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Byron Shire
October 22, 2021

Interview: WH Chong

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WH Chong is one of Australia’s foremost cover designers, winner of multiple awards, and is an inductee in the Book Designers Hall of Fame.

He is well known for his portrait drawings of writers and artists – his near-life-size portrait of novelist Michelle de Kretser is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. The Green Room in the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne is hung with his drawings of visiting authors. His art is often seen on books, gracing more than 100 covers of Australian literature in the Text Classics series. Chong has been coming up from Melbourne to enjoy Byron and its hinterlands going on twenty years. He is looking forward to coming back to open his exhibition at Lone Goat Gallery in Byron, Everything Changes.

Tell me a little about yourself.

I design book covers, and paint and draw. Designing books is a great job, but holding a brush or pencil and facing a blank surface is one of the most absorbing things I can think of.

What is the concept of your work? How have you realised the fact everything changes in your work?

This show is titled Everything Changes – a crucial Buddhist saying. Personal themes are something that artists search for, but mainly themes come to you because of the life you have lived. As I say in my artist’s statement: ‘… freedom is achieved when we discover the art that comes of personal necessity. When we grasp what we need to make we are released from convention, from fashion, from dogma, from self-consciousness. Then we are free to make the marks drawn from the deep well within.’

How have you changed? As an artist…as a person… even since you made the work?

For the artist, making new work is the engine. Because new work comes out of older work, and the cycle goes on. The work changes and how you feel about yourself and the art changes. It goes up, it goes down!

How much of your Buddhist philosophy makes its way into your work?

Let me be clear: I’m not a practising Buddhist. I grew up in an atmospheric mix of Daoism, Buddhism and paganism. I’ve read enough Buddhist texts to suit me – as Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch of Chan, might say, if you ‘get it’ you don’t have to keep listening to long sermons or talk about it. My paintings may well say more about my real ‘philosophy’ than I could in words.

I’m interested in the choices artists make when they work. Do you have a clear idea of your intention when you start how do you know when to stop? What’s the process for you?

Sometimes I start with an idea, say, a Chinese character. But I also accumulate sheets of random marks – like automatism – and at certain points I will paint over it in a rush, not knowing what will happen. Nobody really knows how to stop – but I stop when the rush of energy ends. There are many more pictures destroyed than kept!

What will people expect from this show?

Painting! Painting as a contemporary form is not dead. There are many pieces riffing off the ancient tradition of calligraphic abstraction. I have also reworked a Northern Song Dynasty scroll, Rivers and Mountains Without End, into a set of brightly coloured drawings. There are reinvented Chinese scrolls, hanging two metres long; these combine digital processes and hand colouring.

What will you be covering in the artist talk?

It will be a Walking Conversation with the curator. We will walk around the room and he will ask me about various pictures. I hope the audience asks questions too! I should add that I’m doing a design workshop the next day, Sunday 3 June, in association with the Byron Writers Festival: Zen and the Art of Cover Design with WH Chong. Please note: I didn’t pick that title!

The exhibition is on show now until 13 June at Lone Goat Gallery and opens with a talk by Chong on 2 June at 6pm.

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