Sean Murphy

Desert Dauber

Broadcast: 31/08/2009 8:21:24 AM

Reporter: Sean Murphy

ANNE KRUGER, PRESENTER: Thousands of tourists have this year flocked to the remote desert country where Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia meet to see some of the nation's great wild rivers in flow.

And it's also been a magnet for artists drawn to the rich and rugged beauty of the outback in full bloom.

(vision of deep red desert dunes and loan artist walking)

PETER GRIFFEN, ARTIST: I used to be a geography teacher and we studied man/land relationships and that sort of thing comes into my paintings, too, some sort of reference to man in the land. In particular in the desert, I find that, for some reason, rather - most inspiring.

It's the sort of thing that excites me. This spaciousness and it's also, in a strange way, very pretty and it might be a funny way to describe a harsh environment like a desert, but it's got this amazing beauty to it.

And I like the idea of working on the edge of abstraction. Sometimes very abstract, pure abstract, or on the other side, where there is some sense of representation and a real feeling of source.

SEAN MURPHY, REPORTER: And for Peter Griffen, there is no greater source of inspiration than the Australian landscape and its rugged beauty.

PETER GRIFFEN: Sometimes I think it's like fairy floss, it looks so soft and delicate, with lovely purples and pinks and soft greens and lovely blue skies. It's all there and all that was changing to something else quite spectacular as the sun went down.

(vision of works on display at gallery)

NADINE WAGNER, GALLERY DIRECTOR: His work is vibrant, it's energetic, it's high energy and you can see here, this is what these works are. It's all about taking a line, making a mark, on either a piece of paper or a canvas, and pushing it. And that's what he does, whether he is working on a small scale or a large scale.

SEAN MURPHY: So what sort of people would be interested in this collection?

NADINE WAGNER: When I first met Peter Griffen, the Macquarie University had just purchased 17 paintings, large paintings of his and being a conservative institution, then you've got people who just respond to his work. People, ordinary people like you and I.

SEAN MURPHY: Opening night at a Sydney gallery may be a far cry from the desert, but Peter Griffen is just as much in his element here.

PETER GRIFFEN (to gallery viewer): I'm doing a big one of those.

VIEWER: Are you?

PETER GRIFFEN (to viewer): Take one section and imagine...

PETER GRIFFEN (to reporter): Maybe there's something wrong with me, but I very rarely get nervous at openings. I think once the paintings are up and I feel confident that I'm happy with them, there's nothing to be nervous about, really. I'm talking to people about my paintings. Maybe they'll buy one, maybe they won't, but in the meantime I just enjoy that act.

SEAN MURPHY: Obviously your work speaks for itself, but how important is it that you've actually got to sell yourself as well, on a night like this?

PETER GRIFFEN: I think it's important, but it's not really important. Some artists don't bother dressing up and don't bother playing the game. The art does it for them, you know. I think the most important thing in the end is that people like the paintings.

(vision of Peter Griffen working in studio)

SEAN MURPHY: Whether it's in the desert or in his inner Sydney studio, for Peter Griffen, it all comes back to the paintings.

PETER GRIFFEN (while working): That's the lovely thing about it. So you start off with an empty mind, an empty canvas and lay the paint down, go into chaos because by entering chaos you go into a new world. I think you inherit a lot of things, and so possibly when you go into this chaotic situation, you ... you are responding to things that you've seen before, things you've felt before. I always feel as if by going out into the bush, working from the bush, working on plain air, painting what I see, it's like taking notes, filling my mind with information about the landscape, come back into the studio and paint an abstract landscape, then the ... that sort of experience is helping me make a more potent abstract painting.

(vision of long country road)

PETER GRIFFEN (to workshop attendees): If I do a painting of it, I might look like a hotel somewhere else. Who knows? It's not really the issue. The issue is, I'm going to look at the hotel and I'm going to paint a picture. And I'm going to respond to the hotel.

SEAN MURPHY: He may be one of Australia's leading painters, but Peter Griffen is also still a teacher, running workshops to help fellow artists free themselves from the constraints of describing what they see. This one is in Birdsville on the edge of the Simpson Desert and today they're painting the iconic Birdsville Pub.

PETER GRIFFEN (to students): It's not necessary to paint a representation of what you see. What's most important is that you respond to what you see. And the response is the most important thing. And if you want to get something exact, you take a photograph.

PETER GRIFFEN (to reporter): I just like the idea of teaching. I'm a trained teacher. But I gave up teaching a long time ago and then around about 2000 started teaching abstract art. And I enjoy it. I mean, I enjoy people. I enjoy talking about what I'm doing.

PETER GRIFFEN (to female student): I've done something just by shrinking it up. Look what you've done. That's fantastic! I mean, who would've expected that?

PETER GRIFFEN (to reporter): The main thing that I'm after as a teacher is to help people find their own way of working, their own unique style, and help them to feel free. When you can give a person a sense of freedom, that's fantastic. That's a fantastic gift.

SEAN MURPHY: Do you get inspired by that?

PETER GRIFFEN: Absolutely. I mean, it's just wonderful to think that you can help people in that way. And I'd like to be able to give as much as I can. I've had such a great life myself, I'm very lucky and like to give back somehow or other.

SEAN MURPHY: From character buildings to colourful characters, Birdsville provides all sorts of inspiration. These three young men rode their old postal bikes through town on their way to attempt a desert crossing for charity.

BIKER: We decided to ride from Sydney, which is where I live, up through Bourke, Innamincka, those areas, across the Simpson Desert and to Alice Springs and back home from there.

We're doing it for charity Autism Aspect Australia. My good friend Tom over here, who's a teacher, deals a lot with autistic kids and that sort of stuff, and we decided it'd be a good charity to do.

SEAN MURPHY: You're doing it on postal bikes. Has anyone told you that you're mad?

BIKER: I think the vast majority of people think we're mad, but there's been a lot of positive response as well from people, I think, who have more of an adventurous spirit than others.

(vision of desert dunes)

SEAN MURPHY: Part of the adventure of Peter Griffen's Birdsville workshop was climbing and painting Big Red, one of the region's tourism drawcards. His students included cattle producers David and Nell Brooks, owners of Adria Downs. Its 800,000 hectares include Big Red.

SEAN MURPHY (to David and Nell Brooks): You probably see it most days of your lives. Now that you have brushes in hand, do you see it differently?

DAVID BROOKS, ADRIA DOWNS, BIRDSVILLE QLD: Well, it's got many faces for a lot of people. It comes along a dusty day, a clear day, a blue sky day, a rainy day and we're trying to give it a new face again today. And it's another challenge. It's a challenge to get over it driving, it's a challenge to paint it too.

SEAN MURPHY: And now what are you hoping to get out of this workshop?

NELL BROOKS: I think what I've got, so far, is just the shades. You often drive and you think, "Wow, that's fantastic", but I think Peter's sort of probably got us more in tune with the different shades of the colour of the sky and the colour of the sand hill and when it changes colour. We always notice that but I think I will be a bit more aware of it. But I must tell you, I've had babies in my arms and cameras in my arms and champagne in my arms, but I've never had a paint brush in my hand on the top of Big Red, so it's completely out of my comfort zone. But fantastic.

PETER GRIFFEN (to students): That's a good idea. Get it in the sand. Get some sand on it. Get a bit of grit in there. It will give ... the idea is to get a challenge going for yourself. So it's a bit difficult to work with, you know.

SEAN MURPHY: Apart from freeing themselves up, Peter Griffen encourages his fellow artists to constantly challenge themselves. He believes the best work never comes easily.

PETER GRIFFEN: Usually there's got to be a sense of struggle in a work to make it - add a potency to the work. I think a good work of art has got a potency and strength that you can be aware of when you're looking at it. And if it doesn't happen that, it's just maybe an illustration, something pretty to look at it. It might be a lovely thing to look at, but it doesn't have the energy that you get in a work as a result of a struggle.

SEAN MURPHY: For some, like Monica Clonda, the struggle is to loosen up.

MONICA CLONDA: To become a little more spontaneous and also to try the landscape because it's not really my thing, so pushing the boundaries a little bit and trying to do something out outside of your comfort zone. I'm more comfortable with figurative work or something a little more tactile, so I guess that's one thing for me that this will hopefully be beneficial for, just to free up and loosen up and really respond at that minute to the landscape.

SEAN MURPHY: For others, such as Fred Oertli, it's purely about having fun.

FRED OERTLI: It's just something that came up after I retired. I needed to fill my time, do something useful and I do it as a hobby. I don't sell paintings. I don't think anybody would spend good money on those anyway.

SEAN MURPHY: I don't know, I think you're underselling yourself.

FRED OERTLI: (laughs) Yes, OK. Well, I never expected to be up on top of the Big Red anyway.

(vision of outback river)

SEAN MURPHY: From desert sands to a Diamantina River dawn, Birdsville is awash with colour and inspiration. And for Peter Griffen, it's about tapping into the timelessness of the landscape and his connection to it.

PETER GRIFFEN: This is my country. This is where I was born and raised. My heritage is Celtic and those people were very attached to the land, very spiritually attached to the land, and I think perhaps I'm carrying that on here in Australia, that sense of connection to the land.

The Aborigines are obviously very connected to the land and they talk about that a lot. But so are we, you know, us white guys have come here because we've always been part of the land. Maybe somewhere else, but you take on this country as your home. And I just I don't know what it is, you know. There is something just bloody marvellous about it.

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