As part of the 2019 ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE festival, Gippsland Art Gallery celebrated the work of one of Gippsland’s preeminent artists through the exhibition, ‘Lesley Duxbury: Echo’.
Art historian, critic and curator Sasha Grishin described Lesley as, “an artist with a romantic temperament who is frequently involved with the natural environment and humankind’s impact on this environment”, and the exhibition explored Lesley’s, “longstanding fascination with clouds and skyborne phenomena through a range of approaches”.
Lesley, an Emeritus Professor with the School of Art at RMIT, has documented atmospheric phenomena on her journeys towards the polar extremities of our planet, creating pictures through painting, printmaking, and photography.
It was an honour to learn about Lesley’s vast career and art-making adventures into some of the world’s more remote locales.
Gippslandia: Can you please provide a background to your career path so far?
Lesley: I would say it has been serendipitous; I seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
In 1973, I left art school after spending five years doing a diploma course at Lancaster College of Art and then a bachelor’s degree at Maidstone College of Art, majoring in printmaking. Having absolutely no idea what I was going to do next, I enrolled in a postgrad teaching diploma and on graduating resolved never to set foot in a school ever again!
However, I found myself teaching art three days a week in a junior school in the East End of London for seven years, and actually came close to enjoying it. I think I stayed so long because the teaching was offset by the opportunity to use the printmaking facilities at the Royal Academy Schools. I got the best of both worlds — permanent part-time work and the chance to do my own work amongst some of the most fortunate students and future famous artists in the UK.
In 1983 I came to Melbourne. One weekend in The Age, I read about a Print Council of Australia exhibition in Collins Street that discussed the must-sees in Melbourne. These included Pelegrini’s Café, Readings Bookshop and, most importantly, the newly opened Victorian Print Workshop (VPW) in North Melbourne. I thought I’d found heaven and started to make prints there.
Shortly after, I was offered part-time work as a technician and, fortunately, I was working there when the artist Euan Heng came in to find a replacement for a printmaking lecturer at Gippsland College of Advanced Education (now Federation Uni) for a semester. The semester there led to a year at Warrnambool College of Advanced Education (now Deakin Uni) teaching printmaking and drawing. Afterwards, I was offered teaching at Melbourne College of Advanced Education (now Melbourne Uni), which luckily became full-time and stopped my episodic dashings from one job to the next.
In 1991, my partner and I moved to Perth where I enrolled in an MA at Curtin Uni and gradually found myself being invited to teach printmaking there and at Edith Cowan Uni. I also had a brilliant studio at the port in Fremantle.
I won a very large public art project in 1995 and spent about eight months working on that, before heading to Paris to the Australia Council Studio for three months.
As my partner moved to Victoria again, I decided to return to Melbourne, and four months later I arrived back and began at RMIT. I completed a PhD while teaching full-time and in March 2017, after 20 years, I retired.
During all these years, I have exhibited in many places: from cafés in London to solo exhibitions in some of Melbourne’s most respected galleries. I have been included in exhibitions at the National Gallery of Victoria and the National Gallery of Australia, as well as overseas in Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, etc. A very fortunate life.
When did you first venture into a wild or remote place, and what sensation did that stir in you?
My partner is responsible for introducing me to ‘the wild’. We met in 1989, soon after he’d returned from hiking in Argentina and Chile, and I quickly found myself in his plans to walk in the mountains of Victoria and NSW, and further across the globe to the extreme northern and southern regions.
We sometimes walked while living in WA, but water was so scarce. Instead, we’d drive north of Perth into the semi-desert of the Gascoygne and camp — it was so open and uninhabited. My most vivid memories are of the sky. I’d never seen such a blue sky, nor the night sky so clear with the stars and celestial bodies so evident. It made me feel tiny and insubstantial.
What continues to attract you to remote locations? Can you please share with us one of your treasured experiences from living remotely?
Some of the remote locations I have walked in are Baffin Island in Arctic Canada; the Isla Navarino in Tierra del Fuego, Chile; around the Villarica volcano in central Chile; Newfoundland; Canada and Iceland. All the locations are about as far north or south as you can access using conventional transport. The weather is testing. It’s usually cold, rainy, grey and dull.
What attracts me is the feeling of being on an extremity, at the ends of the world. It’s hard to explain. I’ve been on an artist residency in Siglufjörður, North Iceland, a town not much bigger than Briagolong, three times. It’s about 40kms as the crow flies from the Arctic Circle and, initially, it felt very remote. Now, it feels more like a second home — the people are familiar and because it is not possible to reach the town without transport, I feel as though I know every inch of the place through walking, which is somehow reassuring.
Can you please describe your artistic practice?
I have taken photographs for as long as I can remember. As a small child, I went out with my father to take photographs. Later we would develop and print the film in the darkened bathroom of our home.
The process always fascinated me as the image gradually revealed itself. The same too with printmaking. I had that same feeling of anticipation peeling away the print from the copper plate. These two techniques preoccupy me to the present, though wet photography has been superseded by digital processes.
I usually draw upon my experiences of remote locations in my work, especially the landscape and atmospheric conditions, and translate them into prints of varying kinds to question perceptions of place.
Did you always think you were going to be an artist?
I never considered that I would be an artist, although I knew I would always do art. In fact, I didn’t consider myself an artist until I came to Australia. I didn’t know anyone who called themselves an artist in the UK, yet in Melbourne, the term seemed to be used quite freely. It took me a long time to apply it to myself.
How can Gippsland artists with passions in technical fields find their niche?
It is so important to have a passion for something, whether it be a particular technique or a certain subject matter. It’s important to ‘own’ it in some way by developing it or practising it to a high level, in the way of musicians, to have something unique.
Why is it important that science or knowledge is presented to us via a multitude of disciplines and mediums, rather than just textbooks?
Currently, images must surely be the predominant way we communicate — look at Instagram, Facebook, etc. Few people read textbooks for the most up-to-date information. Science has long been communicated via images — Joseph Wright of Derby’s paintings in the 18th century come to mind, and John Constable painted and named all the various cloud formations after reading about them — these are remembered more than the texts.
Artists have an important role to play in the communication of science.
For example, on the most recent residency in 2017, my partner and I converted the beautiful light-filled studio into a big camera obscura with four ‘lenses’ and invited the people of Siglufjörður to enter the ‘camera’ and view their world inside-out, upside-down and back-to-front.
We got some great responses.
For people who travel, there’s a unique sensation when the lighting conditions outside align with those from our ‘home’. Where have you felt at ‘home’?
Iceland. I grew up in a small industrial town on the moors in the north of England. The landscape was treeless and undulating, the weather predominantly cloudy and grey — as I found in Iceland.
Why are we still so moved by atmospheric elements or weather events?
The weather is much more than an external phenomenon. The weather controls our moods to a certain extent, and colours the way we see the world. We literally breathe it in and out, so it becomes a part of us. Our air, or temperament, is the point at which we meet the world. We cannot escape it.
01: By Degrees,
Inkjet print, 2008
02: Lost (for) Words CO2
Inkjet print, 2008
03: Lost (for) Words – 24 words for snow (detail)
Wax tablets, wood shelves, 2008
04: and clouds passing slowly,
Inkjet and relief print, 2018
05: Seeing Red#1—5,
Inkjet print, 2014