Paul RyanImages by Michael Lassman
We meet at artist Paul Ryan’s place on a late summer morning in the sunny Illawarra. His studio nestles calmly into the foothills of the escarpment and he greets me, opening the screen door with a bag of puppy poo in his hand.
Said puppy makes a bolt for it as the door swings and the artist makes a split decision to throw the poo bag into the air so that he can use both his hands to grab the pup monster before it hightails. Luckily, the poo lands a safe distance from me and I’m reminded of how really good artists need to be brave, instinctual, a little theatrical and divergent enough in their thinking to capture the rest of us.
It’s always great to see Paul. He is an old friend – we first met over 20 years ago and I’ve always found him to be pretty hilarious, a really kind guy and just so charmingly down to earth. He’s an interesting mix of quintessential surfie dude and Renaissance man.
He’s an interesting mix of quintessential surfie dude and Renaissance man.
I’ve been a huge fan of his work for years. Unlike many of my creative friends, Paul found success at a relatively young age, securing a spot in Rex Irwin’s Woollahra stable straight out of art school. He now shows with Nanda\Hobbs in Sydney and has had a fairly dazzling career for someone just now tipping fifty.
His work is ever-changing, powerful, emotive, whimsical and often darkly funny. With a number of portrait and landscape prizes under his belt, not to mention 23 Archibald, Sulman and Wynne prize finalist notches, it’s fair to say that he’s firmly ensconced, a successful and stubbornly distinctive Australian painter.
The artist has already been for a surf this morning, followed by a creative nap. I’m coining the ‘creative nap’ phrase, because he just said that he had “had a sleep”, but I think there’s more to it than that.
Paul, how long have you lived in this area?
My family moved here when I was 8. We came from New Zealand and I’ve lived around this area ever since.
When did you first start surfing and how it has influenced you and your work?
I started surfing around fourteen. The ocean is very important to me, living here with its connection between the mountains and the sea. I love the physical nature of the escarpment coming down to the ocean and the narrow strip of land, the headlands connected by sweeping sandy beaches and the rainforest.
It’s particularly inspiring and a beautiful part of Australia. When I first started surfing I remember feeling more connected to everything. You form relationships with different spots, reefs, points…. as a surfer you always want to be close to the waves. I am connected to particular spots like Sharky Reef at Coledale and Headlands in Austinmer.
It’s particularly inspiring and a beautiful part of Australia. When I first started surfing I remember feeling more connected to everything. You form relationships with different spots, reefs, points….
Over time you get to understand the rhythms of the ocean and you learn that the different winds and directions mean different conditions. You wake up and watch the trees to see which way the branches bend and this tells you how the waves will be, over time it becomes a bit like a nature catalogue in your head.
So, have you always lived here? Are you particularly connected to the coast?
Yeah, apart from a short time living in Coolangatta when I was in my early 20s, but yes, I’m drawn to this place.
A lot of my friends went to Sydney and I thought about moving to the city too but I couldn’t drag myself away from this place. In those days, there wasn’t the cultural stuff and interest we have now, but if you hang around somewhere long enough it gets trendy again (laughs). It’s a very different place now, but it has always attracted creatives; Brett Whiteley and before him, DH Lawrence came here and lived in Thirroul, it’s where he wrote Kangaroo. And there are a lot of younger creatives drawn to this area, particularly now.
The relationship I have with the weather and the ocean is very intimate. Seasons changing and characterising the ocean changes. Summer is a time for nor’easterlies, so you have to surf early cause it blows out in the afternoon. Autumn is my favourite time to surf with the westerlies, the waves are really clean then and there is a low-pressure system that kind of grooms the waves. I also take notice of the seasons and the way the light changes.
The relationship I have with the weather and the ocean is very intimate. Seasons changing and characterising the ocean changes.
You sound like Hemingway in the ‘Old Man and the Sea’ talking about the ocean’s intricacies, he’s always referring to the ocean as a “she” isn’t he.
Yeah, I read that a long time ago, must read it again – he was a misogynist though, right? But great writing.
Have you always been connected to nature in a visual sense – even when you were younger?
Yeah, the visual experience of the land is what it’s about for me. I always noticed the contrasts, the light and the darkness of the mountains.
So, is that connection to nature and surfing and the ocean, the thing that inspired you to become a painter? Which came first?
I just always did it (made art), I gravitated towards it. I’ve always enjoyed the process of making art, I remember getting interested in results and experimenting when I was quite young. I liked making those marks and I was always drawing at home and I’ve just always done it.
I’ve always enjoyed the process of making art, I remember getting interested in results and experimenting when I was quite young.
When did you know you wanted to make a career out of it? Did you like art at school?
Well, I actually dropped out of school in Year 10 and that was mainly because the high school I went to had no art after year 9, and they wouldn’t dare do that now would they?
Well yes, they might (laughs). There are still plenty of people who don’t feel the arts are important (sigh).
So, I think I would have stayed at school if I had that (art) to help capture me, but then my parents were supportive and they let me enrol at West Wollongong TAFE in the arts stream but again it didn’t thrill me and maybe I was just too young then, all I wanted to do at that time was surf.
But did you have to work as well?
Well at that time, you will know this as we are the same age, if you were arty, nobody really knew what you could do … it just wasn’t an option to be an artist, so yeah I had a t-shirt business to make some money, designing and making t-shirts, but then after a while I just felt I needed to push myself and I knew I wanted something more but I wasn’t sure what that was.
I was like a spring wound up and I wanted guidance and I wanted a goal by then and I’d been in Coolangatta and I had witnessed a lot of lost souls, drugs and stuff and so I came home to Thirroul and I enrolled at UOW creative arts at 22, so I was a bit older than the other students who’d arrived straight from school. I was just so ready to learn and commit to the art thing by then.
So, you paint a lot of landscape and we’ve talked about your connection to the land and particular the beauty you see in this part of the world. What were your first painterly themes to emerge?
Well I always gravitated to the landscape and painting the land that inspired me. A little bit of Plein Air painting but mainly charcoal drawing outside and then back to the studio to work it up in paint”.
I always gravitated to the landscape and painting the land that inspired me.
And how did your themes develop over time because I’ve followed your career for a long time and your work is always changing thematically.
Yeah, I’ve always been mainly interested in the landscape but for a while early on I also experimented with industrial landscape referencing the Steelworks at Port Kembla.
And I remember you doing those still-life works in the early 90s inspired by modernists?
Oh yeah I did those for a show but I was always pulled back to landscape and then I started wanting to put figures in the landscapes and then that got interesting because I started the Colonial series with the dandies.
Tell me about your interest in colonialism?
I’m interested in Aboriginal culture and the colonials invading…that idea of these weird, violent aliens who just turned up on boats in their crazy outfits and just those two completely different worlds colliding.
And I’ve read a lot about Australian history, and the history on this part of country, Dharawal land. But, when I’ve tried to find information about the land north of Thirroul and Stanwell Park, there is this huge gap in knowledge. There is a lot of history written up about Sandon Point and there are the piles of middens shells there. There is documentation of early settlers whaling at Sandon Point so they employed First Nation people but probably didn’t pay them… but the lack of information about that part of the land is intriguing and as an artist I love that space between where you can invent a narrative and put fictional strokes onto factual stories and also fill in those gaps and I like painting around the emotion of that.
As an artist I love that space between where you can invent a narrative and put fictional strokes onto factual stories and also fill in those gaps...
And this idea of colonialism, people not belonging in a sense, are any of the feelings you have around this linked to your being adopted, do you think?
Yeah maybe… that search, for identity…. and Australians are always looking for that identity but we need to face up to how we got here and the consequences of that, and how that history has affected all of us, not just First Nation people.
So how did the portraits come about? You’ve been a finalist many times in the Archibald Prize.
The portraits came about for that prize but then I got interested in the idea of the floating faces with the Noah Taylor series – his head just started floating through my landscapes and I started incorporating figures, floating heads with landscapes. I guess this is influenced by the Australian painters from the recent past like Nolan and Boyd.
I like that you are always changing it up! Tell me about that process, as I see you are on a winning streak in terms of saleability, but then you take these risks?
Yeah, but I have to stay interested in what I’m doing and the process of making and you do see artists that just repeat themselves but then years go by and they are still doing the same thing but I can’t work like that. I have to stay interested and inspired and that’s why I started painting on the existing landscapes I found in junk shops and it was really interesting to me to put my own perspective on top of existing stories. Getting away from the white surface as a starting point was also liberating and I enjoy those happy accidents that come about.
You like collaborating with other artists, like musician Bill Callahan but with visual artists it’s not so common to work together. I saw your show in 2016 at the Egg and Dart with Frank Nowlan. Did you enjoy the experience of collaborating with another artist - building on each other’s artworks?
Yes, very much. I like to break out and do the things that interest me because I want to push some boundaries after 30 years of painting. I see other artists just doing themselves, so for me finding that spark, trying new things is what keeps me going. Hopefully what I’ve learnt before carries over into the new work. Challenging yourself is good for you…but scary sometimes.
I see other artists just doing themselves, so for me finding that spark, trying new things is what keeps me going.
So, I’m thinking you are mid-career now heading towards late (laughs). Do you stress about your career and your place within the ‘system’?
Ha! If I have money in the bank then I’m not stressed but I often sit back and think I’m crazy. Why would I do this? I’ve got a family and I have to provide for them. But, yeah…. it’s not a steady stairwell going up. With arts careers you see artists hit a peak or gain popularity and then shift back down and sometimes up again. So, then I weigh up what I would do if I didn’t do this, and how I have complete freedom with this, and I really like that I have control over my career and also, I don’t think I’d be particularly good at anything else. But yeah, I have to rely on my ‘self-belief’ to get me through.
In my head I just thought, I know I can do this and somehow I knew that I could make it happen but I certainly didn’t realise how hard it would be. Some of my desire to make this work stems from my conviction that I would be a bad fit in any other working situation (laughs).
Also, away from that, I am just in my studio and that’s my safe place (laughs). My studio is my sheltered workshop – It’s good for my mental health to be in there.
My studio is my sheltered workshop – It’s good for my mental health to be in there.
So, I wanted to ask you about that idea of ageing and how you are handling that in a career and personal sense?
Yeah, I guess the physical weathering is not fun but surfing helps me keep healthy. Looking good through ageing is not so relevant now. There really is too much emphasis on that when you are younger. I’m lucky to have met some great people and younger artists and creatives around here; young visual artists and filmmakers and musicians, and I’m enjoying being connected to that energy. This place attracts creative people and always has, but more so because the place is becoming more of a cultural hub and not merely beautiful in a geographic sense.
What about creative block? Do you ever have it?
Yeah, that is something I get but I’ve learnt that it’s better to just go for a surf and get out of my own head. The best thing to do when it happens is nothing. To pour yourself into a painting kind of hurts you emotionally and to do a bad painting wrecks you for a day or two. Every new work is like climbing Mt Everest so you have to feel fit and confident – fear doesn’t cut it!