We Love Perth, 2012 / by Travis Kelleher

Andrew Nicholls with his mural at Zekka Designs for Men, 2012



The Creative: Artist Andrew Nicholls, by Jelena Maticevic, 2012

We are so incredibly excited to have artist, writer, curator and all-round very talented local Andrew Nicholls as our creative today. Many of you may know of his wall mural at the entrance of popular, city coffee spot Zekka, or have read a piece by him in the Australian Art Review, or perhaps admired his Spode china plates at the Art Gallery of Western Australia (seriously!) We know we’ve featured some fantastic local movers and shakers in the art scene so far, but this is my favourite interview we’ve done. In fact, I may even go so far as to say this is Creative Gold. Not only will you learn about the Spode Factory, but you’ll also get a glimpse into his favourite music and how it influences his art practice. If that doesn’t entice you to keep reading, then I really don’t know what else will!

Now before we get going, we should also let you know that Andrew is one of the artists taking part in FORM’s brilliant exhibition, Living Walls, an extension of their City of Walls project, which celebrates urban art and the role it plays in delighting and surprising its viewers. This exhibition will involve a mural by Melbourne artist Beastman on one of FORM’s gallery walls, as well as showcasing a collection of work by a mixture of artists, in the form of limited edition ‘paste-ups’. You can read more about it here, or on the City of Walls websiteLiving Walls opens on the evening of Thursday 28 June at FORM Gallery, with the exhibition running until August 25th.

To get you excited about Living Walls, read on for a brilliant interview with one of those artists, Andrew Nicholls. When I first read through his answers I couldn’t help but quote him out loud to my husband multiple times throughout the interview for both his humorous words and awe-inspiring career path. So a word of warning for anyone reading this in a quiet office, library or on the bus! Jelena.

Official job title: Artist, writer and curator.

Tell us a bit about your career background and how you’ve come to where you are now:

I have a short attention span, so I tend to have a number of irons in the fire at any one time: I’ve managed art galleries and curated for various organisations, produced a number of commissions (most recently for the City of Perth), I’ve worked as a tutor and lecturer for Curtin and Edith Cowan universities, and I managed a Royal Doulton shop for a number of years, a job that I absolutely loved. I’ve been lucky enough to work with uber-fabulous art/homewares company Third Drawer Down on limited-edition products (most recently a duvet cover) and I write and curate in a freelance capacity as well as making my own artwork… nothing horrifies me more than the prospect of full-time employment.

My own art practice is concerned with power, and how it has been played out at an aesthetic level, throughout the history of Western culture. I’m interested in marginalisation, and in revealing the histories of domination that underpin a lot of the imagery we tend to take for granted. Hence, I’m drawn to aesthetics that historically have not been taken particularly seriously – the decorative, the figurative, the illustrative, the sentimental, the domestic and the camp.

Camp in particular is very interesting to me; it is a very misunderstood aesthetic. Cocteau coined the iconic definition, ‘I am a lie that tells the truth’. It’s essentially a love of failure, an acceptance that all identity is essentially false, but at the same time it’s a celebration of that knowledge. It’s not taken very seriously because it’s essentially a humorous mode, but it is the most sophisticated critique. It’s much angrier than it’s given credit for… my work is quite humorous but it’s a mean kind of humour, it’s generally laughing at the audience, not with them. Sadly camp is also a dying aesthetic – it’s very demanding of its audience, it’s quick and generally quite referential (and self-referential), so it requires an audience with a broad field of reference to draw upon. Most people simply aren’t well-read enough these days: people seem to think of Lady Gaga and Glee as camp, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

You were the first international artist-in-residence at the Spode China Factory in England in 2004. We are intrigued! Why did you decide to go there and what did you learn? And how has that experience influenced your work since then?

As a child I was obsessed by a Spode Blue Italian bone china platter my parents had been given as a wedding present; in hindsight it was probably the nicest object we owned. Very early on in my career I began drawing it, so Spode was always an important reference. They were there right at the beginning of the English bone china industry, which was very much based on cultural appropriation and grew directly from the colonial project, so as a reference source, it’s rife with the kind of power issues that I’m drawn to.

I approached Spode with a request to do research there in 2003 and won a Western Australian Department for Culture and the Arts Fellowship and Australia Council funding to do so the following year. It was a wonderful, formative experience – Spode was the oldest ceramics company in the UK still based in its original premises, so parts of the factory were over 250 years old. It was a vast, sprawling mess of buildings spread over several acres. When it rained (which of course it did, a lot) half the site flooded and the workers just put on wellington boots they kept in their lockers and kept on working. At the very top of the factory there was still a little room full of men hand-engraving copper print plates, tapping away for eight hours a day in true Dickensian fashion.

I was allowed to leaf through the antique pattern books, which were all hand drawn and massive, and kept in a climate-controlled cell in the basement, and could help myself to the blank ceramic forms to decorate. I managed to beg the workers to let me produce eight plates on the copper-plate print press, which involved a lot of sweet talking as it meant they had to halt production for a few minutes, and they all had a daily quota to fill. I got to select, ink up and print from hand-engraved plates from the copper-plate archives that probably hadn’t been used in more than a century.

Heartbreakingly the factory closed down in 2007 and the Victorian machinery and copper-plate archive were sold for scrap.

Amongst many other things, you write for journals including Australian Art Review Magazine, which you’ve been doing for almost a decade. How do you keep your writing fresh?

I’ve actually cut right back on the writing in recent years because it pays so badly, given the time it takes me to write something I’m really happy with. I tend to limit myself to projects I’m already familiar with, or work that relates to my own so I don’t have to spend too much time researching. I’m sure that sounds incredibly lazy, but when you’re generally earning under fifty cents a word you learn to be disciplined with your time – and nothing feels worse than seeing something in print that you know was rushed. Australian Art Review is relatively painless though, and I like being able to promote Western Australian makers interstate.

You also wrote a limited edition book about the first 10 years of your work, (is there anything you haven’t done?!) What prompted this project, and can you take us through your process of writing the book?

Well, ‘wrote’ is maybe a bit generous: the book is image-heavy! The motivation was to have a permanent record of all the work I’d done over the preceding decade, but particularly a lot of temporary wall drawings that got painted over at the end of their respective exhibitions. It was a really fun project because I worked with the fabulous Block Branding, who did an incredible job designing the document, and I had some amazing writers involved. The foreword was written by Dr. Lee Edelman, an academic authority on Hitchcock and Shakespeare who has been publishing internationally since the 1970s. Robert Cook from AGWA wrote an essay, as did Travis Kelleher, an academic from ECU with whom I collaborate on my video works, and Suzie Attiwill, a curator from Melbourne who is a bit of a hero of mine. So it was a chance to work with a group of amazing people who have inspired me throughout my career.

Most of us would have seen your work at city spot Zekka, in the form of a mural in the entrance. Can you tell us a bit about that piece of work?

I have a love/hate relationship with the Zekka mural: it was my first commission, and they gave me free reign to do whatever I wanted on that beautiful, vast wall, which is always the kiss of death with me. I much prefer to have a brief to work toward as my mind tends to go blank when I’m invited to do whatever I want… plus I put a lot of pressure on myself to do a good job because the Zekka crew have always been such incredibly generous supporters of my work. As a result, I’ve never been very happy with it. Given the size of the wall, the plan was always that the drawing would continue to grow over the years and take up more and more space, and whenever I have time (which is not very often) I go in and do some more to it. I went back a few months ago and added some more birds and flowers, and I’m going to try to get in there again while Living Walls is on. I spent weeks drawing in various coloured pens that were meant to be light-safe a couple of years ago and they’ve since faded almost completely away. The blue pen turned an amazing ugly khaki, which is still visible, but the red and green have almost completely disappeared. I love that the drawing has such a life of its own, but it would be nice to look at it one day and feel that it is actually finished.

Where is your studio currently based?

I work from Gotham studios in Northbridge, where I’ve been based for the past thirteen years. We’re upstairs on the corner of William and James Streets. Gotham is an institution, the oldest artist-run-studio in Western Australia and the third oldest in the country. I don’t really need a studio for a lot of the work I produce, but I can’t give it up.

What is the best thing about your line of work?

Working with artists.

Take us through a typical day of your work:

I don’t really have a typical day because I’m always juggling so many projects. My favourite day is any day I can spend in my studio drawing, generally with a lunch break for a bowl of noodle soup and a cider at my secret Northbridge lunch spot. That doesn’t seem to happen all that often at the moment though…

You’re about to take part in an exhibition by FORM titled Living Walls. Can you tell us what it’s all about and your involvement in it?

Living Walls is indicative of the type of clever, hybrid arts programming that FORM does very well, and was the brainchild of curator Monique la Fontaine, (who is a bit of a genius). It has grown from FORM’s ‘City of Walls’ project, which seeks to support wall-based art in Western Australia. People keep talking about it as ‘a street art show’, which horrifies me a bit because I’m about as far from street art as anyone could be! In fact, the artists are very diverse – a mix of street, graffiti and ‘fine’ artists, designers and illustrators – but we all share a love of working on walls. I’m really excited about the show, it’s an opportunity for me to exhibit alongside a group of very accomplished artists whom I normally wouldn’t get the chance to show with; it’s really bringing together a mix of people whose work you wouldn’t ordinarily see side by side in the same exhibition.

For part of the project, FORM has collaborated with Perth-based company Quiet Acoustics, to create a range of limited-edition prints on paneling with sound-muffling qualities, which can be purchased by visitors to the show; so a café or office can buy a large-format print that will enhance their working space pragmatically as well as aesthetically, by absorbing noise. Each artist in the show has contributed work for the panels and we’re also producing paste-ups, which will be re-printed in a limited edition of archival prints with a particular eye to young art collectors whose budget (and wall space) may not accommodate the acoustic paneling. The centerpiece of the show will be an original mural by Beastman, hand-painted onto the gallery wall, which I’m sure will be exquisite.

Are you already working on your next project? Can we have a taste of what’s next?

The next big project I’m working on is a residency for myself and five other Western Australian artists at the Freud Museum in London. It’s the house in which Sigmund Freud lived for the last two years of his life (and where his daughter lived and worked for the following forty), and they have kept most of it preserved as it was when he lived there, including the study he used as a clinic, with ‘the’ iconic psychoanalytical couch! We’re the first Australian artists to be invited to research there and the project is being supported by the Australia Council and the DCA. The residency will happen in January, and an exhibition will follow. I’m desperately excited about it!

What music do you listen to whilst you work?

Music is really important to my practice: because my work is so time consuming, I wear my iPod constantly while I draw, otherwise the repetitive nature of it would drive me mad. I name a lot of my pieces after songs that I love (two of the first decent drawings I did were inspired by the Shangri-La’s Out in the Streets and Bobby Darin’s Dream Lover) and I can look at most of my work and tell you which album I was listening to at the time. I have pretty varied tastes, my iPod has a bit of everything, from Stravinsky to Jedward. I grew up with Britpop, so Suede, Pulp and Blur are a constant: I have an ongoing crush on Brett Anderson. I love Patrick Wolf, (not many men can pull off blond hair extensions and a union jack jump suit), and I like Janelle Monáe (not many women can look good doing the Mashed Potato). I listen to a lot of Joni Mitchell, I love the Swedish pop star Robyn. I’ll always love Madonna, especially now that she seems to have gone completely mad. I’m obsessed by Dolly Parton, her concert in Perth last year was one of the highlights of my life. She’s written over 3,000 songs and they’re all good. My partner always says that if Dolly was an unattractive man she’d have the same level of respect that Bob Dylan does. My all-time idol is Kate Bush, she has a level of creative freedom I aspire to and she has ideas that no-one else could have. 50 Words for Snow is the best album of the millennium so far, as far as I’m concerned, followed by PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake and Loretta Lynne’s Van Lear Rose.

What has been your proudest achievement?

The Art Gallery of Western Australia purchased the series of copper-plate printed dinnerware that I made at Spode, which was incredibly gratifying: now that the factory has gone it’s really nice to know that those works are in a collection where they will be looked after (and where I can visit them!) on a permanent basis.

I also co-curated the first retrospective of Wembley Ware ceramics for AGWA in 2005, along with AGWA curator Melissa Harpley, which was a massive project that ended up being very popular. I was one of the co-curators on local artist Nalda Searle’s solo show Drifting in My Own Land, which is touring nationally at the moment. Nalda is the state’s most important living artist as far as I’m concerned, so that was a real thrill, and it’s touring for five years so I’m pleased that it’s being seen by so many people.

Which local artists/musicians/creatives do you admire?

We have such a wealth of talent in this state: Nalda Searles is one of the world’s most innovative fibre sculptors; Sandra Black is the world authority on piercing porcelain. Sculptor Susan Flavell is a real inspiration to me, she works so hard and is always acquiring new technique. I love painters Helen Smith, Elaine Lane and Eubena Nampitjin… sadly we lost two of our greatest artists recently with the passing of painter Tom Gibbons and fibre sculptor and painter Kantjupayi Benson, and, I think, our greatest author, when Randolph Stow died two years ago.

Any advice for those trying to enter into the creative community in Perth?

Perth is a great place to establish a practice; it’s still a small pond, so you can develop fantastic opportunities for yourself. However, it’s too easy to get complacent here. My advice would be to work hard but always keep thinking outside the state, otherwise you’ll never leave.

What do you love about Perth?

The artists who work here and the weather.

What does Perth need?

Cheaper cost of living and proximity to Europe… maybe we can move?

Most frequented coffee spot?


Best live music venue?

I’m too old to go to live music venues. I’d rather stay home and bake something.

Favourite beach?

Beatty Park – my partner has passed on his morbid fear of sharks to me.

Rottnest or Margaret River?

Las Vegas! Sorry to be a downer but Rottnest is a grave site, we whitefellas should show more respect and keep away from the place. And Margaret River is a bit too much like Claremont these days… I’d rather save my money and go on one decent overseas jaunt every couple of years.