Feature

For decades, Peter Powditch made pictures. Truckloads of them. A star in the 1970s Sydney art firmament, his famous Sun Torso series was typified by pinkly, fleshy female forms. He taught life drawing of models to sculpture students, but one astute critic, with whom he shared houses, insisted Powditch himself was a haptic artist; one who identifies narcissistically with his subject.

“It was my body I was painting, not girls’ bodies,” Powditch, now 75, explains from his home in the hills of the Byron hinterland, on the New South Wales north coast, where he moved with his wife 17 years ago. “In other words, you feel it in your own body: I’m feeling where the tension is, where the relaxed bit is. A lot of feeling inside the figure is my own.”

There’s been a flurry of Powditch exhibition activity of late: his retrospective, Coast, opened at S.H. Ervin Gallery in Sydney in March, followed by a drawings and lithographs exhibition that opened at Defiance Gallery in Newtown in April. On May 6, a show of some of his classic paintings and more recent sculptures opens at Yellow House in Potts Point.

The National Art School, meanwhile, will this month [May] award Powditch an honorary fellowship.

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Peter Powditch, Study Bather I, 1968, acrylic relief, 92 x 61 cm, courtesy of the artist and Defiance Gallery.

The artist coughs a few times during his interview with Art Guide Australia. He is suffering from emphysema. I ask him about a work by his artist son, James, a finalist in the 2009 Archibald Prize for a black-and-white portrait of his white-haired, thin father, with the shocking title Peter Powditch is a Dead Man Smoking.

“I thought it should have won the prize that year,” says Powditch, who nonetheless continued his cigarette habit, as also evidenced in Mitch Cairns’s 2015 portrait of him, seated with a lit smoke. “I think James copped a lot of flak over it. I thought he was trying to help his dad stop smoking. I had friends who were really worried, because they thought I was dying.”

“Being a teacher, I thought it should be ‘dead man drowning’, because emphysema feels like drowning.” Powditch’s own father was town clerk with Taree Council, on the NSW mid north coast. His parents didn’t love the idea of him becoming an artist, but they were supportive. “I did a deal with them: if I matriculated, I could do what I wanted to do.”

Gallerists, critics and fellow artists describe Powditch’s working methods as intense: pulling all-nighters to finish paintings, obsessing over minute details, then spending long periods sleeping.

Finally, in 2014, with a diagnosis of bipolar after being sectioned on a high, Powditch realised he had probably been bipolar all his life. His diagnosis explains so much of his past self-destructive behaviour, from literally jumping off buildings to “arrogant” career moves with galleries, “shooting myself in the foot”.

Now on a regimen of powerful drugs, his priorities have changed. He feels detached from his art, much less notions of leaving a legacy. “I obsessively worked for years, and I stopped recently, and I haven’t worked at all. I’m obsessively not working. I’ve reached a certain age, realising that I keep making things to avoid other things I should be doing.” Such as? “I should be tidying up my affairs and papers and bloody rubbish I’ve kept… But I certainly haven’t done that. I find the thought overwhelming.”

Powditch finished several pieces recently, “but for a couple of years I’ve virtually done nothing. I have a feeling I might do some more, but it might be quite different: much more straightforward.

I have a very complex way of working, with lots of materials.” Powditch has long been a collector of found objects, rubbish such as bits of barbed wire and broken things, to add to his art. “If I work again, it will be much simpler: straight painting or straight modelling in clay.”

He likes Sydney still but realises its stimuli – restaurants, bookshops, music shops – can overwhelm him, bringing out his obsessive side. Besides, he has a circle of city friends who visit the Byron hinterland, providing intellectual nourishment.

He reveals he has always painted his landscapes, such as his coastal work, from memory, never en plein air, nor from in situ sketches. He insists he is not particularly imaginative, and would always encourage his art students to absorb their environment when walking, including detritus discarded and disregarded by others. “It’s amazing what you can find, looking at the ground and not looking at the sky.”

Peter Powditch: painting and sculpture
Yellow House, Potts Point, Sydney
6 May – 4 June

Coast: Peter Powditch retrospective
S.H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney
31 March – 21 May

Steve Dow