I’ve finally gotten around to this: spruiking my own work for sale. The delay is not, as has been suggested, because of modesty but simply not having the chunk of time and brainage to tap out the blog. The project on the counter is a series of portraits of notable Australian writers and cultural figures.

The ABR Cover Project

I’ve’d a long association with ABR (Australian Book Review), designing its current logo in 2001 and doing its covers until 2008 when I departed for a sabbatical. Being a typically lean Australian literary venture, my bit was a love job, indeed it was volunteered, or as the wigs say so elegantly in William Street, pro bono. ABR is the national monthly for the Australian literary community, the sort of thing the literati have in sight whether they subscribe or read it; it’s their trade journal, and 2011 is its 50th anniversary year.

For the auspicious occasion I made a new cover template with lots of room for cover lines — a texty, literary approach. Also built in was a big rectangle for an image, which would be occupied by someone notable reviewed, writing or written about in the issue. And as a final plank in the structure, the portrait would be executed as a limited edition print — an original, handmade “Art Print,” ie woodcut, etching etc — to be sold as a fund-raiser, all proceeds going to ABR. Naturally I volunteered to be the hand nailing in that last plank.

The unavoidability of artist angst

The first portrait happened to be of Paul Kelly, whose fat memoir How to Make Gravy was reviewed in the February issue: “A hymn to receptivity as much as it is to creativity, a portrait of the artist in full, creative health, consuming and producing in equal measure.”

As a subject Kelly was both a gift as well as a burden. It’s great to deal with a figure who has that kind of cred, or is, as the kids have it, “awesome.” But being iconic means that instant recognisability is an absolute priority. Which is a kind of problem: there is pressure on getting the likeness, and a considerable amount of skill involved; but the creative pleasure is in making something that measures its own aesthetic boundaries.*

(*But, of course, that double — of making a good likeness and achieving a solution of independent aesthetic interest — is what makes this particular chase such a satisfactory challenge.)

All artists want to make the definitive thing — the endpoint of research, the culminative thesis, the E=mc2. Which is pitching it ludicrously high, but that’s the not so secret desire; and that’s why beingĀ  a “serious” artist (oh, those antipodean quotemarks!) can be so exhausting — when from beyond, non-art-making folk look on and think, but aren’t they having fun all day, doing just what they want? Isn’t their whole life a blast?

Being a working graphic designer, or in current nomenclature, a Communications Designer, I’m mostly spared that variety of angst (designers having their particular problems of professional pride and prejudice). But in ABR cover portrait space, that is exactly the angst I must confront: standard artist angst. Is it good enough; does the picture deserve to be made, to exist? Why am I doing this, groan, what’s the point of all this wretched agonising, all this useless activity, this useless search for beauty?

Lord, who’d be an artist? Anyway, here is the print, a hand-coloured linocut in a limited edition of 20.

W.H. Chong
Paul Kelly with coloured dots
2011 Melbourne

linocut on cream paper, hand-coloured
25.0 x 20.0 cm (image), 38. 0 x 28.0 cm (sheet)
edition of 20

How to Make Kelly (I like your work too)

One advantage of Kelly is that unlike some of my future subjects, he is both alive and kicking — I think it is much easier to make a portrait from life rather than photos — and happily for me was amenable to sitting for his picture. (After being checked out and passed by his manager; the celebrity life.) We met at a St Kilda cafe before a soundcheck. I was having a drippily honeyed snack as I waited when this slim shadow fell across my coffee, sans entourage. We shook hands. Sitting down, he said in a friendly gesture,” I like your work.” I managed a startled, “I like yours, too.”

As I remarked during our 45 minutes tete-a-tete, there is much more anxiety for me than him, though anyone who has sat for a portrait knows the curious itch of being inspected inch by inch, other eyes crawling over your face. I do a lot of sketching on the fly, but the requirement to find the the most useful pose and getting it right in a one-off setup is a big ask. In any case, Kelly was a very agreeable subject, asking which way he should look, quietly nibbling at his sandwich. Kelly has a very piercing gaze, a Picasso-like intensity. With the bald head, even a passing resemblance to a thinner, later Pablo.

After I had the micro-triumph of wrestling the bill off him and paying for his lunch (he had offered to pay for mine, which struck me as very gracious), I trailed along to his soundcheck and spent the next hour or so looking mostly at his head and the shapes it made under the stage lights — the lights inspired the “coloured spots” in the final print. By the end of that session, I could have drawn his head by heart. I can also say that was the most enjoyable live music I’ve been to in a long time, intimate in its bantering and corrections and breaking off mid song. The band and backing singers were on their game.

Buy some art

Right, here’re the details. At this point there are six left in the edition of 20.

From the ABR website: “Each print is priced at $150 for ABR subscribers — or $195 for non-subscribers. Postage and handling is an additional $10. Place your order soon — these editions will sell out fast! Orders can also be placed for the complete set. To order, call (03) 9429 6700, or complete the order form.”

Portraits coming up

Next up is the late, great Dorothy Hewett, perhaps a little neglected nowadays. Her daughter, the academic and poet, Kate Lilley, has made a volume of Dorothy’s selected poems — I wasn’t familiar with them and they’re tremendous pieces. They have sustained power, and the punch of someone who can make a hard line and draw it right to the end.

I’ve made an etching of Dorothy which I’ll post next month when it’s published. Etching — on copper plate — is hard work, and considerable hours have been inscribed into umpteen metal plates that didn’t pass the test. But it finally came off, just before the magazine had to be sent to press.

And sometime later, there’s Patrick White, himself. He won’t be sitting for me either.

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