The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - DON­ALD BLUE CHI­NESE- INK ARTIST

THE house is a Queens­lan­der, hoisted up and built- in un­der­neath. Over the road, men on mini- trac­tors re­lent­lessly mow a dry- as- dust park haul­ing in­dus­trial- sized blades in their wake. A clean green’’ rub­bish truck thun­ders down the street, fol­lowed by its twin, cel­e­brat­ing the con­tem­po­rary house­holder’s pas­sion for re­cy­cling with a roar of ap­proval.

Don­ald Blue, 60, has made the jour­ney, phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally, from his hip­pie com­mune in the wild woods of New Hamp­shire, via China, to this sub­ur­ban Bris­bane home. He says that only now, af­ter decades of mak­ing a liv­ing, learn­ing his craft, es­tab­lish­ing his home and fam­ily, is he ready to launch him­self into his life’s work. With blithe op­ti­mism, but aware of the ironies of his sit­u­a­tion, Blue wants to es­tab­lish him­self as a paint­ing mas­ter in the classical Chi­nese tra­di­tion. You can’t, say Chi­nese friends. I will, he says. En­light­ened souls will take me at face value and if they think I’m the real thing, then so be it,’’ Blue says.

Re­cent work, which he showed at the Art Fac­tory Gallery in Bris­bane’s West End, in­cluded a new, bold and po­ten­tially pro­duc­tive de­vel­op­ment for the artist as he adapts the Chi­nese style to the lo­cal land­scape. The mys­te­ri­ous Glasshouse Moun­tains on the Sun­shine Coast hin­ter­land be­come the sub­ject of a wall- hang­ing, their loom­ing strange­ness look­ing familiar and for­eign. The bunya pine is an el­e­gant part of a har­mo­nious com­po­si­tion of a land­scape that seems to in­vite snow, not the harsh sun of a Queens­land sum­mer.

An Amer­i­can with Chi­nese train­ing, Blue says he’s had a charmed life but doesn’t wish to dwell too much on why. He is, he says, happy by na­ture and by name: a Chi­nese teacher as­signed him cal­lig­ra­phy char­ac­ters which not only sound like his real name, Don­ald Blue, but also sym­bol­ise hap­pi­ness and art.

When Blue was 10, in the late 1950s, his fam­ily went to live in Tai­wan for sev­eral years where his fa­ther was sta­tioned with the US mil­i­tary. He re­mem­bered that ex­pe­ri­ence when, as a young pot­ter many years later, he saw a man paint­ing images of bam­boo.

It looked so familiar, it struck a deep chord in me, and I in­vited him to my stu­dio,’’ Blue says, and I be­came his stu­dent.’’ The pot­ter be­gan work­ing the bam­boo de­signs on to clay tiles, grad­u­ally mov­ing from fir­ing pots to cre­at­ing su­per- thin tile wall hang­ings, with a de­cid­edly ori­en­tal bent.

Blue was liv­ing in a hip­pie com­mune, a hard and ba­sic life with­out elec­tric­ity where the com­mu­nards lived from the toil of their hands. They were se­ri­ous peo­ple, th­ese New Hamp­shire hip­pies, not flow­er­chil­dren who found hard work anath­ema. But when Blue’s in­ter­est was piqued by his chance en­counter with the bam­boo painter, he knew he would have to leave the woods and go east.

My ori­en­ta­tion was to­wards ori­en­tal de­sign,’’ Blue says, a sym­pa­thy with the old masters of Chi­nese paint­ing. I’d al­ways been se­ri­ous about what I do and I had an en­gi­neer­ing back­ground ( a masters de­gree in town plan­ning from Cornell Univer­sity) where the at­ten­tion to de­tail was im­por­tant. Be­cause I grew up in the mil­i­tary, dis­ci­pline was sec­ond na­ture to me, so I knew I’d fit right into a mas­ter’s stu­dio.

The Chi­nese way is, paint it 50 times, a dis­ci­plinary approach. I have that, as op­posed to my son, who will say, oh, I can do that’. Do it 50 times and then tell me you can do it, is what I say to him.’’

Blue’s son is 15, his daugh­ter nine, their mother, Vicki, a Bris­bane wo­man who met the artist when he had re­turned from his two- year stint which started in Ja­pan and then took him to Tai­wan. He spent his time there ded­i­cat­ing him­self to learn­ing, at­tend­ing classes with teach­ers who were pre­pared to say to him, OK, show me what you can do’.

I guess they could see I was the real thing,’’ Blue says, so they treated me ac­cord­ingly.

In Tai­wan, I was in­vited to come along to the fi­nal exam of a univer­sity class, which was ba­si­cally three hours of paint­ing. I was sit­ting in a room with 20 for­mal paint­ing stu­dents, do­ing my thing, and the feel­ing I had was, Wow, this is what I came over here for.’ It was won­der­ful.’’

Blue loves the or­der and para­pher­na­lia of the ori­en­tal stu­dio and he headed back to New Hamp­shire de­ter­mined to build his dream home and stu­dio on an 8ha plot he’d bought in the woods. He hadn’t fig­ured on meet­ing, a few years down the track, an Aus­tralian trav­eller who would come by one day with a friend and stay for his life. Vicki calls it a great ro­man­tic story with many twists and turns’’, the most re­cent twist of which sees them en­sconced in Bris­bane, a house over­haul de­liv­er­ing Blue the per­fect stu­dio for him to in­dulge his de­sire to be­come a Chi­nese mas­ter painter.

There’s an­other twist to this story that Blue is not quite aware of. Early this year he be­came the pres­i­dent of a paint­ing group in Bris­bane by the name of the Half Dozen Group of Artists, which has op­er­ated as a pro­fes­sional stu­dio col­lec­tive since 1940.

That orig­i­nal group showed their work in Bris­bane City Hall in 1941, but even­tu­ally the Half Dozen ( com­pris­ing many more than the orig­i­nal six) set up be­hind St Mary’s Angli­can Church at Kan­ga­roo Point. That stu­dio has been the base, across the years, for artists such as Jon Molvig, Roy Churcher and Mar­garet Ci­lento, while the Half Dozen Group has in­cluded names such as Lloyd Rees, Mar­garet Pre­ston, John Rigby and William Robin­son.

The stu­dio at Kan­ga­roo Point, where Blue and his friends gather to do life draw­ing and to net­work, has an enor­mous weight of Bris­bane art his­tory press­ing on its walls.

The names mean noth­ing to the Amer­i­can artist, but he thinks his style, as pres­i­dent, may cause him to tread on a few toes, his sense of hu­mour likely to cause rip­ples among the group’s old guard. But he’s de­ter­mined to reach out’’ to other artists in his adopted town, not just those who paint in the West­ern style but par­tic­u­larly to the Chi­nese com­mu­nity: If there is a com­mu­nity of Chi­nese artists in Bris­bane, I’m go­ing to find them.

I asked a Chi­nese friend, who is a paint­ing stu­dent of mine, how I could con­nect and she said, You can’t.’ She was can­did. She said the Chi­nese are racist, just like us, and if you’re not Chi­nese and you try to be one, you’ll be ig­nored.’’ Blue and his friend are de­vel­op­ing a Tro­jan Horse- style strat­egy, to in­sin­u­ate him­self into shows anony­mously, get a foot in the door’’, which he hopes will lead to his ac­cep­tance.

What makes a good classical paint­ing, Blue says, is the spirit of the sin­gle stroke’’.

It’s a con­fi­dence, and a spirit, and it’s not slick. You strive for tech­ni­cal skills when you’re young and un­de­vel­oped, but now I recog­nise that my taste and un­der­stand­ing have changed. You can recog­nise what looks like a mis­take and see the strength in that, when a mas­ter has bro­ken the rules.’’

Un­con­cerned about any charges against him of fak­ing it, or ap­pro­pri­at­ing a cul­ture he’s not part of, Blue says the aes­thetic he’s learn­ing is all in the brush.

It’s very struc­tured and you copy the old masters or teach­ers with adap­ta­tions of the el­e­ments, that’s the tra­di­tional way of learn­ing.

In West­ern paint­ing, ev­ery­body strives to be dif­fer­ent, un­usual, wild or crazy or what­ever, but the Ori­ent is dif­fer­ent. If you can copy a mas­ter’s work, you are your­self a mas­ter. The com­po­si­tion might be familiar but the en­ergy of the in­di­vid­ual strokes is at the heart of it.’’

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