Mark Sutherland 2010 Photo © Russell Pell
Photo © 2010 Russell Pell
My work has spanned many disciplines over more than three decades, making it difficult even for me to neatly sum up what I’m about. The short answer is that, for as long as I can remember, I have consciously sought to gain as much knowledge and skill as I could in every aspect of art that interested me. I love the history of art, as expressed in the traditions of oil painting. I love the various challenges presented by painting murals, surfboard blanks, working in resins, creating portraits, drawing in pen and ink or animating funny characters. The further you go into it, the more you realise how much there is still to learn.

In 1979, I left school with the idea of becoming an artist. Like all young people, I was keen to experience all that life had to offer and do it on my own terms. Jack Rhodes was a broken down surfboard shaper fallen on hard times, living in the hippy enclave of Nimbin. He showed me how to apply oil paint the way the old masters did, allowing the paint to maintain its integrity. In many ways, Jack’s life resembled the lives of the great, troubled artists of history. One man against the world, he clung hard to his art because it was all he had. Though I can now place the romance of that proposition into a wider perspective, oil painting remains, for me, where the true romance of art resides. While the golden age of oil painting as a mainstream medium is long past, we’re told, my greatest wish is to produce paintings that could sit comfortably beside those of the great masters of the tradition. For all the technological breakthroughs of the last hundred years, there is still nothing to rival nature for subtlety, complexity and enduring beauty.

Jack Rhodes, Nimbin 1989
Jack Rhodes, Nimbin 1989

That said, the most ground-breaking and broadly influential artist of the twentieth century was arguably not Picasso but Walt Disney. The impact that cartoons have had on our appreciation of the visual image is hard to calculate, but it was certainly vast. Has any artist had more imitators? A chance to work in an animation studio, in 1981, gave me first-hand experience of art as a profession, not just some esoteric pursuit. Animation is to visual art what brain surgery is to first aid – a whole new level. Working with Gwyn Perkins, I learnt how to draw in a disciplined way, and tell a story, and I began to understand what a professional sense of humour was. Gwyn gave me a framework with which to solve creative problems. He was the most brilliant individual I ever worked with.

When I produced Dream, my 35mm animated film, I tried to combine animation with my love for paint, and based the story on my own direct knowledge of the surfing and drug sub-culture of the late ’70s. It screened at the Sydney Film Festival in 1989, but nobody really got it. The ones that did get it were too frightened to do anything with it – its message ran counter to the surf industry’s prevailing marketing fantasies. I’d spent two years working my guts out, in complete isolation, and instead of it opening doors for me, as I’d hoped, I found myself driving cabs, working on building sites and wondering what I’d done wrong. Andrew Kidman was the only person I showed it to who had the guts to offer me a job. He encouraged me to write and to draw and to play music – to embrace surf culture and play a part in it. We continue to work together on various projects to this day.

Comic art was a natural progression from animation, in some ways. Writing Gonad Man also provided an opportunity to express something of the world through the eyes of a surfer. It became instantly and gratifyingly popular, though it marked me forever as something of a spokesman for surf culture, something I hadn’t consciously sought. I have been surfing since I was very small, when Ray Hookham first took my brother and I, friends of his son Randy, to the beach to go surfing in the late sixties. The heady atmosphere of the beach scene in those days was not lost on my young psyche, and will be with me forever, I suspect.

But a surfing background is not something to shout about, I’ve found, if you’re serious about a career as a fine artist. Not in Australia, anyway. I recently exhibited some paintings in Sydney, at David Rex-Livingston’s gallery, and was talking to a fellow artist about my work. He seemed very impressed. A little later, he collared me, having just read my CV. ‘You haven’t exhibited since 1994…? Why?’ he asked.
‘Well,’ I replied, somewhat uncertainly, ‘I was busy, raising a family, working for surf magazines…’
The look on his face was one of dismay, similar to the looks I used to get from cartoonists when they found out I could paint. ‘What are you doing here, when you can paint like that?’ they’d say. Like I was somehow wasting my talent. Maybe they’re right, but it seems to me the disposable nature of comic art breeds a false sense of irrelevance amongst cartoonists, while the longevity aspired to by those in the fine arts seems to breed an equally false sense of self-importance. It’s all very strange, because the thought and skill that go into a successful cartoon are often far greater, in my experience, than the purely sensual response to the subject that a painting can represent.

All I can say is that my art is a reflection of my life and the times I grew up in. As a kid, I was just as in awe of Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny as I was of Monet and Arthur Streeton. And surfing was the freest form of sport, because nobody had to keep score. Somehow, it’s all just stayed with me.


North Coast NSW 2009 Photo © Patrick Trefz
North Coast NSW 2009 Photo © Patrick Trefz