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"A painting, a drawing, and a random verb." 
Original working title - Looking Back

In this unique exhibition John collaborated with 12 writers to interpret his visual stories.

To see the writers stories and biographies click on any one of the paintings below to reveal the author for that painting. You can also see the additional information given them to stimulate their writing including a drawing and a random verb.

On my Stone elephant
Me and my dog
Stilts race
Boy swimming
Flying a kite

About John Mutsaers

In the flow

By Catherine Watson
JOHN Mutsaers admits his stamina is diminishing and his shoulders hurt after a long session in front of the easel. But there are compensations. In his 81st year, he feels his creativity blossoming. He is full of ideas for works and series.

Which is why, despite the physical aches and pains, he has set himself an ambitious schedule of three solo exhibitions for 2023: one in Bairnsdale a retrospective to mark his 40th year as a professional artist; and two in Traralgon and Wonthaggi featuring new works.

John Mutsaers: 40 years 40 artworks, which opened in March at the East Gippsland Art Gallery in Bairnsdale, also marked his 40th solo exhibition. This time round, he decided to do something a little different and invited the gallery director, Crystal Stubbs, to do a director’s pick.

He confesses to some anxiety when she picked out a couple of works that he thought were not really finished. “But the minute we walked in to the gallery and I looked through the door I saw Crystal was right. I was absolutely delighted. It’s the best curated show of my work because usually I curate them myself.” ​

A retrospective is a chance to appreciate what he’s been able to achieve.  High among the achievements is actually making a living from art for 40 years. “Not many artists manage to achieve that.

“I don’t take too much for granted. People say ‘That’s such a good work!’ They don’t know how much work I had to do to get there. Other times it just flows out of your brush.”

“I’m fairly comfortable with the level I fit into in the art world. I know I’m good at it but I have no illusions of being the best. There are so many artists whose work I admire.”

When the Post visited his Inverloch studio, he was just starting work on pieces for his second exhibition, which opened in the new Gippsland Performing Arts Centre at Traralgon on August 12 and runs to October 15.

The exhibition was curated by Gabriella Duffy from the La Trobe Regional Gallery, and he wanted it to be a collaborative exercise with 12 Gippsland writers. Each writer was randomly matched with one of John’s paintings, a drawing and a cue card with a single verb and asked to write a response of up to 1000 words.

Their stories and essays form an important part of the exhibition. 

It’s the idea of cross-fertilisation between the arts that is really inspiring him these days.

Mutsaers first tried the idea back in 2020 with his Infinite Birdcage series of paintings when he invited writers to respond to the paintings and local musician Mark Finsterer to compose a musical response.

“That really opened my eyes because what people were writing about was so different from what I had in my head when I painted the works.

 “Once upon a time I used to produce work for the market because I had to make a living. There’s nothing wrong with a good landscape – I still enjoy doing one every now and then – but nowadays I’m much more into the psychology behind the work.”

Growing up in Holland, he was surrounded by art and artists. Two of his mother’s brothers were artists, and his father’s nephews were artists. As far back as he can remember he drew and painted. “I failed at everything else!” he declares.

It’s not strictly true. He trained as a surveyor and joined the Land Surveying Office in Yallourn. In 1983 he cut his working week to two days, which left five days for painting. By 1986 he’d established a market for his artwork and when the SEC offered redundancies he grabbed his chance to escape.

“Mary worked as a teacher so we were never going to starve,” he says. “It wasn’t all standing at an easel. I did a lot of different jobs. I was often paid to come in as an artist. At one stage I had 14 art classes a week.”

Did he enjoy teaching?

“I liked the company,” he says, cagily. “It keeps your social clock ticking over. I know a couple of artists who spend their whole life in a studio and they’re very uncomfortable in a crowd.”

Unlike John who is known as the most convivial of men with a droll, self-deprecating sense of humour. He’s never been one of those tormented artists who has to work in solitude. Mary and the four Mutsaers children would wander in and out of the studio while he was working. Now the grandchildren do the same.

“Mary has been my greatest support – and my greatest critic. If she comes in and makes a comment I know I’m doing the right thing. If she says nothing I know I’ve got something wrong. After she leaves I have a little play around and she’s always right. She’s got a good eye.”

He’s heard it said that art is only made by humans. He often thinks about that. “Maybe our Aboriginal brothers and sisters are making the only true art left in the world because they’re painting the things that are really important in their world: the constellations, the dangers, where hunting is, the water holes.

“In the European tradition artists might have been doing that as well once and gradually we’ve diverted our skill into making decorative things that have no real function in our lives but that have an artificial or implicit value.”

He believes everyone has a creative impulse, whether it’s in the visual arts or writing or music or theatre. “A lot of people wander through the whole of their life never finding out what it is. The luckiest people in the world are the ones who discover what their talent is.”

This article was first published in the Bass Coast Post on April 22, 2023. 

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