Danie Mellor’s Quest for Consistent Excellence
It was an accident on a prawn trawler that prompted Danie Mellor to reconsider his career options. When asked how he became an artist, he recounts, “What pushed me onto the right path eventually was an accident on the back deck of a prawn trawler in the Gulf of Carpentaria when I was working as a deckhand. We had trawled through a reef and damaged the nets, so hauled them up for repair, and two large rocks fell from the nets twenty feet above me, landing on my back while I was underneath them working. That left me a bit winded, shall we say, and I spent the next three months in bed recuperating and wondering what I should really be doing”. Mellor explains that whilst he had “always ‘done art’ from a young age,” there was no ‘lightbulb’ moment when art became his career. It was “more like a like lightbulb gradually getting brighter”. Art eventually found him and although he considered a few other options, “in the end it was a choice that wasn’t really a choice – it’s something you do because that’s what you do … going to art school felt the natural choice, and the only one, really”.
Bursting with awards, an assortment of exhibitions and a few stints overseas, Mellor’s CV is impressive. Obvious highlights have included winning awards such as the Adelaide Perry Prize for Drawing 2010, the 26th Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards 2010, the Indigenous Ceramics Award 2009, and the Tallis Foundation National Works on Paper Award 2008. In addition to these awards, Mellor’s work is represented in numerous permanent Australian and international collections, as well as private collections.
Mellor’s work predominantly explores the connection between Indigenous and Western cultures, particularly in relation to his indigenous heritage. He explains that quite early on in his career (after he completed his undergraduate studies), “I realised there was something missing in my work, which actually was the incorporation of the experience and narrative about Indigeneity, Western culture and history”. Discovering the missing element in his work was a gradual process: “I couldn’t quite define what needed to be there, and after what must have been many clumsy attempts to introduce a visual language into my practice that I felt reflected both heritage and history, my work gradually began to make sense (at least to me!).” As for many artists, the process of identifying the missing element in their work often occurs through experimentation, as well as trial and error. “Developing a way of working, or a habit of working, and deciding on what your focus will be as an artist takes time, and it inevitably changes and evolves as well,” explains Mellor.
Modest about his career highlights, Mellor says that as exciting and satisfying as awards are, they are not the only thing he strives for in his career. “Having work included in exhibitions and winning prizes – although it’s fantastic and professionally rewarding – are not the only things that make a successful career.” The key, he explains, is ‘consistency’. “Consistency is what people will remember, more so than highs or lows. (An addendum to that is to make sure you are pushing for ‘consistent excellence’).” Focusing on consistently outstanding work has allowed Mellor to take a step back and observe the bigger picture in his career. By keeping his work and career in perspective, Mellor has been able to ride the highs and lows experienced by most artists. “It’s difficult to accept the inevitable lows and disappointments unless you have a long-term view, and it also means that any success and accomplishment is put into perspective.”
Mellor is a multi-faceted guy. In addition to his art practice, he also teaches and is well travelled, having completed his MA in Fine Art in the UK. Teaching and travel have both had a positive influence on his art practice. Mellor explains that the UK trip came about because of his desire to research and learn about engraving and mezzotint products, “they were techniques I was quite keen to pursue as an early-career artist at the time,” he says. “It was ironic that it was only after I came back from England that I began to explore it with a greater focus, and then only for a short period.”
As many people who have embarked on a trip overseas can relate, it was actually the freedom of travel that had a profound impact on Mellor. “I found when I was in the UK that driving to and staying in as many places as I could in Wales, Scotland and England to soak up the country became my priority. Probably not my most shining couple of years as a diligent student – or an absent one, come to think of it – but I did take a lot of photographs and fell in love with a great many villages, vistas, lochs, mountains, moors, narrow country lanes and full English breakfasts in quirky B&Bs.” Mellor recalls that one of his most memorable experiences was being stranded on the remote Scottish island of Iona “for several days due to storms interrupting the ferry service back to the Isle of Mull. That was just magic.”
Teaching and lecturing at both high schools and universities has also had a positive influence on Mellor’s practice. “I have found over the years that teaching and my practice has been osmotic, in that both have tended to feed one another in very productive ways,” Mellor explains. There is certainly a synergy between Mellor’s teaching and his creative process. “I think the breadth of research, reading and knowledge that is needed for a role in education has supplemented my studio research and making,” he says.
There is no doubt that Mellor’s quest for consistency has kept him busy over the last few years, and it doesn’t look like this will change anytime soon. He is one of twenty Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists featured in the National Gallery of Australia’s forthcoming exhibition, unDisclosed, running from 11 May – 22 July. Curated by Carly Lane, Mellor explains that the exhibition will “explore country and landscape, life and mortality. The pictures reflect a fairly broad engagement with ideas about colonisation, settlement, nature, transformation and our presence in all of that … It will be opening soon, so it’s best to go see the show”.
There is also a major survey exhibition of Mellor’s work in the pipeline for the beginning of 2014 at the University of Queensland Art Museum in Brisbane. Mellor says that they hope the show will tour to other venues in addition to the UQ Art Museum. “It’s still early planning days, so no particular focus has been decided on just yet, or how it will look; I think it will be quite interesting being around work that I haven’t seen for years – I’m looking forward to it.” What type of works can we expect to see included in the exhibition? “I expect the selection of pieces for the show would identify key areas of production and research from the last fifteen years, so there will be plenty to choose from. I can predict with some safety though there will be lots of blue, white and gold …” hints Mellor.
If you can’t wait until 2014, Mellor’s next solo exhibition, Paradise Garden will run from 1 – 30 June at Michael Reid at Elizabeth Bay and Manly Art Gallery & Museum. Melburnians can also check out Mellor’s work at Sophie Gannon Gallery, Richmond.
Mellor hopes that his work will help viewers identify “A sense of beauty in nature and its inherent spirituality, perhaps the realization that dual and multiple histories in Australia and the world are very real and tangible, even that there is cultural knowledge embedded within the simple act of depicting and looking at country and landscape”.
I am intrigued by Mellor’s creative process, and more importantly, how he juggles his busy schedule between teaching and creating. I ask what a typical day looks like for him, and how he works effectively. “Do artists have typical days?” he questions, before elaborating: “My workdays are very long, as the pictures I am doing are laborious and I need to be focused for around fourteen hours each day or more for quite a few months to finish a series for an exhibition. I usually start the day mid-morning, as I prefer working into the early morning hours. The world seems to quieten down a lot.” It’s evident that Mellor has identified when and how he works best. “I have realised that to work as an artist needs a very blue-collar approach – you need to set a pattern and habit for working.” He is inspired by the wise words of American artist Chuck Close, who said “not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.” Mellor also thrives on the diversity of his work – “Some days I will spend researching, others sitting around and trying to work through ideas or figuring out how to resolve something in the work.” The tranquil location of Mellor’s home in Bowral in the NSW Southern Highlands also plays a key role in his productivity. He says that his home “has a very natural environment, so I have nice views (inspiring even … sorry Chuck) when I do work. It’s ideal, and I usually create my best work at home.” When asked what advice he would offer to emerging artists, Mellor’s words resonate with his own philosophy of consistent excellence: “Just. Keep. Working.” And we hope he does just that.
DANIE MELLOR: Exotic Lies Sacred Ties, a UQ Art Museum Travelling exhibition, TarraWarra Museum of Art, 311 Healesville-Yarra Glen Road, Healesville (VIC), 10 May – 27 July 2014
Courtney Symes is a Canberra-based writer, small business owner, and mother. When she’s not writing, you will find her enjoying a run around one of Canberra’s beautiful parks and seeking out Canberra’s best coffee and cheesecake haunts with the family. Read more at alittlepinkbook.blogspot.com.au