An Intimate Distance:
conversations with artists during lockdown
#2. Mark Dober talks with Alexandra Sasse from his home in Castlemaine.
Victoria has had one of the longest lockdowns in the world this year. What has this meant for you?
I had a busy phase at the start of the year– the show in Melbourne at Alexandra Sasse Gallery, then Queensland and after that Wollemi in the Upper Hunter Valley followed by Wagga. Around now I was supposed to be running a workshop in the Grampians.
That phase has come to an end, with some things cancelled and other things (a Blue Mountains residency, and my exhibition at Hawkesbury Regional Gallery) postponed. It’s a bit of a problem with nothing booked for a while. So, I have a bit of time where it looks very quiet.
I don’t like that, because although I paint what’s around me, I like to work for a show and go to different places. I’m a bit restless.
Does that restlessness affect your work?
The kind of work we make comes with who we are. It doesn’t change. But circumstances can change your program. I’ve currently got a show hanging at Wagga Wagga Art Gallery. It is rather a dramatic story. I went up to find that it was a very big space, and I got to work on site specific pieces. On the last day of the residency, I completed the works. The same day I got a call to say all of NSW was a red zone. I had to return to Victoria by midnight or do two weeks quarantine. I scrambled to pack my bags, and got across the border to a motel in Wangaratta. It was hard to find a motel – the place was full of people. The gallery staff installed the work at Wagga without me. I left before I could see the show or photograph it because of the chaos. Thankfully the exhibition has been extended.
But there have been some good things: I won some grant money earlier in the year. Mostly though, it has been disruptive. There is a sense of the pandemic becoming more personal now. I decided to get the vaccine a couple of months ago.
What personal changes have you been forced to make?
Lockdowns have a big effect for me as I’m usually interstate a lot. My exhibitions are mainly of work made away from where I live. To show in Regional Galleries I have to go and work away from the local area. Here in Castlemaine, there is forest everywhere. In fact, one end of my street is town and the other end is forest. I could walk to the forest, but the closest I paint regularly is Chewton. It is just under five kilometres away, so I could be in the thick of the forest despite lockdowns. Opportunities for showing work locally are generally limited, but I have had good news recently that I will be doing a small solo show at Castlemaine Art Museum late 2022.
How do you keep going despite these disruptions?
It’s just who you are and what you do. You can’t help yourself. What’s essentially motivating me is a kind of compulsion to make work. I don’t know why that exists. It’s always been there and is always going to be there. In a sense we (artists) have been in training for this all our lives. So, in one sense, things are the same as they always have been. But in other ways, the disruptions affect production and exhibition. It can be demoralising. Residencies, exhibitions and workshops being postponed a year or cancelled is very disappointing. But you just keep going anyway. It’s not like you do something else. But where an artist is unduly concerned with outside validation – from sales or elsewhere – they are more at risk. If it’s less about inner necessity, you are more at risk.
Has the work itself changed? Are the paintings different?
Yes, because I could only make wall size works if I have a gallery space to which the work is addressed. So instead, I just get up and work, but at a relatively smaller size. Works on paper. Four sheets but not bigger. Anything bigger would be too big to show in an art prize or commercial gallery. The medium I choose also has an effect. When I’m working in oils, I tend to work smaller. I feel this is more effective with plein air. I suppose what I do is a bit unusual. People wonder if you’re not really in the commercial gallery system how do you survive?
What is unusual about the way you choose to work?
What happens is the public galleries pay me. I get an Artist Fee with all the Regional Galleries I show with. They vary. But I do get paid. It’s very much a professional thing. They cover accommodation and airfares, so it is an income. I do better financially in the public gallery system than commercially. And it’s reliable. But it’s unusual.
Your commitments with Regional Galleries take you to many different places. Painters often choose to work in places that they have a connection with, but you seek out very different locations.
Artists are attracted to different things. On one extreme for example, contemporary painter, Mary Tonkin, makes work in one patch of forest which is significant to her. At the other end of the scale, Fred Williams made a point of wanting to go all over the place – deserts, islands, forest – a whole variation of types of landscape. That’s what I relate to. I can land in a place I’ve never been before and immediately start work.
I currently have pending workshops with Benalla Art Gallery and in Canberra, and I plan to run a plein air workshop or two locally in the warmer weather.
I don’t know how much COVID will affect us, but I think some artists will find it hard to keep going.