Contemporary artist Shaun Clark’s first time entry in the Archibald in 2000, a painting of iconic Australian actor Ruth Cracknell, hung in the Salon des Refuses.
He has painted a slew of other well-known Australian identities and a self-portrait titled Blood, Sweat and Fears, painted in his own blood, toured Australia in 2007. Shaun works from a studio at his bush property at Topi Topi, near Bungwahl.
How long have you lived in the Manning-Great Lakes?
I have lived in the Manning-Great Lakes for 10 years. It’s one the best decisions we have ever made. I knew that Australia was fantastic in wildlife and colours, but I hadn’t realised just how incredible the East Coast is and what it has to offer to a creative mind.
I was always copying nature in my paintings and since I’ve been here, I’ve developed techniques that to me feel like nature itself. I feel now that I have become more in tune with nature and am more at ease with making art, rather than forced.
What brought you to the area, and how has the city-to-bush transition been?
The transition from city-to-bush has been fantastic – cathartic to the soul, as they say. I had a fairly hectic business and entertainment life in Sydney and found being in the bush incredibly calming.
When I was in the city, I felt more competitive and driven to impress and make money and found that doing something I loved became tiresome and monotonous. I started becoming commercial, which I think is death to a true artist.
Now that I do house painting as a main income and I’ve found that it’s taken the emphasis off commercialising my work, I can paint for pleasure again.
You painted the late iconic Australian actress Ruth Cracknell at her home in 2000. Was she as regal in life as she appears in the painting?
In doing portraiture, I think Ruth Cracknell was the most nerve-wracking entry into that field. Not because of Ruth, as she was extremely patient, elegant and gracious. I had to overcome my awe of her as quickly as possible, or the work was not going to make it.
Her talent, of course, was superb, and in painting her I hoped in the very least that she would like the picture. Ruth is an Australian icon. Few Australians know that she could have had a career pretty well anywhere in the world, but she chose to remain in Australia – as it was so incredibly dear to her and she would not leave it.
I was incredibly honoured that she agreed to sit for me. The painting was selected for the Salon des Refuses that year.
Tell us about the background in this painting?
I don’t consider myself a portrait painter, but I enjoy a challenge – and as an artist, to paint a person is the greatest challenge. The painting of Ruth was my first formal portrait sitting, so it had to be a great picture no matter what, because I couldn’t have her looking at that picture and not liking it.
When I paint a portrait, I like to have the person sitting in the room with you in spirit. Unfortunately, Ruth passed away within a couple of years of me painting the portrait, and I feel when I look at the picture that she’s still here and I always say hello when I go into the studio.
The following year, actress Lisa McCune sat for me. This was a very intimate portrait session, as she was six-and-a-half months pregnant and this painting is the only picture of her first pregnancy.
I have also painted opera singer Cheryl Barker, Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, actor Ryan Kwanten, and Archibald-winning artist Euan Macleod.
Your self-portrait, titled Blood, Sweat and Fears, was selected as a finalist in the 2007 Doug Moran Portrait Prize … you used your own blood to do this painting?
As I am always looking for new ideas, one day I walked out of my studio and reached down and picked a stone up by some razor grass and cut my finger.
The blood pooled in my hand, and I went back to the studio to clean it. When I looked at the blood and appreciated the colour, instead of cleaning my hand, I dipped a brush in the blood and did a quick sketch. It fascinated me and gave me an idea that I executed. This became a self-portrait in my own blood.
As this was an unusual medium, I consulted with a doctor friend of mine who took my blood and put it into glass vials with anticoagulant, which I kept refrigerated. Working quickly, I completed the painting in three days.
Once finished and sealed with varnish, I entered it into the Archibald Portrait Prize for that year and was rejected. After that rejection, I took it very personally and wanted to burn the picture.
The painting was a very personal statement about my hard work and frustration in making art. I was using the most valuable paint I could use and with the constant images of the Iraq ‘war’ bombings and draining of life, I had expressed my fears about the future from that war and my ‘internal’ war as an artist.
I used the reverse side of the canvas to achieve the effect of rawness – there’s no pencil or pen marks; the whole painting is organic, canvas and blood. These were my own rules for this particular picture, as all my pictures have their own rules.
What motivates you to paint?
Sometimes I don’t feel like painting at all and divert to my other great passion – the garden. It is another source of shape, colour and organic ideas that I can shape and manipulate at any level I want to combine. But when I feel like painting or have an idea, I have to work and everything else is sacrificed to that idea. Even though I’m self-taught, seeing other art and talking to people triggers ideas and motivates me to paint.
There’s a hint of the surreal in your work. Is Salvador Dali an inspiration?
I love the clarity of Salvador Dali and maybe I am somewhat influenced by his surrealism; but really, my own surrealism is that I’m not a surrealist, but I am – in the sense that you are influenced if the painting needs it, and a flicker of someone like Dali trickles through.
I am an abstract artist, I am a realist and an expressionist, but really what I am is a mood painter – how I’m feeling at the time comes out in my pictures and is often not where I envisioned beginning.
Where can we see your work?
At the moment, a few of my works are in the Manning Regional Gallery – and I’m really delighted, as they have some fantastic works there.
What are your favourite words to live by?
Time is fast, and I better make sure I do as much as I can to make my life as full as possible.