22 Jan

Staring down the muse

Words by
Lauren Mitchell
Pictures by
Leon Schoots

A Maiden Gully artist asks and answers the big questions via paint, time and talent.

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A Maiden Gully artist asks and answers the big questions via paint, time and talent.

There’s one painting in Darren Crothers’ studio that begs extra attention. It shows the artist, alongside an older man, tending the neck of a guitar rising from the earth. It’s a realistic imagining, and, Darren explains, a comment on the nature of talent.

“I was exploring that whole concept of ‘what is talent’,” Darren says. “And it’s that whole inclination to want to do something. And you don’t just want to do it, you really want to do it well, to the best of your ability. You want to explore it for yourself to see how good you can be. You discover your limitations and how many barriers you can push to find those new plateaus of excellence.

“That whole idea of talent; you’ve got to work really hard to get it out. It’s got to be worked at, got to be dug out and tended. It’s something that’s got to be discovered, developed and refined.”

Darren is just the person to know about that.

He’s been pushing the plateau for decades, to the point where his full-time workplace is this light and lofty studio, backing onto the bush behind his Maiden Gully home. Darren is in here, mostly painting, sometimes teaching, four-and-a-half days a week. “I do enjoy my own company,” he says. The other half day he’s at the life drawing session he organises for The Avenue Studios, a not-for-profit group supporting local artists.

Darren knows the value of sharing expertise and passion for art, for he is part of a strong and historic network of artists who’ve passed on the baton, stretching all the way back to Australia’s oldest art school, Julian Ashton Art School, with alumni like Brett Whiteley and John Olsen. But first, let’s wind back a little…

Darren grew up in North Bendigo. He says his only exposure to art as a kid was through Warner Bros cartoons and DC comics, and he went through school aspiring to become a police officer. “The police force had height restrictions at the time and I was too short,” he says. “So I went into mechanical drafting instead and went to Melbourne to work for a company called Mistral.

“Draftsmen worked below industrial designers, which are the more conceptual guys, and I saw that happening and thought, wow, that’s the job to have because that is where you’re using your imagination and coming up with ideas.

“So, I went back to TAFE (in Bendigo) and did the art and design course to get together a good portfolio to get me into industrial design, which I did get into in Melbourne, but by that time some of the teachers at TAFE had enthused me for the love of fine art. I was exposed to elements of art I’d never seen before, which was really exciting.”

He describes learning about the great masters, and their expression of the spirit of their time.

Bendigo art teacher, the late Janet Goodchild-Cuffley, encouraged Darren to then study with Lance McNeill at his Melbourne Academy of Realist Artists, known as MARA, which he did part-time for a couple of years. There he learnt about the Ashton school at The Rocks in Sydney, the place with “an incredible pedigree, which was kind of daunting.” His growing portfolio qualified him for a place in 1995.

After the three-year course Darren stayed in Sydney to paint with portrait artist Graeme Inson at his beautiful two-storey terrace studio in Glebe. “Once I spent the three years there, I felt I had enough skills to come back and start exploring what I’d learnt and make it my own,” he says on returning to Bendigo.
Darren’s work is now enjoyed throughout Victoria. He’s a regular at regional art shows and this year was Artist in Residence for the Bendigo Easter Art Show in the Town Hall. His classical oil paintings of nostalgic Aussie food scenes were a favourite.

Take, for one, the work titled Friday Night Fish and Chips, the bounty laid out in butcher’s paper, with the iconic Rosella sauce and Skipping Girl vinegar bottles beside.  Another painting of a humble meat pie was given the same light-soaked treatment. “I took a classical Dutch lighting and put a meat pie in it, where Dutch artists had lobsters and crayfish and goblets of wine,” Darren says. “You look for those themes that resonate with you, so hopefully resonate with others.”

Even better if those “others” are Archibald judges. Darren’s self-portrait, Black Sheep of the Family, was a finalist in the country’s biggest portrait prize. “It’s just affirmation, that your peers see what you’re doing as valid,” he says on the success. “I’m always putting art out there regardless, but if you get that affirmation by those meant to be the gatekeepers of the art community, it helps you keep doing what you’re doing.”

The painting was Darren’s comment on being the only artist in his family of farmers, police officers and nurses. “For me, the black sheep was a way of acknowledging I’m a little different than everyone else,” he says. “I guess I felt I was a little out of the ordinary. Being an artist isn’t a nine-to-five job and there was not a linear path showing ‘this is where you start and this is what you do’. It’s totally unpredictable and totally uncertain.”

Darren credits the support of his family – his wife, Kimberlea, and their children for supporting him to live this life of unpredictability. He says while none have followed his path, art has had an influence.

“I think they’ve seen the importance of creativity,” he says. “I don’t think art changes people, but it can create a conversation, and I guess in that sense our children have grown up with the belief that it’s important to have conversations about everything they believe in, and I think that’s given them direction.”

For Darren, the way forward is still about unearthing his own capabilities. “Art is a journey and there’s not ever a point you reach where you say, I’m satisfied. In a technical sense you’re always looking to improve, to build on what you’ve got, those intuitive foundational skills. Especially ideas and understanding the importance of creative ideas. And that’s what makes a great artist, expressing creative ideas that resonate with people, in a way that people ‘get it’. When that all comes together, you get a terrific painting.”