ROSEMARY SORENSEN meets
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.’’