Brian Johns talks with Bill Brown: Ship of Fools 2008

How did the boy from Parramatta land in the famous art school in East Sydney?

I think it’s a consequence of being pointed that way as a child. My early painting efforts were hung around the house and visitors seemed impressed.  When I was fifteen at school we were asked to decide on our futures – going further academically or getting a job.  When it came to my turn spontaneously the words spat out, “I am going to be artist” 

So that was where I started, at fifteen sitting the (National Art School) entrance test and I was accepted into the evening classes.  With this, I landed a job at the first place I tried which was J. Walter Thompson – a big advertising agency. 

It was an amazing experience - I learned standards by doing things again. … It was a discipline.

I also learned from working with the layout artists. A sheet of words was the basis of the whole campaign - and they would have to visualize it. I watched the way these guys generated images. Start off with a small core - a small idea.  It just expands.

The fact is too that it would have been task orientated wouldn’t it?  You got a job and you had to complete a job.  Did that help your painting? 

I would like to say “yes” but I’m not sure. I am stubborn.  Now, I see things through. I have learned that.

And it was a great time

Yes it was so exciting.  The 60’s were about imagination, change and revolution. There were the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Sydney Push, the Vietnam War and its politics and it was a bohemian time.

And it was a very rich time, for the heart. We had the London exhibitions of Australian paintings at the Tate Gallery and the Whitechapel show.  People were beginning to notice.  We had commercial galleries starting to open up and mushroom. It seemed to me that art, of all cultural activity, was ahead of the game. In terms of the questions we were asking, like Australian identity, art was making it in a way. 

 So who were your influences at art school?

There were a few familiar Australian models like Nolan, Miller and Fairweather. Also Francis Bacon & De Kooning.  These were the painters I identified with 

Godfrey Miller would have been a teacher the National Art School

I studied in his evening classes in 1963/64 and a new world opened up to me.  I saved money. Against all the best advice, I quit my job.

That’s brave.

Well it was a lure that I couldn’t resist.  I can’t explain how a 17 year-old has these feelings for painting.  And then makes a decision against all the advice. I would say it was a calling.  

You began showing early

Yes. I showed with Rudy Komon when I was 22. I showed with Bonython. I showed with Macquarie Galleries.  I showed with Rex Irwin.  I have shown with the best galleries.

It was a time when Fred Williams, John Brack, Arthur Boyd, Colin Lanceley, Jan Senbergs, Robert Klippel were hitting their straps in one gallery or another, mainly Rudy actually.

So are these paintings autobiographical?

They are. They exist primarily for me to build meaning in my life.  They trace the rise and fall of emotion.  Through touch, I appear in all of them.   Sometimes I put myself, an image, next to what is going on

Accepting that, it seems to me that older painters strike out, they suddenly strike out.  I’m thinking Lloyd Rees – he suddenly struck out of his pattern.  Kevin Connor is another - it seems to me that he is using stronger colour.  And I wonder if that comes with maturity or age? 

It does. There is a loss of detail in your vision. And you feel confident about it. There comes a point when you are actually ahead of your experience and so you are then forced to make imaginative leaps.  And if they don’t work you go back and revisit. So there is always a breakdown of belief, and a breakthrough.

Do you think that these paintings are more interior?

Yes, very much, it is a very interior space now.

Do you think that comes with age? 

I am at an age now that I am not embarrassed by it. That’s important.