Melbourne-based artist (and TDF’s across-the-road Collingwood neighbour) Tyrone Wright (aka Rone) is no stranger to working on large-scale projects and events that attract thousands of visitors. This time last year, he was just wrapping up the epic RONE Empire large-scale immersive installation, and right now he was supposed to be preparing to open his retrospective exhibition at Geelong Gallery. For any artist, income and output can be a rollercoaster at the best of times. And for those whose work is largely events-based, everything remains in limbo. Although Rone’s exhibition has been pushed back until February 2020 (fingers crossed), the rest of his long-term work is impossible to plan right now.
We spoke with Rone moments after Scott Morrison’s address on Friday, about the challenges for artists right now, what it’s like to be parenting through isolation, and his surprising new venture to come out of this time!
How are you, what are you doing right now?
I’m still painting, I’m literally painting now, but everything long term has gone into limbo. I can still make a living, but bigger projects are a lot more difficult to discuss at the moment.
I know you had some big projects, like your retrospective at Geelong Gallery, lined up this year. What’s happening with that?
I was meant to be bumping in at Geelong Gallery right now, and we’ve had to push that back until Feb next year. Although after hearing the news just now it does sound promising that that’s not going to be a problem.
I’ve been able to paint some canvas commissions and do some small stuff around the studio that I’ve been meaning to do since we’ve been in here. Finally now I have the time to unpack all those boxes, build a bookshelf, all those things where I was like, ‘I’m gonna do that’, but probably never would have!
So you already had everything for the Geelong Gallery show ready to go?
We’re still building it offsite in a big warehouse, but because everything got delayed I stopped pushing on it, because I had 2-3 people working on it with me. Once we all got the message to stay away from everyone else I kind of told everyone to work on other stuff right now, we shouldn’t be pushing it because it’s not an essential thing. It’s been nice to be able to sit back and think about it a bit more.
The plan’s pretty set for it but I do think it’s going to be better than it would have been. Now that it’s come to the point of actually doing it I’m kind of glad I’ve got this extra time, so I can refine it a bit better, instead of rushing it.
What are you hearing from the art community more broadly, what are the biggest challenges people are facing?
I think there’s just so much confusion for people about how to get any government funding. As artists we are often self-employed – some of us are set up as companies and some of us are set up as sole traders, and it’s just quite messy. To prove that you’ve had a loss of income when a quarter from last year might have been where I had an exhibition and made quite a bit of money in that one time, it’s weird to compare it because then there might be 6 months of nothing after that. It’s really hard for an artist to compare things like that. For anyone in the arts industry it’s a rollercoaster quite often.
I’ve switched from focusing on long term projects, to focusing on short term projects, like – what’s something I can do it 2-3 days, rather than in 6 months? I can really only see a week ahead of certainty.
So how have you been spending this time?
When it all kicked off I had this conversation with my wife Alice, and Hannah who works with me and we were just like, you know, what we could do… we could make jigsaw puzzles. Hannah found two suppliers in Melbourne that could do it and then a week later had them all set up to go. We needed to sell about 20 to get the minimum order and we’ve sold close to 1000 now! So… now I make puzzles! But it does present a world of other problems now because the lovely lady who has been making them can get out about 10 a day. It’s been great for her, she’s been able to employ a bunch of her friends, not just for ours but a lot of people have been requesting custom puzzles at this time. So her business has exploded! But to fulfil the puzzles on her schedule will take 7-8 weeks, so I’ve had to find an offshore manufacturer. And I’m literally waiting for 500 puzzles to arrive any moment.
If someone had told you a few months ago you would be waiting on an imperative order of 500 puzzles…
It’s so funny. So things have turned in that sense! I’m seeing on Instagram people are having a really good time with them though.
So people are buying your puzzles to stay sane and do something, what have you been doing?
I’ve still been busy. I’ve been helping out my studio mate Callum Preston with a job that he’s had lined up on a construction site which is still operating, and I was the only person he knew who had the work safe tickets to go on-site and work at heights. I went and helped him do that this week and last, we’re on a roof by ourselves and don’t really see anyone else, it’s way up above everything. I’m painting for him doing a very simple design, it’s been a nice little break in a sense. I’ve painted around 2000 little squares and triangles.
What’s it been like being a parent of a small child during this time?
For the first few weeks, we just avoided walking past playgrounds and parks but he kind of cottoned onto it and wanted to go. He’s old enough to understand and negotiate with now, we told him the playgrounds are closed and he understands it. He’s stopped asking for it now but we’ve had to do other things to tire him out! He’s got a little tricycle and we kind of just ride him around the streets. We’ve bought quite a few puzzles that he likes doing, ironically.
Is there anything you’ve taken from this time you want to hold onto as things ease back into ‘normal’?
I don’t know if there’s anything I want to hold onto from this. I’m looking forward to getting back to the way it was. The excitement of going to see all my friends again – hanging out, having a drink in real time, face to face. We’ve been Zooming but it’s never the same.
There has been a lot of FaceTiming with my parents, I feel like I’m calling them a lot more often. Now because we’ve been talking so often before dinner my son will go, ‘Facetime Pop!’ He’ll ask for it, which is really nice.
What are you feeling optimistic about?
I look at New Zealand and I’m absolutely amazed about how well they have done, and I’m a lot more optimistic about Australia’s future than I was at the start of this thing. It’s almost like we’ve done a Stephen Bradbury and somehow come out in front, not that we’re totally out of it yet. I’ve been feeling quite optimistic about our outcome getting out of all this.
Look out for Rone’s Retrospective exhibition at Geelong Gallery in February 2021 (it’s gonna be epic!). His first book ‘Rone: Street Art and Beyond’ published by Thames & Hudson will be available in July this year.