Childhood is often characterised as a time of play and exploration. But for many artists these early experiences are a kind of apprenticeship for their careers in art. Briony Downes asked artists Kate Rohde, Tanya Schultz, Patrick Hall, and Celeste Chandler about making stuff as children.
At some point in our lives, we’ve all been asked what we want to be when we grow up. It is often said that children are born creative, with a joyous and uninhibited ability to spontaneously colour everything in, build fantastical objects and draw up countless plans for big things. Yet at what point does an artist realise that they want to make art a career? Australian artists Kate Rohde, Tanya Schultz, Patrick Hall, and Celeste Chandler take a step back in time and remember their early art making experiences and the moment that they realised they wanted to be an artist.
Surrounded by a colour scheme contrary to the artificially bright colours she uses in her resin sculptures, Rohde grew up in the idyllic bushlands of Sassafras in Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges. It was there she first felt an affinity for art. “As a child I enjoyed drawing and doing little craft projects. I was an only child until I was seven so I was quite good at entertaining myself,” she says. “The location of Sassafras, amidst the trees and wildlife, was a big influence on me, as well as having many pets. It gave me an ongoing fascination with animals and the natural world.”
In Sassafras Rohde’s parents built a ‘Grand Designs-type’ house inspired by a minimal Japanese aesthetic with clean lines and open spaces. The house and its sparse interior had a profound effect on Rohde and she describes how it shaped her future methods of making. “I reacted to the emptiness of the house by being drawn to very ornate objects and interiors. There were always a lot of home improvement and architecture magazines lying around the family home,” she explains. “I really enjoyed looking at them and trying to understand the effect the various interiors and objects had and then imagining what it would be like to live in those environments.” Interacting with interiors is now a key part of Rohde’s current practice and this has been reflected in her recent contributions to exhibitions at Melbourne’s William Johnston Collection and Craft Victoria.
As the current artist behind Pip & Pop, one of the major influences on Schultz’s large-scale immersive work is the German tale of Luilekkerland, a place where everything is edible. Pastries grow on trees, mountains are piles of pudding and preserved meats pave the streets. Peppered within Schultz’s mountains and valleys of sugar are hundreds of minute details made from plasticine, paper and beads, each assembled in an elaborate process harking back to the crafts she made as a child.
Throughout her childhood, Schultz would regularly travel to Kalgoorlie to spend time at her grandmother’s home, a large pastel green house with lots of space. “Both my sets of grandparents were hoarders and had the most incredible yards and sheds full of junk where we played endless games and built stuff,” Schultz recalls. “It was a kid’s paradise.” For Schultz, becoming an artist was a gradual process. She describes it as “a slow awakening” rather than a revelatory moment.
Tinkering was encouraged in the Schultz family, and every weekend she would enter the weekly arts and crafts competitions set out in the local newspaper. “I was really into crafty things like knitting, macramé and Ministeck, those tiny coloured plastic tiles that you create pictures with,” Schultz says. “My parents taught me to be resourceful and independent, to figure things out for myself.” This attention to detail has persisted into her adult life and Schultz has since honed her skills in Japan where she studied the traditional crafts of bonseki and monkiri asobi, techniques that focus on the creation of miniature landscapes and intricate paper cutting.
Hall’s signature pieces are finely crafted cabinets filled with collections of evocative items. One of his most notable works is the room-sized wall of drawers, When My Heart Stops Beating, 2008-2010, commissioned by David Walsh for the 2011 opening of Mona. Hall’s pieces are imbued with memories: a song lyric, a yellowed photo, a book. And he believes that his ability to imagine the communicative power of an object was nurtured by his childhood love of model planes. “They would hang from fishing line from my bedroom ceiling, doing slow orbits in space,” he says. “I would lay on my back, staring up, imagining dog fights between Messerschmitts and Spitfires. It was the first time I realised that objects represent more than themselves; they can tell stories, they can take us back, and we can imagine a future for them.”
Born in Germany, as a child Hall travelled extensively with his family, traversing Southeast Asia and the UK before settling in Australia. The majority of his siblings became practicing artists, including his sister ceramicist Penny Smith, so it was almost inevitable Hall would follow a similar path. “The arts were always around me,” he recalls. “It was just something people around me did. It was special of course, but it was also normal and possible, perhaps even expected.”
Her father was an art teacher and her mother a sculptor and doll maker. Surprisingly, Chandler’s career path did not always point to becoming an artist. Her father wanted her to be a dentist and there were moments when filmmaker and saxophonist were high on her list of career possibilities. “I always had some other scheme,” she reveals. Despite this, Chandler vividly remembers conspiring to get a day off school when there was a creative project itching to come to fruition. “There were numerous times in primary school when I convinced my mum that I was too unwell to go to school because I had something I wanted to make at home,” she says. “I think I got away with it, although when mum got home from work there would be a huge mess and a project proudly presented for inspection.”
Chandler eventually chose to study at the University of Tasmania’s School of Creative Art and during her second year, she discovered her love of oil painting. This led to a focus on portraiture and her distinctive images resemble a stoic style of history painting with a feminist twist. Following her graduation, she was awarded an Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation grant and a residency at the Cite International des Art in Paris, which allowed her to travel through Europe and spend time in museums and galleries. It was during this time that Chandler that really considered painting as a possible career. Now based in Melbourne, she says, “These opportunities were hugely influential and encouraging and were the point that I started to take my art practice more seriously.” Chandler’s recent portrait of mathematics Professor Nalini Joshi now resides in the University of Sydney ‘s MacLaurin Hall where it is the first portrait of a woman to hang among the historical male figures.
Making the decision to pursue the arts as a career is not an easy one. While the adult life of an artist may not be filled with the same standard of time, space and financial freedom enjoyed in childhood, artists who choose it offer us a strange and wonderful gift.