s a world renowned artist certainly Australian renowned artist in the national collection and all the state galleries. Well respected travelled overseas back in the days with Whitely and Olsen, Blackman and I’m trying to think of, what’s his name... Dame Edna. What’s his real name?
Barry Humphrey and all those people they all lived in London and painted and worked together. Anyway Frank Hodgkinson moved here with his wife and set up a beautiful studio and painted here for many years. Travelled from here out to Kakadu and The Centre and overseas, unfortunately died some five years ago. I feel saddened because the calibre of artists like Frank is part of this Shire. But that was pre days of that knowledge of the arts. Of course Patrick White was a resident of this Shire. Then you have Paul Newton who is an artist I have exhibited with. He is a much more… talking about portraiture he is a classical portrait painter. He’s commissioned throughout the world. He lives in this Shire. There’s a lot of artists. Alan Somerville is a renowned sculptor better known for some of his work that he’s done recently for the ANZAC Bridge. He’s done sporting personalities. He’s a recognised sculptor. I mean he’s recognised in the Shire as well. People do know of him. It’s a fairly splintered group of artists that live out here. For a number of reasons shires that have a lot of artists living generally tends to be shires that are out on the fringes. We go back to the late 1800’s early 1900’s we’ve got Paddington as the art hub of Sydney, Paddington and the Cross. Now for an artist to go and buy a square metre box in Paddington now would probably be five millions dollars. So as a result artists and economics play a big part of a nucleus of why some shires have a lot of artists.
So is the Shire’s art influence growing now?
It is, it is as I say they’ve got the weekend of the… (Arcadia Artists) Oh that’s more Hornsby Shire isn’t it? But I think it encompasses… we have artists open studios. There are still artists from this Shire that partake. I think it might be on the other side of Old Northern Road the actual geography of that. But it certainly it is well known by the Hills Shire that we have these artists it’s like the Farm Gate Trail where you go and visit different people for different vegetables. That’s building up and there’s some wonderful artists. There’s sculptors, potters, ceramicists, painters, water colourists they're all there. Because of the art community or the Art’s Officer now he’s accessible for people to contact. Like myself you do want to contact a central pivotal point. So as a result there’s cross referencing happening now. It is in its infancy but it is rapidly changing.
Now you paint landscape but do you also paint animals that you see as well?
I do sketches a lot of birds and some of the wildlife. Mainly the birds I find I can’t go into the bush without being, not inundated. It’s nothing for me to be sitting painting a landscape and for a Currawong to sit beside me. I’ve had little blue wrens all but hop onto my easel. Once you’re in the bush sort of one with the bush or partaking with the bush as something harmless. Yes I’ve had little birds all around me. I have painted a lot of birds and I’ve done some bird studies as well. They’re not detailed. They’re like my landscapes they might just be a fleeting moment of a bird leaving the scene or flying through it. I might title a painting “magpie through the valley” and it might take people ten minutes to find the magpie. It’s like we look at a landscape and say to someone “look at the lovely magpie up there” and they’ll say “where”? I’ll say it’s up there it’s been sitting there for ten minutes”. We don’t see it but they're always there. I find there’s very often a bird. Some more prevalent, some are obvious but very often there will be a bird. I’ve even had kangaroos in my paintings that nobody has seen. Funnily enough I have had people at exhibitions say to me “I love that possum in the tree in your painting” I say “there’s no possum in the tree”. They point it out and there’s been a manifestation of a possum or something in the painting.
So your paintings are so abstract that you kind of hide the animals in them?
I guess they’re abstract. Traditional artists or traditional galleries now call my work very abstract. Yet you go along to an exhibition of abstract work and they’ll say “oh you’re a landscape painter”. So it hovers I paint probably as I see it now and it is much more abstract. I’m not concerned so much of painting that bark so it feels like bark. I’ll paint the landscape so it feels… well a recent drawing I did I called Deerubbin or Deerubbin however you pronounce it. It’s the word for Hawkesbury. It’s an Aboriginal word and the reason I called the painting or the drawing that is I’ve made just a lot of marks on the paper. It’s certainly a landscape. If you show it to anybody you know it’s a landscape but nothing is dominant. It’s just these marks and it is reminiscent of the marks that Aboriginals or the symbols that Aborigines made with their art works. Squiggles represented this. The marks represent the feels of. Some of the marks are made with a harsher hand or a rougher treatment which encapsulates things like the sandstone rock. But then you look closely and there’ll be a super detailed piece of an opening seed of the Banksia Serrata. That’s the old man Banksia which is very prevalent in the Hawkesbury sandstone landscape. It’s certainly not a lovely picture say of Arthur Streeton’s The Hawkesbury you know Purple Noon’s Transcendent Might. That lovely picture up past Windsor looking out over the Hawkesbury River they’re reminiscent of that. The way I see it now it’s a different view a different spirit.
So what’s been actually the association with The Hills Council and your art? I believe you also do some workshops?
Through this Arts Officer and the last Officer that was there. He put out for tender a design for a seasonal banner for the Council to fly throughout the season in different venues. With this Council officer Jonathon he applied for a grant through NSW Art to utilise art and the connection with art for the youth of the Shire. Mainly in the north west of the Shire because it’s an area that’s fairly isolated. There is still lot of young people that are sort of disenchanted if you like with what is happening in… This transition from being rural has been in their times with the blacksmith putting shoes on their horses and building billycarts. There is a transition happening between the rural north of this Shire and the reality of iPhones and technology. There’s a whole sort of pull and push. Some of these people have a lot of challenges or a lot of hurdles to establish where they are and what they are in their life. So through the arts I’ve been commissioned or contracted to compile a series of workshops. Unlike a workshop where I teach them how to draw or what to draw it’s a workshop saying how to express themselves. What they feel that they want to see in the Shire. What their feelings are about the Shire. We give them a lead saying “look at the history of the place”. Where they’re living was probably an old quarry that some of the houses were built out of. There’s a lot of connections with quarrying and still of agriculture. They have to talk to their parents, their grandparents. So we try to use art and the outcome will be a major work that they’ll compile. They’ll compile small works and it will be put together as a major work for them to have a say for one thing. But also to express a lot of things that they may not be able to express. It’s hard for young ones to express their true feelings. They take it out on the bitumen with their cars. They take it out with excessive drinking. All sorts of things and it’s a way of allowing them to express themselves and have an outlet.
And how old are these students?
They range from… we have had some about the age of thirteen, supposedly up to late teens and early twenties. It’s been hard to get them past their teens with this age group. Having daughters myself that age it is hard.
You take classes?
Well we take workshops. I took them out to the National Park and we sit in the bush. We experience the sound of the bush, the feeling of the bush. We utilise found objects, we express them as we see them. They can either draw them they can rub them into their paper. They can touch the earth if you like and make them realise there is something else happening out there. Meditation is a great part of this whole thing too. It gets them au fait with their surrounds. They’re living in a bush area but most of them only see them from the back of a trail bike or a motor car going through it. It’s a great way of just releasing that stress, meditating going out there.
What’s the name of those classes?
It’s called The Road Less Travelled and it’s the Rural North Youth Network maybe. We’ve just renamed it The Road Less Travelled. There’s a lot of brochures that have gone out stipulate or pinpoint for the youth. Some parents have turned up with their kids as well which is a great thing for us in a number of ways. One the parents are seeing something different themselves. Some of them are partaking. Also it gives them an opportunity to… at home with art at school it gives the parents to encourage their children to loosen up. Not be pressured into having to do it this way. It’s like parents with any subject at school. If they get a bit of knowledge about it they’ll allow their children to… “Don’t get pressured, just ease off, write your own essay and free up a bit”. So it’s great.
Have you grown yourself as an artist by contacting with these students and seeing their work? Has it changed you at all?
Well the whole process of being an artist I’ve realised if we just switch back to when I was in my twenties. My first breakthrough was the fact that I was able to live off my art. That was a breakthrough. My biggest breakthrough was to realise that art is sometimes the not doing of the actual practice of it. To have workshops to conduct, to be involved with openings of exhibitions and talking, some of these are commissions. Some are not. I’ve been invited into different schools to give talks, to give practical demonstrations in drawing. I’ve been down to the Arthur Boyd Studio, Education Centre on a number of occasions. They’ve invited me in there. The actual teaching of art is as important as the doing of the art. If you leave painting go for six months you don’t lose the edge. I remember being told it’s a bit like snooker you keep getting your eye in. You get you eye in the more that you do it. That’s correct. But like snooker and like riding a bike the body has its own memory. I can go without painting for six months and just draw for six months. Or go without my studio for a few weeks, only a few weeks but I can be involved with these kids and with their drawing. Of course I’m picking up charcoal and sticks off the ground and doing something with them and shaping sticks. I’m realising that the creative process or the art career is not just the doing. That becomes more the expression after all these other things come into it.
What were the attributes that attracted you to living here in the Shire?
Once again I mentioned earlier where I grew up at Lane Cove and the sound of the Currawong and the magpie and the horses down the road and the odd cow. When we had children on the Central Coast, my wife was a teacher at Wahroonga at the time. It was a decision then do we bring up our children on the Central Coast or come back to more familiar… We felt that when you have children that freedom of just close the door and go somewhere changes. You’ve got to have a bit more permanent base to bring up a family. We came back to Sydney and I looked up and down the escarpment from Pymble down to Chatswood, Lane Cove River Park. Along the Comenarra, because that was all back in the bush, having had the acreage at Macmasters Beach it didn’t take us long to come further out and find that space again. I enjoy having my studio away from the house but still within the bush. That attracted us. When we were up there, that’s going back fifteen years ago now, there wasn’t the choice of education for your children. We’ve since found we’ve got multiple choices. My children have enjoyed and attended The Steiner School local here at Glenhaven. If it wasn’t that you’ve got half a dozen primary schools. You’ve got half a dozen plus senior schools of all denominations. It does engender a very family environment around here. Once again it reminds me a lot of where I grew up. That everybody not so much knew everybody else’s business. When I first moved out here I said to my wife “I need to get one of those plastic hands on a spring on the dashboard because everybody wants to wave to you”. You drive down and they knew that somebody had been down last weekend and stopped in front of your property. They notice things. As I say you could call them nosy parkers but it’s more a wonderful community. That attracted us and still does. To go for a jog of a morning or for a walk you’d be lucky to get back in an hour. You’ve only done a ten minute jog and you’ve spoken for an hour up the road to somebody. It’s a lovely environment in that regard. For the children as well, they baby sit locally because people know them have watched them grow up. It’s a lovely feeling.
What are the awards that you have won for your work?
The awards are vast and varied. They go back as I mentioned to the Wyong Show and the Easter Show. I’ve had awards. The Macquarie Towns Award, Southern Cross Award. I was given an award well it’s called an award. I was awarded a residency on two occasions at the Arthur Boyd Studio. That’s an award that’s selected throughout Australia and overseas artists. They narrow it down and look at what you’re doing and where you’re going. That award was forthcoming. I was down there for one stint of about seven weeks. In Queensland they have an equivalent to the Wynne Prize in Sydney which is a landscape award I was bridesmaid in that I was runner up. But that was an award. There’s been quite a number of awards, twenty, thirty my maths isn’t very good.
You’ve obviously done very well?
It’s been pleasing. Once again a judge that could be your self could walk in and say “wow that’s the painting and that’s the award’ and someone else misses out. There’s only one happy person in an award. The hardest thing is for the others to pick up their paintings and walk out. Then another judge comes in and says “oh that’s the award” and yours get picked up and walked out. You’ve got to take it as really you’re just there. Like a hundred metre sprint. You can do everything you can do. You can win one so easy one day it all comes together. Other days it doesn’t suit your situation you come last. You just keep on doing it.
You’ve also had an interest in bush care and regeneration? Can you describe that to me?
Yes that was funny the way that all came about. I used to work at the Workshop Art’s Centre at Willoughby which has been a long established arts centre. It was given to the Council for working artists to conduct classes. I’d made a decision that we should go down to Lane Cove River Park and paint and sketch on site. So we got permission to take my students down there, half a dozen of them. While we were down there sketching I noticed all these khaki clad people on their hands and knees underneath all the bushes scratching around. I thought they must have lost a watch or a ring. Anyway at morning tea or lunch I asked “what are you doing” they’re bush regenerators. It was interesting because quite a few of them were university graduates in environmental science. They said “it’s important we do this, you’re getting into the grass roots of where it all happens”. It interests me in two ways. One, here I was for thirty odd years painting the landscape. It’s a little bit like a person painting a portrait. I don’t arrive at someone’s house and say “I’m here to paint your portrait, are you Mrs Smith”? No you want to get to know that person as much as you can. So for so many years I’d looked at the bush, I’d lived in the bush. I’d slept on the ground all night long in the bush. But the idea of getting down nitty gritty with a pair of tweezers sometimes looking at the regrowth and trying to propagate or enhance this regrowth interested me. That I could get closer to my beloved landscape. So I then pursued that. I went out and did a course in bush regeneration out at Richmond TAFE. I loved the course I couldn’t wait for Tuesdays to come. I went out there all afternoon and into the night doing this course. There were like minded people when it came to the landscape, they loved the landscape. They didn’t paint or draw but we all had a similar interest in the landscape. It was more than just a tree growing, it was that beautiful.
No sooner had that happened that we started in conversation in the classroom. The Aboriginality the connection with humans and the landscape, it’s not intrinsically just Aborigines that are connected with the landscape. We all are and I find this is a common denominator with bush regeneration. There is a real connection and a passion and a love. Anyway I did that course and that enhanced and my drawings once again evolved. I started to do a series and I’m still doing a series, putting it together gradually on bush regeneration. The propagation or the beginnings of the tiny little seedling after a bushfire into a major forest, but then as I mentioned before as an artist it’s not always the doing. Funnily enough the teacher came in one day and said “the National Trust had contacted them. If anybody wants to do a day now and again with bush regeneration, they’ve got new contracts”. So I contacted the National Trust and so as a result they’ll ring up “Pat, can you do a day in the bush with bush regeneration”? I love that because once again I’m doing something that I love and I’m connecting with the bush and it’s not voluntary. It’s not volunteer bush regeneration, they actually pay me to go into the bush and do a day in bush regeneration. The National Trust get these contracts.
Are there any other activities that you’re involved with in the Shire or with the community?
I’m still associated with running. Apart from my painting I love keeping fit. Hans Heysen in his biography I found with interest he loved riding everywhere. He’d get the train and he’d drive but he loved riding. He said it kept him fit enough to get up those Flinders and be able to keep painting. To be fit enough, because it’s not a great physical activity in painting but I love seeing areas that I want to get to and be able to bushwalk and get to them. So I enjoy the athletics at the Hills (Athletics) Club. So that’s just another activity that’s a side line to my painting.
So what is your dream at the moment? Where do you hope to be?
I suppose my dreams would be to look at the people that I have had the fortune to meet. Lloyd Rees and George Lawrence, Frank Hodgkinson, Guy Warren. I mean Guy is eighty eight now, an artist from Lane Cove or Greenwich. To realise a dream that I had when I was thirteen and hoped that it would last for a couple of years. Now in real terms of a working life I’m looking towards what people would normally call retirement, which as an artist you don’t do, you don’t stop breathing your passion takes you through. I think that I could one day be in my eighties, nineties my ambition is to be sitting here telling you or telling somebody about my years from fifty seven to a hundred and seven. That would be the highlight of it. I’ve had a lifetime of art. That has been my passion and my dream to have been able to do it.
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