We recently caught up with local artist Rod Spicer to talk art, oils and this magnificent local landscape he loves to paint.
How long have you lived in the Manning?
All my life – 55 years.
What do you love about living here?
The landscape, I guess. I love the trip from the mountains to the sea.
The fact that you can travel up any valley here, and it ends up at Crowdy. I come from the bush underneath the Elands mountains and here in Tinonee, I’m halfway to the ocean.
When did you first pick up a paintbrush?
I don’t really know. I’ve been painting forever; if I wasn’t painting, I was drawing.
Did your family support your drawing?
Oh yeah. I remember getting a texta once; I’d never seen one before, and I pulled the top off. I was only about 6 or 7, and I just had the inside blunt bit, so I drew with it that way. I didn’t realise it had a tip on the end. I’ll never forget that one (chuckles).
Are there any other artists in the family?
No. We are all creative though; my brothers are all musicians. No artists to speak of, but my daughter is a pretty good – she’s got it.
I think you either have it or you don’t …
I believe that. I always like to encourage people, but there is a ‘thing’. You can learn to draw and paint, but then it becomes hard, because you have to pull it all together. It’s OK to say I can draw most things or paint most things, but then you have composition and all those other things to pull it through and get some magic … well, that’s what I reckon.
Have you had any formal study?
I was in art school in Sydney for a couple of years. I was doing a teaching degree, focusing mainly on education, not the art. I’d always wanted to paint, but I just couldn’t pull the two together … so I left, and I hated Sydney.
So as far as being an artist, you’ve just plugged on …
Yeah, just plugged on. I get a bit disappointed; I haven’t become full-time yet. I was for a while, then the kids got really thin (chuckles), and I thought I better get back to work. That is the eternal struggle.
When the impact of making money infringes on the creativity, you can’t do it. You pick up a canvas, and you think, “Well, I’ve just spent $400 on paint and canvas, and I have to get that back plus make money”, and that’s just not the way to start. You need that little bit of peace and space.
So you like working with oils …
Yeah, they are a little more gutsy. They are probably more easy to work with than watercolours, but even a watercolour done very well just doesn’t seem to have the guts that oils do.
They have a real depth and you can build, or make it thin. It’s obvious that’s what they’re for. That said, if you took away my oils, I’d be painting with something else. Take the paint away, I’d be drawing. It just happens. If you haven’t got it, you just do something else. You get these ideas that you work with, and often ideas are born a long time before you start painting them. You cultivate it … let the pot boil.
Do you have a favourite artist or painting that inspires you?
There are so many. Sometimes I look at the impressionists and think how simple they are. Then I look at the McCubbins and the Streetons, and they are all so beautiful. Sometimes I look at them and ask myself, “Why does that work so well? I wouldn’t have done that” … you know, put that vase there – just odd. But then, that’s why it works; there’s just something about it, and that’s the beauty of it.
Well that’s what defines true art; finding the magic that makes a work special.
Well, that’s the thing about painting. You don’t just go to art school or get the piece of paper saying I can paint, I’m an artist. It’s taken me 55 years to get to the stage where I am just happy painting. I’ve lost that self-doubt. If I think it’s good enough, then it’s good enough.
The painting of the fisherman ‘Zachery’s Catch’, which many people would have seen as it is on the cover of the Manning Valley Art Gallery brochure – what is the story behind this painting?
I was working down in Diamond Beach and went into the little shop down there. There were these little photographs on the wall, and I looked at this one and I thought, “Wow, what a photograph!” It was really small, like the Box Brownie photos, and I never thought more about it. Then something like 10 years later, I was speaking with a bloke called Eric and I mentioned seeing this picture out there, and he said, “That’s my grandfather” – and it went on from there.
What I really liked about the shot was – well, I come from the bush, and here was this bushman at the ocean, which was a bit odd for me. There is a real pioneering thing going on. Here was this bloke with a simple hand line, a spinner and lure. I thought I’d pay him homage.
Those old photographs are so posed, but not posed? They are just beautiful. I don’t know what they are doing … I mean, they know they are having their photo taken, but not like today, where everyone is like, “Look at me!” So they get this beautiful glare up, without changing themselves – wow, just beautiful.
And his trousers – it looks like perhaps they were his older brothers; they are rather large. When I did the singlet, I tried to get the ribs in. It looked like you would have had to cut him out of it, he is just so lean. It has become a fascinating story, because then I met the family and got other photographs of him. I also went to the spot where the picture was taken. The painting is now at the library at Hallidays Point – the Council bought it for the area, so that’s good.
So we go from the fisherman, to the lighthouse at Crowdy, which is very impressionistic.
That painting is sort of like a dream to me. For me, the subject matter dictates to me the style. I think some people have a problem with that, because they think they know my style.
I’m not hung up on being labelled one thing; it is just the way it falls and how I feel. There was one person who said to me, “You paint the one thing forever”, and I think that might be true too, because I always come back to that one picture that I was born to paint, you know?
I think that is OK. I don’t think that anyone is complaining that Monet painted so many versions of the water lilies?
Yeah, well that’s right. The afternoon sunlight is a bit of a signature for me, and a lot of artists do that time of day when the light flicks away. It just reminds me of being young, home, the sun’s going down and the fire’s on; it’s just beautiful. You’re going for a walk, and you are all alone, but you’re not really.
So what else do you love to do?
I love being outdoors. Fishing, camping, canoeing. There’s only one room I reckon, and that’s the outdoors.
Where can people find your work?
I’m trying to get enough for an exhibition. There are a few paintings in Artarmon and in wineries in the Hunter. If people want to drop in to have a look, that’s Ok. They can give me a ring on 6553 0156.