I’m so thrilled to share an interview I recently did with Damon Kowarsky – an artist who has exhibited regularly in Australia and abroad and worked as a scientific, courtroom, and archaeological illustrator. His latest exhibition is currently held from 7 – 30 March 2014, entitled “Life Along the River“, and is installed at the Aesop headquarters in Hong Kong while also being shown at the Odd One Out gallery.
Collaboration is the the focus of my interview this time – Damon has worked with Kyoko Imazu and Muhammad Atif Khan, and I dig a little deeper to find out more about how he works with others, how the collaboration with Aesop came about, and what advice he has for young artists.
Hi Damon! Could you tell us a little bit more about yourself and the work that you do? What is the primary medium that you work in?
I’m primarily a printmaker and make etchings from copper plates. It’s a very old technique – 500 years or so – and has evolved from a commercial process into one that is used exclusively for fine art. I tend to make images of people, places and things. These could be models from local life drawing classes, cityscapes of New York or Cairo, airplanes, plants or portraits of friends.
You’ve travelled intensively to South Asia, Europe and the Middle East – how has this influenced your work?
Hugely! Travel is when I do the research for all my images. There is nothing like being a stranger in a new place to force you to look around. I was fortunate to work on an archaeological dig in Egypt and study miniature painting in Pakistan. These experiences changed the way I make pictures and opened all sorts of unexpected doors.
What’s the core message behind what you do?
In terms of the meaning of the work I have no idea. I simply make images that I like to look at and say something about the places that inspired them. If there is a larger message it is that picture making is critically important, and that hand crafted images are even more essential in these days of everyone having a camera and access to everything you could ever have seen with a few clicks of a mouse.
You’ve done a lot of collaborations – most recently with Muhammad Atif Khan and Kyoko Imazu; how did that come about?
The collaboration with Kyoko began because we were both working in the open studio of Australian Print Workshop. One day Kyoko came up and said that she’d like to ‘vandalise’ my work. It was impossible to say no. This was in 2008 and we’ve been working together ever since.
A few years later Atif saw the work Kyoko and I made on the web and suggested doing a project with him. This was a great opportunity to get further involved with the country after having taught and studied there. Atif and I produced 20 prints for ‘Hybrid’ in 2012, and in the process become very good friends. We are working on part two of the project for when I return to Lahore in September.
Could you tell us a little bit more in detail about how you come up with collaborations, and what does it entail? (some details about who bears the cost, what happens when there’s a sale, etc)
With Kyoko I generally give her a drawing that she then modifies in some way. In the series ‘Along the River’ those drawings came from a 3m panorama that I made of Kyoto. Once we have both worked on the drawings and are happy with the results we process and print the copper plates together.
With Atif there is a bit more back and forth as we each take turns to provide the first drawing. Atif works mostly with found and appropriated images and I work mostly with drawing. In ‘Hybrid’ we tried to synthesise these two languages. We are sticking to a similar plan for ‘Hybrid II’ as we wanted the images rather than the process to be central focus.
With both collaborative projects we’ve been lucky to have support from partners including the Japan Foundation Sydney, Arts Victoria and the Australian High Commission Islamabad. We have also used our own resources to make sure things happen. Sales are divided equally between the artists.
Do you think collaborations are important for artists?
They can be. If you are lucky to find one that works that’s great. But there is no pressure to do so, and there are many artists for whom collaboration would just be a bad idea. Collaborating is like have a conversation. Some people are easy to talk to, others are not. And there are always times when you prefer to be alone with your thoughts for a while.
You are also a teacher – has it influenced your own work in some ways?
I teach very little really. Most of what I do is in Pakistan where there is a strong sense of responsibility between practicing artists and students. Even artists with enormously successful international careers [like Imran Qureshi who recently won the Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year Award] are still involved in the education system. I can’t imagine artists of equivalent stature teaching in Australia.
Teaching is demanding, but it is also fun. It is a chance to pass on what you were taught. For me many of those lessons came from Godwin Bradbeer during my time at RMIT. Godwin is a brilliant artist and educator, and has influenced generations of young artists in Melbourne.
I understand that you’re a part of Odd One Out – an artist agency based in Hong Kong. For your latest exhibition with Kyoko Imazu that’s going to grace the walls of Aesop’s Head Office in Hong Kong, how did it all begin?
What role does Odd One Out play in the exhibition?
The collaborations with Aesop began in 2009. The Australian Print Workshop was then under renovation and I was doing a paste up of proofs [the trial copies and mistakes in any edition] on the hoarding outside the building.
Just as I was finishing a man asked if I’d like to do a paste up in his shop. Without asking who he was or which shop I said yes. The man turned out to be the founder of Aesop and the shop was their Gertrude Street store. Since then I have installed work in six Aesop stores in Melbourne, Sydney, Tokyo and Hong Kong. It’s been great to work with a company that has such a strong focus on contemporary art and design, and is keen to support it in concrete ways.
Odd One Out represents my work in Hong Kong. Phemie Chong, Odd One Out’s director, is extremely dynamic and is always looking for partners and opportunities to promote the gallery and the artists she represents. Phemie is also a lot of fun, and was happy to spend a day with her hands in wallpaper glue sticking proofs to Aesop’s walls.
Do you have any advice for young artists and illustrators out there?
Keep going! Too many people stop too soon after graduating. Say yes to stuff. The projects with Aesop happened because I was out on the street doing wacky things with old prints.
Be nice. Or failing that be damn good.
Read Paul Arden’s “Whatever You Think, Think The Opposite” and “It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be” and take his advice. Especially the bits about working hard, setting your standards high, and showing an utter disregard for where you think your abilities end.
Listen to or read Neil Gaiman’s 2012 speech to the University of the Arts Philadelphia.
Work hard. Make the most beautiful things you can. Remember that beautiful is not always pretty. Or even nice.
Go out and look at the world. Draw from life. Travel. Visit museums and galleries but also listen to music and read books. Learn from the past but don’t be a slave to the present. Tell anyone who tells you it can’t be done to f*** off. And mean it by making those impossible things happen.
Work hard. Have fun, but work hard. Really hard. Really, really hard.
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