Brian Robinson

Brian Robinson is a multi-skilled contemporary artist whose practice includes painting, printmaking, sculpture and design. Creative from a young age, he has enjoyed a long career as a curator and visual artist. His work is inspired by his Torres Strait Islander heritage and combines his passion for experimentation crossing boundaries between reality and fantasy.

Your Torres Strait Islander heritage informs a major part of your cultural vernacular. Tell me about your experience growing up on Thursday Island and how it affected you creatively.
Just like any other kid growing up on Thursday Island, the entire island was our playground. We were always out fishing, diving, hunting and playing sport, and some of these were seminal experiences growing up. Combined with cultural practice, learning the in and outs of my traditional heritage, I led a very exciting and active life.

Even though I was a child growing up in the Torres Strait, I was still influenced by television, comic books and other publications. I used to sit at the kitchen table for hours on end sketching from imagination and memory, comic books (Spiderman, Superman and the Phantom) or the Women’s Weekly – just anything I could get my hands on.

I also grew up in quite a strong Roman Catholic household and was dragged along to church by my mother. Being bored unfortunately sitting in mass, I started to become interested in the stained glass windows and the statues of Jesus and Mary scattered around the church. That’s where my interest in the biblical narratives and renaissance art stemmed from.

You were evidently quite creative when you were younger, did you always know that you wanted to become an artist and curator?
There were only two career choices for me: drawing and a visual arts practice, or basketball. I always moved around the Island with a basketball tucked under one arm and a sketchbook and some pencils and other bits and pieces tucked under the other. I often say that I was born with a pencil in my hand because I was always creating things using whatever I could find: recycled materials such as cardboard boxes through to spray paint, pencils, pens, markers, timber and old bike frames as well as flotsam and jetsam from the shoreline.

As for curating, I’ve always had a fascination with creativity and a thirst for cultural knowledge and retention, which pushed me into that practice. I’ve always loved art history, unravelling artistic influences throughout history and watching their progression on a global scale. That led me to working at the Cairns Regional Gallery, an institution that I was employed at for 14 years.

Aside from your cultural inspirations, your work reveals a fascination for mythology. What unlocked this creative muse?
I picked up my first art history textbook when I started high school on Thursday Island and I immediately became interested in the Renaissance period, particularly the Sistine Chapel’s creation story fresco, and the portrayal of the human figure captured in paint form, as well as the grand civic marble and sandstone sculptures which echoed scriptures from the Bible and Book of Revelations.

I have always been very interested in my own cultural mythology that originates from the Torres Strait. Mythological tales exploring the origin of landforms and other natural phenomena and magic are spread throughout the culture. Once I started exploring this, as well as Greek mythology, I started to tease out similarities and have created works that speak about the combination and culmination of this research.

How do you gain ideas and work through them?
As a visual artist I see everything as some type of artform. I often have vivid dreams, which I sketch from. I also have ‘Walter Mitty’ moments where I find myself gazing off into space with my mind wandering in and out of fantasy and reality, building spaces that I create work within.

Often when I’m standing at a site designated for a public artwork, the sculptural piece will start to build in my mind. I then follow a process of working backwards where I sketch the concept and choose the materials before working forward again to create the work that I visualised. There is a slight madness to the creative process I believe.

Your multi-disciplinary practice has evolved from planar surface to 3D forms. Has this liberated you creatively?
All my work starts from a drawing basis. I’ve never attended any sculptural workshops; it’s all been a natural development from my two-dimensional drawing and printmaking. However I see people and other elements of the world in small sculptural forms, so it is easy for me to build within that sculptural realm.

I have also started experimenting with works that combine both 2D and 3D elements in the same piece. This started with my linocut prints, particularly the bloom series where I wanted to give body and depth to the flower forms contained within these prints. I started slicing the paper, folding various sections and curling other sections to create unusual forms I had been visualising, experimenting with techniques learnt from studying Japanese origami and a childhood of making paper planes.

I enjoy developing public art as it provides me with the opportunity to work in large scale across different thematic and conceptual realms and to collaborate with other professionals involved in the process: from project management to architects and engineers to the local town planners. I have learnt a lot from interacting with other professionals in this way and have been given the opportunity and privilege to expand on my arts practice. It also allows you to create work that is not constrained by access through doorways and can be enjoyed by all.

Your work is involved and precise, yet you have a strong passion for experimentation. How do you plan your pieces?
Everything starts off in sketch form, whether on paper or drawing directly on blocks of linoleum or zinc plates for etching. In the development of public art, every bit of the process is meticulously planned. The fabricator needs to be familiar with my practice and what I’m trying to convey with my sketches. When I’m creating my sculptural works in the studio, they’re sketched out to a certain point then a lot of those sketches are enlarged to the sizes that I need to create the form in. From here it’s about transferring individual pieces from those larger designs onto timber, plastic or whatever material I’m working on at the time. There is often a method to the madness even though I’m in experimentation mode.

Do you spend much time with artists in your community or do you prefer to work alone?
I work solo for a big percentage of my practice, until it comes to public art. That’s when I start to collaborate with a whole range of people. In looking at my own personal arts practice in the studio, particularly printmaking, I’m a printmaker but not a printer. There are a lot of better-qualified professionals who can do that aspect of work. I create the blocks, carve into the linoleum and scratch into zinc plate but I then give it over to the printer to produce the final print itself. Sculpture, design and everything else that I class as arts practice is done by me in isolation.

You are fortunate to have completed a number of internships and residencies and was awarded the Western Australian Indigenous Art Award for 2013. Were these seminal moments in your practice?
The Western Australian Indigenous Art Award provided me with institutional and public recognition for my arts practice. I’m not classed as a traditional Indigenous artist: I look at concepts and themes that often remove me from Indigenous arts practice and place my creative output within the contemporary arts realm, but scratch away at the surface and you will soon discover the work’s Aboriginality, often hidden and subtle but still present.

As a Vision Culture artist in residence I lectured on various topics as well as exhibiting my work. I chose to focus on art as life through my Torres Strait Islander cultural lens as well as connections with South-East Asia and how my work fits stylistically into that box. There is a strong South-East Asian connection within the Torres Strait and has been there for a number of centuries. My family is one of those with strong connections to Malaysia and the Philippines. The exhibition was an exploration of these themes and influences.

This year you will be one of the few Queensland – and indeed Torres Strait Islander – artists at Sydney Contemporary. Do you hope to achieve anything from this exposure?
Every opportunity to exhibit is a fantastic opportunity to broaden my practice. The creation of art is essentially putting your personal thoughts forward in visual form using whatever medium you’re working in, putting yourself on show every time. Sydney Contemporary is a great exhibition platform in one of the nation’s most influential art cities.

Do you have any words about where your practice is heading?
Every time I look at developing a work, it’s about pushing the boundaries and producing better work than before. I love to explore new themes and concepts and let my mind wander. I have a motto that I use in the studio and, as irony would have it, it comes from a Walt Disney film, Meet The Robinsons (2007):

“Round here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious … and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. Keep moving forward.”


Courtesy the artist, Mossenson Galleries and the Art Gallery of Western Australia

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