Navigating by Light: An Interview with Kate Lyons-Dawson

I haven’t blogged for a while because I’ve been busy the last few months preparing for an art exhibition, Navigating by Light, with my sister and fellow artist, Kate Lyons-Dawson. And now it’s on! Yes, as I type, our paintings and drawings are hanging on a wall in Fox Hole Small Bar in Sydney CBD, where they’ll be until 12 October. Exciting times!

In the lead-up to the show – and okay, hanging the show and opening the show – Kate and I were both pretty busy, plus I’m in Sydney and she’s on the South Coast. This interview is a bit of a catch-up and my attempt to pick Kate’s brain about our current show and her art practice in general.

What is it that keeps you going with art? Apart from the blind panic in the face of impending deadlines 🙂

Delving into art keeps you so interested in looking. Once I extricated the idea of art from that of perfection and the dissatisfaction this entailed, I began to enjoy the process; it’s a journey and has become integral to my approach to life.

You seem to use a lot of blue in your works. Actually we both do. Why do you think you do – what comes first, colour or subject? Both?

I think personal colour comes a lot from place and for me sky and sea fills my whole vision with a neverending blue colour chart. But my blue palette rests on an earthly range of rusty hues and seem always interwoven in my work.

What part does light play in your work?

Colour wouldn’t exist without light and I only regret that I don’t have the eyesight of a bird, as we humans, miss so much pattern and colour. But I never grow tired watching what I am able to see.

A Trace of Day, oil on canvas, 465 x 690 mm, 2015.
A Trace of Day, oil on canvas, 465 x 690 mm, 2015.

Tell me about the day you took the photo/s for your painting A Trace of Day.

It was on my semi-regular walk at day’s end, the last of June. It was a bit late, but the cloud cover made it seem even darker and as I entered the track to the beach, I could see it was an amazing moment. The sun was lighting up a band of cloud on the horizon and as it lowered, further layers were revealed. For the whole length of the beach and back, it just continued to deliver – colour and drama – it was atomic. As I was leaving I turned for one farewell moment and caught sight of ‘A Trace of Day’. In all the wonder I’d failed to notice the moon had risen.

I think you said Luminous Flux (one of my faves) came out of the same afternoon as A Trace of Day. What’s going on in this painting? It feels like a beautiful ocean sandwich.

Luminous Flux, oil on canvas, 615 x 470 mm, 2015.
Luminous Flux, oil on canvas, 615 x 470 mm, 2015.

Luminous Flux was a response to those first moments I walked onto the beach. I was trying to get as close to the action of the horizon clouds while still indicating this was a landscape. But you’re right, I think it became something else by zooming in and limiting the panorama – who knows? Possibly a sandwich. Yeah, I love it too, and I would also like to paint the moment just before the wave crashed, where the water was just a dark indigo band, creating a whole different dynamic.

The labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral, France, and Mt Keira in Wollongong (featured in Axis Mundi) are subjects you keep returning to – what draws you to them?

Ever since I read Rebecca Solnit’s excellent book about the history of walking, Wanderlust, I have been obsessed with labyrinths but especially the one paved into the floor of Chartres Cathedral. As Solnit writes, ‘A labyrinth is a symbolic journey or a map of the route to salvation, but it is a map we can really walk on, blurring the difference between map and world.’ I was intrigued at the idea of a walking meditation at a time in my life where a need for action coexisted with the search for meaning and peace.

Axis Mundi, oil on canvas, 460 x 600 mm, 2015.
Axis Mundi, oil on canvas, 460 x 600 mm, 2015.

Far from the medieval churches of Europe my personal form of walking meditation centred on the local escarpment, particularly Mt Keira, and I researched some of the local Dreaming about the West Wind and his six daughters: five of which became the Five Islands and Geera, who in her loneliness once her sisters were thrown into the sea, transformed into the mountain. Coming from our big family of five girls and two boys created a certain fellow feeling with that story. I’ve read since that a personal Dreaming depends on where your mother was when she first felt you in the womb. The ancestors who live in that place give you ‘anima’ and that concept resonated with my deep connection to my local surrounds.

I think I know the answer to this but maybe I don’t! Do you think an artwork’s ever finished?

Haha! We’ve had many discussions on this topic; always inconclusive. My feeling is that there’s a point at which you can see that you’ve achieved your objective or aim of your work. But then there’s this small band where you can push it a little further, achieving either that special moment or, going too far, you lose it forever. Maybe the elusive thing we value in art falls somewhere in that zone.

How do you know when an idea or image can be developed into an artwork?

Almost anything can be developed into an artwork. Sometimes the ideas with the merest possibility can be the most effective, but by looking hard you enter the moment. Sometimes it can come from pushing yourself to just make marks, rather than be invested in the subject, or times where a subject grown familiar is seen anew. I was lucky to be in Chartres Cathedral for the Easter light celebration and my theoretical idea of the labyrinth was forever changed when I walked its length by candlelight.

I remember last year at our gaffa gallery show there was that moment after hanging the works where we had that weird feeling of surprise, like we hadn’t fully anticipated what that would be like! And, at least for me, hadn’t completely considered how our works would sit together – though it worked out really well. Seeing our works up at the Fox Hole now, how do you feel?

Kate making some last adjustments to hanging the show at Fox Hole.
Kate making some last adjustments to hanging the show at Fox Hole.

Having not worked together or seen the other’s progress as we prepared for the show, it was a special feeling seeing our works alongside each other at gaffa. Yes, somehow part surprising, part relief; pleased to see we were in tune although coming from such different approaches.

That moment of truth at the Fox Hole made me realise that until it’s up on the wall you’ve been holding your breath. It was a lovely moment. It’s always nice to be exposed with other like-minded souls.

What are you cooking up next?

It’d be good to explore further my atomic sunset series and other walk-related images. Each time I approach a work attempting to loosen up my technique, I end up holding on to the realistic and the detail, so I’d like to push this a lot more. I’m also keen to collaborate on a work with you – it could strain the relationship a bit, but then, we can take it 😉 What do you say?

You got it, sister. I’m not sure how we’d go about it but hey, why let that stop us!

Navigating by Light runs at the Fox Hole until Monday 12 October.


Station to Station: film review

499903062_640I spontaneously went Train Mad* on the weekend (god it’s so tempting to say loco) and it all started with seeing Station to Station at Sydney Film Festival.

It’s totally amazing. I don’t want to talk it up too much but it’s The Best Film I’ve Ever Seen. Okay it’s not, but it’s still very, very good and an incredibly different film experience. If you want to take a trip without jumping on a train or dropping acid, this is the crazy journey movie for you.

In a nutshell, Station to Station is part of a public art project – 62 1-minute films of a 24-day rail journey across America, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and 10 ‘happenings’ that took place along the way. It’s the brainchild of Californian artist Doug Aitken and involves a host of artists and musicians, all of whom rode the train at some point and contributed creatively to the project in one way or another.

The train I rode home on later that night. It was okay I guess, but could’ve done with a recording studio and some swivel chairs.

Giorgio Moroder. Giorgio Moroder’s 1970s moustache. Beck, Cat Power, Patti Smith, Ed Ruscha, Thurston Moore and Greg the train driver who loves his job all make appearances. There’s a mesmerising whipcracker leading a posse through a train station, Victor and his growling dog sitting in the Mojave Desert, talking about old times when the railway first arrived, the beautiful music of Black Monks of Mississippi, and much more.

Essentially the movie’s about what it means to be a creative person in the 21st century, and ways of expressing ourselves. It touches on inspiration, creative processes, artistic philosophies, technology, and how to create a fricking awesome disco yurt. It’s not really about how the project came about, how much of it was planned and how much actually just “happened” – for that, you can go watch this insightful interview with Doug Aitken, charmingly hepped up on caffeine.

Was it annoying watching 1-minute instalments over an hour-ish? No, there was way too much visual and aural stimulation to captivate you. It was break-neck paced and sped you along on the ride. But yes, I did want to know more about each film and seek out further information about it, and sure, it did take a little while to adjust to the style of the film. It had a certain rhythm. Some people found it soothing, like the woman next to me who nodded off a number of times. Meanwhile I sat there wide-eyed, trying to absorb as much as possible like a bug-eyed, radar-dish-eared sponge . . . person.

Okay so it’s a tiny bit of a sausagefest and it’d be nice to hear more female perspectives, plus it could do with more sweet marching bands. And okay, I found out later it’s *cough sponsored by Levi’s cough*, which made me start to feel a little uneasy, especially when I read some bad press surrounding this fact and one of the happenings. But I’m just going to glossss right over that with a flip ‘hey, someone’s gotta pay for it’ and cling to the sheer delight of the actual film-watching experience.

I loved the heck out of it and wanted to watch it ten more times and then do a whole lot of research on everyone and everything in it, especially where I can find a custom-made ‘light sculpture’ train, decked out in pretty lights, that can map the landscape it travels on with lasers!

If you’re a musician, artist, writer, filmmaker, any type of creator, or you love smoke, installations, landscapes, movement, lights, songs or, dammit, you just love trains – if you’re an alive person, watch this movie. Four and a half stars from me.

This review was largely tapped out at Town Hall train station and on the Inner West line, Sydney.

*Train-themed things I did after watching this film:

I rode this 1890s loco on the weekend. It was cool fun once I got away from the coal dust - could never have been a steam punk.
I rode this 1890s loco on the weekend. It was cool fun once I got away from the coal dust – could never have been a steam punk.
  • listened to train music (‘Carriages’ by Tiny Ruins, ‘Train Song’ by Feist and Ben Gibbard, ‘Train Song’ by Vashti Bunyan)
  • read train poetry (‘Travelling’ by Ania Walwicz)
  • rode a steam train to western Sydney and back
  • researched the Ghan and Indian Pacific trips up-down/across Australia.

Cloudhead: four-hour drawing marathon

Pastel on card.
Pastel on card.

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of looking up. One day recently I walked past a wall on which someone had graffitied ‘Look up!’ so I did. I’ve thought about it and done it pretty regularly since then. Where I live, you’re likely to see the underbelly of a plane, almost too close for comfort, and near my work there’s a lot of construction going on and fun stuff like a building shaped like a paper bag. I see a lot of people standing around looking up at that. Inside my work, in a museum (my new dream job!), I see more underbellies of planes, old ones this time, spaceships, helicopters. Out the window there are cranes towering over rubble, working on new apartment blocks in the heart of the city. Interesting times.

Ink on mat board.
Ink on mat board.

But mostly when I’m looking up I’m watching clouds. Clouds are amaaazing. Actually clouds in themselves can be hell boring but the sunlight on them can make magic. I’ve been drawing, painting and photographing clouds for a number of years, now that I think about it. I have a bank of cloud images, a backlog I’m slowly trying to turn into artworks. Over sea and dam, city and suburbia and dairy country, Australian clouds, Thai clouds, Cambodian clouds, clouds from planes . . . especially looking forward to doing something with those babies.

Pastel on card.
Pastel on card.

My faves are sunrise/sunset and crazy-arsed storm clouds. That’s why I love Turner and Clarice Beckett – they were out there in the elements, strapping themselves to masts or getting pneumonia from exposure in order to record the beauty of bad weather. Though as romantic as that sounds, I’ll probably stop short of risking my life for my art.

Recently I set myself a four-hour drawing marathon challenge, to help me through my cloud backlog and because my drawing muscles needed a workout. The task was from Robert Kaupelis’ Experimental Drawing, a great art book from 1980 that’s now considered a classic. The task is ‘50 Non-stop Drawings in Four Hours’, which pretty much explains the whole concept.

Pencil and pastel on paper.
Pencil and pastel on paper.

So I set aside an afternoon, got a bunch of different-sized papers together – some were card, some cartridge, watercolour paper, some with ripped edges, some toned with ink or wash beforehand – and a wide array of mediums. Then I went for it, using a handful of photos for reference and basically trying to come to grips with that age-old question: ‘What the hell even is a cloud?’

I managed about 25, and a lot of them are small, gestural and super rough. It was a great exercise, though not many actually look that great or are anywhere near finished drawings. They can’t be, if you’re spending less than five minutes on each. But one I’ve already sent as a postcard, and a few I might work up into a proper drawing, or use as a study for a painting.

Watercolour and pencil on Arches paper.

Thanks for the idea, Bob (who has moved on to the great drawing school in the sky). Think I’ll try another marathon again sometime soon.

Free Art All the Damn Time!

Having recently moved house, I’ve been out doing some investigating round my neighbourhood – wandering about the backstreets of Stanmore, Newtown and Camperdown the past couple of weeks, spontaneously taking photos of street art on my phone. I knew there was a lot around, and I’ve seen much of Newtown’s and St Peter’s/Sydenham’s (May Lane, etc.), but turns out even though I thought I knew the area pretty well, there’s a lot more going on than I realised.

I love the idea of this whole secret language happening in the city that we barely know anything about, between people in the know and between street artists and the public. Messages to each other, some long-lasting, others fleeting, getting buffed off/painted over almost immediately. I also love the idea that it’s resistance against the concrete jungle, it’s an attempt to humanise the city, make it friendlier.

I did a stencilling class a couple of years ago when things were a bit shit for me. I also hadn’t done much art for years, long years. Street art holds a place dear to my heart because it helped me slowly get out of the place I was in and back to art, to the point where I was able to have an exhibition with my sister in May, our first in eight years. I haven’t done much stencilling this year but I did go to see the 2014 Stencil Art Prize a couple of weeks ago, which got me inspired, plus I’ve been seeing all this street art lately around me.

I think I’m developing an eye for finding it, like some private street art detective – it’s so weird. I’ll catch a hint of something at the corner of my eye, a lonely splash of colour down a likely alley that I then realise is the edge of something interesting (that on closer inspection turns out to be an amazing mural).

I also think street art resonates with me because it’s nostalgic. The first time street art ever really registered on my radar was when I was about sixteen and started coming up from my south coast hometown with friends to Newtown. The ‘I Have a Dream’ mural by Unmitigated Audacity Productions was pretty recent then and attracted a lot of interest, becoming a central point of Newtown, and there were others dotted around the neighbourhood, some that have been painted over or the buildings they were on have been knocked down (‘Idiot Box’ featuring Marcia Brady, and Miles Davis ‘On the Wings of a Song’ in Erskineville, South of the Border on south King St, Cat in the Hat, the Africa map on Whateley Lane which has sadly been redone), and some that are still around like ‘The Great Wave’ by Big City Freaks in south Newtown, the Sydney Morning Herald front page on north King St.

The Newtown area graffiti Wikipedia page is a decent place to find out more and even covers some of the now extant works, and also Juilee Pryor’s website (she was part of Unmitigated Audacity Productions, along with Andrew Aitken, etc.). In March I did a street art tour run by Melissa Vassallo during the Marrickville Open Studio Trail, which was a good introduction to the scene – she’s got a book out called Street Art of Sydney’s Inner West that I haven’t read but would like to get my hands on.

Newtown is a very different suburb now to how it was all those years ago when I was a fresh-faced teen, buying nagchampa incense, meeting so many ‘different’ people – sure, we had some where I came from but nothing like Newtown. It blew my tiny suburban mind. It was at the height of ‘alternative’, grunge was big, students and artists and musos were everywhere, living in big old terrace house that hadn’t had the guts renovated out of them yet. You could see arthouse movies there (wow – does not seem like a big deal now), cool bands at various (kinda rough) venues, eat Indian, African, Nepalese, you name it. Not a freaking froghurt bar in sight yet. Ha, there was a McDonald’s though, briefly.

Getting stuck in traffic on King St meant watching the broad spectrum of Newtown pedestrians pass by – an awesome, eclectic parade of punks, hippies, goths, rockers, burnouts, and – interestingly – homeless bums who I still see around now. Those were my people (okay, maybe not the bums), to an extent anyway – I felt most comfortable with the outsiders for some reason. Anyway, that’s what street art reminds me of, and transports me back to. It’s a vestige of, an homage to, a continuation of the Inner West of my youth.

Interestingly, I’m not seeing a great deal of politically charged art on the streets around here these days. I would’ve thought at this particular time, with things in government looking so dire and other world events turning a bit grim, this would be seeping onto the walls of the city. But not so much – there are a few, but maybe it’s still coming.

I know you can find countless blogs and Flickr streams of Inner West street art, but I’ve decided to begin keeping my own record, starting with the gallery below. Where I’ve been able to find out the artist (or ‘writer’, if I’m going to use the language of ‘the street’), I’ve attributed it to them. I’m starting to recognise certain people’s work as theirs and follow the path connecting various pieces as they’ve travelled the streets, making their mark. I’m beginning to decode some of it too, though until I get my own crew and start getting my own art up (haw haw, ‘White middle class lady hooks up with crew and starts painting all over town’) and getting super involved, most of it’ll remain a lovely mystery to me.

I do have a few stencils of my own in various states of completion. Not sure if I’ll ever get them up on the streets but maybe one day . . . It would be sweet to be able to contribute to the fabric of a place that I’ve observed with interest for a couple of decades – and, let’s face it, the place sixteen-year-old me fell in love with – and where I now live.

PS. Okay, news just in: I’ve re-enrolled in stencil class for next Monday, so you’ll no doubt be seeing some work from me soon . . . Stay tuned! Now I just need a rad street art name.

Art day out

At the start of the week I was lucky enough to have a day out in Sydney, seeing art with an old art school buddy I hadn’t seen for a long time. We ate, we drank, we got stoned (okay, I barely inhaled), looked at the Royal Botanic Gardens, old buildings, the underside of the harbour bridge, marvelled at Circular Quay and we saw art.

We checked out the excellent Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition Martu Art from the Far Western Desert, with beautiful, brightly coloured collaborative Aboriginal paintings from Western Australia, and the slightly underwhelming and very French retrospective show of Annette Messager’s work.

Then we moseyed on over to the Art Gallery of NSW to see the Pop to Popism show. It wasn’t on – not on till November. No, I did not read the calender correctly – bummer! So instead we meandered around some of the permanent collection, then lost time in the book shop. I ended up on my own wandering through a European prints and drawing show and then the Australian collection.

Oh my god! There was a Clarice Beckett painting outside the book shop. A new one, acquired last year: Evening, St Kilda Road.

St Kilda
Clarice Beckett (1887-1935), Evening St Kilda (c. 1930), 35.5 x 40.5 cm, oil on board

Clarice Beckett is one of my favourite Australian artists – her tonal approach and dawns/dusks really appeal to me. This one is so brief and gestural and flat, a spare impression of Melbourne in twilight. I just love it. What really does it for me are the cheery streetlights going up either side of the road, shining heartily in the smog or dusk. It also covers some of my favourite painting subjects: road, sky, romantic urban setting.

It must have been completed so quickly, and it’s only small. Clarice cared for her ageing parents and would duck out early in the morning and at dusk to paint en plein air. Which unfortunately, is eventually how she met her end – she got caught in a storm while painting the sea at Beaumaris, got pneumonia and died, aged 48.

So many paintings in the nineteenth-century galleries off the main foyer caught my eye with their skies. I’ve visited them a number of times but I like to see them again and again. You see different things every time. I’m suddenly having a love affair with W.C. Piguenit (who I don’t think I was aware of until this week), especially The Flood in the Darling 1890.

W.C. Piguenit (1836-1914), The Flood in the Darling 1890 (1895), 122 x 199 cm, oil on canvas

It is stunning, absolutely entrancing (also, the joint might’ve been kicking in).That is how to do overcast afternoons – warm purpley clouds and cool grey skies. The clouds are somehow comforting – sure, they’re rough, ragged-edged pillowy ones but the water reflecting them back up is calm and smooth. Kosciusko (1903) also took my fancy with its deep blue mountain shadows and misty ethereal cloudage.

I spent a good amount of time in front of Sydney Long’s Decoration – apparently also known as Sadder Than a Single Star That Sets at Twilight in a Land of Reeds, which is a bloody mouthful and I can see why it didn’t make it onto the gallery label, but I much prefer it.

Sidney Long, Sadder Than a Single Star...(1899), 93 x 39 cm, oil on canvas.
Sydney Long, Sadder Than a Single Star…(1899), 93 x 39 cm, oil on canvas.

This painting’s gorgeous and haunting – it looks like a quintessential art nouveau bookmark. You can’t see the woman’s face, just the moon like a halo behind her head, the shadows dark on her face and the sketchy marks of black in the lower half are a great contrast to the creamy peach skin of her decolletage and arms. The edge of the left arm seems to continue in a wavy line down her side almost to the hem of her dress.

I love how rough and expressive the background is, and also the exploratory squiggle marks over the dress, the nice rust patina, the blues within the olive of the fabric and the thin blue loosely tied ribbon. That ain’t no plain green dress; there’s a lot of colour and action going on there. I like the ‘unfinished’ look at the edges of the painting too, and the gaps of light where the background meets the subtle curves of her arms. Syd didn’t even really do the hands; when you look at them directly they’re just 2D suggestions. Crafty beggar.

I left this painting wondering ‘What is going on in this picture?’*

Other highlights were George W. Lambert’s radiant portrait of fellow artist Miss Thea Proctor (1903), resplendent in her blue gown and fetching hat.

George W. Lambert, Miss Thea Proctor (1903), 90 x 70 cm, oil on canvas.
George W. Lambert, Miss Thea Proctor (1903), 90 x 70 cm, oil on canvas.

They were so having an affair. Okay they probably weren’t, and George was seemingly happily married, but his relationship with Thea was ‘enigmatic’, she was ‘doggedly devoted’ to him, and they spent lots of time on the art scene together. Also, let me present Exhibit A (a charcoal portrait George did of Thea):


I don’t think you labour over a drawing like this, capturing your art pal’s exquisite likeness, without some underlying feelings, do you? Go George.

I enjoyed some of the works in the European prints and drawing exhibition as well; I wasn’t really in the mood for prints for some reason but I did find some old favourites of mine I had looked at many times but never seen in the flesh. Seeing Peter Behren’s The Kiss was a lovely surprise. Years ago I loved this image so much I did a copy of it in coloured pencil.

Peter Behrens, The Kiss (1898), 27 x 21 cm, coloured woodcut.
Peter Behrens, The Kiss (1898), 27 x 21 cm, coloured woodcut.

And I spent ages looking at Edgar Degas’ drawing After the Bath – it’s so raw and lively, and the linework is quite rough at times yet it works, gives it movement and keeps it alive.

Edgar Degas, After the Bath (c. 1900), 74 x 60 cm, charcoal on tracing paper mounted on board.

Reminds me yet again that a drawing doesn’t have to be polished, perfect; it can be completely free, rough and gestural, yet still be finished and beautiful.

I emerged from the gallery after 4 pm, the day just about done. I was chock-full of ideas for holing up somewhere in the city or inner west sometime soon to do sketches on the go of places around me, trying to capture that freshness you can’t get from a photo. Time to get back to experimenting with cloud paintings too; there’s that lightness and depth – that cloudness – I haven’t nailed yet.

And I’ll be back to the galleries soon no doubt, to revisit my favourites . . . and finally see the pop art show.

*Just read something about Sydney Long being briefly engaged to Thea Proctor in 1898. Hello! A year before he completed this painting? Wonder if that’s what it’s about…