Throughout history, informal artist mentorships have sprung forth from both surprising and obvious friendships. They’ve proved to be enormously important to those involved, as well as for the health and progress of artist communities around them. Think of Joseph Cornell and Yayoi Kusama, John Baldessari and David Sallle, Anaïs Nin and Judy Chicago, Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer, and, here in Australia, Albert Namatjira and Rex Battarbee.
In all of these cases it seems a meeting turned into a friendship, which transformed into an informal mentorship where knowledge and experience was shared between the generations. These connections enabled each person to understand their position and their shared passions, and how best to make what they do work.
After recently recording conversations with many of my intergenerational woman artist peers and mentors for a podcast project (A World of Her Own at ACCA), I thought it would be interesting to shed light on two contemporary inter-generational friendships between Melbourne artists and the fruit and ideas they bear.
Firstly I spoke with Nat Thomas (of Nattysolo.com and Nat&Ali fame) who recently took young curator, artist and writer Brigid Hansen (aka Xanadu Holiday or Glamshanks on social media) under her wing. These two are both fearless feminist artists who share the same hilarious capacity to put themselves unashamedly in the limelight. They have a knack of making people laugh while still tackling the big issues at hand.
When and where did you first meet? Paint us a picture.
Nat: I first met Brigid at Fran Fest, a feminist conference at the Art Gallery of South Australia last year. She cheered loudly as I was about to speak, so I liked her immediately.
Brigid: Nat and I met at Fran Fest in Adelaide last year after I was given the leftovers of a bottle of red from one of the volunteers. We necked it and then went to this dinner with a lot of the speakers where we had a few laughs, especially at the expense of boring straight white male artists.
Did you have any preconceived assumptions or knowledge of each other?
Brigid: I’d read Nat’s blog for a little while and had a big art crush on her. I really admired her irreverence and cheekiness and she seemed to approach everything with a sense of humour.
Nat: Art is a funny game. Often it’s not in the least bit funny and there is reluctance in even calling it a game. Now it’s called a Creative Industry. But art is a game, not so much in its making, that’s work, but the opaque process by which it’s decided who gets a gig and who doesn’t; that is a game. And in my humble opinion it is not always the best artistic practitioners who hit the zeitgeist.
What brings you two together?
Nat: I’m drawn to artists whose youthful and wild abandon play with the ‘game bit’ of what artists contend with, where who you know is as important as what you know. We play in a reputational economy but where an artist’s reputation comes from is not an exact science. It’s more a land of smoke and mirrors and make-believe.
Brigid: Even though we’re from different generations, Nat and I are pretty similar in our staunch intolerance of sexism, homophobia, racism and bigotry. I’d say we have a similar outlook, but this is mediated through different life experience. She has told me a lot of stories that make me realise how different things were only a short time ago.
Do you identify directly with specific parts of each other? What are the similarities in your practices?
Brigid: Totally. I think we’re very similar people in that we don’t take things too seriously, but at the same time we use humour as a tool for unpacking broad and complex concepts. We have some weirdly specific art and life crossovers, and we recently realised that Nat studied home economics teaching with my auntie Mary in Brisbane, so it feels like we were bound to meet, or at least on some similar trajectory.
Nat: Brigid has thrown herself into the local art scene with a wild and unedited exuberance that has a somewhat nostalgic resonance to it. Career ambition is more often concealed than proudly displayed. Her brash brand of enthusiasm reminds me of the bravery I so revere in other artists. It takes me back to the heady days in the early naughties when nat&ali roamed free around galleries and premieres, amusing and sometimes terrifying fellow arts enthusiasts. It was a collaboration that Melbourne may well still be recovering from. Sometimes even as you’re doing something, creating something, you’re not sure what you’re doing. This manner of making is in direct opposition to those artists who design a successful product and continue to churn it out until it’s no longer successful.
Brigid: We both use a mix of sarcasm, humour and theory in our writing to cement ideas present in our art practices. I guess there’s a sense of activism or questioning entrenched in what we both do. When I met Nat’s ex-collaborator Ali at the opening of Unfinished Business, Nat introduced me to her as “like the love child of nat&ali”, which was funny and a huge compliment.
How have you helped each other to recognise your role or inspire your work?
Brigid: Nat has been really affirming in her honesty of life experiences. She has encouraged me to challenge authority and assert myself, but also have a joke at my own expense. I often bring ideas to her and she will work through things with me and give me her opinion on what to run with, or will tell me about other artists with similar projects.
Nat: Don’t you just love artists who have the nerve to lean in too far, to challenge the conservative times in which we find ourselves trapped? Again, so few people give themselves permission to do whatever the hell they feel like. The other thing I enjoy about Brigid is you’re not sure where the art, music, interning, writing and curating end, and where life begins. Brigid has remade life into art and I’m keen to see where this will go next.
How important do you see these informal mentorships between artists to be?
Nat: I don’t believe in formal mentoring arrangements. For me, that’s an example of managers managing to manage the life out of someone. Someone, who, when left alone, is natural. I believe in brave artists and want to encourage anyone stepping out of line. It’s easy to spot artists willing to transgress.
Brigid: The informal friendships and relationships I’ve developed with people I admire have been so important in my professional and personal development. Having people to bounce ideas around with whom you admire is so rewarding, especially when you’re fairly inexperienced but full of enthusiasm.
How has your meeting each other shed light on different generations of Feminism?
Brigid: I used to be a little dismissive but now I realise that older feminists just have different experiences and are no less open-minded. If anything, it’s taught me that intergenerational conversations are very necessary to remind you of where your predecessors have been and what allowed you to be where you are now.
Nat: Last time I saw Brigid we realised that my friend from teachers college, Mary Hansen, is Brigid’s aunt. Mary was an awesome person and was in avant-pop band Stereolab. We both miss Mary heaps. In our own kind of way I think Brigid and I are both trying to make avant-pop, just like Mary did before us (though neither of us are anywhere near as cool as Mary was). Life is strange and sometimes beautiful.
After meeting in the early naughties, Matt Griffin and Jon Campbell continue the strong Melbourne tradition of artists doubling as musicians, which is at the heart of their bond. They share an informal mentorship which has grown over the past decade or so, after initially forging a friendship from the alleyway conversations of Warratah Place and through the heyday of TCB artist run-space and Uplands, these two likeable jokers have helped each other to learn the strength of humour and how not be, in Matt’s words, “assholes”.
Where did you guys meet and what were your first impressions?
Matt: Blair Trethowan introduced us in 2000 as far as I remember. Not sure exactly. What I do know for certain is that, like everybody, my life is now divided into BC and AD. But for me it stands for: Before Campbell and After Doughnuts! I was born in 24 BC. Jon asked me to come and play the drums with a band he had with Chris Dyson. I was very nervous because I knew two things: Chris is a great guitar player and I am a shit drummer. Turned out that when Jon and I bumbled about it left plenty of space for Chris to soar. We were like the actress with the black curly hair to his Bette Midler.
Jon: We both started exhibiting at Uplands Gallery in the early 2000’s and would see each other at openings and around the gallery. Then Matt started playing drums in my band and our friendship really blossomed from there. He was funny, a good storyteller and not afraid to express his opinion. I think we have a similar sense of humour; we make each other laugh a lot.
Do you share a similar work ethic? Do you see similarities in your practices?
Matt: In terms of art stuff, no. Jon has an actual practice. With the music stuff, yes. We bang it out when inspiration hits. Get it down quick then on to the next one. No time to waste.
Jon: We like the process and craft of making things. We don’t mind a bit of humour and try not to overcook an idea. We like to get on with it.
How does your friendship help you recognise your place in the Art World?
Matt: Forget about the art world. Jon has helped me recognise my place in the World World. I am inspired by his enthusiasm, humility and grace. He has demonstrated to me how a person might move through BOTH worlds and not be an asshole. Easier said than done (ask around). I’m on my P plates.
Jon: Matt’s always searching for the most interesting solutions to his hundreds of ideas and has a healthy suspicion of the art world that always keeps me questioning what I am doing.
How important do you see these informal mentorships between artists to be?
Jon: The continued conversation is very important. Ours is definitely informal, and equal. I guess we are naturally mentors to each other without stating it or formalising it. I like to think we inspire each other. We have become close friends. Having Matt by my side has made me a better artist.
Matt: The most important thing you can do in the art world is to find a role model and learn from them. I don’t mean somebody that is selling stuff, or seems cool or is having fancy shows (just endure openings to do that). I mean somebody you respect that seems genuinely happy with their life. That’s actually pretty hard to find. When you find that, hang out with them and hope it rubs off on you.
What is happening now with you two? Has your friendship led to any kind of collaboration? How do you see yourselves in 15 years time?
Jon: Yes, we have our band Olympic Doughnuts and this is our vehicle for activity. We write songs, record and perform together. We are planning to release some new songs and videos later in the year.
Matt: Win an ARIA, Live at Budokan double album, Musical on Broadway, a duet with Delta Goodrem! The world is our oyster… and I’m allergic to shellfish! Life’s short. Enjoy your friends. Fuck fifteen years. What are we gonna be doing next week?
This article originally appeared in THEN, NOW & NEXT, our newspaper publication which coincided with Melbourne Art Week, August 2018.