Queensland based artist Colin Pennock was born in Northern Ireland, where he joined the police at 17, but soon navigated a more creative course in life. After years spent working as a commercial artist and illustrator in New York, Colin’s outlook changed profoundly after the 9/11 attacks. He made a conscious decision to leave New York and focus on painting once more. Colin moved to Australia, where he had spent some childhood years with his family, and set up an idyllic home and studio in the lush Noosa hinterland. His latest body of work, ‘Pioneer‘, will be exhibited next week in Sydney.
I imagine it’s probably quite unusual to find a celebrated artist who started out in the police force. Queensland based artist Colin Pennock was born in Northern Ireland, where he joined the police at 17, but he always wanted to be an artist. Sketches he made whilst on patrol eventually led to a scholarship at St Martins School of Art in London (back in 1985!), and since then, Colin has made his living creatively. He’s also moved house 35 times (!!) and has called many cities home, before settling 13 years ago in the Noosa hinterland.
Though reluctant to label his style of work, when pressed, Colin describes his paintings as ‘abstract landscapes’. His distinctive ultra thick layers of oil paint create textural works of buzzing intensity – indeed, Colin has used his practise in recent years as a kind of cathartic release after leaving New York in the wake of 9/11, seeking a fresh start, and a new creative direction.
Colin’s upcoming show is called Pioneer – a series inspired by the revelatory feeling of reaching ones’ personal goals. ‘It is about finding the place that makes you happy, which for me has taken many years’ says Colin below. ‘A pioneer is someone who goes into the unknown with confidence in what they have inside. This is how I approach painting. It is how I have made my own way’.
Pioneer by Colin Pennock
5th to 22nd November 2014
66 McLachlan Avenue
Rushcutters Bay, NSW
Opening Wednesday 5th November 2014 from 6.00pm
Tell us a little about your background – what path led you to becoming a fine artist, and to creating the style of work you are currently making?
I joined the police in Northern Ireland when I was 17, but even then I wanted to be an artist. I used to make quick sketches while on foot patrols or standing in doorways at night. It was those sketches that impressed St Martins School of Art London (back in 1985) enough to offer me a four year scholarship in Fine Art Painting. At the time, I thought it was my drawing skills that made an impression but I later was told by one of the tutors that it was the atmospheric quality of the work that had caught their eye.
Up until then I hadn’t really looked at a lot of art in books or galleries, and didn’t really have a lot of knowledge of art, so finding myself at art school in Cambridge Circus was to me as magical as discovering the treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Despite this, I was more at home in the country than the city, and was often overwhelmed by crowds.
My early works were landscapes with figures, but very quickly the figures diminished in the works. It seemed I was always moving, while in London I moved house six times in four years, and I have moved home 35 times in my life. It just seems to happen by way of circumstance. I moved to New York in a similar way, and stayed for six years. I made a living as a story board artist and illustrator working for MTV, Film and advertising agencies. At this point my painting seemed to take a back seat. But it remained a constant, even though I was not showing there until 1998, when I had an exhibition called Conflict and Culture, which included some of those early sketches I had drawn in the police force in Northern Ireland.
I was becoming more discontent with the commercial drawing that was paying my bills, and when 9/11 happened it had a profound effect on me and I decided to leave New York and focus on my painting. My family were living in Sydney, a place I knew well, having spent ten years there from the ages of 1-11 years old when I was a child. I decided to move to Australia and find a studio and work. When I began to draw again I found I had an aversion to illustrating or defining recognisable forms. So in an attempt to break through this block, I began to make marks choosing whatever colour paints or materials, to allow me to meditate away from this block.
I used graphite and oil paint at that time. The graphite formed a structure and the paint gave the work its mood and life. In time the paint would take over completely. At that time I felt I had broken through a wall and become free.
The whole process was cathartic and the abstraction that started as a form of meditation developed into a language which made perfect sense to me.
How would you describe your work?
It’s easier for me to talk about specific works than it is to talk about my work in general. However when someone asks what type of work I do, the simple reply is ‘Abstract Landscape’, although I feel that really only touches the surface.
What can we expect to see in your new exhibition ‘Pioneer’ at Arthouse Gallery next month? What has inspired this body of work?
In 1965 my family left Belfast, Ireland as ‘ten pound poms,’ and we sailed to Australia. I have a clear memory of looking down from the deck to the bow of the ship, and memory of the dusty road as we travelled between Perth to Sydney in an old Morris minor.
In 1976 we returned to Ireland, because my father had a desire to be a farmer. Under normal circumstances, it would have been a ludicrous idea to think of doing this as he had no experience of farming, but again to us it just seemed like an adventure. At that point I was a skate boarding kid living in Manly, Sydney.
None of us knew what to expect when we arrived at the height of the troubles in Belfast, and I remember both the beauty and hardship of farming there. W.B Yeats described Ireland as a ‘Terrible beauty,’and I found it to be so because of the extreme changes I experienced there.
All these experiences have made me a traveller, following my own ambitions and goals. It left me with the confidence to create new paths to experiment and not be tied or restrained as I saw happen to other people.
My wife and I love our own space in the Hinterland of Noosa, Queensland. We have made our way of life work, with many people wondering how we do it. I know the pioneer spirit. Luckily for me my wife does also. It connects us to immigrants and settlers who are willing to try a new way of life, working hard to achieve their goals. A pioneer is someone who goes into the unknown with confidence in what they have inside. This is how I approach painting. It is how I have made my own way.
Can you give us a little insight into your process? What materials do you use? Is each work pre-planned or created very intuitively? Do you work on multiple canvases at one time?
Usually I begin painting without any reference materials. Not even making linear sketches on the linen. I trust the paint and I begin working. It is like a conversation with the surface, and it goes back and forth until something emerges. It almost sings when you get it right. The energy comes from the surface rather than me trying to transcribe. I feel that to do that is like using a photocopier – something gets lost from the original. That’s why I prefer painters to illustrators, you have to connect to the materials. That’s all a painter needs to do. Materials that I use are Chapman Bailey Stretchers, Belgium Linen and Archival Oil paints.
I do work on multiple canvases and sometimes works are completed several years later, going back and forth to resolve them. Sometimes it’s immediate and I can complete a painting in a matter of hours. Being surrounded by the work is like having a reminder of your thoughts and memories.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
I like to start the day slowly, and have breakfast with my wife Katrina before going to the studio. My mind is often full of thoughts in the morning, as I dream very vivid dreams so I like to let that dissipate. I may spend hours in the morning doing almost meaningless prep work, cleaning palette knives or stretching canvases. Then quite naturally I just start squeezing paint onto the palette and the conversation begins. I may work several hours before realising I haven’t had a break from my thoughts. I work until I become distracted, then I stop.
If I feel disconnected from what I am doing I stop altogether and do something else, like gardening until I feel drawn again to go back. Often I accomplish something in my mind about how to resolve a problem in my work when I am not even painting.
Which other local artists, designers or creative people are you most inspired by at the moment?
I am aware of the great number of talented painters there are in Australia, like Rick Amor, Robert Malherbe, Guy Maestri, Luke Scibberas, and Ben Quilty. But of those that I know personally I am most inspired by artists who I feel are on their own individual journey, artists including Joshua Yeldham, Lisa Adams, Stefan Dunlop and Kim Guthrie.
What is your proudest career achievement to date?
There is a painting in the exhibition Pioneer titled ‘Just As We Imagined It’ – this work is about reaching your goals. Finding the place that makes you happy, which for me has taken many years. Finally Katrina and I have found an idyllic lifestyle that has come through lots of determination, commitment and endurance from both of us. So for me the greatest achievement so far is getting to that place.
What would be your dream project?
To paint an en plein air body of work, that connects my Australian and Irish backgrounds.
What are you looking forward to?
Continuing to live and work from our home in the Noosa Hinterland.
NOOSA HINTERLAND QUESTIONS
Your favourite Noosa Hinterland neighbourhood and why?
Cooroy. I like that it’s a small unpretentious country town.
Where and what was the last great meal you ate?
Katrina is such a great cook that it has to be really good for us to want to go out, but as a treat we love going to Dhoms Kitchen in Cooroy. Dhom and her husband Spencer buy local fresh ingredients that they use to create the Thai dishes that they serve.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
Most days I have to ask Katrina what day it is. So Saturday is pretty much like any other day to me. I’m not very structured when it comes to things like that.
The hinterland’s best kept secret?
The beauty of the landscape, beaches and surrounds.