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