Experiences and Insights as an Environmental Artist
Work for me as an environmental artist began accidentally.
In the middle of the 1990’s I was collecting driftwood in Victoria on the southern Australian coastline. I had intended to make furniture out of my finds, as I had done as a student at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne in the late ‘70s and throughout the subsequent years.
During these trips to remote beaches, I stumbled across vast amounts of plastic debris that were washing up on the shoreline, and I felt compelled to collect it. With my initial collection I had amassed the bags full of found plastics, all of which I had intended to take to the recycling section of the local tip.
The more items I collected however, the more intrigued I grew about their form, their colour and I began to absorb the degree to which these plastics had become a scourge to our environment. The objects I collected were of many different varieties. Some were ropes and string, very colourful and obviously from boats or ships; some were Styrofoam rounded off by the rocks or by being swept along by the ocean and bleached by the sun; some were plastic drinking bottles.
There were of course, myriad plastics that were chipped and broken. Sometimes these found objects were unrecognisable as the consumer items they once were. There were also buoys and thongs (flip-flops) in dozens of colours.
The objects cast from the sea and deposited to the shore were endless in amount, shape, colour and content. This medium, it occurred to me, could supply an endless array of possibilities. After shipping all the materials back to my studio, I slowly spread the items along the floor, where a giant painter’s palette began to assemble.
I began to make art out of the gathered plastics after I had finished making the complete household of driftwood furniture. It was during the construction of the furniture that I had time to dwell on the possibilities of working also with plastic rubbish. In an uncanny way these plastics, as they were sorted and arranged in my studio, took on an unspeakable, indefinable and quite magical beauty. Exposed on the floor, they continued to fascinate me.
At first, coming from the discipline of having been a painter for so many years, I envisioned my first series as wall works, plastics behind Perspex in shallow boxes, which looked remarkably similar to oil paintings when seen from a distance. From those early days of making these wall based assemblages, the whole process orientation took shape which was to guide me through many twists and turns in my creativity, which had me exploring many mediums in the found object genre including sculpture, installation, public art, digital printing and a return to painting.
For approximately fifteen years I scoured Australian beaches for found objects – the ocean litter that affects our waters and beaches on a global scale. Sorting all of these objects became a natural extension of my process of collecting. Gathering plastics from the beach was a type of performance art on its own. The new colours and shapes – hues and forms I had never seen before revealed themselves to me again as they accumulated in my studio, asking to be recollected but this time in the form of environmental artwork.
As a young artist, I was fortunate enough to interact with many people who played a significant role in shaping the Australian contemporary art world. During my studies at the Victorian College of the Arts I had the opportunity to meet significant Australian artists like Fred Williams, Roger Kemp and my drawing teacher Noel Counihan.
These and other lecturing artists, including Gareth Sansom, Allan Mittelman and the late Paul Partos, demonstrated to me what it meant to have an energetic response to the creative process. In terms of my own desires and ambitions, when I was young I didn't especially see art making as being a part of my life, or at least as an integral part of my life. I enjoyed my youth, I enjoyed sport and I enjoyed the usual things of a young boy growing up and didn't have a big picture of what it was that I wanted to become later in life.
One of my early girlfriends was involved with the diving industry through her father being a diver I developed a leaning towards the field of marine biology, which interested me to no end. I anticipated going to university and learning how to become a marine biologist, which I thought would involve me spending a significant amount of time diving in beautiful locations.
My teenage years were no different than the usual, mostly centred on my various infatuations with girls and also my adventures with my friends on surfing safaris, or surfaris as we called them. I imagine this connection with the ocean, which I developed as a child, later had a strong impact upon the type of art I would end up creating. Apart from having an early influence from my dad who liked to take charcoal from our fire place and sketch whatever was in his mind, the only other early influence was an early art teacher of mine, a wonderful woman by the name of Nola, who saw in me from the age of twelve or thirteen a certain sensitivity and talent, which she encouraged in me and also mentioned this to my parents when she had the chance. She was a sensitive person herself and unfortunately ended her own life when she was far too young.
From that early age I ended up going on to boarding school in Melbourne, where I took on various languages such as French and Latin. I also studied art all the way through until the second last year of my education there, when I had to choose between pursuing my language studies or take on more electives in art. I chose art and it was then that I felt something significant happened for me about my direction. At the time I believed this direction was gravitating towards my becoming a teacher. I prepared myself for studies at University and put my head down and worked hard, knowing the grades that I needed to get into the best institutions.
A new lecturer joined the school where I was studying, who ended up having a strong impact upon my work ethic in my art classes. His name was Tyra, a great artist in his own right, with whom I keep in touch with to this day. We often send our various art exhibition invitations to each other. Tyra encouraged me to develop a strong body of work so that I could present this to various art schools. It happened quite by accident that I developed my own distinctive style during the time I was his student. I was seventeen.
This stylistic approach is best described as an offshoot of Surrealism. It was at this point that I visited the National Gallery of Victoria to see an exhibition of modern masters from Europe, which included Salvador Dali and other artists who I had never seen before. I was intending to write about this exhibition in my end of year exam. While I was visiting this exhibition, and having a coffee I bumped into a young woman who informed me that she was studying right there at the National Gallery Art School, also known as the Victorian College of the Arts. She also informed me that in a couple of weeks they were going to begin to accept applications from potential students for the next year. I don't know where I got the courage from, because this young woman told me that only twenty-three of the applicants would be accepted and about fifteen hundred people would apply. Unperturbed, I went inside to the reception at that art school and asked for an application form. A couple weeks later, I was being interviewed by four of Australia's most celebrated painters.
In the meantime, I was involved in my secondary school exam preparations and about a week before our final year exams began I was informed that I had been accepted into Australia's most prestigious art school. My exams ended up being a breeze, as I had no pressure. I ended up getting good results and felt that I had an extraordinarily bright future to look forward to. My art school days were exciting right from the start. I met many inspiring people, both students and lecturers. I created deep friendships and as fate would have it, I ended up in a five-year tumultuous relationship with the very same young woman that I met in the cafe the year before. Her name was Barbara and she was beautiful. Just what a young man fresh out of the confines of four long years at an all boys boarding school needed.
It was also a time of much experimentation both artistically and personally for myself and for many of my contemporaries. Even though I saw other students developing ambition to go on to do postgraduate and masters degrees, that wasn't for me at the time.
It wasn't until after I had returned from Europe following my art school days that I further developed my career options by doing a teacher training.
Exposure to international art in London and Europe, in the early eighties, encouraged me to pursue my career as a full time artist. One defining moment was experienced at the Tate Gallery in London, nineteen eighty-one. In a gallery space devoted to Mark Rothko, the American abstract expressionist, I experienced the depth of and commitment in his work. The exhibition moved me to tears, and provided a level of inspiration that I hadn’t experienced until that point. Another Rothko piece (from a different period), seen several years later while visiting the National Gallery of Victoria, filled me with the same feeling of understanding. Looking back, with the benefit of experience, I can say that it was the sincerity and purity from within his paintings that moved me.
Upon returning to Australia, after spending time going back and forth and sometimes residing in the United States, I took up a position as artist in residence at Editions Gallery, Western Australia. Living and working with other artists is an education in itself.
Fellow painter Keith Looby prompted me to explore more painterly qualities in my work, while during the years I shared a studio with John Beard in Fremantle would help deepen my exploration into abstraction. The vitality and intensity with which both of these artists approached their work left quite an impact on me, subsequently affecting the way I approached my own art practice.
Significant support in the form of both patronage and exhibition opportunities by Alan Delaney, from Delaney Galleries in Perth, also assisted greatly to my uncompromising dedication to my art. Pat Corrigan in later years was another figure to emulate this support.
Some of the great masters, of course, provided me with great inspiration. Seventeenth century Spanish artist Diego Rodriguez de Silva Velazquez, for his monumental figurative paintings which reveal, upon closer inspection, the most amazing abstract painterly qualities, has to this day had a great impact on my work. The later post-impressionist movement was highly inspirational, particularly artists like Van Gogh, whose work was explosive and brilliant.
A more complete list should also include American abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock and later Roy Lichtenstein and more recently Jeff Koons, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. I resonate particularly these days with Pat Stiers work, Lynda Benglis and Louise Bourgeois. I was influenced as well by the Australian artists Tony Tuckson, Brett Whiteley and Ian Fairweather, primarily due to the energy that their work conveys.
My entrée into environmental artwork was not my first shift in media and style. I began my artistic life as a figurative painter, attracted to that form of expression for its narrative qualities. During art school I had moved from making figurative paintings to more abstract work. This evolving abstraction and change in identity became an open, abundant field to explore. Free from the confines of structured figurative elements, I was able to work the canvas and paper, sometimes with paint stripper. After many years of painting, I found myself becoming more courageous and open to the exploration of new materials and technology, thereby able to stretch my self beyond the realms of paintbrush and canvas.
In addition to the conscious exploration of new materials and technology, I have found that being alert and open to the benefit of accidents occurring in my art-making processes have lead to some of the most profound breakthroughs in my work.
Following a fire in my studio in nineteen eighty four and after completion of a teachers training degree at the Melbourne College of Advanced Education coupled with some extensive travel in the United States, I felt better prepared to return to my career as a professional practicing artist after having a short sabbatical.
This incident of the fire, which had deeply impacted both my personal and professional life, had enabled me to mature overall as a person. Artistically, I acquired the ability to face truths about my work, making radical, necessary changes.
Sandra Murray, the then director of the Lawrence Wilson Gallery at the University Of Western Australia, recognised this in an essay on my work in nineteen ninety-one.
“The successful artistic expression of an abstruse concept such as universality is difficult to achieve, but ultimately rewards both artist and viewer.
It is what lies beyond the boundaries of abstraction and figuration that intrigues John Dahlsen, and he has developed a unique visual language to articulate this. Dahlsen has only arrived at this crucial stage in his work after a course of exploration, both in a personal and artistic sense”.
The culmination of this maturation and the epiphanies around my work in the form of dramatic re-assessments in my aesthetic vision sent me later looking for driftwood on a shoreline in Victoria, which then directed me to this exciting new medium of found objects. It’s not necessary for all artists to have to experience such a dramatic incident as having a fire in a studio to bring about a major change in their outlook on life. Some artists instinctively do this in the process of their work in the studio. This is how it happened for me and it left an indelible imprint, which has continued to this day.
The intensity of such an experience for me woke me up to my priorities. I had only up until that point given scant regard to my inner self. Any depth in my work was largely accidental because in those early days I was like any young person fresh out of school or university, hell-bent on experimenting with the latest drugs and partying, and I was largely being unaware and careless. The time had come for me to take stock. I've never stopped taking stock, I'm constantly to this day working on myself, to the point of having done many personal growth workshops and trainings over the years, which has helped me to keep checking in with myself to see how I have developed as a human being.
I'm constantly asking myself how can I leave this planet a little better than I found it. I never had this attitude when I was younger and I will be forever grateful that I had through this fire such a strong wake-up call. It has led me to become a flexible individual, open to changes and able to respond to the processes that are going on around me and with in my work.
It is this flexibility that had me suggesting to my wife when we moved into our new home in Byron Bay, that I would like to make driftwood furniture for it, because it had whitewashed walls and ceilings and I thought the driftwood would complement the interior of the house well. We were also on a tight budget and this was a cheap and effective way of furnishing our house at the same time with a beautiful design.
Stumbling across copious amounts of plastics on the beaches where we went to collect driftwood was a way of existence pointing to me a possible new career direction, if I was to be flexible enough to respond to what was being presented to me. What was being presented to me were tons of plastics which had washed up next to the driftwood that I so keenly had my eye on and instead of my discarding these plastics as being irrelevant, an inner voice was telling me that I could be creative with all of this stuff.
It has led me to a deep sense of care and concern for our environment which is underpinned by an excitement of the creative possibilities of working with recycled materials and has had me over the years, offering to the viewing public original and unique works from my studio.
Central Artistic Concerns
Each artist develops their own central concerns with their work. They are not handed over to them by anyone else (unless you are carrying on a particular tradition, which is highly unlikely in the field of contemporary art).
Your central concerns are a by-product of the creative process that is a given result of that process. Thankfully each artist has a unique set of concerns that they identify and relate to that no one can claim as theirs. This is another reason artists have an automatic copyright on the works they create. Your central concerns are not ever stagnant or rigid, they will change and develop as your career and work does.
The central concerns in my own work have constantly shifted and changed about throughout my career. Changes in my life have directly affected my artwork. As much as possible I have stayed flexible with these changes and have grown with them only to see my core concerns also change accordingly.
For the first seventeen years of my creative career for example I was a painter with a particular set of central concerns, which then changed dramatically after I began to work with found objects around nineteen ninety-six. I still retained some basic tenets about my work with color, composition and form, but many other core values and concerns took on a completely new meaning.
I became fully immersed in working with these found plastics that I was collecting from the Australian beaches.
I find it incredulous to think how many times I have bent over to pick up the many thousands of pieces of plastic debris that made up that aspect of my art, each piece jostled around for an unknown duration by sand, sun and ocean, their form altered, faded and rounded by the elements.
The unabated dumping of thousands of tons of plastics has been expressed in my assemblages, installations, totems, digital prints, paintings and public artworks. I returned to the beach daily to find more pieces for my artist’s palette.
Many artists are now highlighting environmental concerns in their work, including climate change. I am always hopeful that art can help shift awareness in a positive direction. I am also hopeful that the viewing public embraces these messages and is moved to act, for I firmly believe that at present we need all the help we can get to address the current ecological needs of our planet. If a fraction of this viewing public experienced a shift in their awareness, by virtue of exposure to my work, then all the labor and intention in the artistic process is for me justified. Our planet is in a fragile ecological position, and global warming hastens unprecedented change. Never have we so urgently needed art and activism to boldly promote consciousness shifts around the health of our planet.
Central concerns of my work now exemplify my commitment as an artist to express contemporary social and environmental concerns. At the same time, I'm sharing a positive message about beauty and the aesthetic experience. I am also offering examples of detritus re-cycle and re-use. I hope that this work encourages those who experience it to look at the environment in creative ways. People have expressed to me an awareness that manifests after seeing my found object artwork. When they walk the beach they feel awakened by possibilities.
I entrust the final alchemy of my work to the viewer with the possibility that they may experience deep perceptual shifts and have a positive aesthetic experience. I will always hope that my work will act as a constant reminder to walk gently on the planet.
Alchemy And Evolution In Art
I have always tried to maintain a pure commitment to contemporary art practice. I’ve rarely looked for a safe place to rest. My art generally runs parallel to my life; I learn from my art and apply a few of these insights to my life, and vice versa. When I sense that I’m becoming too comfortable in what I’m doing, I will consciously move on to something new.
Challenges in my personal life keep me on my toes and help me to extend myself more as an artist. This is how my work is in a constant state of evolution. I see this evolution of my consciousness as an alchemical one, which is also true of my work, in a more literal sense.
The initial alchemy of a man-made object has been redefined by nature’s elements before it winds its way to the shore and before I redefine it again. The vision for my environmental work began with a deep curiosity with evolution and transformation. The link with this curiosity with transformation came with the direct experience of the fire in my studio in the early nineteen eighties. Eventually this curiosity resulted in a critical first step in my art practice - transporting these plastics to my studio. Then came the processing, sorting and assembling of them.
A vital alchemical transformation takes place as intuition and personal aesthetic judgment are applied to rework the plastics into artworks, where the objects truly began to speak. And the final alchemy is in the eyes of the beholder, as they process the work and render their own thoughts, feelings, reactions and hopefully experience perceptual shifts. While my art practice changes, and evolves, my underlying commitment, as an artist has not ever wavered. I’ve been motivated by a professional duty to be aware of and express current social, spiritual and environmental concerns through my art practice.