Frank Nowlan

I remember the first time I saw a Frank Nowlan painting. It was in 2003 at the Thirroul Seaside Arts Festival. At the time I was the curator of the University of Wollongong Art Collection a role that had the benefit of being able to go and look at art as part of the job, especially local art. I went to the Art Prize that was part of the Festival and was struck dumb by Frank’s humble masterpiece ‘The Butchers at Gibo Park’.

Can you tell me a little about yourself, where and when you were born and where you went to school?
I was born in 1943 in Sydney to an Irish father and an Aussie mother, and I spent my first 21 years in the then working class suburb of Marrickville. Most of my primary and secondary education was at Christian Brothers School, Lewisham, where art was not on the school curriculum.

Can you tell me a little bit about your working life as a teacher? Where did you study then where did you go? Can you tell me about your time in Orange?
I attended Alexander Mackie Primary Teachers College. At this college I became interested in art through a very good teacher, Miss E. Waugh, who had previously taught Brett Whiteley at Bathurst. While at teachers college I played in the lower grade for Newtown Rugby League club.

Initially, I taught in small country primary schools, including Boree Creek and, after completing a BA externally at UNE with a double major in history, I taught at Griffith High School. In Griffith I played competitive cricket, rugby league and soccer and we all found this town a marvellous place to live.

Unfortunately, in 1975 the illegal growing of “grass” appeared on the scene. At that time I knew Donald Mackay through a Saturday jogging group and through an external BA course that we were both doing. Bob Trimbole and his family lived in our street, a few doors up from us and I taught the children of both families. Subsequently I did a seventeen painting series on Mackay and Trimbole.

Can you tell me when you moved to Thirroul, about what you did there and about the Thirroul community?
In 1976 we moved to Thirroul when I was appointed History Head Teacher at Corrimal High School and later I was appointed Deputy Principal at Figtree High School where I remained until my retirement in 2003.

When we first moved to Thirroul it was very much a working class suburb and many people were employed in the mines or at BHP. Now a lot of people travel to Sydney for work and because of the steep rise in housing costs and with many people moving into the area from Sydney the social status of this suburb has risen. Thirroul still has a very good sense of local community and, on many occasions, when having coffee at one of the local cafes, which would normally take 15 minutes at the most, we find that we are still there an hour or two later, having caught up with friends and acquaintances. I have also been involved in the local football side, the Butchers, in both a coaching and administrative capacity.

When did you start painting – didn’t you do some classes?
I started painting in approximately 1992 after a 30 year break and, being a “Sunday painter”, I undertook as many hobby classes as possible, including classes with Robert Wilson at Bathurst CAE and with Sno Brewer at the Julian Ashton Art School.

What drew you to painting?
My first teacher at Alexander Mackie Teachers College initially drew me to painting. Most of our artwork was in painting and we only attempted a small amount of clay work.

There are many things I like about painting; with oils I like the thickness of the paints and sometimes the serendipitous effects with colour. Also, because of my poor drawing skill, I view painting as a separate entity in art.

Can you talk a little about your first few solo shows – maybe how you felt about them and about developing an art career?
My first solo show was at Wollongong City Gallery in 2004. The paintings in this show were mainly on the local scene, such as football and cricket and some memory paintings such as travelling to Wollongong from Sydney in the steam train as a youngster. I felt terribly apprehensive on the opening night and I did not want to be there but I felt rewarded in that the artist, Gary Shead, purchased two of my works and later wrote a nice complimentary letter. Other solo shows I have had with Peter Fay at his home in Leichhardt and a retrospective travelling show with Hawkesbury Regional Gallery. These shows were either based on local or historical themes, e.g. the Kennedy Assassination or other themes, which sometimes dig a little deeper, for example the role of War Memorials in today’s society.

What was in your last show at Egg and Dart Gallery in Thirroul? What were they paintings of?
My last show was at Egg & Dart (a small gallery in Thirroul) on houses in the local area. Unfortunately, many of these quirky small houses have now been demolished to be replaced by ‘McMansions’. My house paintings do not follow the rules of drawing with proper perspective etc but I like having fun with colour in painting. Recently, an early morning swimming mate indicated that he thought that I must only paint on Thursdays because in most of my house paintings I have placed garbage bins and Thursday is our garbage collection day.

What artist do you admire? Do you look at a lot of art?
There is no one artist who I really admire the most. I like it when an artist is being free and expressive and I am attracted to some works by Chagall, Picasso, Bacon, L. S. Lowry. I also like Sidney Nolan’s works from the 1940’s.

Before I retired from teaching I did spend a lot of time visiting galleries but now I spend more time in the studio, although I did love last years exhibition on the Sydney Moderns. I do read a lot on art and I would probably read at least fifty books a year on art.

Do you feel like an artist? A historian? A storyteller? All of these things?
In answering your last question I feel I am somewhat of a combination of all of these, sometimes my paintings are purely narrative, such as the Mackay and Trimbole series, or historical, as the Daisy Bates works, but occasionally I feel I am close to being an artist where the paintings are a little more thought provoking, such as the ‘Cronulla Riots’ and the ‘Australia Day’ paintings.

As I paint purely for enjoyment and to have some fun, I am fortunate that I can push myself more into the artist mode and try to examine what this life, for me, is about.

Frank Nowlan | Old and New
23 June – 15 July 2017

Egg & Dart Gallery, Thirroul

Frank Nowlan is represented by Egg & Dart Gallery

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