Vis­ually im­paired Stephen Noth­ling mines an or­di­nary street for ex­tra­or­di­nary works of art, writes An­drew McMillen

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The house on the cor­ner of Louisa Street is de­signed to catch the eye. It is painted pink, with pur­ple gut­ters, for the sim­ple rea­son that he al­ways wanted to live in a pink house, though shock­ing the neigh­bours was a pleas­ant side ef­fect, too. Though largely hid­den by green­ery, his friends like to re­fer to it as “the jewel of High­gate Hill”. He walks out the front gate, paus­ing to shut it so that his two small dogs are con­fined to roam­ing the yard and bark­ing at passers-by. Held in his left hand is a white cylin­der that he pe­ri­od­i­cally con­sults while climb­ing the foot­path as it rises to a crest, re­veal­ing the sky­scrapers and con­struc­tion cranes of Bris­bane in the dis­tance. Since buy­ing the house on the cor­ner in 2001, walk­ing this route has been an en­trenched part of Stephen Noth­ling’s daily rou­tine. Now, this route has be­come art.

When un­furled, the cylin­der be­comes a long sheet of pa­per that de­tails the gallery lay­out of the art­works that com­prise his up­com­ing ex­hi­bi­tion at the Mu­seum of Bris­bane. The star of the show is this un­re­mark­able street in the city’s in­ner-south. On a map, Louisa Street lies at the edge of two sub­urbs, which is why Noth­ling has cho­sen to name it The Last Street in High­gate Hill. The mu­seum ex­ists to cap­ture the peo­ple, places and sto­ries of its in­hab­i­tants, and when di­rec­tor Pe­ter Den­ham ap­proached Noth­ling to present an idea for its on­go­ing Doc­u­ment se­ries, the artist replied that what he’d re­ally like to do is head out the front gate and paint the street he walks up and down ev­ery day.

Noth­ling, 53, carves a strik­ing fig­ure as he strides up a street he knows bet­ter than any­one on the planet. Tall, blond and pale, a white shirt hangs loosely from his thin frame atop blue jeans and scruffy black shoes. Be­tween June 2014 and June 2015, Noth­ling worked most days on this col­lec­tion of paint­ings, which de­pict the beau­ti­ful minu­tiae of Queens­land ur­ban life. With a cam­era, he cap­tured ev­ery house on the street, then used those images as ref­er­ence points to work from, oc­ca­sion­ally dash­ing back out to in­spect smaller de­tails — such as par­tic­u­lar colours and ma­te­ri­als — from up close, with his own eyes.

His work re­veals a foren­sic at­ten­tion to de­tail, a point in­flu­enced by the fact Noth­ling’s eyes are dif­fer­ent than most. He was born with ocu­lo­cu­ta­neous al­binism, a ge­net­i­cally in­her­ited con­di­tion that af­fects around one in 20,000 peo­ple world­wide. The vi­sion in his right eye operates at about 10 per cent func­tion­al­ity, thanks to a cataract and de­formed nerve end­ings at the back of the lens, while miss­ing parts of the cel­lu­lar struc­ture in his left eye means he has a sig­nif­i­cant blind spot, which he de­scribes as a “black hole of noth­ing­ness”. His vis­ual im­pair­ment re­sulted in so­cial iso­la­tion while grow­ing up in the sea­side Queens­land city of Red­cliffe; as a child, he was never picked for team sports. “When you can’t be a player, you be­come in­tro­spec­tive,” he says.

He also wore thick, Coke-bot­tle glasses in an at­tempt to cor­rect his vi­sion. It didn’t work. An eye spe­cial­ist once told him that if he truly knew how other peo­ple see the world, he’d be crushed by de­pres­sion. It is ironic, then, that for three decades Noth­ling has built a ca­reer out of look­ing at things and paint­ing what he sees.

Be­com­ing an artist forced him to be­come com­fort­able with his con­di­tion, as it was only when he be­gan study­ing at the Queens­land Col­lege of Art that he stopped wear­ing glasses. As a re­sult, he has al­ways painted close to the can­vas, a ne­ces­sity which of­ten found him sit­ting on the con­crete floor of his stu­dio while work­ing on larger pieces. “I de­cided to em­brace this lim­ited view of the world. Every­thing goes out of fo­cus if I step back more than a me­tre and a half,” he says, smil­ing. “I can see fine for what I need to see.”

Even in that year of work­ing on The Last Street in High­gate Hill, con­ducted in the back­yard stu­dio that abuts his garage, Louisa Street changed vastly, most no­tably fol­low­ing a se­vere hail­storm in late Novem­ber 2014 that saw many of its houses re­quir­ing new roofs as a re­sult of the ice dam­age. Some of the ex­ter­nal colours might have changed, but the gen­er­al­i­ties have stayed much the same in the 14 years since Noth­ling and his part­ner, Deirdre — a high-school art teacher — moved to this quiet cor­ner of the in­ner-city with their two young chil­dren.

Look­ing up from the small-scale lay­out of his art­works, Noth­ling stops to point out the dif­fer­ences be­tween his brush­strokes and the re­al­ity of the street on this quiet Fri­day af­ter­noon in early Oc­to­ber. There, on the can­vas, is the post­man. The brush turkey. The two Mi­nis that were parked out­side a par­tic­u­lar house for years on end, prompt­ing the artist to spec­u­late that its own­ers worked at a Mini deal­er­ship. There’s a mag­pie head­ing to­ward the viewer as if to at­tack. There’s the Google Street View car he hap­pened to pho­to­graph as it drove past in the process of cap­tur­ing the street in high def­i­ni­tion with its 360-de­gree cam­era.

What Noth­ling has done with th­ese works is not un­like Google’s mis­sion with its fleet of cam­era-cars, which seek to cap­ture the re­al­i­ties of the world’s neigh­bour­hoods in ex­act­ing de­tail, just as they are, with­out ex­ag­ger­a­tion or hy­per­bole. “Louisa is a very or­di­nary street,” he says, paus­ing at its peak to look back down the hill. “I wanted to cre­ate as hon­est a por­trayal as pos­si­ble.”

Some cre­ative li­cence was taken, how­ever, such as re­mov­ing vis­ual im­ped­i­ments in­clud­ing tele­phone poles, trees and pow­er­lines which ob­scured some of the homes. Most of all, he was en­er­gised by the ques­tion of how to make the or­di­nary in­ter­est­ing, which is why part of the ex­hi­bi­tion is de­voted to cap­tur­ing mun­dane scenes, like his neigh­bour mow­ing the lawn, the weekly garbage truck visit, and even a por­trait of him­self as seen from the foot­path, sit­ting in his stu­dio, paint­ing.

This is where Stephen Noth­ling can be found most days, from morn­ing un­til the early evening, even on week­ends. “I just love work­ing,” he says. “This is the only place in the world I feel com­fort­able.” His whole life re­volves around this small space, where a small speaker projects the sounds of ABC Ra­dio Na­tional and a cool breeze blows through the open garage door. His dogs pe­ri­od­i­cally pass through for pats. Noth­ling’s iden­tity was formed around his artis­tic prac­tice from his early 20s, when he re­alised what he wanted to do with his life.

He de­scribes the pe­riod be­tween 1995 and 2005 as the only time that he made a proper liv­ing from his work, where his se­ries of flower-fo­cused works were hung in prom­i­nent gal­leries and caught the eye of buy­ers with deep pock­ets, thanks in part to the ef­forts of his long-time dealer, Eva Breuer, who died in Fe­bru­ary 2010. “Now, I can’t sell any­thing to save my life,” he muses, with­out a trace of self-pity. “I should prob­a­bly do some­thing else, but I don’t know what.” For a time last year, he washed dishes at a nearby cafe when things got re­ally des­per­ate. He is thank­ful that he and Deirdre bought this house prior to the in­ner-city prop­erty boom, which means that the mort­gage is man­age­able. Still, he re­mains pro­duc­tive: since com­plet­ing his ex­hi­bi­tion in June, he has painted 18 pic­tures.

“Unique is an overused word,” says Leanne Kelly, pro­gram man­ager at Mu­seum of Bris­bane. “But I think in Stephen’s case, as some­one with a vis­ual im­pair­ment, what he doc­u­ments is unique. It’s ex­actly how he sees the world — and if he’s not see­ing it, then he’s imag­in­ing what he can’t see. We’re so for­tu­nate that, be­cause he’s an artist, he can doc­u­ment how he sees it, and we get to share in that joy. Al­though he has had dif­fi­cul­ties with his eye­sight since birth, there’s some­thing in­cred­i­bly beau­ti­ful in be­ing able to see the world as he does.”

When he walks along Louisa Street now, all Noth­ling sees is his paint­ings. That’s a com­fort­ing feel­ing, be­cause for him, mak­ing art is not ther­a­peu­tic — it’s a ne­ces­sity. It’s how he makes sense of the world.

Ar­riv­ing back at the pink house on the cor­ner, he opens the gate and strides to­ward his stu­dio, where he is sur­rounded by empty Art Spec­trum paint tubes and shred­ded brushes. When a text mes­sage from his daugh­ter ar­rives, he holds the old Nokia phone up near his face, squint­ing at the large font and puz­zling over how to for­ward a mes­sage to her.

“I’ve be­come ad­dicted to be­ing an artist,” he says. “It’s been 30 years of me liv­ing in­side my own head.” He finds that the beauty of art is in the chal­lenge of try­ing to bet­ter his last work. With a smile, he looks around with his one good eye, ad­mir­ing the only place in the world where he feels truly com­fort­able.

The Last Street in High­gate Hill is at the Clem Jones Gallery at the Mu­seum of Bris­bane un­til Jan­uary 31, 2016. Ad­mis­sion: free.

Artist Stephen Noth­ling in his street in High­gate Hill, Bris­bane; in his

stu­dio, be­low

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