Becoming an artist was not, it is not an intention. I don’t think anybody starts with the absolute idea of being an artist....sure you decide to become a museum artist, you can decide that, but in my eyes that’s just as bad as becoming a commercial artist, in the sense that you are not anymore a modern artist. You are subjected to the pope and the prince. The nature of the modern artist is to search, is to be in a precarious position and to be non-professional.
Saul Steinberg, 1986

On reaching 52 last year, I again began to take stock of my reasons for continuing to be an artist. I commenced art school in Brisbane in 1976 so I could say I’ve been in the ‘trade’ for 33 years, and being Catholic remember that was how long Jesus lived for. You have to keep it interesting for yourself. I have never found it too hard to find things to paint, but you do find yourself getting a bit philosophical about whether you can keep it fresh.

I cast my mind back to when I was a first-year architecture student in Brisbane, when one of my lecturers took me aside and said – ‘it’s been my experience with what I have seen of you so far that I don’t hold much hope for you to get through the course, but I think your drawings have the potential to be art.’ I remember first-year architecture to have been a pretty casual affair and about the only difference with my work and a lot of the other students was that it was a bit messier; I could not get the hang of those rapidographs. I started second-year but dropped out after a while and applied to go to art school. At the interview the Dean of the school said – ‘your drawings are a bit weak but we will take you.’

The world changes and the place of art in it changes. Even with the current global recession, money has been one of the big influences on the art world in the last 20 years.

I don’t think money has to be a bad influence; artists need it to have time to do art. Some trends which I think are not positive are: prices achieved at art fairs and auctions are seen as an indication of quality; artists and galleries (mainly young) often exhibit what they think will sell, instead of producing something as if money was not involved. In saying this, I know it is expensive to live nowadays; I am glad I was a student when I was.

The market has its own levelling out process and I am not unduly pessimistic about it. Of course one can argue that just because you’ve been around for a while you shouldn’t be guaranteed a pension, as often being around too long makes your work repetitive, boring and dead.
Now that takes me back to the beginning of these notes and Steinberg’s quote “...nature of the modern artist is to search to be in a precarious position and to be non-professional.”

How do you keep it fresh and interesting for yourself? I think it is different for everybody but you know when it’s not. Some of my more interesting discoveries have been a result of going into a second-hand store and seeing a painting done by an anonymous artist and thinking, I wish I could have done that.

I have always shunned computers but I started to ‘google’ last year. One of the first things I googled was “Men smoking Pipes”. Why? I think I could not recall many images of people smoking pipes in art history except maybe Cezanne’s paintings. I quite like the smell of pipes and it is a rare sight today to see someone smoking one.

Once you google you get taken on many diverging paths and one such path took me to photos of men with hairy chests, moustaches and beards on a site where people sent in comments like “ I wouldn’t kick him out of bed for dropping ash”. These comments are the source of some of the painting titles in this exhibition.

Noel McKenna 24th of April 2009.