How award-winning painter Craig Waddell makes it matter
How do you give it mouth?
I grew up in the country. We were very traditional in the sense that work was really important. And work was important for many reasons: for congregating together with family for instance. I have a very good family upbringing in that way. I also think that nature is one of the best things to give voice to in my work.
I was recently in China discussing politics and art – because a lot of Chinese artists use political themes in their work – and they were saying things like, “Your work is very romantic and it’s very beautiful but you don’t really touch on politics.” My reply was, “Well I do because I’m painting about nature. And at the moment I’m in Beijing and you’re destroying your natural environment and I’m working on giving voice back to nature. And I can’t think of a more pressing political issue right now.”
That’s why my flower paintings are oversized…so they really draw you in. And the titles and captions, all of these draw you into the poetics of what we have – and what we’re losing.
You are mine and mine alone – Craig Waddell.
I think people are saturated with artists pushing ideas onto them. There’s a particular type of art that overtly political but I have developed over the years a sensibility towards knowing within myself that there’s more to my art than just aesthetic beauty.
The lushness and texturing of my work draws people in though to look at what’s really important.
I seem to always land myself in rural environments that are a bit closer to the way we’re meant to be living and that excites me. I use that as a platform for my work.
And yet there’s also this really performative aspect to your work, isn’t there? With an almost hyperbolic emphasis on culture over nature.
Well painting is performative. It is expressing yourself. I hope when I come out of the studio I can’t even really remember what I did. It’s about digging deep inside, and responding to your environment and experiences.
You give workshops to boys about the importance of art. Do you have any stories about how you’ve changed the way they think?
A teacher told me one of my workshops opened his son’s whole world up. It’s great to hear feedback like that. I like to challenge the idea that boys can’t do art…
Or draw flowers…?
Yeah, exactly. And there’s also that cliche that if you are into sports you can’t be creative. I was a cricketer before I became an artist and in the end I was taking blocks of marble to cricket. And all my mates who played cricket were totally fascinated by the art I was doing. And so that whole stereotype is just not true.
Many, many sports people are very creative with what they do outside the sport.
There is this false dichotomy isn’t there that you’re either of the body, or of the spirit or the mind so to speak. How do you blend these two aspects of your life to create what you do?
You know your question reminds me of something my mum used to say to my brother and me – she’d say to him “you’re the reader’ and to me she’d say “you’re the sportsperson.” Bracketing us just like that.
And because I had slight dyslexia, she was really frustrated that I wouldn’t sit still and I wouldn’t do my homework. So she literally used to run me out and say go outside; play.
She saw the really physical side of me and it was sort of expected that that’s what I’d do. It took me some time to start using some of the stuff that I also enjoy and to think of it as something I could do full time. You know, I didn’t have to be a cricketer, I didn’t have to play for Australia. And it wasn’t until I did let that go that my art career started to blossom.
I’ve always been a big believer in Buddhism and I have spent a lot of time speaking with monks, I speak Thai so that allows me to really dig deep with them – and I’ve always thought to myself that if someone really loves what they’re doing, no matter if it’s the garbage run, or laying bricks, if it’s the state of Zen, of the mind and body working together, then it works. Because it allows you to get to another state of mind, even if for a fraction of time. And there’s so much conscious thought that this is probably what we should all be striving for…a bit of peace for the body and mind.
Bountiful beauty – Craig Waddell.
I guess the repetition of cricket parallels for me in art. I like the process of repetition. As Jessie my partner says to me, “You don’t make ten drawings you make 200 drawings…” She says art is almost like an endurance test for me. She went to Melbourne for five days recently, and I ended up sending her these photos of our house and it was totally covered in drawings. And she said to me, “Are you even sleeping at all?”
But that’s what excites me. That physically draining yourself of everything to do something.
It sounds a bit like what I’ve read of Marina Abramovich, who undergoes really intense physical training to perform her art.
Yeah, and I guess I was really inspired by artists like Matthew Barney, years ago when I was at art school.
Tell me about your relationship with your partner, because she’s an actress isn’t she? Do you ever work together?
We knew each other at art school 20 years ago. And we have a very push-pull relationship. We worked together on a few installations together. And it worked really well. But we thought, if we’re going to stay together, this isn’t going to work in the longer term. Because of the way I am, it’s 24/7 about art and culture. And she’s like, I can’t, you know that even in my free time I’m going to breathe art from you, and as a woman I need more. I need space. And I’m like yeah I totally get it.
That’s interesting. I’ve spoken to a lot of creative couples and I always ask them what the key is to working together. And it sounds as though you might have answered that already with the notion of respecting each other’s space and so on.
Yeah I actually went to work with a counsellor about this because I wanted to understand skills for giving her the space she needs.
Was that a beneficial process for you…to get help from a professional third party in that way?
I found a great therapist, she was very strong, she wouldn’t let me indulge.
You know, I remember she said to me at about the third session, “Have you got it all out now, can we begin?” She gave me skills for developing work/home boundaries. She helped me see what I was doing wrong. And I think it’s been with her help that Jesse and I can work together fluidly and live together fluidly.
And you fall into bad communication habits, which can be destructive, can’t they?
I think you get really tired from the same old dialogue and that’s something we’re totally tapped into now. So if one of us is whinging or griping, we pull each other up and say you need to go see someone about that or go work it out in your studio.
And it’s given me a lot of confidence too. I wasn’t particularly good at sorting that kind of stuff out as a kid, but I feel a lot more empowered now.
It’s probably one of the main roadblocks faced by a lot of creative people…that they’ve got such an amazing inner world, but then having to match that up against the need to have a shared world as well. So that’s really good advice for a lot of creatives I think.
Men often let their egos drive them, and one thing I had to realise was that I was working together with my wife. I have had to learn to avoid dominating conversations, and talking over the top of her and all those things. So that was a good thing to learn for me, I think it’s helped us a lot.
And I also do a lot of volunteer work so that helps me get out of myself.
A final question…can art change the world?
Yes. Without a doubt. We’re lost without it. Art is all around us. It’s whoever is doing what they love doing, and doing it well. In a day, it might happen when you cook a meal for someone. Because they’re hitting that sweet spot. It’s all about hitting that sweet spot.
See more of Craig’s work here.