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August 1, 2021

Judging art is a classic business

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Nationally lauded artist James Guppy.

The Byron Arts Classic (BAC) is an exciting community visual-art event that has become an integral part of the cultural fabric of the northern rivers region, offering a seven-day celebration of inspiration, creativity and involvement in the visual arts, and a Gala Awards night where judges announce the winners of the six different categories.

One of the judges this year is locally based but nationally lauded artist James Guppy.

In your opinion, how has the art scene here evolved? Are we a more artistic and creative culture than most?

Having lived here for the last thirty-four years, I find it’s amazing how it’s evolved. The Easter Arts Classic was one of the few constants. The short answer? Hugely and Yes.

The evolution seems to go in steps or phases, always tied to the initiative and energy of individuals. Richard and Diana’s gallery in Mullum in the 80s was hugely important. The Epicentre in Byron, CASE, PAN, FEHVA, the many commercial galleries in the Shire that have come and gone, the community college, and now we have the Byron School of Art and the Lone Goat. There is probably a very interesting history to be written by someone there. And, YES we are more creative because initially the beauty and freedom of the area attracted creative types, then the communities we formed became a further incentive. Now we are ‘festival central’ and surveys have shown that, outside the major cities, there’s more bloody culture here than anywhere in Australia.

But is our work any good?

Well, that’s the $64,000 question! Ask me after we have judged the competition and I’ll find another way to avoid answering it. Actually, to be honest, the answer is YES and it’s getting better all the time. But of course the work is a mixed bag and that’s as it should be. There is an amazing range of styles and abilities in our area.

What are the challenges faced by artists living in regional areas?

Many. Sydney ignores us and many of the regional preoccupations about land and place have little urban resonance, so the city galleries usually aren’t interested. But there are also many advantages to being a regional artist. We have a much closer arts community. We are all friends and try to support each other. Being away from the hype and distraction of the city culture allows more time to find and develop ourselves. The internet and travelling exhibitions at the regional galleries help mitigate somewhat against the physical isolation.

Is it actually possible to live as an artist? And support a family? Who would choose such a life?

It’s a great life except for the money. If you are into STUFF, being an artist is probably not your thing unless you can marry yourself off to a financier. But as an artist, you get to do what you love doing and has meaning for you, and you get to do it with like-minded people.

Making ends meet for artists is nearly always incredibly hard. Most work two or three jobs, one of which is their art practice. The family has to go without things other families take for granted. The art community in Byron Shire is full of fantastic people, interesting and alive. Artists tend to live longer because their work and life have more meaning and purpose. This is as long as they avoid the self-destructive ‘romantic’ drug-fucked path of your Whiteleys and Arkleys. Mind you, most artists I know are working too damn hard to let booze and drugs take them over. It’s also probably become a bit ho-hum in the art world these days. I guess the drugs and booze are left to the footballers and sport.

Why did you become an artist?

Because art rescued me. As a five-year-old I was ostracised at school for being different and funny looking – having a big nose and wearing glasses. Luckily I could draw and escape into my own private world. My expertise at drawing became a prop for my developing a sense of self so that by the time I became socially acceptable at around age 11, art was already an important part of who I was. It also fit with my quietly questioning and rebellious nature.

How did you hone your craft?

By doing it relentlessly. Practice is crucial.

Can you be a part-time artist? Or is it something that is 24/7 – something you live and breathe?

Yes, you can be a part-time artist. It may not be possible to be more than that or you may not wish to be more, but for me that is not the point. If you are really creatively engaged with the thing we call ART, it is a 24/7 preoccupation. It can and does seep into all areas of your life.

Does an artist see the world differently?

If they are doing it properly, yes. The world is questioned and transformed in a particular way. We learn to see patterns and possibilities that continually feed what we do, while our practice refines our experience of the world; this in turn deepens our perception and the possibilities. Pretty awesome.

Whom should artists paint for? Themselves? Audience? Galleries?

The reality is we paint for all of the above. The emphasis will be different from one person to the next and at different times in their career. Artists need to be realistic as to why they create and whom they are painting for. The one caveat is that you must respect what you do. Potboilers, painted solely for the money, will only get you so far and then the truth will seep out and … well, it’s not a pretty sight.

What are you looking for in the work this year?

To be surprised, engaged and challenged. This is what you should look for in any art. Having said this, it should be expressed through the craft of visual expression. If someone falls weeping into my arms I will be surprised, engaged and challenged but this does not make it art. It makes it self-expression. There is a context and tradition in art within which our actions make sense and become art. I will be judging from that context.

What are you looking forward to most with regards the Easter Art Classic?

The thing about the Easter Arts Classic is that you see such a wonderful mixture of art – from the tentative beginner to the accomplished professional. It’s the variety and enthusiasm of the entrants that are really engaging. As a longtime professional artist, it’s easy to get cynical about the art world, so things like the Classic and teaching remind me art is important and it doesn’t only give meaning to my world.

Byron Arts Classic Opening Gala Night is Wednesday 23 March at 6pm. $15

The evening is David Bowie-themed Gala and the best Bowie wins a prize! Tickets: $15.

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