On the eve of the first major survey of Robert Dickerson’s painting practice, I caught up with the artist to discuss the driving force behind his work. The exhibition ‘Robert Dickerson’ will feature at Philip Bacon Galleries in Brisbane over 8 July – 2 August 2014.
Lucy Rees: You have shown with Philip Bacon for forty years. Tell me about your relationship with the gallery.
Robert Dickerson: I was living in Brisbane, working at a little gallery, and the managers were retiring so Philip thought he’d start his own gallery. He had $20,000, which was a lot of money at the time, and he wanted to buy a house. I told him he was stupid and to buy some paintings. So he rented a place. I think I was one of the first to have a show with him. It was just a warehouse then, but over the years it has become considered one of the best galleries in Australia.
LR: You are known for having never been to art school and for being self-taught. How did art come to you?
RD: Art came to me when I was about six years old. I was doing drawings all the time; I liked seeing things and doing drawings of what I saw.
LR: Was it during the war that you started painting with found materials?
RD: At night time the Indonesian boys would come and visit and give us coconuts in exchange for bullied beef, and the father would come over and tell you all about what he had done in his life. (1) I learnt a little bit of Indonesian. Then there were the old scraps from the tents, made of canvas. I managed to rip bits off. You do what you do when you have nothing to do. I got a bit of camouflage paint and started putting it down.
LR: You sold your first work in 1954 – Man asleep on the steps – to the National Gallery of Victoria. Did you always want to be a professional artist?
RD: I honestly never thought about it. I used to take my work to the Contemporary Art Society in Sydney. Anybody could come and show their works. You’d take your work in and they’d have a look and usually put it on the wall. They’d tell you it’s good or no good, but usually mine were put on the wall. I used to get good reviews, which was quite heartening. I used to get a big painting and jump on the back of a tram with it and tell the conductor that I needed to get it to a show.
I’ve never considered myself an artist at any particular time in my life; it’s just what I do. An artist can be anything – a writer, a creator. I was a painter, that’s about all you could say.
LR: You led a colourful early life growing up during the depression and working in a factory, and as a professional boxer before joining the RAAF as a guard.
RD: I left school when I was about thirteen-and-a-half and I got a job in a factory, earning 11.5 sixpence a week. I was about fifteen and getting bullied by the older people in the factory so I decided I would go and learn to box. I knew everyone my age in my area and we would go and practice together and then go and fight in the stadium. We used to bet on each other: I’d say ‘I’m going to get knocked out in the third round’. I was getting paid £2 pounds for every four rounds – that was sure better than 11 sixpence.
LR: Connections are often made between these experiences and the loneliness, vulnerability and sadness of the characters in your paintings.
RD: Everybody is on their own – what’s it all about? Everybody is worried about the same things: money, how to live, and what to do. I actually think it’s much tougher now than it was back then.
LR: Where do you get your inspiration?
RD: Everywhere. I just watch and then paint whatever I see around me. It’s simple. It might be a woman crossing the road or someone standing under an umbrella. I have a sketchbook on me most of the time but I also have a very good memory. I was even watching you sitting on the ledge drinking your coffee before this interview. That’s how I get my inspiration.
I always do drawings of people in coffee shops. If you stand still for a while there is a hell of a lot of a lot going on. In the hallways, crossing the roads, a man running down the street. That’s what you paint. There are some weird people around! You miss things if you’re rushing.
LR: Your show at Philip Bacon Galleries covers five decades of your work. It’s the first major survey of your practice?
RD: Philip and my son chose the works, and I look forward to seeing them all hung on the wall. And then I’ll approach it as I do any exhibition – I’ll see if it’s any good. I don’t know if I’ll like anything or not, probably not! There might be a few that are alright, I suppose. I’m very self-critical.
LR: You are ninety years old and you still make art every day.
RD: I couldn’t not make art, it would be impossible, it’s like cleaning my teeth, it’s just part of my day. As you get older you have to change your style of living; it’s not overly pleasant being old, I must tell you! You must keep using your body and your mind and then it isn’t too bad. I have 220 acres of land at Nowra. I have racetracks and I have my studio there that I work in everyday. I have been going into the studio every day to do a painting since I was twenty-six. If you’re doing something that you love, you do it every day.
I don’t come to the city often, I don’t like it much, too many cars! You only need to trip once and you’re dead! It’s the people here I find interesting. The city gives you a lot of painting.
Robert Dickerson, Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane, 8 July – 2 August 2014.
(1) Robert Dickerson was based on the Indonesian island of Morotai when the Second World War ended.
This interview was first published on the Art and Australia.