Reko Rennie has an appetite for being busy. From the completion of the colossal Visible Invisible mural for the Lyon Housemuseum expansion earlier this year, to putting the finishing touches on his latest video work for Venice Biennale, at times his art practice keeps him in the studio for 14 to 16 hours each day.
‘I enjoy being busy and prefer to be flat out – it’s almost harder to switch off, because I feel bored if I’m not busy. I have to teach myself to relax a bit more,’ says Reko. This is not an uncommon approach for many working in the arts, where there is no guaranteed reward for your work, he explains, ‘other than the satisfaction of creating new work.’
Working as a journalist for the Koori Mail, ABC, SBS and The Age, before making the leap to full-time artist, the structure of a working week has stuck with Reko. ‘It’s quite important for me to have a bit of a routine,’ he says. ‘I’ve kept the habit working five-days-a-week to get the work done.’
Having a background in journalism has been of great benefit to Reko’s art practice. Through his work, Reko investigates his own lived experience as an urban Aboriginal man. His recent works often incorporate diamond symbols emblematic of his connection to the Kamilaroi/Gamilaroi people. As seen in Visible Invisible, the work juxtaposes these vividly coloured symbols with camouflage, referencing the ways in which Aboriginal people have had to hide, ‘blend in’ and conceal their identity. ‘In the past, it was a real struggle for Aboriginal people to be vocal and talk about issues, and people were victimised for it,’ he explains. ‘Now we can have all this power through art, and have a voice; that’s important not just for this generation, but for all the others that have fought before us.’
Despite long days at the studio and dedication to his work, Reko priorities his family, ensuring he is always home for dinner and a catch up, and has time to take his daughter Mila to school and watch soccer games. ‘I am investing so much time in art and creating – that’s my job, but I also don’t want it to overtake the time I am around as a father and a partner,’ says Reko, who enjoys getting back into a regular sleeping pattern, heading down the coast, and having time out in nature between projects.
While at times striking the balance can be overwhelming, Reko’s fervour stems from a deep passion and appreciation for being able to do what he loves full-time, and have the opportunity to share it with people. ‘When it’s something you really believe in, then it doesn’t feel like you’re being overloaded,’ he says.
On the majority of days, I get up early in the morning, around six, and drop my daughter off at school, go have a coffee, and then I’m pretty much off to the studio by eight or nine. There are a few days a week where another friend takes our daughter to school with theirs, and on those days I can enjoy a more leisurely breakfast or a cup of tea at home with the girls.
For me, it really works having my studio away from my home environment, because I can focus on my work that way. I also enjoy the commute. It gives me time to think about things, watch the surrounds, and figure out what I’m doing in the next stages of a project.
Often when I come into the studio, I start painting – there will be days I’ll spend all day at the studio creating work. Or I might do administration – figuring out timelines and deadlines, different things like that. Or I could just spend time being in the environment thinking about concepts and ideas.
Other times I might be doing an installation off-site, or a community-based project. It really depends on the time of year and the nature of the project.
I have some cardio stuff in the studio and a little regime so I’ll often do a workout during the day. It’s all about minimising having to go to different places and maximising the time in the studio.
I’m pretty conscious of what I’m eating because of the amount of hours I’m working – you’ve got to fuel your body. When it’s a bit colder, I will often make something in the studio so it doesn’t break up the rhythm if I’m busy painting. Other times I like to go out – I’ll get Japanese food in Collingwood or maybe go to Mario’s on Brunswick Street.
When I’m feeling a bit stressed out, I’ll jump on my motorbike at lunchtime and go for a ride. It’s great because you don’t have anyone contacting you on the phone – sometimes it becomes habitual to respond to things right away, and that can take a lot of time out of your day, especially when you are trying to paint.
In the afternoon the work is usually the same. At the moment I’m working on a bunch of paintings for a show and I’ve just finished spending time with editors on the latest video work going to Venice Biennale.
Sometimes if there is a show, I’ll be working 14 to 16 hour days. Maybe it’s something I got from my family – I’ve always watched people work really long hours to enjoy some rewards now and then, even if it’s very small things. I think it is a good thing to do for your practice, definitely.
My studio is right across from the Yarra River, and the Kew Boathouse is down the road, so sometimes it might be nice to have a little break and go for a walk through nature for half-an-hour.
At times when there is a big workload, it does get overwhelming and like many artists, you can get worn out, or anxious about upcoming shows, or get a sense of self-doubt about your work. But these are all natural things that occur for a majority of artists. You work through it by making work, being physical, and talking to people about it.
Even when everything is really busy, it’s important to have a meal with my daughter and partner and have that structured family time. It really matters to me.
We might cook or go out and have a nice meal with family and friends – I love to have nice food and a good time, it’s important to reward yourself every now and then. I’m conscious about spending time with my daughter and having that time together to chat about things. I’ve learnt that other things and people can wait – even if it’s really urgent, there is always a time.
After a meal I might go back to the studio and keep working. I get a lot of my great work done after midnight, that’s for sure!
On the days I’ve finished at the studio earlier, after dinner we will hang out – if my partner isn’t studying we’ll watch some Nordic thriller or a film.
I’ll often stay up late because I can’t go to sleep early – I’ll be thinking about a lot of projects and writing down ideas. Then I switch off completely about 10:30 or 11pm and maybe watch a film or documentary before going to bed around midnight.
‘There’s the saying that we are often our worst critics. For creatives, it’s really true, but it can also be good because it’s part of the process of evaluating your work. It helps you to continue to create and conceive ideas.’
Reko’s latest video work, entitled OA_RR, will be shown at the 57th Venice Biennale opening next month, with Black Arts Projects.
This story was written as part of our monthly collaboration with Madeleine Dore of Extraordinary Routines.