Interview · Justine Muller · Visual Artist

Two things come up when googling Justine Muller: First is that she is one of Australia’s young promising artists with two of her drawings becoming finalists for the Dobell Prize (the drawing equivalent of the Archibald).

The second is that she grew up in a pub in Woolloomooloo. Her parents owned the East Sydney Hotel for most of her life. The hotel, renown for its live jazz nights and the fact that they never put in any pokies (poker machines for non-Aussie readers), was her home and the Woolloomooloo community was her extended family.

When trying to imagine what her childhood must have been like, I thought of one of my favourite heroines as a child. Eloise, the main protagonist of a children’s book, lived in the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Along with her pet turtle, she got into all sorts of mischief in the hotel corridors, drawing on walls and hiding in food trolleys.

I suspect Eloise was pretty lonely while adults went on with their lives but make her own fun, she certainly did and her life seemed pretty exotic to me.

With Eloise in mind, as a child, did you too have to make your own fun? 

I guess I spent a lot of time drawing on the footpath with chalk. The footpath was always covered in drawings. I don’t know if you know who Mr.Squiggle was? He had a pencil nose and other people would send in squiggles to him, kids from around the country, and he would turn them into pictures. I would often walk around the bar and get patrons to do squiggles and then I would go off and turn it into a picture and give it back to them. I was always finding creative ways to entertain myself.

Was it then a natural progression to becoming an artist?

My parents were always working and once my mum couldn’t pick me up from after-school care so they let me join in with an adult drawing class around the corner. I was 11 at the time and when she came to pick me up, they said, “actually she is really good, why doesn’t she join in the class?” After a couple of weeks of doing the class, they said that we were going to do life drawing with the nude figure and said to my mum, “how do you feel about your 11 year old drawing naked people?” My mum was pretty open-minded so from the age of 11 or 12, I was drawing quite seriously. I have just always drawn. I studied painting when I was 23 at the National Art School in Darlinghurst. I tried all different things and then went back to drawing again after I finished art school.

I travelled as well and had a studio in London. I had absolutely no money and I couldn’t afford to buy oil paints and I remember, I just bought a massive roll of paper and charcoal and ink. All the things that are really inexpensive and started to draw again.

You’ve been painting landscapes recently. Could you talk a little bit about that process? 

After the hotel sold, I got a studio in Pittwater. I was a bit lost. Just after the pub sold, my sister was hit by a car. She survived but just. She was in hospital for a month, then in a wheelchair. My mother had a heart-attack and I was seeing someone whose mother died of pancreatic cancer. I was also grieving the loss of the hotel so it was just one thing after the other. I didn’t know where to go and I find it hard to do landscapes in a studio anyway. It was also part of a healing process as far as getting in the car and driving and getting into that landscape. It was amazing to be able to do that to deal with everything I was trying to cope with at that time. It was a very difficult period. I feel lucky that I had my art to fall back on.

How did you choose your locations and what was your process? 

All of the landscapes, I made working with the earth pigment made into a paste. Because I am working with the soil, I have to go quite far out to get to that part of the landscape where the soil is that richer red earthy colour. Around here (Pittwater) is so beautiful but I’ve been trying to get my head around it. I’ve been doing smaller abstract paintings of this area but I am still working out how to paint it. I feel that it’s going to look like a really cheesy chocolate box kind of landscape because it’s so green and lush and pretty. Whereas making those works which were in Bathurst, Broken Hill, Alice Springs, the landscape is beautiful but it’s almost alien. it has this other side that is a bit more harsh. It’s unique to Australia but there is something a little raw about it, not ‘too pretty’.

Is that something that you are attracted to? One could say that in your Woolloomooloo ‘cast of characters’, there is also a bit of that. A bit raw, ‘not too pretty’?

I have never thought of it that way but I like that way of thinking and quite possibly. In the same way, there is a man called John Hardigan, he used to be the head of staff for Murdoch and he used to drink in the pub. he’s quite a well known figure and he said, “why don’t you paint my portrait?” and I said to him, “you need to age another twenty years and get a little bit more interesting!” He’s quite a handsome man and I feel the same as painting a beautiful young woman, I would find that really difficult. It’s not what I want to try and get through in my work.

Do you think it’s possible to make a living from art? 

I do but there are so many factors involved. There is talent. There is also luck. You have to be a business person as well which I am learning slowly. You have to have a certain amount of value on yourself, you have to be able to sell yourself. There are different types of artists. There are a lot of artist-run spaces in Sydney and people are choosing to make art just to show it to make a comment but I don’t really think they could be making much money from that. Then, there is commercial art and trying to find a nice balance in the middle is probably the hardest part.

How do you position yourself in that context?

I am always going to make art that has a meaning to me. If I feel passionate about something and I’ll want to comment on it. It might be across different disciplines. It might be photography, or painting, or 3D. If there is a connection with it… When I went out into the landscape, I wasn’t trying to make a political statement but I had a connection with the landscape and being in it. It’s always about finding things that I really feel a strong connection with or want to make work about. Hopefully what inspires me will keep changing all the time.

What do you find the most challenging about being an artist?

Discipline and being self-motivated and organised. I find it hard to make myself get into the studio and make the work. I like deadlines because it gets me going. I can procrastinate quite badly. If you look at any artist, at the end of the day, you just need to make work and that can be a challenge.

What do you find the most rewarding? 

Being able to do this. It’s a blessing and a privilege to be able to call yourself an artist. To do what you love. Occasionally, someone will buy a work off me and they’ll love it. They’ll really really really love it and they’ll tell me that. They’ll talk about it in a really passionate way.

A friend of mine, a photographer and his wife have an artwork of mine, a landscape. I had never met his wife and then finally, I met her one day and she was like, “Oh the work is part of our family now.” That’s an honour.

Thanks Justine.

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