John Dahlsen

Oct 04, 2010 No Comments by Sea Stories

K.R. Copeland Interviews Environmental Artist, John Dahlsen:

KRC: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, John. Your impressive body of work, which spans twenty some years — and includes various mediums from oil paint to debris, features numerous sea-themed pieces, suggesting an inherent love of the ocean. That said; please describe your earliest seaside memory.

JD: I’ve always loved the ocean since I was a boy. My mum and dad used to take us kids to the beach each weekend to enjoy swimming in the ocean walking along the beach and just generally exploring. We used to go to very remote locations because my dad is a bit of an adventurer, and later in my life this became something that was very inherent in my system.

I remember most of our trips to the beach generally began with us lying about getting the deepest darkest suntan as possible. Not such a great idea these days with scares about melanomas etc, but in those days it was not uncommon to see us literally pealing great sheets of skin from our backs when it was ready to finally shed. This sounds a bit morose, however it is just very true, and you will find if you ask many Australian children from my generation whether this was their experience, they will most probably agree.

So rather than being a negative memory for me, we were all actually very excited about all of these aspects of early days on the beach in Australia, which included fishing, gathering oysters and abalone etc.

It was in these early days that I first began to surf. Beginning with body surfing, this was a natural extension of my being a competitive swimmer for many years. The great surf, which occurred in the southern part of Australia, had me naturally take up surfboard riding at an early age. It would have been about the age of 12 or 13 when I got my first surfboard and within six months or so I had made the first steps towards standing up on a surfboard, a sport which I do to this day.

We used to go to our childhood holiday home in a very remote part of Australia, which is on the border of New South Wales and Victoria. It was here that my father took us on long walks along four-wheel drive only tracks, to visit untouched beaches, which always filled me with awe. Many years later, I was to visit these beaches with my wife, and collect copious amounts of driftwood, washed up plastics, buoys, ropes and other variables.

KRC: Ah, so, just as I’d suspected, your early childhood experiences infused you with exuberance for the sea, and appreciation for its splendor. That said when did this affinity begin manifesting itself into artwork?

JD: In between all of this, (that what was mentioned prior) I went away to Melbourne to be educated and ended up finding myself at art school in the late 70s. It was during these years at art school in Australia, at the end of the seventies that I first began collecting driftwood to make into furniture; and it was this experience that 20 years later I remembered and returned to the very same coastline to collect driftwood once again.

My creative medium shifted from abstract painting to working as an environmental artist, as a result of an artistic accident during the mid 1990’s. I was collecting driftwood, on a remote Victorian Coastline, with the intention of making furniture and stumbled upon vast amounts of plastic ocean debris.

The initial collection of these objects consisted of approximately 80 jumbo garden bags full of beach-found litter. When I first piled this collection up in my studio, I had friends drop by asking if I was okay! However I knew that an unseen intelligence was at work and soon realized the potential of a giant palate. Then I began the selections of yellow coloured plastics to make up its own pile in the studio, then the red, then the blues, the rope & strings, the plastic coke bottles, the thongs etc. Soon the floor of the studio did resemble a giant painter’s palate.

Seeing all this develop had the effect of sewing the seed, for, I later had the notion of making assemblages of each of these objects once sorted this occurred to me as a natural extension of the process I was undergoing in the studio. This whole new palette of colour and shape revealing itself to me immediately affected me; I had never seen such hues and forms before which enabled me to make new environmental art.

Since then – for approximately 10 years, I scoured Australian beaches for found objects, much of which I found as washed up ‘ocean litter’. I have since discovered this is a worldwide phenomenon, affecting beaches on a global level.

I bought these plastics back to my studio to sift, sort, and colour-code for my assemblages, sculptures and installations. As I worked with these objects, I became even more fascinated by the way they had been modified and weathered by the ocean and nature’s elements. My challenge as an artist was to take these found objects, which might on first meeting have no apparent dialogue, and to work with them until they spoke and told their story, which included those underlying environmental messages inherent in the use of this kind of medium.

KRC: And your messages are what I find so beguiling. That and of course your perpetual shift in artistic mediums; driftwood, paint, found objects, single objects, installations. With all this variety, where does the artistic process begin, and, how do you determine the final destination and or message point?

JD: My work is in a constant state of evolution. I see this largely as alchemical. It is the process of nature’s elements redefining the man-made that created the initial alchemy in working with these found objects, taking the objects beyond the mundane. The second step was achieved through the transportation of these plastics to my studio and the process of sorting and assembling. A further and more vital transformation took place as I assembled them. These found objects then started to tell their story and become transformed into artworks.

I see that by making this art, it is a way of sharing my messages for the need to care for our environment with a broad audience. I feel that even if just a fraction of the viewing audience were to experience a shift in their awareness and consciousness about the environment and art, through being exposed to this artwork then it would be worth it. This stems from the fact that I believe presently humanity is at a critical point in time, with our planet existing in a fragile ecological state, with global warming hastening unheard of changes, all amplifying the fact that we need all the help we can get.

This is my way of making a difference, and at the same time I’m sharing a positive message about beauty that can be gained from the aesthetic experience of appreciating art, as well as giving examples of how we can recycle and reuse in creative ways. These artworks exemplify my commitment as an artist to express contemporary social and environmental concerns. By presenting this art, to the public, will hopefully have people thinking about the deeper meaning of the work, in particular the environmental issues we currently face. I hope these works will act as a constant reminder to people about awareness. I would like them to enjoy the work on many levels and find themselves becoming identified in various ways with each of the artworks they see. I also look forward to the possible discussion that these works may generate as a result. I say these things as being possibilities, bearing in mind as well that comments are regularly made to me about people’s consciousness, while walking the beach, being awakened after seeing my found plastic object artworks, similarly with seeing my recycled plastic bag series, people have marveled at the creative way I am presenting the recycling theme in an aesthetic way.

With this in mind, I have trusted leaving the final alchemy of the work to the viewer with the possibility they may experience deep perceptual shifts and have a positive aesthetic experience as they interact with my art.

KRC: I believe your take on our global situation is (sadly) spot on, John, and the vehicle you use to create awareness and elicit change is an effective one. In regards to interacting with your art, is there a particular piece or installation in your collection that you interact with on a more personal or emotional level than the others?

JD: The answer to this would have to involve my public art projects. In terms of their success, I would most likely look towards two larger ones as being standouts. In this regard the ‘Absolut Dahlsen’ commission alongside the ‘Guardian’ commission are the two of my most favourite projects.

Both of these projects were significant major public art pieces and both were very successful on all levels. There is never really much of a buffer when it comes to financial rewards when you make public art. This is a simple fact about that type of work.

Once in awhile you hear of some artists being commissioned to do large public art pieces and walking away with large amounts of money in their bank for reasonably small amounts of work being undertaken but that is very rare.

With the projects I’ve mentioned here it was also a case of love of the project being far superior for me the love of the money I was making from either of these two projects. I did okay, as you would expect to with projects like these that take up ultimately six months or so of your time, however neither of those projects was about the money.

The ‘Absolut Dahlsen’ commission was a really wonderful experience, mainly due to the team I was working with throughout the whole project. This included the executives from Absolut who worked with me most surprisingly, in a very lateral manner. This really helped keep an exciting flavour from the beginning through to its completion.

The advertising designer team Whybyn Lawrence, were all fantastic which included Stuart Clark and his assistant Lara Wolski, who also came to Byron Bay to my studio on a number of occasions to see the development of the work and to give input into the project, which was always welcome.

I had some excellent professionals lined up to help with this project. This began initially with my engineer, through to the fabrication companies which helped me put together the core structure of the sculpture upon which I attached the thousands of flip-flops or as we call them here in Australia ‘thongs’.

The real beauty of the found object work that I create, especially when I use thongs, is that most people who view it have owned a pair and will enthusiastically scan this sculpture with the romantic and genuine notion that somewhere is an old pair of their thongs that they lost on the beach!

Because of the images thongs conjure up like the great outdoors and beaches, you will most likely find that the public will interact very intimately and humorously with this sculpture, experiencing a fond and genuine sense of ownership of the work.

This is art sending out an environmental message. In 2000 following my being awarded the Wynne prize at the Art Gallery of NSW with the “Thong Totems”, I was appointed the official artist of the new millennium for the environmental organizations, Clean up Australia and Clean up the World.

I am proud of this association, as well as being proud of my association with the Australian Conservation Foundation through Peter Garrett, who was kind enough to open my “Renewed” Melbourne solo exhibition, a percentage of any opening night sales was offered to the Australian Conservation Foundation Marine campaign.

Having the whole project filmed and made into a DVD was another bonus, which I instigated because I knew it would be an exciting project worth recording for posterity and for the use of the general public.

This filming continued all away through to the launch, which was held at the sculpture by the sea outdoor art exhibition in Sydney. This launch turned out to become an “A” list event on the Sydney social scene and was a very interesting experience.

Another really exciting result of this whole exercise, apart from the enormous amount of media and positive response that the work garnered, was the fact that I was able to negotiate with the executives at Absolut and the Gold Coast City Art Gallery, to have this work placed on semi-permanent loan outside the front of the gallery in a prominent position. It is still there to this day.

In fact, the team at Absolut agreed to foot the bill for any further updates that I may need to make to this sculpture as the years go by, and as some of those flip-flops are ceremoniously pulled from the surface via the expected vandals who can’t help themselves. I imagine I will probably do this after a five or 10 year period when necessary.

KRC: Fascinating! I’m glad Absolute Dahlsen has received such widespread recognition and accolades. It’s quite ingenious.  And, if I’m ever in Australia, I’ll be sure to stop by and snag a thong! Care to tell us a bit more about your second favorite?

JD: The other work which I would like to discuss as a favourite project, which I believe really runs in parallel to the Absolut commission, is the Guardian commission.

This particular work was in response to a brief from the Brisbane City Council, who decided that a public artwork would be appropriate for the entrance to Kangaroo Point, which is a small suburb in inner-city Brisbane. It was to receive a new traffic intersection and entrance without the traffic lights that had been slowing down this particular entrance for a number of years.

The successful artist who received his commission was to use any left over roadside materials and recreate it into a large public artwork that would act as an entrance statement. I devised the design, which included the use of a large number of leftover roadside guardrails and also concrete pipes of various sizes to make this particular work.

I designed a work in the shape of a spiral with the guardrails twisting around and reaching towards the sky extending from the concrete pillars. The overall effect ended up looking quite like an industrial tree formation, which reflected the green grass at its base, or a huge wind chime.

I was very fortunate to win the commission to do this particular sculpture as I was an out-of-state artist and I believe I was one of the first artists from another state to receive a commission in Queensland at the time. I was also known for my professionalism and to the fact that I could deliver on time and I also specialized in working with environmental themes and with found and recycled objects. Once again, together with a great team assembled, this project took on a life of its own.

I arranged meetings with the local Kangaroo Point community group to establish a clear dialogue with them and to the gauge the required level of community support, which ended up being overwhelming. I made presentations, answered all questions that came my way and received a very pleasing response and got the go-ahead.

This is very important to me, knowing that the community is behind a project, which essentially means, they are behind what I am creating as an entrance statement to their suburb. It’s a very important milestone to pass, as the work would be ‘in situ’ for at least 10 years and possibly between 50 and 100.

In fact I built it into my contract that the community should be given the right to reassess this public artwork a ten-year intervals and have it either relocated or disassembled if they so wished.

I’m a firm believer that as times changes, as people change, they should also have the right to keep whatever contemporary statement they wish as the entrance statement. Even if this means my particular work may not be there forever.

It is only because of the huge amount of ‘in-kind’ support that I received from both the Brisbane City Council and the road making company Barclay Mowlem, that I was able to make such a significant work for the payment that I received, even though that was in itself quite significant. As a result, I was able to make a work that was probably twice the size than I had originally planned, as a result of all of this ‘in-kind’ support I received in the form of the use of Crane’s and bulldozers, concrete specialists and semitrailers.

The support was enormous and some of the staff including project manager and on site administrator were really instigators of this support and ensured that it would be the resounding success it became.

This artwork will serve as a creative reminder of the reconstruction and improvement of the road safety and accessibility for this community. The local community, by their own daily to-ins and fro-ins in and out of the area have long interacted with the elements that make up this new art piece.

I want the members of the local community as well as all who pass, to experience a sense of real interest, delight or at the very least, amusement on seeing the ‘boring’ and ‘functional’ objects of road infrastructure that they have subconsciously interacted with daily, recreated into a substantial art form – that they will now consciously acknowledge.

For people who walk, ride or drive by this space on a daily basis, it is possible that my installation will involve new discoveries at each passing, or at the very least arouse amusement, that such ordinary and functional items have been recreated into an artwork. By using recycled old road infrastructure from road works -the artwork will convey a subtle environmental message of re-use to those who view it.

Despite the use of strong, robust and long lasting materials reflecting and heralding the masculine nature of roads, bridges and city engineering, the totemic structure will have a tree like quality which will give it an interesting empathy with the landscaped environment.

My aim is that this piece will create a sense of community ownership, whether amused, grateful, bewildered or confronted, most will appreciate that the towns’ engineers and planners have made a serious effort, to install artwork between a major thoroughfare and an inner city community.

The intention, as I see it, of this totemic structure is not to try and soften any image of roads and traffic, but to bring it to an artistic conclusion, where the artwork meets the challenges of its surroundings, reinterpreting it and not trying to digress from the very nature of roads, traffic and engineering with a contrasting message.

Having developed this kind of in-depth rationale in my presentation to the community it really wasn’t that surprising that I received their full support.

Since the sculpture has been in position, it has received wide praise by both the community and also the various media.

This particular work was featured in a virgin in-flight magazine for example and was brought to my attention by many people who saw it.

These are two of my favourite public art commission projects, because they were highly successful and immensely enjoyable throughout the whole process. I trust there will be more in the future like both of these talked about above.

KRC: Ah, the future…that brings me to my final question: What’s next for John Dahlsen; anything specific in the works or on the horizon?

JD: I am open to surprises, and they just keep coming. Teaching others about the importance of the environment through delivering more lectures about my art in public speaking engagements does interest me, particularly as you can see from my web site that I have been a hugely prolific artist over the years, and I have lots to lecture about with heaps of visuals. I think this will go hand in hand with creating new work, as I’m also really enjoying the possibilities I see in my re-entry into painting and making sculptures. These all excite me to no end at the moment.

I remember saying in interviews with the media during the late 90’s, that I hoped that one day I would see less and less litter washing up on our beaches, so that quite naturally my work would find a new direction. This has now happened – on a local level at least.  The situation on a global level has worsened considerably.

After more than 10 years of collecting beach found objects and subsequently making art out of them, I’ve naturally come now to a new form of expression, which was brought on significantly as a result of the decrease in litter either washing up or being left behind on our beaches, as well as a result of my purge painting series and exploration.

Painting the Byron Bay local seascapes and landscapes, mostly images seen by me on my daily walk around the lighthouse and beaches, are painted somewhat with a sense of urgency, due to my ever growing concerns about global warming and its impact.

The viewer can see these works have a certain unmistakable mood within each piece, which has been written about by Dr Jacqueline Millner from the University of Western Sydney: “This play between abstraction and figuration, between synthetic/organic matter and immateriality in the purge paintings, has been applied in Dahlsen’s most recent works to landscapes — dark works whose subtle references to environmental degradation all but disappear before forcefully catching you unawares. This tension between inorganic abstraction and emotionally charged organism lends these works particular resonance, given their inception in the politics of environmental art. They play out, in elegant and economical aesthetics, the unstable boundaries between the natural and the artificial, reminding us of Wendell Berry’s paradox that ‘the only thing we have to preserve nature with is culture; the only thing we have to preserve wildness with is domesticity’

In the immediate future I am exhibiting a major series of Paintings, prints and sculptures in Beijing, which opens on the 18th September 2010 at the Hanmo Art Gallery in the “798” Contemporary Art Region.

Apart from the above, I am also in the process of writing 2 books. One of these is on Environmental art and on my work in particular, which will come with many colour plates of the work. It will be titled, “The Environmental Art of John Dahlsen” and the other is a more practical guide for those in the arts.

It is called “Artist’s Business and Career Strategies.” In this book I have compiled the most pressing issues and answered the most common questions faced by artists and those involved with the arts, from an insider’s viewpoint.

KRC: Excellent. I’ll certainly keep my eyes peeled for your seascapes and publications. Unfortunately, that’s all the time we have. I’d like to thank you John, once again, for giving us a glimpse into the methodology and intent of your inspirational artworks. It was a pleasure speaking with you.

JD: The pleasure was mine, K.R.


To learn more about John Dahlsen, check out his website:

Autumnal 2010, Hinterland

About the Editors

Casey R. Schulke grew up along the Kuskokwim River in a rural Athabascan village in Alaska fishing for king salmon and mushing her sled dog team. She now resides on the shores of Resurrection Bay in Seward, Alaska. Casey's a poet, a naturalist, a dog-lover, has two birds, and is married to a wonderful man.
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