Over 60 years ago Tony Jones realised he wanted to be an artist. The renowned WA sculptor, whose work you will have seen all around this city, had his epiphany in primary school. More than half a century later, he has fully realised that early ambition, blending a long and rewarding dual career of artist/teacher. Now, many moons since that schoolboy vision, Tony is finishing up his teaching life at Central.
He has inspired so many people over the years to follow his lead and believe that they can make a living in the arts. It was the perfect time to sit down with Tony in his O’Connor studio and paint a broad picture of his life, revolutions in training, the ocean, and the quest to define the very peculiar, mystical process of how ‘art’ often appears out of industrious work.
Tony has an infectious rebellious streak. One that clearly rubbed off on me. In an era where everywhere you look you are told things have to be short, simple and concise, I have discarded the rulebook and gone for an interview longer than a Packer lunch…
Are you from Perth?
I was born in Adelaide, but was brought up here in Perth. We had a fairly privileged upbringing in Mosman Bay. My dad built one of the first houses near Chidley Point. The house is long gone now, but we had a fantastic childhood with the freedom of the river.
When did art first enter your life?
I suppose the art first came in because I had good parents who loved objects and ‘stuff’. Mum always used to hang pictures on the wall. My earliest memory of art was in primary school, probably Grade 3, where someone thought a drawing I’d done was pretty special. That kind of praise went a long way. My parents backed it up. So the inklings of my future were probably there.
I went to Christchurch Grammar School. They didn’t value art education much, but a small group of us hung in there with “Ma” O’Connor, our art teacher
So you did art all through school?
Yes I did. It wasn’t fashionable. Most kids did Latin and French. There really weren’t art schools to speak of back then.
So what age were you at when you first thought “This is what I want to do.”
Probably back at primary school. I didn’t know how it would manifest itself. Art teaching was the potential path for a job. Most kids looked at teaching, nursing, or working for a bank. There weren’t a lot of choices, but just about everyone got a job. To be an art teacher was a focus at that stage. I think around the last year of high school I thought I’d better look into how to get into Teachers College.
So that’s what you did?
Yes I did. My leaving certificate art result was very poor; I only just passed. We had a teacher that didn’t drill us in what to do in exams. When I applied to become an art teacher, they said my results weren’t strong enough. They suggested doing primary school teaching and I was dreading it. I didn’t have a great time with the training system, but I did have excellent art lecturers. One of whom was Bryant McDiven. He was very influential, very inspirational – someone I could look up to as a functioning artist. He had a practice. He showed us what it was about. The upshot of that was I was then appointed to a high school, rather than a primary school, to teach art. So that got me into the area I wanted.
Did mentors like that give you inspiration?
Yes. They saw themselves as artists. I didn’t know back then what it took to be a studio artist. I thought being an art teacher was a good start. I started in Collie, five years in the high school there. I had a studio and had access to the art school after hours and on the weekend. I ran art classes for adults too. I was probably only 21.
I thought I’d start painting and entering competitions for a few prizes. I won a handful and got my work in the local papers. So it was starting to work the way I had imagined. I feel it is the same for students today. If you can get a level of self-belief in what you are doing, it’s a big part of what it takes.
Did you get that early on then in your twenties?
Within reason. Self-belief is always accompanied with self-doubt. Self-doubt always hovers above you as an artist. You never think you’ve ‘made it’. People say nice things and you take that on board, but you are almost propelled by uncertainty. Certainty can be a trap. You can get too confident. It’s a funny little path, but self-belief is what keeps you going.
Did you start off mainly painting?
I did yes. I didn’t have any notion of sculpture in particular. There was a little bit of carving done at Teacher’s College, but nothing else. When I came back from Collie, I had to get some more formal art training so I went to Curtin (then known as WAIT).
I had about six years of part time study there. I had painting kind of drummed out of me by the lecturers. It wasn’t so much personal issues with them, but I just wasn’t getting anywhere with them regarding my belief about what I could paint and how I could paint it. This is a common problem I think. Students arrive with a lot of preformed ideas and sometimes they are good and sometimes they are not valued by the people who examine what they are doing. I think mine were ok, but I just wasn’t getting anywhere. However, the lecturers in the Sculpture department were much more amenable and took me on board and essentially let me do what I wanted to do.
So you think your deviation in art was down to the ‘system’ you encountered at WAIT?
Yes. If I had been a bit more embraced with my painting, that I had some confidence in, I might never have been a sculptor. But that’s a fork in a road. This was about 1970-75.
I was teaching high school at the same time. A job then came up at Claremont School of Art at end of 1975. It was a sculptor job in what was essentially a small independent art school within TAFE. .. We had tremendous local support – people loved the school. We established a foundation. We found mentors and benefactors who supported us with funding. We developed many friends and supporters. This was when I first became friends with Janet Holmes a Court who has been a supporter ever since. Claremont was eventually closed down though.
What did you do next?
A report was commissioned – The Hough Report, to inform a new art school. It outlined the make-up of the buildings and the sort of resources that needed to be deployed.
I was part of a group who were consulted at the planning stage. The Department of Education and Training asked us what we wanted. We were given a brief to form the foundations to the Art School we are in now. Firstly the architecture, the underlying principles, and the way you appoint staff and the things you value. Also things like artists in residence programs, a gallery for the students, good workshops, good stores etc. These were the things that people never really considered, that we saw as essential.
Claremont functioned well in that it had a fantastic ethos, but it would have been great if it could have had good studios, good workshops, and galleries as well. There are a whole suite of optimal options that you need to put in front of students, and our students have that now.
Someone was visionary back then?
There were people who had a vision and they supported us and we were able to plot the path to the new school. We always wanted a degree of autonomy. We are not like other trades, which have competency based training. That doesn’t really fit an art school. I mean when are you competent as an artist? What boxes do you tick?
But documentation and procedures we now have in place have also improved things. There is far greater accountability these days.
Do you think that you have to be political working in the arts? As in the way things are normally measured in education is often – “How is this contributing to the economic needs of the State?” Do you think that’s an unavoidable thing you have to keep addressing?
You have to make your case all the time for an arts education, broadly speaking. If you stripped out all that education – of writers, thinkers, philosophers, artists, musicians etc. – all these people who make marginal existences – what are you left with? Certainly the broader sweep of education has to embrace that. Otherwise you don’t have film, you don’t have decent writing, journalism, graphic design and so on.
A lot of the things that we do, that enrich our lives one way or another, can’t really stack up like mining royalties! There’s a whole raft of things that you can train people specifically for – but even they are fragile. For example, we trained Foundrymen for a while. There are none left. We don’t do that anymore, it’s all done in China.
I think Australia’s arts sector is economically viable in the broader sense. The training of these artists, these aspirants we get through the door is needed. I think we are justifiably embracing them, helping them, and guiding them. There are formal teaching structures that we can deliver to help them meet their hopes and dreams.
For example, I’d like to show you an email from a former student who now lives in America, which came out of the blue, in which she simply says “I am making a living out of my art.” Those were her words. I last saw her here about 25 years ago.
When we are little we’re all artists in that we aren’t scared to be. But I think it’s drummed out of most people, because you have to get on with something ‘sensible’. If that process didn’t happen, do you think you’d have five or six times more people coming to you?
Possibly, but sometimes I think the young, as in 16/17 years old are often not suited to art school. It’s a generalisation, but I think we take them too young. We’ve had some fantastic kids of that age. But in a group class of 20, probably two or three are ready. The mature age students, as a result really give a class backbone. As an old bloke talking, the problem at the moment is the digital media – the young ones are constantly checking their phones!
They’re lost in other things aren’t they?
If you can hold onto them for that first year, the Cert III or Cert IV, they often then mature quickly. But a lot of them leave. The age mix works well and Central has always been able to maintain that mix of mature age and youngsters together.
We tend not to get the high academic achievers from high school – they usually have a lot of family expectations and go on to other professions such as medicine. But the true, idiosyncratic, one-off kid that is absolutely special, we get, regularly. Most of them carve a pathway because they’re just ‘at it’. They have got it in them. They have a unique talent. Every year they are there, one way or another.
Do you see some of the 18 year old Tony in some of them?
At 18? I see it yes. There’s a former student who has just had a show at Gallery Central. She was a Central Graphic Design student way back in the early 80s – Cecile Williams is her name. She’s had a show there before too. She is one. She’s just been hard at it. She works with Aboriginal communities, and is often hence described as a community artist. But she works with a whole range of people. She was, is, an incredible talent.
And the young sculptor Rose Skinner is like that.
Did you unearth her talent?
She was pushed in my direction. Someone in our staff group said they thought Rose should be doing sculpture. She makes things beautifully. Similarly there is also a Taiwanese girl with us at the moment, Wennie, a clever, motivated, thoughtful student.
They’re there every year. You just spot them and you know there’s something really special going on. Marcia Epinosa, formerly from Chile, is another example.
We are privileged to encounter these people, and the idea is to keep them on track. Art is an uncertain pursuit. You have to admire the students who commit and work hard, because they know there is no ‘job’ at the end. You have to make your own way. A lot of them are independent and are very good at making their own way. They’re not a burden on social services. They get other jobs while pursuing their own practice.
Is there a common driving need to create, that’s burning underneath?
There is a kind of belief in wanting to be an artist. But I’m not sure what that really means. The role model of an artist is out there. I suppose one of my strongest concerns at the moment, which informed the establishment of this school, is maintaining the employment of practicing artists as teachers, so the students can have the role models, the attitudes and the preoccupations of a person who is an artist, whether they are earning money or not.
Students need to see those people and be taught by them. The artist in the community, whoever they may be, is someone they look up to, meet up with, and admire from afar.
I don’t know why I became an artist, other than…it occurred to me.
Can you imagine doing anything else?
No, not at all and in fact there’s a very good video we have at Central called ‘Why be an artist?’ by a man called Noel Sheridan, who was the director of PICA for a while, and also the head of the Dublin School of Art.
In the video, Why be an artist?, he goes through all the reasons e.g. don’t be an artist if you want to save the whales, things like that. He has a whole list of reasons why people think why they might want to be artists and at the end he says. ”If you can’t think of anything else and you still want to be an artist, do it.”
It’s a beauty and the students love it.
It’s hard to know why people want to become artists just like it is hard to know why people want to become a footballer, or an accountant.
But we get them year on year. There’s always a cohort. There’s a pattern to it too. There are some whose parents want them to do it. Some just think they might be good at it, some arrive with burning desire, some don’t know what else to do. A Certificate IV group is always a mix. You just have to look for the sparks and the ones that will commit. You can always tell pretty much, but I don’t think you can tick any boxes to find it out.
Is that the most rewarding thing about being a teacher, the fostering and the nurturing? You see the young person with the spark and the passion and you know, with your own experience, that they can transform?
It’s the whole package. I mean I listen to some people talk very harshly to students. It’s healthy for them to be a bit scared of me, but it’s not healthy to be too harshly critical of them. I have my own belief in how you treat people.
It’s because they are all different. You have to look for different things that will encourage them and keep them working and coming back for more.
You have a dual career going on for many years – the teaching and the art commissions. How did you get your first commission?
When I was working in high schools, I worked this out and still believe it strongly, in that you can’t just stand there and tell people you’re an artist – you have to be one. There are far too many people who have the qualifications, but haven’t worked on art themselves for years. I believe you can only wing it to a point.
Students don’t care if you’re not the best teacher. They look to see if you have got something to give, some practical knowledge and experiences of making art – whether it is something simple such as how to weld material together, or perhaps a drawing technique.
George Haynes, one of the most senior WA artists, is in his 70s now I believe. To me, he wasn’t a great teacher of drawing at Curtin when I was there, but he drew beautifully. Sometimes he would draw in the studio with you. If you wanted to learn from him, you actually got it by understanding him as an artist I think, more than by any words of wisdom. You saw it through the drawing.
Students appreciate the practice and the work that you do. I always wanted to do the work anyway, but I always felt my students appreciated that I wasn’t just talking about it. For me, there’s nothing like the hard yards that you have to do.
If you teach poetry, write it – even if you don’t get paid for it. You have to know the trade.
Art is such a contestable practice. You might be amongst a group of staff who don’t particularly like each other’s work, but the fact that they do it, inoculates them from any sort of accusation of not being a practitioner. And the students pick that up. It’s one of their most sensitive detectors. They know if you are not the full quid.
I don’t actually think art teachers should be working full time. I think they should be part time and have their practice the rest of the time. That is what I believe and I have often said it openly, which doesn’t always please everyone! More and more of Central’s staff are part time teachers with their own practice and I believe they are strong role models.
Do you still love it when you get a new commission?
Oh yeah. I was 70 last birthday and I’m still glad to be here! I thought I may miss teaching and I probably will. However, there’s no problem with me making work if I come to this studio. I have lists of things I need to do and many public art commitments over the next few months.
Do you think it is the unconscious mind that brings the ideas forward?
I think the unconscious is involved, but it is informed by your life experiences. A lot of my stuff relates to my life by the coast and on the ocean. As I am out there (on the ocean), I am inspired by all manner of encounters. Plus I have networks of people who provide me with materials. It’s not just one thing. Things occur to you, perhaps you see things when you do research, maybe you are concerned about something, or you just watch the news. Or you are simply given a brief.
There’s a work out there in the yard we recently did for the ANZAC commemorations in Albany. It was inspired by a soldier’s badge. It fitted with the general language of the work I try to make. The marine markers are a central theme, but not the only theme. The other themes are figures, or figurative works. I build boats, or do welding, or use found objects – simple little things like that.
I’m not very consistent in any one thing, I think that’s a result of teaching, because in teaching you are always setting people different projects and using different materials. Done while trying to teach a new skill. e.g. If we are going to do a bronze cast – how do we make it? How do we make a mould? What do we do if we go in the bush and use found materials? There’s no shortage of pathways.
The process of creating a piece of art comes from doing the work. This is what I tell students. You have to start somewhere. It might be a drawing, it might be pushing a bit of steel around on a table top, it might be sketching. So you start, and where you finish is not necessarily where you started. Because things start to happen in your head subconsciously. You are subconsciously driven if you like by all the things that have impacted on you. It is this, combined with ongoing questions. Can I draw? Is a 2B pencil better than a 2H? Do I want pastels? Do I want colour in my work?
So you start somewhere. Out of work, out of doing things, art happens. You can’t just embark on an artwork. You can make a piece of craft, because you’ve got skill. But I think it’s pretty much understood that art happens serendipitously. Art is something new each time. Having a skill doesn’t equal art. Skill informs art.
When you are making something, something happens at the point you value, or critically appraise something more that you usually do. The proverbial light bulb goes on. Something falls out of the process, because you got started.
I’ve got students in a public art project and I told them to set aside four hours on a Sunday morning and just draw. Don’t stop at one drawing. Do 20. Get a coffee and draw. Just give it a chance. Don’t settle for the first one. Put in the time. Walk around. Get a bit of critical feedback. But moreover, actually do the work.
Collaboration is also a great thing. I don’t think we do that enough i.e. get some feedback before we embark on something, before we get fixed or committed to it.
With our public art projects, I work with my son Ben Jones and Angela McHarrie, who was a Central graduate, and the three of us spend time together. We are working on a beautiful bird that is being developed for a Children’s Hospital project. It’s gone through a lot of manifestations. Ideas evolve. I think it’s a mixture of the subconscious and critical appraisal. Someone has to have an opinion. You need to use people whose opinions you value. Is it too fat? Do we like that look of it? Is the beak too sharp? etc. etc. Well, that’s where you end up after 70 years!
Is maritime and the coast the ingredient that has been an underpinning passion to all your career’s work?
Certainly. If I had grown up in Narrogin, or Leonora it would have be different. Being able to engage with the river and the coast, and swimming and all the things I did. The marine markers for example. why was I attracted to them? I was attracted to them because when I sail a boat I quite like the strange feeling of sailing around a marker in the middle of nowhere, and you think, Wow, that’s a very strong, kind of symbolic placement. It’s like passing a lighthouse off Fastnet Rock. They have a presence and they impact on your consciousness. You might hear a bell ringing as you approach a mark and then you turn around it and then it fades as you sail away. All of those sorts of things get stuck in your head, and make a memory. Then when you go to make a work, they pop up.
Now you don’t have to teach at Central do you know what to spend time on?
I will spend more time in the studio. We do have some seriously large public art projects at the moment. Luckily I’ve got a small team. In the 1970s/80s if I had more than a couple of major business tasks to get done in the day I’d freak out. Now I have about 15! Without having to go into Central to teach, apart from missing the students and that ongoing relationship, I actually feel pretty good about it. I feel like I’ve bought a bit of time. As long as I’m healthy I will continue the work.