Sense of Place: An Interview with artist Damon Kowarsky [PART 2]

[ Go to Part 1 of the Art Catalyst interview with Damon Kowarsky]

[PR] Damon, you’ve also travelled through North Africa, West Asia, Europe and the Middle East, and mentioned that the colours, earth and sky have left deep impressions on you. Many of your works present striking panoramas or aerial perspectives and vistas. Whilst not always depicting human figures, there remains in them a sense of human presence, engineering and endeavour. The buildings are dense, yet not derelict and often lights remain on when night has fallen across the metropolis.

Jaisalmer III 2008

Jaisalmer III 2008 etching and aquatint from six copper plates

How were these images conceived and executed?

[DK] The images always begin with a drawing made on location. Not everything I like can be drawn – rain, traffic, overzealous security guards and insects have occasionally driven me away. Equally some drawings which at the time seemed pointless or ugly find their way into my work later on. When I travel I try to collect everything that might be of interest. You never know when an idea might suggest itself. Of course there are also things that demand an immediate response – Khiva in Uzbekistan was such a place on my last trip.

Rawalpindi_IV

Rawalpindi IV, 2008 etching and aquatint from six copper plates

Once home I scan, resize, photocopy, and rearrange these drawings until they best suit the plate or paper size and composition I have in mind. Very often the formal concerns of an image determine the final result – what works best in any given scale or medium definitely feeds back into the print, drawing or painting.

Because printmaking is essentially a tonal medium I try to maintain a fairly limited palette that does not work against the information being presented. The colours often come from the places I visit. One of the most characteristic things about the Mughal architecture of Pakistan and India is the use of red sandstone. It is as iconic as the bluestone of Melbourne or limestone of Sydney and contributes strongly to the sense of place both in the buildings and my prints.

[PR] I understand your work includes painting, drawing and digital media, however printmaking has played a significant role in your work to date and requires very disciplined methodology. Why do you feel such an affinity with this medium and all of the processes it involves? is there a particular aspect of it that is fundamental to your creative intent?

[DK] Printmaking is a medium that is simultaneously very expressive and unyielding. You are working with sheets of metal after all. I love the combination of technical process and creative input. When you are tired there is always manual work (filing edges, sanding plates) that lets you think without thinking until you solve the visual problems concerned with any image.

Flughafen 2009,

Flughafen 2009, etching and aquatint from two copper plates 19 x 30 cm

One of the things I found difficult in producing the large drawings last year was that you are always on duty. You are always mark making, always drawing, always making decisions. With printmaking you can put ideas on the back burner until the correct solution arrives.

It is also a fairly democratic medium. Producing an edition means that more people can share the work. There is never any hesitation in saying goodbye to a piece because you always get to keep one too.

Finally it is a medium I have invested nearly 15 years in learning. As with photography it takes a long time to master its techniques. Once you have done so it makes sense to build upon your knowledge and craft.

Sydney I, 2008

Sydney I, 2008

[PR] You also studied miniature painting in Pakistan. Given the propensity for artists to reserve some of their most ambitious statements for ‘large scale’ works, what attracted you to this area of study (miniature painting)?

[DK] Several things attracted me to miniature painting. I love its visual language, sense of colour, strong emphasis on narrative form and the rigorousness with which it is taught. You learn by copying the forms of the past and so gain an intimate understanding of the medium, its history, traditions and techniques. This is a formidable base on which to undertake a contemporary art practice.

Equating scale with size is misleading. Rembrandt etchings are no more than 10cm across and yet contain vast landscapes. The art school maxim ‘if it doesn’t work make it bigger’ is just rot. Size can make things awkward before it makes them good. And if you are talking about miniature paintings made with the finest brushes or etchings made with a needle it does not make sense to work in a scale out of proportion with your tools. I calculated that my 2.4 metre drawings and 10 cm etchings have the same relationship between medium and size. Charcoal versus a needle, large versus small.

[PR] More recently you delivered a three-week print making course at the Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture in Karachi. Some artists feel that teaching art is just more time wasted that could have been better spent on their own work. Yet in reflecting on this, how could you say this informed your art practice?

[DK] The view that ‘teaching art is just more time wasted’ reflects an appalling state of affairs. If students despise their teachers for being failures and teachers hate the students for wasting their time then how is anything to be passed on to the next generation?

The situation is very different in Pakistan. Colleagues who have enormously successful international art careers – several are in the Saatchi collection, have contributed to the APT and other Biennales and regularly exhibit in New York, London, Tokyo and Milan – nevertheless are still on faculty and teach as much as they can. There is a very clear sense of responsibility both to the students and society as a whole. This means that students are in intimate contact with the people who are making art at the highest levels. How different that is from here!

damon teaching

damon teaching

I found the experience of teaching in Karachi and Lahore enormously satisfying. I am keenly aware of how much I gained through living, working and studying in Pakistan, and I felt it imperative to contribute something back to that community.

[PR] It’s tough out there for many artists with so many of them seeking exhibition, representation, grants and residency opportunities against a mass of competition. Damon, is there any advice you can offer our local younger or less experienced artists seeking to further their art careers?

Yes. First of all you need to make the best work you can. You need to work hard, be disciplined, refuse to take shortcuts, develop your technique and make things that are as beautiful as possible. I do not mean pretty. Francis Bacon paintings are the former but definitely not the latter.

There is a huge pressure for resources from the number of artists in the field. Keep going. So many of my colleagues from art school simply stopped making work. By continuing you are already ahead of 95% of all graduates.

As for grants and networking think outside the usual channels. You might make it into Gertrude St/ ACCA. You probably won’t. Look at regional spaces, galleries and programs. Travel. There is not a single art world but instead many places to work and be sustained.

I volunteered as an archaeological and scientific illustrator. The relationships formed continue to this day. Help people when you can.

Continue to apply for grants. Do not be too disheartened. Ozco and Arts Victoria get hundreds of applications for a handful of places. I have had some successes. In general these came when the project was strong, achievable, and presented good opportunities for further development. With the overseas projects I always proceed on a self funded basis. That way if support comes it is a bonus and a way to extend the project, not the only reason for the project’s existence. At the interview for the Toyota Travel Award I was asked what I would do if I did not receive the award. ‘Scale down and go anyway’ I said. Be sure of your project. Aim for something small but achievable and build then on your record.

I survive as an artist. To do so means I have had to make some deliberate decisions about how to allocate resources. Do you really want to work two days a week in order to eat meals in restaurants or buy new clothes? Learn to cook, shop second hand and spend as much time as you can in the studio.

If it doesn’t work out at least you tried. Try for several years before you make other plans. They say that most small businesses lose money for the first five years. A friend in the IT world describes his business as ‘ramen profitable’. He means that although you only make enough to eat noodles you make enough to survive.

Ours is a very forgiving society. You can join the army until you are 35, retrain at any age. Give it a shot. Find people who support you. I remember finding a catalogue from the NGV of the brightest young stars of 1965. Only one name was still recognisable. Who knows if yours might be one of them.

[PR] Lastly what creative plans are on the table for 2010 and beyond? Is there any thing you would like to share with us or projects you wish to alert readers to?

Miriam and I joke that we need a three year planner. I currently have a residency at Trinity Grammar School Kew and am working toward a show in their gallery in February 2011. I am also trying to negotiate exhibitions in Cairo and Damascus in April next year and a residency in Istanbul in May. There should be a show at the Joshua McClelland Print Room Melbourne later in 2011.

In 2012 I hope to bring a Pakistani artist to Australia to work on a collaborative print project. In 2013 I will return to Pakistan to teach and exhibit works resulting from the collaboration and my experiences in Karachi earlier this year.

While this schedule might seem daunting it is something I have gradually worked towards. Once you have successfully completed the first project on an 18 month timescale three years does not seem long at all.

[PR] Great, thanks for taking the time to share these insights with us Damon and all the best with future projects.

Further information and links:

http://art.damon.fastmail.net

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