Ben Quilty on painting soldiers, asylum seekers and Santa

Speaker Key:

AL              Andrew Leigh

BQ             Ben Quilty


BQ              Was throughout all those special forces, terrible things happened. Because those men were under such intense and ridiculous, sustained pressure for such a long time. With no way of telling their story when they came back here. I think we are responsible for what happened there, all of us. And trying to blame one person for the crimes of all, in my opinion, all of us, is shameful.

AL               Welcome to The Good Life, Andrew Leigh in Conversation. A podcast about living a healthy, happy and ethical life. In this podcast, we seek out wise men and women who have lessons to teach us about living life to the full, with humour, pleasure, meaning and love. We’ll chat with musicians and athletes, CEOs and carers about making the most of this one precious life. If you like this podcast, do take a moment to tell your friends or give us a rating. Now, sit back and enjoy the conversation.

                   Ben Quilty is one of Australia’s leading contemporary painters. His painting of Margaret Olley won the Archibald. He helped teach Myuran Sukumaran to paint in the time before he was executed in Indonesia for drug smuggling. Ben spent a month in Afghanistan embedded with Australian forces.

                   And travelled to refugee camps with Richard Flanagan, coming home to produce a book showing the Syrian war through the eyes of children. His art touches on everything from masculinity to racial identity. Age 48, Ben lives with his wife and two children in the southern highlands of New South Wales. Ben, welcome to The Good Life podcast.

BQ              Thank you for having me on the podcast, Andrew.

AL               You went to school in Kenthurst and had a Torana and at about the same time I went to school in Carlingford and had a Soleka. I feel like I have a window into your childhood. But I reckon you were a bit more of a wild child than me. Is that right?

BQ              I’d love to look deeply into your past, and I would give you a fair assessment of that. Look yes, there was a level of dysfunction, I think, in the suburbs that I grew up with. It’s never been properly acknowledged. And even less understood, I think, and something about possibly having this space. My parents wanted to live in West Pennant Hills. And found a block of land that was infinitely bigger and much cheaper in Kenthurst, which back then was converted farmland.

                   And you would think that, it was a very tranquil and beautiful place to grow up. But the level, as I said, the levels of dysfunction were pretty extraordinary, looking back on it. And that led me to studying feminist theory at the University of Western Sydney, to be honest, to try and understand what the hell was going on in that part of my children.

                   Very violent high school experience, from religious brothers, from the De La Salle Brothers. Which then generated this violent dysfunction in the boys that I went to school with, but also more broadly in the community then. And I still don’t really have my head around what was happening in that part of the world at that point.

AL               How did your art help you express that? You’d always been somebody who expressed themselves visually, hadn’t you?

BQ              Yes. Look, I was very into music as well. I played piano and cello, and listened to a lot of music. And as you’d know as well as I did, that Guns N' Roses released Appetite for Destruction around the time I was in Year 9. And I thought, it feels like my whole community of young men have a fairly unhealthy appetite for destruction. And that album was very apt. Nirvana, all those bands releasing music.

                   And I remember thinking very early on that my outlet of art was a much healthier way of releasing pressure or tension, or trying to solve, problem-solve, trying to be noticed. People often ask me, when I was a younger man, starting out as an artist, why I didn’t, was I into graffiti?

                   And I probably would have been if there was anything to graffiti on it. There was no footpaths where I grew up, no skate parks, and nothing really to graffiti on. And so yes, art just became a really good vehicle for that. And the more, the older I get, the more I realise that it is the healthiest way for a society or parts of a society to not only announce that they exist, and make people notice and aware of them, but also to let off steam, to release pressure.

                   In times of war, in the Ukraine, the artists there are now really often at the forefront of building morale, of Russian people in Russia arguing against the invasion. They’ve arrested thousands of artist and poets and filmmakers who jointly came out against the war in the Ukraine.

                   It’s a good community to be a part of. And when there’s a time of crisis, like that, or really more broadly now I think around the world, things that are happening, the way the climate is acting on us on the east coast of Australia now, there’s something to make work about here.

AL               You’ve got no shortage of material. But as you mentioned before, you’re a feminist. And you’re interested in masculinity. One of the challenges I know you’ve had is depicting masculinity in a way in which you regard as problematic, but others see as celebrating. How have you wrestled with that?

BQ              Well that’s a really, really good question. Recently an incoming director at the Museum of Contemporary Art said that people are sick of, are bored of straight white men. And my mum picked up on that. My mum read it in the newspaper and rang me furiously defending her three boys, who are three straight white men. And as mum said, you’re not my fault and neither should you ever be my fault.

                   But in the same breath, us straight white men, more generally, have caused havoc on the planet in so many different ways. But I can’t step back from the fact that me and my brothers are all pretty socially engaged. I’d like to say that the healthier part of that straight white masculinity, as you said I’m a feminist, of course I’m a feminist. Who wouldn’t be? I’m a straight white man. I’m in love with my wife and the female form and the femininity of my womenfolk in my life.

                   And I’m not ashamed of it. It is who I am. But there has had to be, and there is happening, a great reckoning of that masculinity and the flaws. Which is what I talked about in my youth, of the community that I grew up in, I think so much abuse happening of boys. Physical, mostly physical abuse.

                   But also sexual abuse to some of my very best mates, who were children. Who’ve gone on to lead profoundly destructive lives. And those questions are valid. But if you’re going to come out and say that straight white men are boring, then you need to look out for people like my mum. Because she is going to come and get you.

AL               She sounds formidable. In terms of this issue, I guess it was made particularly stark when you spent time as an artist embedded with Australian forces in Afghanistan. And I was thinking about that experience when reading the media reports of the Ben Roberts-Smith trial.

                   It just, it struck me the more I read this, the sense that we really sent those special forces over to Afghanistan to do a lot of killing on behalf of Australia. How did you go about that role of artist-in-residence, honestly depicting Australian soldiers without lionising them more than they deserved?

BQ              Well I have a background, after going to art school, I ended up working in the media. I worked as a tape editor across channel, mostly Channel 7, but through different news networks and current affairs networks. When I went to Afghanistan, the first thing that struck me was that there was no journalists there.

                   And the breakdown between free press and free journalistic licence in a warzone, and the lack of it, I think, was not only dangerous for the men there, but it was against every notion that I think we should share in a healthy democracy. That journalists were an enemy like the Taliban, which was linked in with the protected identity status of the special forces. And I think the Australian public needs to be aware that half of our force was protected identity status under 2 Commando in SAS, so that we heard nothing.

                   And not only did we hear nothing, there was no, really, in the end, and I think it’s now been proven, there was no oversight. There was no one reporting back to try and hold anyone to account. And if you send men to war enough times, if you send them once, I met young men who were ruined by one experience, one nine-month deployment in Afghanistan.

                   If you send them multiple times, and there’s no oversight and no journalistic oversight. And they’re protected identity status, so they believe that they are not only not allowed to share the stories that they’ve told, but also a sense of them being untouchable, I think we as a community have to hold, we are responsible for what happened there, all of us. And trying to blame one person for the crimes of all, in my opinion, all of us, is shameful.

                   It’s a continuation of the madness of why we were there in the first place, of why we invaded Iraq. My mum asked me to march against the invasion of Iraq way back in the time. And I barely understood it back then, as well as I do now. And I did march. And we were right. The people were right.

                   The invasion of Iraq was, I think, in modern history, the most fatal and dangerous and ridiculous military misstep in modern history, which led to Afghanistan. But saying that, I also heard the young men that I was there with, in Tarinkot particularly, whispers of what I think is the truth.

                   And it wasn’t just one soldier. I think it was throughout all those special forces, terrible things happened. Because those men were under such intense and ridiculous,, sustained pressure for such a long time. With no way of telling their story when they came back here.

                   What do we expect? Their protected identity status meant that they felt they could never tell anyone about what had happened to them. That’s just not the way, we’re human. We’re flesh and blood. We share that in common. And it doesn’t work. And I think it will proved more and more. I think this is the only beginning of the stories that will come out of Afghanistan, sadly.

AL               How did you go about building trust with the soldiers that you wanted to depict? It’s not as though painters and elite special forces soldiers share a natural bond. And I suppose this is a question about how you build trust with anyone who comes into your studio. What do you do in order to ensure that you’re seeing a greater depth of them?

BQ              Well when I deployed to Afghanistan, I was given a uniform. But it was different coloured to all of the, I was in navy blue which I think they thought was funny that possibly the enemy would think I was a high-value target. But I was the lowest value target. And probably the joke was on me in the end. Because I did use that as a way in to talk with them.

                   They were puzzled as to why I would be on a deployment in a place like Tarinkot, travelling through some very dangerous places on Chinooks. And travelling around the countryside with an Australian flag on a sleeve here, and Official War Artist from the War Memorial here, but in a colour that stands out in the desert.

                   To answer your question bluntly, none of them trusted me. Because they had been programmed, and in my humble opinion, programmed from the Minister of Defence down, not to trust anyone in the media. And it wasn’t until I told people that I was on deployment from the Australian War Memorial, and that is still a place that they have entire faith and trust in, that they opened up.

                   And it was a very slow process. But once I’d had conversations with a couple, the word spread pretty quickly. And I have now lifelong friends that I met in Afghanistan, who shared with me the trauma that they, some of them will suffered with for the rest of their lives. But also the things that went wrong.

                   And I warned a number of people higher up in government and War Memorial and all over the place, about what I kept hearing. It didn’t sound to me as though, why would anyone make those things up? But at that point, there was a fervour to continue to engage in that war in a positive way.

                   And any of that negative discussion around PTSD, but also around possible war crimes, was seen, and rightly so, seen as a risk that could then lead men in combat into very dangerous positions if their heart wasn’t in it. But after 14 years, your heart, I think it’s inevitable that someone who’s fighting on the ground in a combat like that, their heart ends up not being in it. Yes, so have I answered your question?

AL               Yes, you have. I was just thinking as you were talking about that interplay between the decision-maker and the War Memorial. I remember once, when my eldest son was very young, standing at the front of Parliament House where you can see down to the War Memorial.

                   And explaining to him that the purpose of that access is that parliamentarians, when they’re making decisions about sending troops to war, have to look out and be reminded by the War Memorial of the cost. And he just looked at me and said, oh dad, if I was a politician, I’d never send troops to war.

BQ              Yes. Well it was, I think it was done in our name because we followed American blindly. I don’t think that’s a debate, whether we did or we didn’t . That’s what happened. We followed America almost unquestioningly, and to our detriment. And the funny thing is now America’s dropping most of their war crimes investigations and moving on as though nothing happened, and nothing to see here.

                   And I’m very glad, and very devastated at the same time, that we are a community who expects to hold these people up to scrutiny. But for me, the bigger question is, do we hold everyone up to that scrutiny, including the head chiefs of army, and at the minister’s level? There has to be a reckoning at those levels, that the people that were sent are doing so in our name. And the whole structures that were set up for their combat really weren’t very healthy.

AL               Yes. And that’s a lesson that goes right back to My Lai. I want to ask you, shortly after that you formed a friendship with Myuran Sukumaran who was then on death row in Indonesia for drug trafficking. How did you form that relationship? And what led you to agree to work with him on his art?

BQ              I received an email out of the blue from one of his barristers, Julian McMahon, who was working with Myuran. And had been working with him, and Andrew Chan, to try and get them off death row. And have put them on a life sentence in Indonesia.

                   And the questions that he asked in that email showed very clearly that he’d gone a long way down the path of an art practice. That he was asking questions about medium that mean he’s really actually given it a go. People ask silly questions like, how do you draw anything but a stick figure? He was asking quite technical questions.

                   And I was intrigued. That was a bizarre email to open. I gave him a simple practice of drawing, turning the mirror on himself and drawing himself. And within two weeks, he’d covered the studio, his little studio wall in the prison in Kerobokan with self portraits.

                   And I was hooked. I was so intrigued and impressed that he’d followed my advice, taken my advice and really run with the set of practice that I’d given him. And we became very good friends. He was, he’d become a, by the time I met him, he’d become a very impressive young man.

AL               And he then went on to teach art to other prisoners in Kerobokan, I understand.

BQ              He did. By the time I had met his great, the revolution that he and Andrew had been through to turn out, turn away from drugs and heroin use, to being the leaders within that prison. And running several education courses. And I was a guest into the education rooms that had been set aside by the prison.

                   And, I’ll never forget the first lesson that I was asked to give. I was going there to give Myuran tuition. And he said, please, please would you spend half your time teaching a class, and then give me some time on my own? And what struck me was there was several people in that class that weren’t inmates.

                   And when I quietly asked Myuran, who are these people? He said, they were inmates and the prison is allowing them to come in from outside in Bali, and even further afield to continue and compete their education. That’s not what you expect.

                   And my brother, one of my brothers is a doctor. And did part of his final prac years of public health in Long Bay prison. And I had a very clear idea of what that prison was like, and how almost impossible it would be to become a better person after that experience. And then the media in Australia saying that Kerobokan prison is the worst prison in Southeast Asia. It’s the worst prison in Southeast Asia, except for all of our prisons, which I think are much, much worse.

                   I started teaching there. I became, we had guards who were doing Myuran’s education. We had guards who were coming in on their days off to do classes. We had lots of ex-inmates living in the community outside the prison coming in to continue their education.

                   And then the thing that struck me the most was at the end of Myuran’s life, several commentators in Australia saying that Myuran was making this all up to try and save his life. It’s revolting. There’s some revolting people in our country. And the prison system is disgusting. It’s appalling. And it’s less than Third-World standards for our prison inmates.

AL               Yes, and you can see that in the recidivism statistics. Tell us about what’s in a Ben Quilty introduction to painting class? You’re obviously highly, highly trained, through Sydney College of the Arts. But for those of us who might think of encouraging our kids to take up art, or the midlife crisis suddenly turning to life drawing. What are some things that you do in order to switch people onto art?

BQ              Well look, Myuran was the perfect example. He was making these big, pretty garish, ugly, pretty bad paintings of very famous Hollywood stars, ripped out of magazines and copied onto canvas. And I just said, Myuran, why are you making these paintings?

                   And he said, this is what people want to see. And I said, I’d rather see, I think you’re a far more interesting subject, considering your surroundings. You are more interesting than Brad Pitt. And I hope Brad Pitt never hears this, because I’m sure he’s a very interesting person.

AL               He’s a regular listener, I’m afraid.

BQ              Because of Myuran’s surroundings and because of his humanity, and because of his life story and where he was travelling, the journey that he was on, he’s an incredibly engaging subject. And all he needed to do was turn the mirror on himself.

                   And I think that’s the power. That’s what art, at the core of it, is for all of us. It’s a tonic. It’s a process to heal. It’s a process to explore the world. And for children, it’s very, very much a tool for them to be heard. Our society, even though there are constantly people trying to break this down, our society, from the outside, and indigenous culture, for example, and Australian indigenous culture.

                   Children in our society are very much seen and not heard. Very, very, that’s the way the structure is. We even had made up a date, your eighteen birthday party, when you click over and become an adult. It’s just absurd. Children have a voice. They’re the future there. They inherit the world that we create for them.

                   And art is an accepted vehicle within our community for them to be heard. And they should yell it out, make it as big as they can. And I’d urge any parents that one of, we’ve just done it without even thinking. When we go out to dinner with our children when they are tiny, we always have drawing books.

                   And from a $2 store, you can, for $8, buy a very beautiful drawing book, hardbound, filled with pages. And those drawing books, in my family, are as important as our photo albums. They map out the lives of my children, not just in images of them, but from inside their heads onto that paper.

                   Them learning to spell. Them drawing the things that scare them most. Them drawing the things that they love the most, including sometimes me and Kylie, my wife. Sometimes we’re the scary ones, sometimes not. It’s a beautiful way to map out and remember childhood. And a really powerful way for them to be heard and seen and noticed.

AL               You’ve also compiled the drawings of Syrian refugee children and in your wonderful book, Home. What is different about the way a child depicts a war? And tell me more about your view that we should depict all wars through the eyes of children?

BQ              Yes, well I was in Serbia with my friend, Richard Flanagan. We were travelling, following the refugee trail up towards Germany. And I was there to illustrate something for Richard. Richard was writing for The Guardian in London, and The New York Times.

                   And he’d been offered a place of a photographer or someone to illustrate. And he said, I’d like to take Ben. And to be honest, at the beginning it was pretty overwhelming. It’s a very, very big story for me to tell. And I was sitting with a tiny, little girl named Heba in a transit station in the middle of snowy, -20° landscape.

                   And Richard started interviewing her partners. And I took her and her friends, siblings and friends aside. And I got them all to draw. And I asked, she was a little girl who had a facility, and a facility for drawing. And a very natural and unaffected way of doing it, not worrying what anyone thought. Just drawing and drawing.

                   And I asked her, through a translator, to draw her home. And she looked at me poignant. In my eyes, looked at me. And I said, yes home. Thinking, why is she asking, what was her look? What was she trying to say? And then the translator urged her, yes this man wants you to draw your home, with my beautiful paper and my pencils that I gave her.

                   And she drew the most powerful image in that book, of a tiny, little ruined pile of rubble, really, with two dead bodies bleeding from the heads on either side of it. And clearly an attack helicopter above it, with two barrel-shaped bombs falling on it. And at that moment, I thought I can’t . That’s not my story. And I can’t tell that story. There’s nothing authentic about me being a privileged white man living in a beautiful rolling green rural town in Australia, nothing authentic about me telling me that story.

                   And that’s when I started to hand it over to those children. And they were given the opportunity not only to draw their home, but either what they hoped their home would become, what they remembered their home was. And the words that they wanted to fit with that drawing. And we then translated the whole thing and put it into a book.

                   And you’re right, it’s very powerful. And the thing I think that struck me, and we’re now seeing it in Ukraine, is the way governments play. And we, our government has done it too, particularly through Afghanistan. I saw it first-hand, the use of propaganda to try and affect an outcome. Children have no propaganda. It’s not something.

                   Propaganda is a very sophisticated tool for adults. It is way beyond eighteen before you understand how to properly harness and use or misuse propaganda. And there’s not a drawing in there that has a tiny bit of it. It’s just the truth. And that’s why I think those children, and children now in the Ukraine, I hope someone’s trying to tell that same story through those children’s eyes, free of propaganda. It’s a proper record in some ways.

AL               You’re extraordinarily prolific. And one of the series of paintings that caught my eye was your series on one aspect of toxic masculinity. Which was reconceptualising Father Christmas. I’d always thought of Father Christmas as a beautiful myth. But you took Father Christmas on quite directly. Why is that?

BQ              Look, I agree with you. It is a beautiful myth. It was some, one of the most treasured parts of my childhood, growing up. And all those myths. My parents gave me the opportunity, me and my brothers the opportunity to have very big imaginations.

                   There was gnomes always living around our house. There was fairies that sometimes came in, but the gnomes often kept them away. The gnomes had been there a lot longer than us, and had had a lot of contact with indigenous Australia. And then Santa would fly in with flying reindeer once a year. It’s just a treasured thing to have that for children to believe in.

                   But for me, Santa Claus, and having read the history of where Saint Nicholas, and what that history is, I just think that poor, poor bearded man’s been hijacked by capitalism gone mad. And he seemed like, funnily enough, he’s also the figure, the form, the big tummy, the beer gut, for want of a better term, the big beard and the hands. He’s also a bikie when he takes that gear off and puts on leathers.

                   It’s the same figure that we, that is now, the nude Santa is the form of the most aggressively masculine figure in our society. And I hope that people saw that there was a sense of humour in it. There were some commentators, mostly from the very far right, who just, I’ve made a lot of paintings, and a lot of them were quite political, but that was a step too far. You do not desecrate Santa Claus. Which I thought, come off it, I can desecrate what I want.

                   I’m not desecrating anything. I’m exploring and trying to ask questions. And in a sense, I hope, my children thought I was standing up for Santa. That Santa’s not about those notions of capitalism run riot, and growth at all costs. That that figure was about care and love and nurturing and a beautiful, beautiful memory in a child’s mind.

AL               As a dad, I’ve always had a, it is a lie. As I said before, it’s a beautiful myth. But it jars against my instinct never to lie to my kids. To tell this, frankly, a fabrication. And I’ve never quite been able to resolve that one. I’m never quite sure whether Gwyneth and I did the right thing in telling them that Santa was real, and that another man would be sneaking into the house at night to deposit presents for them.

BQ              Look, I remember, I’m a gardener. I love gardening. And I had the beautiful back lawn, small piece of lawn. And one night I was out there with a wheelbarrow down to the paddock a few doors down, filling the wheelbarrow up with cow manure, coming back and digging massive, massive, carved-out sleigh skids across the back lawn. And dumping half a wheelbarrow of manure on it.

                   And throughout that night, I drank the beer and ate the biscuits with the guilt of the lie too, so I don’t have any answers for you with that. Except to say that at some point in our lives, to dream. And we’re programmed not to do it. And that’s why art is such a wonderful thing. You continue that.

                   We’re actually, our imagination is meant to be switched off at some point. Around the time of 12 or 14, I think, if boys, little boys in our community still love to draw, there’ll be some really disparaging voices from the adult community about, you shouldn’t be doing that. As though there’s some connotation that your imagination, for some reason, is unhealthy.

                   And I think that the longer that you have that, and I hope I’ve managed never to let mine completely be extinguished, that creative thought is a great way of solving problems in a very positive way. And we should continue to do it. Don’t lie anything bad.            But in terms of creating other worlds for a child’s brain, it’s exponential growth. Imagination leads to all sorts of happy adults, I think.

AL               As one of Australia’s most successful contemporary artists, I want to delve a little bit more into how you do your work. How many hours a day are you spending in the studio? Do you often discard works? What’s your secret to being so productive at such a high level of quality?

BQ              Look, it’s like any job. And I don’t have a boss. I’m the boss. It’s about turning up and working really, really hard. And there’s a lot of, the romance that people perceive in it is not really there. It’s tough. In the mornings, my studio’s often very cold. It’s pretty unforgiving. It’s hard surfaces. It stinks like turps and oil paint. I wear gloves, sometimes a mask and overalls.      But if I get into it early in the morning at nine o’clock, by midday I don’t want to leave.

                   Since we had children, I’ve been very dedicated to taking them to school and picking them up. My day is actually bookended by school drop-off and pick-up. Even though now Joe’s in Year 11 and Olivia’s in Year 8, they still think the school bus is a bit hard work for them. And they know that I’m dedicated to picking them up and dropping them off.

                   But I fill up my time. And I’m here every day that I can be. It’s like any, I think anyone who’s successful, that term practice is a good way of explaining it. If you’re a great footballer, practice is the key. Same as yoga or legal practice, even. Practice means to show up and do it over and over and over again. That’s really the secret.

AL               You’re passionate about a lot of issues. But do you ever want for inspiration? Do you ever find yourself standing there with brush in hand not being sure what to do?

BQ              No. Look, I have, there’s days where you think, is this the right direction? Am I headed in the right direction? But I remember a very famous artist, Chuck Close, in America, who said inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up to work. And I think that’s a perfect description for it. And my friends, like Richard Flanagan and Kylie, my partner, who’s just written a novel. If you wait for the words to fall out, it’s never going to happen. You have to get into the practice of doing it every day. It’s really, that’s important.

AL               How long does a typical painting take you to do?

BQ              Well look, the Margaret Olley painting only took, it took an hour and 45 minutes between us.

AL               Not bad to win the Archibald in less than two hours.

BQ              Did all right. But saying that, I’ve been making art, really, since I could walk. I haven’t stopped. I just never stopped. I went to art school at the end of high school against my parents’ and against the whole community’s better judgement. And that actually really emboldened me to put more and more and more time into it.

                   There’s some works in the studio at the moment that have a very slow, long burn, that will take months and months. But other things, that idea that if you come to the studio, you often don’t feel like being here and you don’t have a whole lot of willpower to get yourself doing it. If you have something small and easy just to knock it out, to actually get that creative process happening, to then work your way up to the things that take a long, long time. And that’s the same as all my artist friends.

AL               I see a bit of Francis Bacon, a bit of Salvador Dali when I look at your work. Who are the artists you’ve really drawn inspiration from?

BQ              Look, less about the, well there’s artists around the world. At the moment, George Condo’s one of my favourite artists. Jenny Saville, I’ve loved her work for many, many years. But it’s less about the subject matter of what these people are doing now, and more about the creative process and the output, the way people make things.

                   And nothing, the greatest privilege I’ve had in my adult life is to have been, to have friends and colleagues in remote, indigenous communities. There’s nothing that comes close to it. Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri and Yukultji Napangati walked out of the desert with their parents in the early 90s, late 80s, early 90s.

                   They had never met a, seen a white person or a car. And they are now making paintings that are being shown at Gagosian Gallery. It’s the biggest commercial gallery in the history of the human race. They’re, to that level, the most famous white, sorry, the most famous Australian artists on the planet at the moment. And we don’t even really know who they are.

                   Sylvia Ken. Betty Pumani. The list, Vincent Namatjira. They’re just mind-blowing, the output. And then I think it speaks very much to the fact that it’s just an innate thing. Creativity is like making food or making love or raising children or living and breathing on the planet. And creativity is just as important as those things.

                   And we absolutely, in our community, our society, European-based societies have somehow, over the years, deleted that. And if you go back to the Italian Renaissance, drawing was as important as philosophy and mathematics. It was, every single child, and this is what’s lost on it, every child who was lucky enough to have an education in that community could draw like da Vinci.

                   Da Vinci just used the drawings in the most complex and profoundly world-altering ways. But everyone could draw. And now, how many times do you hear an Australian male say, I can’t even draw a stick figure? As though it’s a badge of honour that you can’t do, that you have no access to your inner creative being.

                   And all those remote artists have just shown me over and over again. I’ve only, a few times in the world, stood in front of a painting that’s brought me to tears. And every single time it’s been in a remote community in front of a masterpiece, a breath-taking human endeavour that is indescribably astounding.

                   I don’t know how else to say it. And that’s on our country. We, I’m lucky enough to be an Irish-blooded white man living on those people’s land. And they are still, some of them are lucky enough to still be living and making work they way they have for many, many years.

AL               Yes, the depiction of the landscape is something extraordinary. I remember driving from the MacDonnell Ranges for the first time and just feeling like I was literally inside an Albert Namatjira painting. That same sense I get when I walk onto a Perth beach and feel like I’m in a Tim Winton novel, or go see a Tasmanian river and feel like I’m in a Richard Flanagan novel. That ability just to capture everything around you is just breathtaking.

BQ              Yes, the MacDonnell Ranges, I’ve spent a lot of time around there. Because it’s Pitjantjatjara land and beautiful country. But the Aboriginal term for those mountain ranges is Yipirinya. And yipirinya is also the little grub that lives in the trees that make that shape along the branches. Yes, it’s part of me. I’m very, we’re very lucky to live on this country, that’s for sure.

AL               We certainly are. I’m also curious about your views as to being a good consumer of art. You’ve’ been a trustee of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. And I’m sure you have ideas as to how people should move through art galleries. For me, one of the big revelations was Robert Hughes’ American Visions. And getting that sense that there can be art that you really hate, as well as art that you like.

                   Yes, he’s got this lovely line where he says, 1985 New York, prices are through the roof. But no one could, no artist could draw as well as Goya or Tiepolo. And it was through Robert Hughes dissing artists that I came to love art all the more. How do you consume art when you move through a gallery like the Art Gallery of New South Wales?

BQ              Yes, it’s a really good question. And a question that people are asking with all the art forms. How do we compete with mass media and reality TV, and looking at ourselves through the lens of Instagram or the other ones that I’ve forgotten the names of?

                   Well look, such a good question. I think that the, well the Art Gallery of New South Wales, let me use that as an example. It’s a huge place. There’s no point going there and expecting to see the whole thing. I go there to see one thing. At the moment, there’s a tiny little room in the old courts that has Goya’s etchings. Extraordinary little etchings. Very violent, very violent, macabre, bizarre tiny little etchings.

                   And in front of them, Caroline Rothwell sculptures. And Caroline’s a contemporary artist probably in her mid-50s. And that tiny little room is just mind-blowing. And I took my 12-year-old in there the other day, 13-year-old in there the other day. And she took, she gasped. It took her breath away when she walked in there.

                   And that’s all we needed to see. We then went and saw Matisse, of course, and ran around. But an art gallery, I think, and this is the way they were many years ago, and then we, somehow society made them very highbrow and very inaccessible to all of us.

                   But now, you can run in there. You can yell out as loud as you want, and go and see everything you want, and ride the escalators as many times as you need to, and go and see stuff. Go down to the bottom of the Art Gallery of New South Wales into Yiribana, where the indigenous art is. In a transformed storage shed, which is an embarrassment, but is all being addressed with Sydney Modern and the new building that they’re building.

                   I think it’s just, I devour it when I go. The new rooms of the National Gallery of Australia are mind-blowing, the way the director has bought some of those rooms back to how the architect planned them. And that took my breath away, with the collection that that gallery has.

                   And he has put Tiepolos in front of, next to Blue Poles, and played around with those hierarchies, for want of a better word. Yes I just think, and every regional gallery. We’ve just opened a new regional gallery down here. Regional galleries are so, so important for little communities around Australia to go.

                   And I think they should be free, like a library. And there’s something that you should be able to go several times a year and see the way they, if the director’s doing their job and working hard, changing that whole place so that you have a new experience. And see the world through a new lens when you walk in there. And possibly have a different view of the world when you walk out.

AL               Yes, and the lovely thing about free galleries is you can just pop in for even 20 minutes just to check something out. I loved working, when I was a high court associate, next to the National Gallery of Australia. Or when I was in Sydney, a Sydney lawyer, being able to hop across to the New South Wales art gallery for lunchtime. It changes the way you consume it.

                   Now, what about when you’re with kids? The only tip that I have, or the only trick I have with my kids is if they’re looking a bit bored, I ask them, if you could steal one panting from this room and put it on your wall, which one would you steal? And sometimes that gets them to focus in a bit. But how do you travel through art galleries with your kids?

BQ              Well look, my kids have just seen so much art, they, I do think that it’s about that breaking down the hierarchy a bit. But my children are very happy in a gallery. And I think one of the key things is, and I was in Matisse with my daughter the other day. And she started photographing not what I expected, the most abstract works at the end of his life. The big abstract cut-outs. And she photographed and photographed them. And she was very struck by it.

                   But there was a young woman in there with a little child, two-year-old who, as those spaces often are, are very hollow and very, noise reverberates in extraordinary ways, who kept yelling. Ah, ah. And she was, shush, shush, shush. And I said quietly to her, he can make as much noise as he wants in here. And if someone is offended, tell me. I’ll come over and say, you need to leave. This child is having the experience. And it might be audible and visual. And I don’t know.

                   If you’re listening to us now and you think that a child shouldn’t be able to make noise in an art gallery, you should be rich enough to build your own private one. Because children have a very important place in there. And I love hearing children make those yelling noises when they suddenly realise that there’s an echo in a room. That a room can be big enough, bigger than their bedroom, to make their voice reverberate.

                   That’s the beginning of a life of, I think, having an expansive mind, of being able to see the world in different ways, of being creative. And there’s such important things, not just for the world to be a better place, but also for those individuals to reach their potential.

AL               Yes, and I love that notion of irreverence. Going back again to Robert Hughes, I really am taken by his intense dislike of Andy Warhol. Who, by some measures, is the most influential artist, American artist of the 20th century. But having Hughes have really strong views on Warhol, it opened up art to me in a way that other things wouldn’t have done.

BQ              Yes, agreed.

AL               Ben, let me ask you a couple of final questions I ask all my guests. What advice would you give to your teenage self?

BQ              Honestly I, and look, it’s pretty widely known, I had a teacher who gave me the strap many, many times. And I was a clever kid. I had dux English and religion in my first year of high school, first or second year of high school. And I remember after coming first in one essay that I’d written about the way religion, different religions coexist on the planet, and I was 12, and I came first in the year in several hundred kids. And he took me into his office and gave me the strap for coming first.

                   And what I now realise is that I held onto that until I was in my mid-30s, and I shouldn’t have held onto it. I should have told someone much, much, much sooner. Even if it was a friend. And I think, for children, we all know it. We know, all us adults know, that that’s what we did and what we do, is that children need to be encouraged to talk, speak their mind. And to share those, particularly those darker things. But anything. Just to have, be more vocal, I think.

AL               What’s something you used to believe, but no longer do?

BQ              I used to believe in the Australian cricket team. And if my son hears me, what we’ve just said to each other, he will disown me. But yes, I used to believe in the Australian cricket team. I believed in Steve Waugh.

AL               When are you most happy?

BQ              Definitely if I, look, well when am I most happy? I’m the most happy in my studio. But if my family would move into the studio and let me paint 24 hours a day, I’d be even happier. And you know what, I’m the most happy on camping with my family in the middle of nowhere. There’s nothing else like it in this.

                   And that’s the one thing I think, and you’d know it, how lucky we are to have this country. And the places that we can camp and see the stars, and consider eternity and consider the future and the past all under that massive sky, is really when I’m the most happy and fulfilled. For sure.

AL               You’re a studio guy. Have you ever thought about going Heidelberg School and taking the canvasses outdoors?

BQ              Yes. Look that’s, in our car, camping, there’s always plenty of drawing materials in the back. Always drawing outside. It’s a pleasure. But for me, drawing the landscape in Australia is a very loaded thing for me. I feel that I cannot, I can’t just draw the beauty of that place without acknowledging what’s happened since my first forebears came here.

                   What happened to the people who loved it just as much, and probably a lot more than I do when I’m lying under those stars, for thousands and thousands of years. And what they’ve lost. And it’s impossible for me to make those paintings of those places without acknowledging that. It’s always been a bit fraught for me, landscape painting. Not that I’m saying people shouldn’t do it. But personally, for me, it’s very loaded.

AL               What’s the most important thing you do to stay mentally and physically healthy?

BQ              Gardening. Digging in holes.

AL               What are you growing? Veggies? Roses?

BQ              Today I went home and a Chinese Elm that I planted 15-and-a-half years ago has fallen over. And I was devastated, so I had a whole lot of neighbours and strong people coming, cutting all the big branches off and trying to stand it back up. And I think it’s gone.

                   But yes, growing vegetables. Growing everything. Growing a lot of natives. Growing amazing waratahs where we live. It’s very volcanic soil, and waratahs were endemic to the area. Even fixing up land, taking out blackberries. It’s just really a very, very good thing for my brain, and for my body.

AL               Do you have any guilty pleasures?

BQ              Guilty pleasures? Yes, I still listen to Rammstein. I still listen to some death metal that I probably should have outgrown by now, I would say. Between us.

AL               Do you listen to music while you’re painting?

BQ              Always. Yes. I was listening to Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain this morning. And what an extraordinary album. And Kylie walked in and said, what? I feel like I’m about to be shot in some American western movie. But no I, yes I always listen to music. Always.

AL               It doesn’t distract you?

BQ              No. If I don’t, I can hear myself breathing and snorting, and it’s not a happy place for me. 

AL               And finally, Ben, which person or experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?

BQ              Wow. That’s a big question. Well yes I would say that, well when I, I actually got kicked out of school halfway through it. I was still struggling to find myself, and reconcile my youth with who I thought I’d become, and who I’d wanted to become, and who I was becoming.

                   And I left art school. I was asked to leave. They said, if you defer, you can come back. If you don’t defer, we’re going to fail you and you’re out. I deferred very indignantly. How dare they do that? It was a great, a lifesaver for me. Went around Australia for six months, came back and studied Aboriginal culture and history at Monash, through Monash University by correspondence.

                   And the course study back then, which I’m sure was really, Monash was just having a very strong say in the culture wars of the time, was all about Aboriginal massacres, which I knew nothing about. And the first thing I did was research, through the National Library of Australia, my surname and indigenous massacre.

                   And straight away, a massacre came up from a Quilty in the Kimberley who killed a whole community for stealing two cows. His name was Tom, was Paddy Quilty. And there was one surviving baby on that, from that community. And he told his men, we’re going to raise that child and we’ll call him Paddy after me.

                   And it was on Bedford Downs, so they called him Paddy Bedford, who went on to become one of the greatest artists that’s come out of this country. And for me, I never him. But it makes me emotional considering him, and thinking about what he did and the way he did it.

                   The way he lived his life with such dignity. And really lived and breathed reconciliation. Even though his entire family history had been wiped out by the man who gave him his name. And every single painting that he made was a continuation of what had happened to his family, so that his art was very separated from the way he lived in the world. And for me, that’s very powerful. Not tweet out your anger, not use Twitter as a tool to yell at the world, but to do it through my art. And so Paddy Bedford would be that person.

AL               What a story. Ben Quilty, thanks so much for taking the time to share your wisdom on The Good Life podcast today.

BQ              I hope there was some wisdom in there. And I really appreciate you having me, and that you do it, mate. It’s very impressive.

AL               There were bucketloads of it. Thank you again.

BQ              Thanks, mate.

AL               Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Good Life, Andrew Leigh in Conversation. If you enjoyed this chat with Ben Quilty, I reckon you might like the past episodes where I talk with Carl Vine and Cathy Wilcox. If you enjoyed this conversation, please take a moment to rate the podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listened to it. It really helps others find the show. Next week, I’ll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier and more ethical life.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.