Since Astrid Dahl arrived in Singapore three years ago, home has been a four-storey shophouse in Boat Quay’s Lorong Telok. In this huge space, the artist and teacher lives and works alone.
Where are you from?
I’m a bit of an anomaly: my Norwegian ship engineer father and my part-Thai mother met in Shanghai during the war; they got married in Thailand, and that’s where I was born.
In 1951 they moved to Malaysia, then to Singapore, and when I was 11 we moved to Perth. In those days it was a real backwater, so when I wanted to pursue art, the family moved to Melbourne. I studied art for five years at RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology).
My degree course was somewhere in between fine art and advertising art – a good thing, because it truly honed my drawing skills. To create abstract art you need to have good drawing skills under your belt and a knowledge and understanding of colours, harmonies and so on; without those, you’re just pretending to be an artist.
You’re famous for your evocative landscapes; tell us about your artistic journey.
It was literally a journey. Initially, because of my drawing skills, I was a figurative artist – I loved the face, the musculature of the body. Then I drove across the country from Perth to Melbourne, including across the Nullarbor Plain – I’ve now done that a total of six times! – and I was so struck by the bright red of the earth, so inspired by the azure blue of the sky stretching across the world like a canopy, that I started combining my figurative forms with landscape.
Over time, the figurative part of my work disappeared as I moved into painting only the landscape, eventually abstracting it. Sometimes I’m more realistic, sometimes more abstract, depending on what I want to say.
What brought you to Singapore?
When my last major relationship ended disastrously after 14 years, a friend of mine who’s both psychic and a psychologist gave me some advice.
She said: “Firstly, you were put on this earth to be happy. Secondly, you are in charge of your life; you choose what you want to be. And thirdly: you should never make somebody else responsible for the way you feel.”
I immediately realised the truth of her words – being happy was actually up to me. So I pulled myself together, reconfigured my power-board and was soon going full steam ahead. In another gestalt moment, I realised I was free to go anywhere; I made a list of places I thought I’d enjoy living in, and where I’d also be able to make a living. Singapore was one of those places.
Some years earlier, I’d become friendly with Chris Churcher of REDSEA Gallery in Dempsey. He had brought in and sold many of my paintings here since buying one for himself from Jahroc Gallery in Margaret River, Western Australia, for his house there. I’d heard they’d closed the Dempsey art school; I proposed to reopen it, but with more of a focus on high school kids and adults.
So I moved here in 2009 and taught there for about a year, until they decided to extend the gallery and needed the space. Luckily for me, I had this shophouse; I’d already established a gallery, and I also started teaching classes here.
Do you have children?
Yes, one from each of my two marriages. Julian lives in the US, Jasmine in London. My daughter is the only reason I go to the UK – having Asian blood in me, I absolutely hate cold weather!
When I was preparing for my first exhibition, I was living in Melbourne with my second husband and still breast-feeding Jasmine: she would sleep in her bassinet in my studio. But I was so anxious about the show that that my milk dried up, and I had to go to bed for four days, rest and drink stout until my milk came back!
To be frank, I don’t seem to be able to make art and maintain a good relationship simultaneously. I need my own space and my own time.
In the early 80s, after my second divorce, I moved to Perth so the children and I would be close to my parents. Throughout my child-raising years and after them I’ve never stopped painting, teaching and exhibiting: so far, I’ve had about 35 exhibitions in cities all over the world, including Melbourne, Perth, Sydney, New Guinea, Spain, London, New York and Florence.
What are the highlights of your career so far?
One of them was the Burning Man art festival in the Nevada Desert, near Black Rock, in 1991. It’s about “outsider” art, and the idea was to burn everything that you created – a combination of installation and immolation. From wire and sticks, right there on the desert floor I created a huge earth mother goddess based on the Venus of Willendorf, part of the research for my Master’s degree.
Another was a solo exhibition in Denia, Spain, where I lived for a year in 1987 and did a whole series inspired by the Spanish garden.
Opening my first gallery in 2003 in Railway Parade in Marrickville, Sydney, was another career highlight for me.
How do you paint?
As I lay out all my materials – a multitude of mixed media including inks, texture gel, acrylic and oil paints – I go into an almost meditative state. I get the music going, I set out three work tables in a row and lay the paintings flat on them. This whole room becomes my workplace.
Working with mixed media as I do, I need to experiment with little samples beforehand to check that the combinations will be stable. But once I’ve started mixing up my potions, I get totally lost in the creative process. Afterwards, I can’t always remember what I did to achieve a certain result.
British figurative artist Francis Bacon said something like: “The paint takes over, and it does a better job than I could ever hope to do.” It’s just like that, and I love to work spontaneously. The idea of drawing up a grid, or working painstakingly from a photograph to achieve a predetermined result is just ugh to me.
When do you paint and when do you teach?
I generally work on a number of paintings at any given time, and I paint almost every day, often until midnight. I hardly ever take a day off. When my friends ask me to dinner, I say: “What’s the latest I can get there?” In fact, it’s a little embarrassing how much of a hermit I am.
I hold morning classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays for mainly adult expats and others who don’t have office jobs, and on Wednesday nights for those who do. I also run corporate events; the details are on my website (astriddahl.com), which also has links to several YouTube films. You can register online for classes, too.
Tell me about the artworks in your studio right now. When do you know a painting is complete?
I like to keep my paintings around me for a while to live with them while I assess them. That’s because when you’ve been focussing on one painting for too long, you can no longer see it properly; you can’t see the forest for the trees. Many paintings find their way back to the work table when I realise I’m not yet finished with them.
What are you looking forward to right now?
Besides taking my work to the Hong Kong Contemporary Art Fair in October, I am going to be part of the 2012 Affordable Art Fair to be held at the F1 Pit Building in November. I hope to do a corporate event where groups of business people will come in and create art together. I really believe in the ethics of the fair, making art available to those who can’t afford to pay a great deal.
How much do your paintings cost?
They’re priced from about $1,000 for a small one to $20,000 for a big one measuring about two metres. Commissions are slightly more.
Where does your inspiration come from?
Travel opens up doors in my creativity and lets me see things from a different perspective. Landscape, especially mountains, deserts, rocks and stones. I’ve seen surprising similarities, for example between the mountains, rocks and stones of Tibet, the South African Cape and the Australian Outback.
I love the work of early 20th-century Austrian artist Egon Schiel, who died in his 30s. I also love the way Modigliani paints, and the work of Australian artists like Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan, especially Nolan’s Ned Kelly series.
Poets inspire me too, particularly Rumie and Leonard Cohen. For a poet, every word has to count. In the same way, I try to say a lot with as little as possible; in each painting, I try to distil a whole lifetime of experience, technique and nuances, expressed as simply as possible. At times I think I achieve that; at others I feel I have a long way to go.
What is the most difficult challenge in an artist’s career?
As an artist, the hardest thing is to find your own language. I tell my students to forget about trying to find a style – the more you paint, I say, the more your style will come.
But the more experienced you become, the more choices you have to make and the harder it becomes: your options are so wide, but your time is finite. You feel you have to be true to yourself, but you still want to experiment; Picasso was experimenting to his dying breath. I have spent my whole life so far trying to free my spirit and so allow my artwork to soar to new heights.
To see more of Astrid’s work or find out about her art classes and workshops, go to www.astriddahl.com.