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artist Peter Kingston talks to James Elder

‘Elder J. 'art with an everyday voice’, reflections; The National Trust Quarterly, July-Sept 1999

For as long as he's been painting and drawing, Peter Kingston has blended his art with an everyday voice. With a seemingly endless enthusiasm for life and the causes he holds dear, Kingston has created pieces of art that may, sadly, outlast many of the causes he fights for.

Was art something you were exposed to as a child?

My father worked at twentieth Century Fox and so I used to see lots of movies. I've always been interested in films. My father used to bring home old news reels and I used to have a theatre under the house and I'd show films to empty seats. I had movie posters all down the side of the house so I guess that was an obsession.

What was your childhood like?

Oh, you know, climbing trees, falling out of trees. Good kid stuff. I was born in Kings Cross, grew up in Parsley Bay and moved to Lavender Bay in 1972. I'm one of three kids (one older sister, one younger) and I grew up with Ita Buttrose and Peter Weir and went to Cranbrook [school]. My drawings, as a kid, were fairly modest and minimal.

Who was artistically influential in your early days?

I guess my dad. He loved Rembrandt and Tom Roberts, and my father drew a bit and certainly encouraged me to draw. But I was always headed more towards using it in some sort of profession, something more solid. I started off with Arts. I went to university with Jorn Utzon's son, Jan, and I once had dinner with the Utzon family when the Opera House was going well, and Jorn said an Arts degree was the way any architecture degree should begin. I ended up doing architecture, but spent most of my time doing cartoons.

And you were there at the start of Oz magazine.

I was involved with Oz and Martin Sharp and Richard Neville for as long as it was running in Australia, so I did a lot of cartoons for them. They were fantastic days. We had no backers and we got out on the street and sold it.

We had an office in the old Rocks – a filthy, old loft. We all used to live in rooming houses in Surry Hills when they were really down and out. We lived in squalor, but we used to have great fun and sit up at night doing cartoons. It was a love of humour. The romance of being a cartoonist was pretty attractive. I guess my interest in drawing really started in university days and Oz magazine.

What is the power of cartoons?

Clive Evatt thinks Australians love Brett Whiteley because his work is so cartoonish. Australia has a great tradition of cartoonists and I love comic art. My main aim in art is humour, even if it is dark. And boy, these present governments deserve to be satirised.

How would you describe your work now?

A bit of everything really. I do think my paintings tend toward the cartoon, but I also love painting with oil paints and trying to say something which can't be otherwise expressed.

Do you mean that art is a lucid medium, an effective medium in which to make statements?

I think so. It makes things clear that can't otherwise be made clear. It gets through to more people than anything and also it's much more durable. I'd rather do a cartoon with no caption, one that can be read by anyone in any country. It's a very effective tool to speak politically.

I definitely have tended to bring a lot of my causes to my work – and I seem to be caught up in a lot of causes, sometimes too many – but they do make my work more passionate.

From Hinchinbrook to Walsh Bay?

Sure. Hinchinbrook was the first. On 4 Corners I saw this dreadful Keith Williams character being aided and abetted by John Howard. Williams was creating this ghastly development that affects the World Heritage Area and is right in the dugong sanctuary where the population has gone down by 80 per cent in the last 10 years. There's much more money to be gained, if that's what they're after, in keeping these unique spots.

You said that at times you feel you are caught up in ‘too many causes’. Why continue?

I think artists have a bit of a responsibility to help the environment, I really do, and I've met some terrific people I would never have met before. But really, my involvement began through a sense of desperation about some of the things happening to our natural and built environment. I thought the best way to say something was through art. So we put on an exhibition in the Botanical Gardens called The Dugongs of Hinchinbrook. It had 130 artists including Arthur Boyd, Martin Sharp, Michael Leunig and John Olsen.

What of other passions that have taken your time and can now be seen in your work?

I was an artist and a cartoonist at Luna Park up until the fire in 1979, so I got to love the old place. I always thought it was such a great triangle with the Opera House, the sea and the Harbour Bridge. And it goes out now to Walsh Bay, which seems like a natural progression. What an important thing that is.

Walsh Bay has taken a fair amount of your energy and been the spirit behind a lot of your recent work.

Yes, it's been a very strong issue with me and my latest exhibition includes a four by two metre charcoal drawing of Pier 6/7 which is so threatened. Pier 6/7 has 34 magnificent columns of ironbark and a lot of these forests don't exist anymore. They're going to saw those columns up and re-use them; have you ever heard of anything so disgusting? And l want to do more work there. I've got a $3 million insurance policy to go in and draw those piers – the Government said I can go on and draw but the developers [Transfield] won't let me. I think that's absolutely disgraceful. I simply want to capture it before it's gone. That's my next goal – to do charcoal drawings of inside the wharf like those I have done of the exterior. Indeed, I think this current exhibition is the one I am most proud of. Drawing is such a direct thing and I think the current one [called Hurry Last Days] is the best I've had.

As an artist, does the confidence ebb and flow?

Of course it does. You always think that you're not doing such good work. But I tell you what: you do poor stuff and then the good stuff suddenly comes. Most of my work has been done from my Lavender Bay home, though I do get wonderful inspiration from Hill End. It's the end of the road and it hasn't gone ahead. I love the old cottages, the lack of electricity, the bush. They also say that ‘once drawn, soon gone’ because artists like things that are in decay because they're so interesting to draw, but Hill End hasn't gone. It's being treasured and looked after.

But the whole thing about drawing is bloody persistence. You've just got to keep climbing the mountain. Falling down and getting up.

It's not dissimilar to heritage work?

Yeah. Until recently I was fairly optimistic about the outcome of Walsh Bay. A lot of people are sickened by the Toaster, they're sickened by digging into the Botanical Gardens. The Conservatorium would have been terrific next to the Sydney Theatre Company.

People must remember that once Pier 6/7 and the dugongs and all those things have gone, that's it. But everyone leaves it to the government to do the right thing, but the government seems to bend over backwards to help the developer. Look at the finger wharves at Woolloomooloo – these are public buildings and now the beautiful old sliding timber doors have been replaced by sliding glass and aluminium doors and it is looking really shocking. I fought to save that finger wharf.

Do you think it's a telling example for people to look at and see what can go wrong? Another warning of what we may end up with at Walsh Bay?

Of course it is, because they should be public buildings with public uses. They should not put any residential users into them because that brings in the glass sliding aluminium doors and car parks. It is totally inappropriate.

The thought of replacing Walsh Bay's Pier 6/7 with a seven-storey concrete block of flats with plastic boated mariners down each side and a concrete car park over the water, is an incredibly dangerous precedent. This is a disaster!

And now the State Government has pushed through the development by introducing special legislation to override The National Trust court challenge to the demolition of the historic wharves. Where does that leave Walsh Bay?

At the mercy of the developers – the Government has ended any further dissent into the project with its legislation. It's a disgraceful thing. It’s going to silence any further discussion as to whether its a good project or not. It means that nothing they do there is open to any scrutiny.

They say they're going to preserve Wharf 2/3, but in what shape and form are they going to preserve it? I mean, it can't be a very good project that has to have legislation put through parliament to have it happen. It's a disgrace. The National Trust was going to win that case.

What sustains your motivation to push for change? When the government and developers join hands, how do you maintain the rage?

Look, I suppose I enjoy fighting for this cause, but I do get very weary. I don't really appreciate the high profile, I'd much rather be quiet behind the scenes. What annoys me is that not enough people are willing to speak their mind on these issues. Things won't change unless we do make noise.

So why are you different? Why are you willing to put your name and energy to issues?

I think I'm just a ratbag. Sometimes I wonder whether I'm avoiding the issue of getting on with my own art. Rather than confront my own limitations and discover myself, I rush to other things. But these causes and my art are now indelibly linked. I guess it stops my art being too pretty.

Where do we go now with Walsh Bay? What is your feeling from those involved in the protest and those who view your art?

Just talking to people today [on the day of the interview Kingston spoke with an audience of 60 people at his exhibition], I heard how horrified they were at what we are losing. But apart from the priceless heritage, the government is being plain dumb.

The value is in leaving those wharves. I've scoured New York and I've never found any wharves like Walsh Bay's. And look, if worst comes to worst, let them rot away. Let them be like the Parthenon in Athens; let them be a symbol.

Reproduced with the permission of the National Trust of Australia (NSW)


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